- Topsy-Turvydom:Gender Inversion, Sapphism, and the Great War
In 1918 the travel writer and journalist Mrs. Ethel Alec-Tweedie (1867–1940) published Women and Soldiers, a tendentious extolment of British women's wider participation in the public sphere in which she even advanced the radical suggestion that women might be allowed to fight alongside men in the trenches of the Western Front. With hyperbolic flourish she cheerfully welcomed the new world order, declaring it a state of "topsy-turvydom" wherein "every man is a soldier, and every woman is a man." 1 Read as a kind of syllogism, we might infer that every woman is therefore a soldier—or, to put it less literally, every woman is doing her bit for the country; yet the statement could also be taken in other ways.
On one level, the claim speaks to the general upheaval in British national life during World War I. In response to the rapid changes in living and working conditions at home and in the zones of conflict, both women and men had become something other than their prewar selves. As gender historians have amply documented, Alec-Tweedie depicts not an imaginary utopia of an all-female workforce but rather a reasonably accurate picture of how, beginning in the autumn of 1914, unprecedented numbers of women had taken up new forms of employment, some filling the places left vacant by men who had enlisted to serve in the Great War. 2 By July of 1918, according to the Report from the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry, approximately 7,310,500 women were doing some form of paid labor in industry, commerce, agriculture, transport, and national and local government, an increase of 23 percent over the total estimated four years earlier. 3 In addition to waged employment, women from more privileged backgrounds volunteered for organizations like the Red Cross or the Voluntary Aid Detachment and undertook assignments at home or abroad. In all, over 60,000 women served in the armed forces or Women's Land Army, and of these, perhaps as many as 25,000 worked near the Western Front. 4 [End Page 517]
In Alec-Tweedie's "New Britain," the "world had discovered women," by which she meant that Britons, as a consequence of the war, had discovered the rapid expansion of social and cultural constructions of the gendered category of "woman." 5 On any given day, she elaborated, men bound for the army, on arriving at a railway station, might encounter a "blue-uniformed woman" who would ask to see their tickets, a female "railway porter" in "badges and belts" who would show them the way to the platform, and "brawny women" who would take care of any luggage. Had these men traveled by tram or bus to the station, their tickets would have been punched by women conductors, and their fellow passengers would have included "khaki-clad girls on business bent, or splendid, silver-buttoned policewomen." If any of the male travelers had gazed out the window on their journey through the countryside, they might have seen women engaged in "harvesting, fruit-picking, turnip-hoeing, plowing with great traction motors, cutting trees, milking cows, driving cattle to market." While the "traveling male" might initially greet this upset in traditional gender roles with dismay—exclaiming "Ye Gods! . . . the women have eliminated us. We shall soon be as extinct as the dodo"—Alec-Tweedie concluded that he would soon come to his senses and appreciate the benefit of a social order in which there was nothing a man could do that a woman could not do equally well. In short, World War I had been a transformative event for women as well as men, changing "everything and everybody."
On another level, Alec-Tweedie's sense of topsy-turvydom in her anatomy of the nation could refer less to the expanding or stretching of gender boundaries in terms of work and more to the disturbing havoc created by the war on the gender system itself. According to her formulation, male warriors, in defense of their nation, were learning how good soldiering entailed new forms of hypermasculinity (or, alternatively, how bad soldiering entailed...