Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War chronicles the lives of a whole generation of women, most of whom lost any prospect of marriage when three-quarters of a million soldiers died in the war. Nicholson looks at these 2 million surplus women and what they made of their lives.
The new demography irrevocably changed British society and any of the usual conventions of women’s roles had to change with it. The spinster of the 19th century was a well-known figure of ridicule but the new spinsters of post-WWI had, if nothing else, numbers on their side. Old roles of women as wives and mothers could only be realized for one out of ten women, and so the new women had to find and make new places in society, starting with providing for themselves. During the war, women naturally stepped up to take up the jobs men had to leave behind to fight in France. But afterwards, when only a very reduced number of men returned to demand their jobs back, they found that women enjoyed the independence that went with being financially independent and were much fitter than many of the wounded men who returned. The working place was a major field of contest, women were only supposed to work until they married, however, the new ‘superfluous’ women would likely never marry and relied on these jobs. Also, while married women were expected to step down, they did not necessarily like relinquishing their independence either. And if this drastic change in British society was not problematic enough, those men who returned from the war were often bitter to find that the country they had fought for wanted nothing more than forget the war and move on. They returned, often wounded or shell-shocked, to find seemingly cheerful and more able young women doing their work. This of course led to much resentment and feelings of wounded masculinity, and women were condemned for stealing the returning soldiers’ jobs.
Post-WWI society was thus far from welcoming to the working spinster, marriage having been the be-all and end-all with regard to providing for women, no real alternative existed and the sheer force of patriarchal structures these women had to fight against must have been more than daunting. Often they worked as lowly paid typists, just managing to live on their salary, but with no possibility of providing for their retirement. They could do a bit better if they lived together with others of their kind, but young women living together and not in the family home, was frowned upon. With no securities or provisions for them from the state, Florence White took it upon herself to better the lives of single women and campaigned, successfully, for a spinster pension.
Other professions available were that of being a shop girl, of secretarial work, nursing or teaching, which was considered unsexy and reduced chances of marriage even more. But while they often labored long hours for unfair pay, this new age also provided chances for some women they would otherwise never have had or thought of. Beatrice Gordon Holmes for example was a pioneer woman in the typically male field of finance and carved an extremely successful career for herself in stock broking. Or Victoria Drummond who realized her dream of becoming a marine engineer. Or the archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thomas. These are the women who defied conventions and did so with spectacular success. Other women struck to more typical professions, but were successful in their own right. Gertrude Maclean and Emily Faulder for example set up the agency of Universal Aunts, which provided the much-sought after service of the professional aunt.
Successful or not, the key was to keep busy. Many of these women would never enjoy sex or have children, and they could be desperately lonely at times. But unlike 19th century spinsters, there were a lot of them now and they went on to set up alliances and groups, and went on holidays together. Not all of them lived in celibacy of course, they had affairs or lesbian relationships. The 20s and 30s were in many ways times of liberation, although many women were still given the advice to repress their sexual urges when they turned to women’s magazines and such for help.
Nicholson covers the many paths women chose and follows the lives of a couple of them in great detail, conjuring vibrant, if often difficult lives. These case histories are the strongest part of this work, and made these women very real to me, they ceased to be simply numbers and I was very happy whenever one of them turned up again in a different chapter, it was like meeting an old friend. And there was so much to discover, the pain of lost loves, or the impossibility of love in marriage, fighting to change a society that was more than unprepared for their existence, but in between that, the excitement of new ways to live their lives. These women’s lives consisted of so much disappointment and fighting against old-fashioned and impossible conventions, but what they achieved was often groundbreaking and forever changed society. Many of them lead difficult and disappointed lives, but for every couple of them, there was a woman who thrived, and that is what I took with me when I closed this book. Winifred Holtby said it best:
I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin