Women and war

Issue: 143

Debs Gwynn

Lindsey German, How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women (Pluto Press, 2013), £14

Lindsey German describes her book How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women as “an attempt to understand the relationship between women and war in Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries”. As well as analysing the effect of war on women, throughout the book German attempts to explain the political, industrial and social context in Britain in relation to conflicts and resistance movements. While some of this contextualisation and analysis may be well known to experienced socialists and campaigners, it serves as useful knowledge for people new to left wing ideas or younger readers who have been subjected to Michael Gove’s imperialist history curriculum.

The book is split into eight chapters, each of which covers, in chronological order, a period of conflict from the last 100 years and each one offers a class analysis of the issues raised. There are many personal experiences and recollections from women who either lived through times of war or who were active in campaigning against it.

The mass entrance of women into the workforce during the Second World War and the subsequent impact on women’s post-war social and economic status are detailed in chapter two. German points out that before the war there were movements trying to advance women’s rights, but the effect of war and the confidence women gained through their involvement gave new momentum to these fights. However, she also highlights some of the difficulties working class women faced as they tried to juggle full-time work, childcare and maintaining a home on their own. The end of the war saw a growing politicisation of women and, although it was many years before a mass liberation movement was formed, many women fought to maintain some of the independence they had gained during the war years.

The theme of women’s liberation also appears later in the book when German reflects on the ruling class’s attempts to justify the “war on terror” as necessary to secure liberation for women in Iraq and Afghanistan. She describes how some women were won over by the government’s arguments that only the West could liberate these women and ensure equality. At the same time Muslim women in the UK were being targeted by racist groups such as the EDL and UKIP for wearing the hijab and some of their experiences are included in the book.

As co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition, German is able to provide a unique insight into the movement’s development and its success in helping to create grass-roots campaigns and a greater level of consciousness among women.

Overall the book contains some quite detailed analysis of how wars are used politically and strategically by governments and the effect they have not just on women but on working class men and children too. The relationship between war and women is examined in detail with many first-hand accounts from a range of women which help to personalise some of the issues raised, including the prejudices they faced.