Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Surplus Women, A Book Recommendation, and a Competition!

In her book, “SINGLED OUT: HOW TWO MILLION WOMEN SURVIVED WITHOUT MEN AFTER THE FIRST WORLD WAR,” Virginia Nicholson recounted the following story: In 1917 the headmistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls in southern England made a breathtaking announcement to the girls in her sixth form (generally 16-17 year olds), “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever marry …. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.”

Wow - I wonder how any of us would have felt with that little snippet of information rolling around in our heads?  Certainly many of us who are baby boomers might not have felt too put out at first – the 1960’s and 70’s were a different time, after all.  But these were young women who had been brought up by mothers steeped in the mores of the Victorian era, when a woman’s fulfillment was expected to come through marriage, children and the home.

So, what was at the root of this prediction, and what happened to those women?

The first question is easy to answer, but hard to take. The Great War 1914-1918, as the First World War is often known, claimed the lives of some 750,000 young men of marriageable age in Britain.  In addition, about 1,350,000 were seriously wounded, and another 200,000 profoundly shell-shocked (the “Official” line was 80,000 shell-shocked, but recent research reveals the number to be dramatically higher – the original numbers having been massaged to minimize the impact of war pension claims).

Now to the second question – what happened to those women?

The 1921 census revealed that there were over 2,000,000 “surplus” women of marriageable age in Britain for whom there would never be a husband or children.  Indeed, a pamphlet was published: The Problem of the Surplus Women.  And what an insult that was, after all, those same women had been called up during the war – an additional 1.5 million women entering the workplace in highly visible roles, not only as nurses, ambulance drivers, in military support roles and munitions, but in just about every field of endeavor so that young men could be released for the battlefield machine.  After the war, there was a tendency to treat those women as pariahs who were after the jobs of men – and as if it wasn’t hard enough rising to the challenge of work, of making their way in a new world, these women had lost their fathers, brothers, cousins, sweethearts and friends to war.  For many their grief must have been unimaginable.

How they coped, how many floundered, and how a great number rose to the challenge of a life lived alone is a subject that has certainly fascinated me since my teens, and for years I hoped that one day someone would write a really good book on the subject – not an academic treatise (there are enough of those), but a book that crackles not only with a depth of research, but through which you really hear the voices of those women.  Finally that book came along when Nicholson published SINGLED OUT.  And though there are historians who have countered some of her assertions, for me Nicholson’s stories of the women of that era rang true to my own experience.

When I was a child, those women who came of age in the Great War were in their 60’s, some still at work and some just retired.  There were quite a few in the small hamlet in which I grew up – each addressed as “Miss” this or that, and never known by their first name, though they always gave the impression that “fortitude” might have been their middle name. 

One of the tragedies for so many of that generation, was that they never knew motherhood, so bringing children into their lives became important – perhaps that’s why so many became teachers or governesses, and not just because those jobs occasionally came with accommodation.  I remember often being invited to tea by one of the “Misses” in our community – I would be sent on my way by my mother, in my best dress and polished shoes, and would sit for tea with a woman of a certain age, who was clearly delighted in the company of her young but temporary charge.  And I remember that, as I munched on my egg sandwich cut into small triangles, or my buttered toast and jam, I would look up at the mantelpiece and see the sepia photograph of a young man lost to war – perhaps a brother, a dear friend, or a sweetheart – and I knew not to ask. 

Nicholson doesn’t rose-tint the lives of these women, and the book contains some heartrending stories of loneliness and separation – and also highlights the disintegration of Victorian morals as many liberated women of the 20’s and 30’s lived their lives in a way that might have made young women in the 60’s blush!  But more than anything I loved the stories of those who blazed a trail – here are just a mere handful mentioned in Nicholson’s book:

Miss Gertrude Tuckwell, the first woman Justice of the Peace to be sworn in, in London.
Miss Margaret Beavan, Liverpool’s first Lady Mayor.
Miss Reynolds, head of one of the largest publicity firms in Britain.
Miss Irvine, the only professional tea-taster appointed by HM Government
Miss Maud West, Detective (I love that one!).

The time between the wars became the golden age of detective fiction, with many of those best-selling authors being unmarried women – there’s a job you can do at home with no training! 

Nicholson points out that the conditions of the first half of the twentieth century enabled women to give the very best of themselves.  As Cicely Hamilton wrote:

Teach me to need no aid of men,
That I may aid such men as need.

In a review of SINGLED OUT, Jane Ridley of the Literary Review pointed out that, though the memorials to the men who gave their lives grows, the women who were left behind are forgotten.  With that in mind, I highly recommend SINGLED OUT to anyone interested in this era, and if you’re reading this blog – that’s you!  Which brings me to my first competition:

I’ll be sending a copy of SINGLED OUT by Virginia Nicholson to the first person to send an email to  Just type “Maisie Dobbs Singled Out” on the subject line, and remember to give your full name and address.  (ADDENDUM!  I have been overwhelmed by the response to my competition, which is now closed - but check in again as there will be another one soon!)

And as a consolation prize, the next five people responding to this post (via the same email address) will receive a Maisie Dobbs “Secrets” journal. Earlier this year my publisher, Harper Collins, produced a lovely Moleskin journal in conjunction with publication of A LESSON IN SECRETS.  The notebook, with a letter from me inside, was sent as a gift to booksellers, however, there were a few leftovers – and now I can give them away!  (Again, competition now closed).

See you next week – it’s time to talk about Downton Abbey and The Great War – a subject I am sure we’ll come back to once or twice!


  1. If growing up in those times was not challenging enough, the children born to those women would repeat their mother's fate again in a few years with WWII!

