In 1917, the senior mistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls in Dorset in the United Kingdom spoke to the sixth form class: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess of mine. It is a statistical fact. 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…You will have to fight. You will have to struggle.”
It was a brave statement. And it was true. At a time when marriage was thought to be the pinnacle of a girl’s life, to hear it must have been a shock.
We still see the “old maid” stock character, although thanks to the Women’s Movement, we see her less. She was Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz. She was Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films. She was Miss Prism in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The Old Maid is based in reality and never has that reality been more prevalent than directly following World War I. The War counted over 16 million deaths to its macabre credit. These were mostly in combat, mostly military men, and mostly British.
So many British men died that by the time of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, England was left with approximately 2 million “Surplus Women,” mostly born around the turn of the 20th Century. It is this statistic, this quandary, these individual stories, that Virginia Nicholson explores in Singled Out, How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men after the First World War.
Some women lost their loves to the war. Some never had a chance to love or be loved. And some found freedom from women’s traditional roles as they had never dared to hope they could. Nicholson quotes diaries, memoirs and letters, and even interviewed a few centenarians to put her story together.
These women were old maids by the time they passed the age of twenty-five. And to add to the dearth of men, because people were expected to marry within their social class, the pickings were even slimmer.
During wartime, the surplus women got jobs. The men who were not yet conscripted could take their pick of women, and Nicholson tells of women saying yes to any opportunity for marriage even if it meant being a life-long unloved nursemaid. She uses the word “desperate” a lot.
The changes wrought by the war became more evident once combat ended. Women had begun to feel their independence, forced or not. But it was unladylike to work, and when the men who survived returned, they wanted their jobs back. Nicholson shares ads and satiric comics from newspapers and magazines of the day, showing how women were vilified for having men’s jobs, for being old maids and for living the way they were forced to live due to the war. But how was a woman to keep herself with no job and no husband?
Some defied it all and excelled in traditionally male fields. Some started businesses, some cared for ailing parents, some lived together to share expenses, some learned office work or achieved teaching credentials. Marriage for teachers was frowned upon, so becoming a teacher meant giving up on marriage completely. Lesbianism was in the closet (many women circumnavigated the subject of sex even in their writings), but it was an alternative. And the western world was at the start of the Roaring Twenties, when women began to take power and defy societal norms.
Everything changed, all at once. The world order was gone. For some it was a shock, and loneliness is Nicholson’s overarching theme. Others, however, made these changes their opportunity to be who they wanted to be.
Nicholson has chosen a fascinating subject. In fact there’s so much to tell that she tends to repeat herself. A lack of organization makes this repetition inevitable. Despite this frustration, the book is worth reading thanks to the picture it paints of life for British women in the early 20th century.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, actress, voice-over talent and author. She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Camelot & Vine can be bought locally at Vroman’s, the Pasadena Museum of History, Webster’s Fine Stationers in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeeshop. The ebook version is available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Diesel, Smashwords, and the Sony eReader.