Letting in the Light, the third book in the Spindrift trilogy, explores the era that dramatically changed life for so many. The Great War was all consuming, ‘the war to end all wars’, and on a scale that hadn’t been seen in living memory. It tore families apart, forcing the men into the great mincer of the war machine and spitting some of them out at the other end. It seemed as if nearly a whole generation of men was lost and those that did return home would never be quite the same again.
When writing the story, my focus was on what it was like for the women left behind to fight their own battles on the Home Front in the Spindrift artists’ community. Men had always assumed that their wives, daughters and sisters were fragile little flowers that needed their protection but the women proved tougher than they appeared. Most stepped up magnificently to the challenge of filling the essential roles that men had left vacant.
Before the war, suffragettes had been condemned as disruptive and unfeminine, never as warriors attempting to redress the inequalities forced upon them by society. When war broke out, however, they agreed on a cease-fire and set to work to demonstrate what they could achieve while there were few able bodied men at home. And their help was very badly needed.
Women workers filled the shipyards, steelyards and factories. They packed gunpowder into grenades, cigarettes into packets, learned how to rivet sheet metal and became tram and ambulance drivers and ticket collectors on the trains. Women worked on the farms digging potatoes, milking cows and turning the manure pile. They were paid less than half of a man’s wage for their efforts.
The invention of the typewriter enabled a more genteel occupation for middle class girls, and they soon replaced the armies of male clerks who had enlisted. The horrific losses on the battlefields meant that soon women were allowed to take up positions as nurses, ambulance drivers and even doctors, quickly becoming indispensable.
Grandmothers and married women with young children who couldn’t work full time formed a vast volunteer network knitting socks and scarves and packing them into boxes with cigarettes, chocolate, fruit cakes and combs as ‘soldier’s comforts’. They organised Red Cross and other groups to train girls how to bandage wounds and cook meals for convalescents.
Many women relished this opportunity of learning new skills and, once the war was over, few wished to return to what had often been their only choices, a biddable wife or the badly paid and overworked position that was a servant’s lot.
After the war, the men who did return wanted their jobs back. Women were expected to return to their homes, even if they were war widows who needed to support their children. In recognition of the service women had given to their country, those over thirty were awarded the vote in 1918 but it wasn’t until 1928 that all women received this privilege.
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