Women Writers of World War I

On the edge of the war zone women writers and World War I.

In keeping with the topic of Marc’s last post, I’ve decided to include some information on the role of women writers in the Great War.

In 1990, Celia Patterson, who graduated with her doctorate in English from TU, published an abridgement of her dissertation, On the edge of the War Zone: Women Writers and World War I, which explores and uncovers women writers of war, who have often been overlooked by modern scholarship.

The following is an excerpt from Patterson’s text:

“The World War consisted of two wars—the war of the men and that of women,” wrote H. C. Fischer in a 1937 study of the Great War. This statement could be made of almost all wars. There have been notable exceptions of women warriors throughout history, but generally society has reserved combat for men while women get to clean up the mess.

Because men engage in combat, perceived as the war activity—the one that really matters—men have been sanctioned as the tellers of war stories, which are traditionally defined as stories of combat. Yet, as Mary Lee points out in the preface to her novel, ‘It’s a Great War!,’ for every man at the front, seven or eight people are required in jobs at the rear: “To tell of the one man at the front alone, is to tell only one eighth of the story of War.” And what of the other seven-eighths? That is the story most often told by women, the story of the war on the homefront or the war behind the lines that comprises seven-eighths of the activity of war—yet is perceived as marginal.

The women writers of World War I were very aware of their marginal roles due to their gender. Vera Brittain remarks in Testaments of Youth that when the war began she suffered “like so many women in 1914, from an inferiority complex.” That inferiority complex was based on the sense of enforced idleness and uselessness at a time of national crisis.

–by Celia Patterson

McFarlin Library’s publication On the Edge of the War Zone: Women Writers and World War I documents the achievements of women writers in response to the horrifying consequences of total war and the sense of paralysis that follows national and individual uncertainty.

Throughout, Patterson highlights the works of some of these women writers, including the two texts below, written by Alice Dunbar-Nelson and May Wedderburn Cannan.

“I Sit and Sew”
by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—
The panoply of war, the martial tread of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But—I must sit and sew.

I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.

The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?

“Women Demobilized”
by May Wedderburn Cannan

Now must we go again back to the world
Full of grey ghosts and voices of men dying,
And in the rain the sounding of Last Posts,
And Lovers’ crying—
Back to the old, back to the empty world.

Now are put by the bugles and the drums,
And the worn spurs, and the great swords they carried,
Now are we made most lonely, proudly, theirs,
The men we married:
Under the dome of the long rolls of the drums.

Now are the Fallen happy and sleep sound,
Now, in the end, to us is come the paying,
These who return will find the love they spend,
But we are praying
Love our Lovers fallen who sleep sound.

Now in our hearts abides always our war,
Time brings, to us, no day for our forgetting,
Never for us is folded War away,
Dawn or sun setting,
Now in our hearts abides always our war.

–From On the Edge of the War Zone: Women Writers and World War I
On the edge of the war zone women writers and World War I. On the edge of the war zone women writers and World War I.

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5 Responses to Women Writers of World War I

  1. Kirsty says:

    Not enough emphasis is placed on women’s roles during the war if you ask me – I guess no one is :) but to take on the joint role of homemaker and filling in for the men at war, all whilst wearing a corset and bringing up the children, I bet it was hard work. Alice Dunbar-Nelson obviously didn’t think it was enough!

  2. Hockey Forum says:

    This is a wonderful post and may be one that you should followed up to see what goes on

    A colleague emailed this link the other day and I’m eagerly anticipating your next write-up. Keep on on the tremendous work.

  3. aparadekto says:

    Hey, I can’t view your site properly within Opera, I actually hope you look into fixing this.

  4. Britton Gildersleeve says:

    How timely! I just looked up my own personal copy of this publication, to use in a National Writing Project discussion of war poets and war poetry. So glad to see it remains useful to others, as well.

  5. Pingback: The Great War / World War I collections | From McFarlin Tower

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