For my special mission project, I listened to 13 short podcasts about remarkable women’s stories from WW1. In the BBC podcast series titled “Women Trailblazers,” I learned about courageous women that served in the war, who held positions such as VADs, mechanics, moral guardians, patrols- and even soldiers. I found many similarities to the women in Not so Quiet, especially in regards to the resistance these characters experienced, from men, families, and society as a whole. In the “Women Trailblazers” podcasts, I learned that all of these women had the same thing in common: the desire to be an active and involved participant in the war.
Vera Brittain, a woman that grew up in Buxton, England, reminded me a lot of Helen in Not so Quiet. Brittain was a VAD during the war and experienced the same violence as Helen, and found assimilating back into society very difficult. Brittain said she felt trapped in her town and compared it to a prison. Brittain was angry about the “snobbishness” many people exhibited, similar to the artificial qualities of Helen’s mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington. Brittain chose to further her education instead, ignoring the disapproval of her family and town, and their intent arguments that “you will never be married this way.” Yet, Brittain persevered, and later wrote the novel, Testament of Youth, a memoir that describes the struggles of acceptance educated women faced in WW1.
One of the most accomplished women in the podcast series is Flora Sandes. Sandes grew up in rural Suffolk and had always “been a keen rider and a good shot.” Sandes had always wanted to be a soldier, and when she worked as a nurse, her potential to be a soldier was recognized when she was given the rank of private. As a result of her bravery, Sandes won the Star of Karađorđe; Serbia’s highest military honor. Sandes won this title when she bravely broke cover during a surprise attack, leaving her seriously injured. Sandes, and many other women in these podcast sessions, remind me of Tosh, and the their indifference to appear “feminine.” and instead demonstrating bravery. ndes showed more bravery than any man in her troop, and risked her life as a result.
Sandes isn’t the only woman that held a military position at the time. Elizabeth “Dolly” Shepherd got her sergeant stripes, but was often cat-called by men, with things like “Kiss me sergeant!” Because of this constant name calling, Shepherd covered her stripes and kept her head down. However, that isn’t to say she didn’t make her mark. When one soldier’s car broke down, men hurried to help fix the issue, scrambling for ideas. When they had all but given up, Shepherd asked if she could “take a look.” They allowed this, but dismissed the idea of her fixing anything. Lo and behold, Shepherd, using one of her “invisible hairpins,” was able to tinker and resolve the issue. This gained her the respect of all the men, leading to a small, but impactful moment for Shepherd, and all women.
In terms of positions of power, women could become patrols, or as they were named: legal guardians. This meant they had no real power; they couldn’t arrest people, but they were able to give warnings, particularly to correct other women. For example, Edith Smith was the first female officer to be given full powers of arrest. She was sworn in at Grantham Police Station in 1915. A report sheet, dated in 1917, provides examples of her duties: “40 foolish girls warned, 20 prostitutes sent out of Grantham, 2 fallen girls helped, 5 bad women cautioned.” Although Smith was respected for her position, she still only had power to arrest other women, while male officers had power to arrest both men and women. This reminds me of the Commander in Not so Quiet, she has a position of authority, but it only extends so far.
I enjoyed listening to the “Women Trailblazers” podcasts. I wasn’t surprised by the backlash women in war faced, but I was disappointed. For example, Vera Brittain’s family did not light the fire in her room that kept her warm, because they did not want her to go to university. It’s so sad how vehemently families opposed their daughters from gaining any education or independence. Although, I enjoyed listening about the different loopholes women would take, such as Sandes becoming a private in the war.