  2. Great post, Jacqueline! Women are much needed in society, but the class line degrades them if they are unmarried. These women did so much to help keep the country together during war and then help it stay that way after the armistice. They deserve as much gratitude and respect as the men who went to war. There is so much to be said on this topic... so much to remember. We Aussies have never forgotten the Great War... the ANZAC day commemorations grow each year. And when I was visiting the Australian War Memorial in Canberra a few years back at that time, the staff there were always amazed at the number of tiny red poppies that were stuck in the Hall of Honour, beside names that died in WWI. Families still remember, recall their history.


  3. Thank you both, for your comments - Dani, you are absolutely right, and so man of those women went into war work a second time.

    Marianne - And many Australians, along with others from around the globe, make a pilgrimage to the battlefields of Flanders, of Gallipolli and other places where battles were fought in the Great War and loved ones lost. I read a story of a young British soldier in Iraq, who made a point of finding the cemetary where his great-grandfather died during the Great War - His grandfather's grave, along with those of his fellow soldiers who had died, had been lovingly tended by local villagers since 1918.

  4. How many more women will be left without mates after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately women are more prepared to make it on their own.

  5. Blue Ridge Mountains: There are so many more people in the world now...and not all men and women go to war anymore. The percentages are different now...but any loss in war is still a dreadful thing. Unofficial reports reckon that over 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the US led invasion in 2003...more than Hussein is believed to have massacred. I was fortunate that my cousins came home safe and I am too old to return to service...but every death is a tragedy. Back in 1918, the impact was so much more because childhood friends, working mates, and sometimes whole villages of young men joined up together and quite often died together. The hole they collectively once occupied left gaping wounds. Aspects of society were devastated beyond redemption. Especially the lower working classes... Upper crust and wealthy society from both sides of the Atlantic suffered blows to their ranks when the Titanic sank prewar, the huge losses during the war following, and then the post war Influenza that swept the world - they tried to carry on as usual, as if nothing had changed. Society, working classes, and working women would never be the same again... too much was lost to regain. The soldier, the woman that replaced him in the factories, the worker who gained respect in war work only to lose it again after the armistice never forgot the changes forced upon them - some good, some not, some terrible - and the reinstatement of business as usual aristocracy and society left bad blood.

    Sorry, I rambled... :-D

  6. Jacqueline: WWI is where our fledgling Australian nation proved its worth as a many of us younger ones keep the faith and pass it on. The ANZAC dawn service is very moving and has a lasting impact on all of us. I attended a dawn service on the beach once... so very beautiful. I would like to attend services in France... to pay my respects.

  7. Thank you "Blue Ridge" and Marianne, for your comments. The interesting thing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the challenges faced by returning servicemen and women are so very similar to those faced by soldiers in the Great War - I read an article about the similarities only recently. Given advances in battlefield medicine at the time, more men survived - but with devastating wounds - than might have lived had the war been waged even five years earlier. The same goes for our more recent wars, with dreadful head and face wounds being a particular similarity. Increasingly, family members - women - are the ones whose lives are also changed forever, with the struggle to learn how to make a family life with a son, husband or loved one who has deep psychological as well as physical wounds. In Post WW1 Britain, it was that responsibility (with very little governmental help), that was a contributory factor to the "women's vote" in 1945 bringing a Prime Minister to power who promised a National Health Service. They demanded the "Land Fit For Heroes" the country had been promised, then denied, following the 1914-18 war. I'll be talking about the "women's vote" in a future post - it might lead to an interesting conversation!

  8. Jaqueline, I am so glad that you are bringing these stories to the public's attention. Even now women coming back from the current wars often face more difficulties than men, according to the news reports I hear, though I do not personally know any. I have been interested in WWI history also, as my maternal grandfather was in France for the whole 4 years. My grandmother was left to take care of two children with help from (my) great grandparents. Unfortunately there are no details left me, beyond the fact that my grandfather enlisted as a private and came home as a Lt. Colonel and my grandmother worked for the Red Cross in WWII.

  9. Very true, Jacqueline. Odd, how returned veterans - wounded or not - are all facing very similar circumstances to the returned soldiers of both world wars, the Great War in particular. I've cringed quite a bit over the last several years regarding media and politician comments, as well as trying to cut pensions and benefits for serving/combat soldiers. I really don't think people have learned very much in the last 100 years.

    Do you have a copy of "Women and the First World War (Seminar Studies In History)" by Susan Grayzel? I haven't read it yet. Bought it at Foyles bookstore in London on the last visit and added it to the pile to be read. :-D Still getting to it. Also, do you have "Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the Oss" by Elizabeth P. McIntosh? That's another good read. :-D

  10. Catherine, thank you for taking the time to comment, and for sharing the details you know about your grandparents. It's not unusual to have little information of those family members who served in WW1& WW2 - they were from the generations who came home and "just got on with it" - especially as almost every family was impacted in some way or another, given the mass enlistment at the time. They may not have talked much about it, but the painful memories remained.

    Marianne, my bookcases dedicated to this era are filled to the brim and overflowing, so I tend to forget the exact titles of every book on the shelves, however, I believe I have both of these books. Thanks for your comments, as always.

  11. I never thought much about the challenges these single women must have faced before, they certainly had far fewer opportunities than women today in regard to acceptable employment, etc. Unlike the women entering the workplace in the 60's and 70's they were probably far less educated for the most part.

    Although they didn't marry until immigrating to the USA, it certainly explains how my sainted grandmother ended up married to the most dissolute drunkard in England. He was what I refer to as the "Costco" choice --- the only one on the shelf...

  12. Thanks for your comment, Susan. You know, you are spot on regarding your grandmother - many women settled for difficult lives simply to have the companionship. Women even advertised, with messages to the effect that they would gladly care for even the most severely wounded ex-soldier if he would marry. It's really rather sad, isn't it?