- Women as Veterans in Britain and France after the First World War by Alison S. Fell
Alison S. Fell addresses a continuing need to shed light on how women’s contributions to the First World War were recognized in the aftermath. Introducing a variety of historical actors, from spies and factory workers to nurses and aviators, Fell’s method is accomplished in its comparison of the social and cultural history of the United Kingdom and [End Page 653] France in the inter-war period. With this approach she interrogates the extent to which women in both nations were successfully able to carve out a veteran status for themselves, and on what basis, allowing for a sophisticated and nuanced evaluation of a period that has thus far been under-explored in gender histories. The analysis is clear and accessible throughout, with a rich and intriguing set of examples drawn from previously unknown primary sources. Privileging a focus on the lived experience of French and British women, Fell begins by discussing the role of female agency in commemorative processes as part of a wider claim to wartime sacrifice shared with combatants after the conflict. She then explores processes of heroization, and compares the various veteran groups of the 1920s, before achieving a sense of experiential voice, with chapters on women’s memoirs and other personal writings. Throughout, she answers questions relating to why and how women sought to attribute to themselves a cultural capital such as that much more easily assumed by the male heroes of war in the aftermath. The nuance to Fell’s writing insists that not all of the claims to veteran status were motivated by suffragist or feminist objectives and she raises important questions about multiple ways in which women’s sacrifice as part of a collective can be understood, other than as a driving force for the vote campaign in France, or a leftist, anti-war movement in both countries. She also acknowledges the limitations of women’s new political or cultural status in the 1920s and 30s, particularly in the case of working women, thereby drawing subtle distinctions between social classes in both countries, and addressing the extent to which these helped or hindered their inter-war prominence. Throughout, Fell gives a sense of women’s varied responses to life after war, from driving political agendas to expressing a distinct dissatisfaction with peacetime. She interrogates both heroic, normative and unheroic, untraditional roles undertaken by British and French women, and presents the complex ways in which both sets of roles were used by them to claim economic, cultural, political, or personal clout after 1918. Overall, this is a comprehensive and well-crafted book, which drives the field forward and contributes to still-emerging debates about hierarchies of remembrance and the gendered memory of wartime sacrifice in Britain and France. Its only flaw would ordinarily be interpreted as a merit, in that it cannot answer every question that it raises, but its conclusion acknowledges this in suggesting interesting new lines of enquiry for historians to follow in the future.