Make Her Praises Heard Afar: New Zealand Women Overseas in World War One
Booklovers Press, $60.00,
As many scholars have observed, it is very difficult to write a history of women and war. Not only is war regarded culturally as men’s domain, but capturing women’s stories is beset by methodological difficulties.
Women did not, as a rule, go to war enlisted into units, and the fragmented and partial records of the women who were formally organised makes recording even their histories challenging. For civilian women working directly for the war effort overseas, of which there were thousands, there was no mechanism to record their movements, wounds, deaths or demobilisation. As a result, when women do appear in war stories, it is often as mothers, sisters and wives of soldiers, or as “war workers”, which brings its own distorting lens. British historian Deborah Thom has observed that the British government kept substantial records, especially photographs, of women in “non-traditional” jobs, such as heavy industry, and almost none of women doing the work they had always done, such as textile manufacturing, domestic work in hospitals and institutions, or care work. There are certainly no official publicity photographs of charwomen or laundresses, because this was simply never regarded as war work of any note. The record of even the most indisputable of women’s “war work” – that of munitions manufacture – in photographs and art, has served to reinforce the notion that during war “women” (seemingly as one homogenous lump) stepped in, stepped up and stepped out of their comfort zones to help their Empire. And then, when war was over, they unquestioningly melted back into domestic obscurity.
In New Zealand, the lack of a significant munitions industry seemed to deny women even this opportunity for recognition, and army nursing has been the most significant focus for the public visibility of women in WWI. Popular books by Anna Rogers (While You’re Away: New Zealand Nurses at War 1899-1948, 2003) and Peter Rees (The Other Anzacs: Nurses at War 1914-1918, 2008), and the various representations of women in the 100th anniversary commemorations, which have tended to be focused on battles, have included this group of women who fit most easily into the existing “Anzac narrative” of combat, courage and self-sacrifice.
Jane Tolerton’s book, then, is tremendously welcome as a circuit-breaker. It breaks out of the ever-narrowing notion of what constitutes “worthy” war work and asserts that a whole range of women and their work deserve recognition. In many ways, the argument reflects an older debate among military historians over whether WWI was a conflict of “total war” in the same way as WWII. It is also a book in the “recovery” tradition of women’s history, in that it demonstrates, through the sheer volume of examples, that women were there. Tolerton defines the there of WWI refreshingly widely, and while the book is organised primarily chronologically, geography is a secondary organising principle. Place names head each section and they include New Zealand, some Pacific Islands, the Middle East, Europe from Britain to the Balkans, and Manhattan.
There is an ecumenical definition of “New Zealand women”, too, and, in this, Tolerton accepts the fluid identity of those born in the British Empire in the late 19th century. Indeed, “New Zealander” was a sentimental identification in the 1910s, rather than a legal category of citizenship. The women in Tolerton’s book range from Māori women, such as Ngāpuhi woman Margaret Scott who opened her house in Acton as a convalescent home for Māori soldiers, to non-Māori women who had either been born in New Zealand or lived here for a time, but who had spent a good part of their lives overseas. These women nonetheless identified as “New Zealanders”. This might strike some readers as odd, especially when the question of “who, exactly, is a New Zealander?” is quite current in our own time. But this approach matches the many books that have claimed the New Zealand Expeditionary Force as “New Zealanders” at war, when more than a third of our WWI army was born overseas and many more men born in New Zealand chose to fight for forces other than New Zealand’s.
One of the great revelations of Tolerton’s book is the wonderfully diverse range of occupations of women during the conflict. Apart from medicine – both military and civilian – there are cleaners and farm-workers, entertainers, fund-raisers, women who opened canteens and boarding-houses for New Zealand soldiers overseas, and women who worked in humanitarian relief. Women’s mobility, both geographically and between occupations, is also a feature of their work. A wide range of wartime experiences is also captured in this group biography: some of the women in the book were caught up in the war by accident, and others pursued it deliberately; some fell in love, and others lost in love; they married and were widowed. Some were killed by shells and torpedoes, by influenza, and some died in childbirth. Others lived long post-war lives. Some came home to New Zealand while others remained overseas, working out their lives in the debris of post-war Europe or Egypt.
The sources used by Tolerton reveal more than their wonderful content. Many letters from women were published in newspapers and magazines, indicating that readers’ interest in news from the war was not contingent on it being soldiers’ news. The work of war was described by women writers in many publications, from daily newspapers to specialist professional journals. Tolerton’s success in accessing personal papers and photographs that are still in private hands is both revealing of the ways family memory is so important to history, but also signals the difficulties of researching women that I mentioned above. Tolerton’s success here is also, of course, indicative of her sheer hard work and the esteem in which she is held as a researcher and writer.
Tolerton calls this book a group biography, and it is certainly crowded. The personal name index page at the back of the book includes more than 350 women. The structure of the book as a chronology serves to give us snippets of women’s lives and work during the time-frame of the chapter. This has the effect of mimicking the chaos, bustle and energy of wartime itself, with all the activity of packing, departing, making farewells, arriving and finding lodgings in new towns. This is very effective in the first part of the book, but I found it tiring to have to manage this style of short sharp segments for more than 300 pages. Sometimes, I had just settled into one woman’s story when it was cut off, perhaps for her to appear in a later chapter, but often not. And maybe this is what Tolerton intended: war is not a settled narrative and the records are far from complete and the reader has to take what she can get.
I would have felt less frustrated by this chopped-up reading if Tolerton had made a case for it in the introduction. The introduction and conclusion, however, are really outlets for her (perfectly justified, in my opinion) frustration at the lack of attention women have received in the official centenary activities and, most especially, the writing of the new official histories. But readers would have been better served by more preparation for the style and more relevant wartime context in the introduction. I also would have welcomed more reflection on the genre of group biography, which must be more than a collection of people’s stories. Having said that, what this collection of snippets and stories does so well is populate New Zealand’s wartime history with hard-working, dedicated women in large numbers. If Tolerton’s aim was to bring to light the sheer array of women’s wartime experiences, she has admirably succeeded. How this furthers our conundrum of writing histories of war and women, I am less sure, but Tolerton’s book shows historians of all New Zealand’s wars that a broader view is necessary.
Kate Hunter teaches history at Victoria University of Wellington.