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Challenging the Gender Binary of War: Munitions and Disability During the Second World War By Amy Dale

The grand narrative of the Second World War as the ‘People’s War’ remains a dominant theme in British cultural memory. Within that narrative, warfare and traditional ideas about masculinity are inextricably linked. Courage, valour and aggression are all worlds associated with masculinity. Comradery in the face of injury, even death, is still very much seen as the male experience of warfare.  In their studies of the First World War, Nicoletta Gullace put forth the idea that injury was ‘the outward signs of the willingness to brave death – a uniform, a medal, a stump – had become the new symbols of masculinity’.[i] Whilst Joanna Bourke noted that the most important thing to remember about the male body was that it was ‘intended to be mutilated’.[ii] Injury in warfare was therefore a key marker of gender difference – but a marker that becomes particularly problematic when the multiple and varied experiences of women during the Second World are examined.

Women who were injured, whether as civilians or in the course of their wartime service, are often overlooked. Sonya Rose, whilst researching how popular culture during the Second World War characterized femininity, concluded that whilst women were expected to participate, they should not be transformed; they were reminded almost incessantly, via all forms of media, that they should remain within the boundaries of ‘acceptable femininity’. But injured women, especially those who suffered life altering and disabling injuries, were very clearly transformed by their wartime service.  One of the most dangerous roles that women were required to undertake was work in the munitions factories. The label of ‘canaries’ is well known, so too is the knowledge that this label was given as a consequence of the women’s skin turning yellow by working with TNT. But far less attention is paid to the many thousands of women who were injured in the frequent explosions which occurred in these factories during both conflicts.

May Barker was only 16 when she was sent to work at a large Royal Ordnance Factory at Swynnerton in Staffordshire during the Second World War. Having previously been employed at a pottery factory in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent, May was unprepared and ill-equipped for the dangerous work required of her on One West; a workshop that earned the nickname of ‘the suicide section’ due to the frequency and severity of the accidents that occurred there.  May’s recollections are amongst several oral histories conducted with former employees of Swynnerton, now stored in the Special Collections at Staffordshire University. May’s experiences as a woman disabled by her wartime employment, challenge culturally dominant images of women during the Second World War. The war presented May and many other women with an experience most associated with wartime masculinity; that of being wounded and having to navigate their changed female body.

May was caught in an explosion that left her ‘in bandages like a mummy’; temporarily blind and a leg injury seemingly only remedied by amputation, she was given a prognosis of lifelong disablement. May remember that it was the work of Dr Paul Bernard Roth that saved her leg. May’s oral testimony does not discuss the rehabilitation that she received, other than to mention that she took charge of it herself. Julie Anderson concluded that rehabilitation during the Second World War reveals assumptions made about femininity and the female body. Rehabilitation focuses on regaining independence and strength – traits more associated with masculinity.[iii] May remembers drawing inspiration from a fellow patient on the ward to defy the low expectations that had been made about her: ‘‘this young woman on the ward…inspired me…she worked as a portress up at Eturia Station… she fell over the lines and had her feet taken off by a train…she used to walk around that ward on her stumps as though it was nothing.’’

May was now determined to walk again and remembers waiting until the ward was quiet to practice: ‘’I was so intent I didn’t see Bernard Roth looking over a screen…he said ‘you bloody little duck do you know what you’ve done?’ I said, ‘disobeyed orders.’ He said ‘defied five doctors…I knew you would walk again.’‘’ May clearly takes both pride and ownership of her own recovery, but acknowledges that this was the result of observing the young railway portress.

Audrey Green, a violinist before the war, lost both of her hands in an explosion at Swynnerton. May remembers that whilst recovering, Audrey’s finance paid her a visit and demanded that the engagement ring be returned. For him, her accident had left her inadequate, and he informed her that she was now ‘’no use as a wife’’.  Although May refers to the loss of her fiancé as Audrey’s ‘’biggest blow’’, there is a pervading feeling of resilience rather than tragedy. Also watching the scene unfold was the formidable Sister Taylor, who had ‘’hit the roof’’. May remembers how ‘’she caught hold of him [and told him to] ‘get down those bloody stairs!’ She said to Audrey ‘if you cry I’ll thump ‘yer!’ ‘’ Audrey, perhaps drawing courage from the Sister, perhaps not wanting to anger her further, responded ‘’why should I cry? I’m better off without him.’’

We will never know Audrey’s true feelings or the extent of her heartbreak, but what is significant is that May’s memory is not centred on injury and abandonment, but of collective strength and female solidarity.  And this is the theme of the majority of May’s interview. May has great pride, not necessarily in the work that she undertook, but in the way that she and her fellow workers responded to their wartime injuries.  There is no better example of this than May’s memories of Winnie Edwards; Winnie lost both hands and the sight in both eyes, whilst pregnant, in a near-fatal explosion. For May, Winnie was her ‘’complete heroine’’ and should be recognised as such: ‘’she is a heroine, and if anyone deserves a medal it is her. And I would most dearly love to see a medal being issued, and for somebody…high up to pin it on Winnie Edwards. And that would give me more satisfaction than anything else’’.

What May’s interviews reveal is that injury and wartime disability were no longer the preserve of the male solider on the battlefield; women too would have to navigate the post-war world with altered and damaged bodies as a consequence of their wartime occupations.

 Amy Dale is a secondary school teacher from Staffordshire, and part-time research student at University of Birmingham. Her research interests include the Second World War and social change, with particular emphasis on perceptions of femininity within the gender binary of war and potential challenges to this. She is also interested in gendered cultural memory of the Second World War and the extent to which this is perpetuated in oral histories.

[i] Gullace, N. ‘’The Blood of our Sons ‘’: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) p.38.

[ii] Bourke,  J. Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) p.31.

[iii] Anderson, J. ‘British women, disability and the Second World War’, Contemporary British History, 20(1) (2006), pp. 37-53.