From Wives and Daughters to Citizens
Researching the role of Northampton women in World War One, in dry official documents, and the dense pages of old newspaper files, may seem a mundane task, but it yields glimpses of real people, women in their prime a hundred years ago. I knew this generation in my youth, and I live in the town they knew. If they were to come back, they would be amazed at the changes of the intervening years, puzzled by our clothes and social conventions, but they would know where they were. They could find their way around. They would recognise buildings and other landmarks. They shared with us the same hopes, fears, joy and sadness that are a part of being human. Only time divides us.
Their time was the era of the greatest conflict the world had ever known, in a Northampton where men of military age were scarce. Their husbands, sons and brothers had gone to war, leaving them to run households and care for children alone. Their individual stories are hard to come by, but the minutes of the local Food Control Committee describe shortages, rising prices, and eventually, and not before time, attempts to secure a fairer distribution through rationing. They lived with continuous anxiety for loved ones at the front, and newspapers record bereavements affecting women of all social classes.
Miss Doris Swingler milking at Top Lodge, Pytchley, Northampton Independent, 18th August 1917, Northampton Record Office.
With so many men gone from their places of peacetime employment, women were called upon to take on tasks that hitherto had been the preserve of men. Official documents list the many occupations women were now expected to take up – farm and factory work, work on the trams, in offices and banks, as postal workers, policewomen, bakers, butchers, grocers and a host of other jobs. In government publications and at numerous public meetings, the reluctance of employers had to be overcome, and the advantages and benefits of employing female labour publicised and demonstrated. Women were trained in work they had never done before, and in traditional female occupations, such as nursing, they were tested as never before. From the very beginning, there were Northampton nurses at the front, and nine nurses from the town would die in service, at home or abroad. I shall be telling some of their stories in my talk at the museum on 6th June.
Women members of the Northampton Board of Guardians, Northampton Independent, 26th April 1913, Northamptonshire Records Office.
From before the war, Northampton women had been active in the public life of the town, on the Board of Guardians, in one of the political parties or women’s suffrage campaigns, or in a combination of these. On 6th June I shall commemorate a number of them: the schoolmistress who scaled the 250 foot high Vigo chimney and went on to become the first woman President of Northampton Trades Council; the first woman member of Northampton Town Council; the shoe operative who helped negotiate a war bonus for her workmates; the wealthy landowner who risked her life as a volunteer nurse during the flu epidemic; the plumber’s daughter who devoted her life to the St. John Ambulance Brigade; the Mayoress whose moment of greatest triumph was marred by the loss of her son in battle; and the veteran suffragette finally denied the vote on a technicality after a lifetime’s campaigning on behalf of her sex.
In my talk, I hope to bring to life these and other women of that generation. In addition, of course, I shall ask what was the main cause of women obtaining partial access to the franchise in 1918? Was it their contribution to the war effort, or the campaigning of the suffrage organisations? Certainly, they did not achieve full political equality with men, which prompts a further question – did women really become citizens in 1918, rather than merely wives and daughters? I look forward to discussing these and, no doubt, other questions.