Mothers, Daughters, Wives; or, ‘what about the women’?

But you never thought to question,
You just went on with your lives,
‘Cos all they’d taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives.

Judy Small, ‘Mothers, Daughters, Wives’

In recent years there’s been a growing awareness of the role that women played in World Wars One and Two, which has resulted in a growing body of non-fiction and fictionalised accounts of women’s lives during this time, from the classic Diary of Anne Frank to books and television shows about nurses and land girls (Australia’s ‘ANZAC Girls’; the BBC’s ‘Land Girls’). The Wars have also long provided a backdrop for paperback fiction aimed at women: romances and kitchen-sink dramas. But look for what might be classed as ‘classic literature’ by and about women in the Wars and you’re likely to be disappointed: there is no All Quiet on the Western Front, no Birdsong, no Catch-22. Women, when they appear at all, are almost always secondary characters who exist primarily as an (often-romantic) appendage of the men.

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scan
Originally designed in 1939 as part of a planned British government campaign, the ‘Keep Calm’ posters were received unfavourably by their original audience, who considered them patronising. Most of them were pulped, but one was discovered in a bookshop in Alnwick in 2000. The owner hung it in the shop, where it quickly proved enormously popular.

No doubt there are many reasons for this. It is, after all, almost exclusively men who have historically faced the horrors and dangers of the battle-field. But I can’t help but wonder whether another factor is that until very recently society simply didn’t consider women’s stories to be really worth telling.

But in 1983 a folk singer set out, as folk-artists often do, to express the experiences of a group of people whose voices were largely unheard in mainstream culture. That singer was an Australian, Judy Small, and the song she composed was called Mothers, Daughters, Wives

Returning in each verse to the motif of photographs as tangible reminders of their soldier-menfolk, Small tells, with aching poignancy, the story of a generation of women: the women who, as girls, saw their fathers serve in WWI, as young women sent their husbands to fight in WWII, and, as mothers, sacrificed their sons to Korea, Vietnam, and the other South-East Asian conflicts, all the while being told that they were ‘only’ mothers, daughters, wives.

I first heard this song as the finale of a play my father took me to a few years ago about women on the home front in New Zealand during the Second World War, and it stuck with me. If you listen, you may find it sticks with you, too. Incidentally, Judy Small is one of the women who sought more to her life: after many years as a successful folk singer, she returned to her original training in law and is now a judge.

The first time it was fathers,
The last time it was sons.
And in between your husbands
Marched away with drums and guns.
And you never thought to question,
You just went on with your lives,
‘Cos all they’d taught you who to be
Was mothers, daughters, wives.

And you believed them.

 

 

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