Two similar books by this author, with similar strengths and weaknesses. The full titles are Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War and Millions Like Us Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949.
Virginia Nicholson's qualifications as a historian or sociologist appear to be that she is the great niece of Virginia Woolf, the daughter of an art historian, and she studied English Literature at Cambridge University. In other words, virtually zero.
I consider the subjects of these books to be fascinating and under-reported. It's fair to say that Virginia Nicholson has produced two books that are eminently readable and informative, and are a tribute to the considerable amount of research that has happened.
The real strength lies in the selection of first hand reports from women of the times. Some of these reports are the published works of authors, some well known such as Vera Brittain, Helen Forrester and Nina Bawden. Many more are from unpublished or small-circulation memoirs of less known women, including letters and diaries written at the time, and some more are from interviews conducted with these - by then aging - women in the Noughties. It is in reading these extracts that one gets a real sense of the period, and has some preconceptions destroyed, or finds things one hasn't really thought about, or sees a well known event, such as D-Day, from a perspective not told.
However, I have awarded each book only three stars out of a possible five on GoodReads and in both cases it is because of the sweeping generalisations and weak grasp of statistics, and ultimately, because there is an odd thesis - she's trying to be a feminist but hasn't bothered, it seems, trying to understand feminism.
The worst aspect is the giant misuse of statistics in the 'Singled Out' volume. Granted, the 'surplus women' phrase was not her invention, and the 'two million' figure was initially reported after the 1921 census. Therefore, it really does make a good starting point for such a collection. A writer is then faced with three options:
- to debunk the statistic in one short paragraph and say 'but nevertheless, there were surplus women and this book reflects that';
- to carefully pull apart the basic statistic, to provide comparisons from pre-War and to avoid making generalisations; or,
- to see the 'two million' as a gospel truth, to keep referring to it throughout the book, and to commit other great sins against statistics.
This author chose the third option and it really is embarrassing. I cannot stress too much the importance of historians and sociologists using data correctly. After I read the book some months ago I wrote at some length on the statistical weaknesses - you can find this passage at the bottom of this post.
She finishes the book by mourning the loss of ex-Balliol students (Balliol is a college at Oxford University; she assumes that people know that, because, you know, who doesn't!), and speculating whether they would have been a force for change for the good or would have maintained the status quo ante. She doesn't mourn the young men from other Universities, and the Grammar School boys, let alone the majority with limited formal education, who would have pushed forward scientific, technological and medical progress, or as administrators or Trade Unionists, or in any number of other occupations who may have taken forward the social changes many of which were were already happening or about to happen before WW1.
There are other flaws in her methodology. For example, she quotes at some length from Vera Brittain, perhaps more so than any other writer. I re-read Testament of Youth early this year and it's understandable why Nicholson used this as a source. However, as I knew, and as transpires in this book, Brittain wasn't entirely surplus. Yes, she had lost her fiancé in the war (and I'm not the only reader who feels she was more in love with the idea of being in love than she was with a man she barely knew and hardly spent any time with). She spent the years between age 22 and about 30 as a singleton (she married at 31), but she did marry and she did have children.
But I also read Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, and Gertrude Bell gets almost no mention, despite her being a wealthy woman who lived an amazing life as a single woman long before WW1 or indeed before many of these women were born.
Other niggles include the author's unquestioning acceptance of Anglicanism as being both universal and right. She praises those women who shared her unquestioning belief, but apart from one temporary loss of faith by one pious individual, there was no mention of how many of these women questioned the established faith that was brainwashed into most of them as children: yet the War directly led to many people questioning or abandoning the religion of the Ruling Class, or turning to Spiritualism in unprecedented numbers.
In the second book, she avoids beating a dead statistic, but there are other flaws. Some of her editorialising made me revisit my earlier judgement that she 'writes well'. To be honest, she really doesn't in this - her airy fairy language, more suited to potboilers or tabloid newspapers begins to grate, especially alongside the better writing of the subject women.
She makes a great many unsubstantiated sweeping generalisations, some of them just silly - they worked in factories all week but it was clear they were more interested in femininity because they put lipstick on to go out on a Friday night - to the downright offensive - that women were more likely to be killed in air raids than men. That might be actually true, I can't find a gender breakdown for the 67,100 civilian casualties, but even if they were all women, they would still be outnumbered by the 382,600 military casualties, of whom all but a thousand or so were men. I understand the general point, but I actually find it utterly distasteful that, as in the first book, she seems to think that 'women had it much worse than men, who didn't suffer greatly because at least they were away doing war, boys things whilst women sometimes went short of stockings'. It's important to tell the women's side of history - vital, given how so often they are whitewashed out - but it does nobody any favours to do so by belittling men.
The class-based snobbery I mention in respect to the first book again rears its head in respect of the second book. Again, she has this middle class notion that all married women automatically didn't work. I think this was largely true of the upper middle classes, but is irrelevant to the lives of the vast majority of the population. Even when she's discussing the great Labour victory, it's solely from the viewpoint of the middle and upper classes, including those who were vehemently against Labour (gosh, what surprise) and the Oxford students who campaigned for Ian Mikardo in Reading. No mention of my aunt's ATS regiment, where only she and Rosie R in the whole regiment voted Conservative. Not that I'm specifically expecting my Aunt's ATS regiment to be mentioned, but I bet they weren't unique in the majority of ordinary women voting Labour.
Talk of my aunt brings me to another point. I knew from an early age that my aunt had been in the ATS, as had the Queen. I know of various female relatives who were in the Land Army, or doing various civil service jobs on the Lancashire coast and elsewhere. I certainly know of women affected by the Blitz and other bombings. So I was quite irritated before I even started reading this book, whose blurb states We tend to see the Second World War as a man's war, featuring Spitfire crews and brave deeds on the Normandy beaches.
Do we? I mean seriously, do we? If we're reading this sort of book, chances are we already have at least a passing interest. We have actually listened to the oral history passed down by our parents' and grandparents' generation. And unless we're stinking misogynists or completely without the power of thought, we most definitely don't think about it as a man's war.
To conclude, both these books are definitely worth reading, as anthologies of the many varied women who lived through these periods. Often, reading about the achievements of these women made me very excited and almost envious of their opportunities to spend their life pursuing a vocation (the 'Surplus' women) or a role in war that wouldn't have been a 'calling'. This is despite me knowing that as someone two or three generations younger, I had far more opportunities, partly (largely?) because of their efforts and sacrifices. Some amazing vignettes of the lives of remarkable women, some of whom I should have heard of, but hadn't, some that were little more than names, a few I did know something about already, and others who would never spend any time in the public eye but for this book.
However, I don't think this latter book belongs on the shelves of Feminist studies, and I don't think it should be taken seriously as any sort of academic or reliable work, because of the grossly incompetent editorialising and opinionating of the author. It has caused me to add to my reading list several of the excerpted women, but I don't have much respect for the person whose name is on the cover.
This weaknesses stemmed from her lack of proper academic or professional training in methodology. She comes from a background where it's just assumed that one becomes a writer and she does write well. But she has written a book inspired by a statistic, and it is clear, with dull thudding repetitiveness, that she has no idea about statistics or data. Her level of numerical ignorance runs so deep that she doesn't even know that she's ignorant about it, or that there is something to be ignorant about. I would hope that if a Social Scientist wrote a book about demography they would be aware of the importance of sound data and data analysis, but this writer crashes on making so many statistical faux pas that I could write a long review just by listing them. One could hope that an editor would correct them but I suspect that the editor is equally poorly educated.
She writes from a position of middle class privilege, having done a degree in a Mickey Mouse subject at a University that selects/selected students on the basis of social class. In the acknowledgements she thanks several friends: I recognised one of the names as being one of the most crushing class based snob in today's news media.
The book is inspired by the 1921 census, which confirmed that which was already known - the large number of 'surplus women' caused by the slaughter of men in World War 1. She reports the surplus as 2 million, although that figure is never challenged. She repeats several times the nonsensical warning of the Bournemouth headmistress that only 1 in 10 of her female pupils would marry - and she proves that by citing the anecdotes of two people. She is ignorant of the basic statistical/social science concept of 'confirmation bias'. I have seen reference to that 2 million figure having been debunked, although a quick Google didn't provide for me any specific proof of the debunking. However, she made a passing reference that provided the basis of my first 'so what' question. She mentions that there was half a million surplus women before WW1, because more men than women went to work in the colonies (and other reasons, too, which she didn't mention!)
Edit: I have subsequently found an authoritative source that debunks the 2 million figure - it's closer to 1 million, so still remarkable. But the laziness in the author who wasn't capable of questioning lazy clichés really does cast doubt on the reliability of her research - Vision of Britain provides a narrative, tables and graphs on the 1921 census.
She fails to explain the composition of those 'surplus women'. I don't know from her writing how many of them were elderly widows who may have had children (and, hopefully, not lost them all in the war or flu pandemic) and grandchildren. Nor does she state how many of them were young war widows (or widows through other causes) who had children and perhaps a widow's pension - she makes one reference to the envy of the Surplus Women of war widows living comfortably on a pension.
I don't think this author, or any author, should indulge in what-iffery - ie if there hadn't been a War, how many men would have died young anyway, through industrial 'accidents', in road collisions (would car use have become more widespread more quickly?) and the numerous other non-military reasons that young men generally die in greater proportion to young women - or how many extra women survived as a result of not being the victims of domestic violence or dying in childbirth.
However, she fails to provide any substantial context. She makes fleeting reference to middle class women who worked long before World War 1, but doesn't offer any statistical analysis for context. And she offers almost no contrast with the lives of married women. She makes sweeping generalisations about married women being forced to stay at home, making a very basic mistake that 'middle class women' = all women. Almost no mention of the reality of many married working class women who weren't barred from the professions because of their gender but, as in the 19th century, continued to work at laborious menial jobs throughout pregnancy and motherhood - in factories and mills, as domestic servants or chars, taking in laundry or 'lodger children', or doing piecework in 'cottage industries' or working on the farm with their husband (and parents in law, and children).
Perhaps the figures disguised the high number of men who simply weren't marriageable - those with shell shock (and not just those in psychiatric hospitals) and also those with severe disabilities that made them unemployable or disfigurements that made them physically and sexually repulsive. She trivialises their plight in one passing mention. I infer from her general attitude throughout the book that the ones that mattered would have survived on a private income or supported by wealthy family members; the rest, although they were thrown into poverty and suffered greatly in the 1930s Depression, were non-people because they were lower middle or working class, and hadn't even gone to Oxford or Cambridge.
And this is the fatal flaw of this book - the focus on mainly middle class women, often from affluent backgrounds, many of whom went to University, and almost total ignoring working class women. Obviously, academics, senior civil servants and teachers will have left documentary evidence of their existence; many of the working class women were barely literate, or if literate, were far less likely to indulge in diary keeping and memoir writing. So, yes, the book was necessarily driven by the availability of source material, but hindered by the writer's blind ignorance of the existence and importance of data.
She fails to grasp the basic difference between 'proportion' and 'number' - a greater proportion of ex-public school junior officers were killed, so in Nicholson's mind this means that more women from that class were surplus. It's difficult for me, the casual reader, to provide hard stats on the numbers of people in various classes, especially when classes are ill defined. But in the absence of hard stats and with general knowledge gained from elsewhere, it is clear this writer has missed the point by a long way.