Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War by Virginia Nicholson
17 October, 2011
I’ve been a huge fan of Virginia Nicholson’s since reading Singled Out a few years ago and have been meaning to finish reading Among the Bohemians which I was enjoying too until I got side-tracked. However, I was lucky enough to bag a proof of Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War, Nicholson’s newest book and social history of women at the homefront during WWII, and I began reading it in preparation for her talk at the Soho Literary Festival a few weekends ago. And what a wonderful talk it was, interspersed with music from that period, and the wonderful Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press, asking some pretty forthright questions. I was expecting a cosy chat but the discussion delved into some rather dark places, unsurprising when you consider the topic was war and its consequences. Yet somehow you think that it’ll be softer because it’s about women. I never seem to learn because I should really know by now that it’s never soft and easy when the subject is about women and their place in society.
Singled Out was about WWI and surplus women, many unhappy that their lives would never follow the paths they had envisaged before the Great War but also an opportunity for others who were able to shake off the shackles of traditional marriage and society and embark upon a life far from conformity. Millions Like Us is about the women left behind during WWII who not only had to hold their families together, but also take up the jobs traditionally done by men as the armies gobbled them up. It’s also a chronicle of the sudden loosening of class structure and ambition as young women signed up to do something for their country as normal life ceased. Although money, food and material things became scarce, other freedoms emerged, as young women left home to take up jobs, earn money they were never able to before and embark upon relationships and discover sex. Six years of war, hardship, loss, love and experience and finally, when they thought that peace had been won and all was over, that they could return to normal life again, things were no longer the same. Even though many returned to being mothers, wives and dutiful daughters, something had irrevocably changed within many of the women.
The most profound thing I came away with after finishing Millions Like Us was the sense of dissatisfaction many women felt after the war ended. Their sense of self worth and resilience was brushed aside as the returning husbands, fathers and boyfriends resumed their control over their womenfolk. It hit hard how controlled women’s lives were and actually how difficult it was mentally to break the chains that bound them to their social station. The women had learnt that they were capable of working as hard as men and that they were good at their jobs. But what was lauded during war-time was no longer the case afterwards. It was rather sad to read about this. But you could also see how exhausted these women were, how they wanted life to return to normal and how they couldn’t fight against the established social hierarchy. And how could you with babies and domestic chores and your jobs being given back to the men?
Nicholson weaves the stories of about 50 women including that of her mother throughout her book. The stories are funny, sweet, sad and bitter and cover a spectrum of social strata. The little feuds between the different social classes, the love affairs, the tough jobs and the snatches of fun. If it were only these stories during the war, the book may have quickly lost its appeal, but Nicholson cleverly discusses what happened after the war, especially for those women who went on to work in Germany, helping with the rebuilding and organising including the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. One of the more heartrending stories is of the plight of the women in Berlin, the rapes of thousands of German women by the Red Army and how many of the British women working in this climate never recovered from what they witnessed. It’s heartbreaking and, although this is a topic that could not be addressed in depth here, it’s a starting point for those who may be interested to know more about this dark period in history and I believe it is something that needs to be known rather than swept under the carpet as discussions of rape often are. I have to confess I knew almost nothing about this dark episode even though I did study WWII history at school but I recently found a copy of A Woman in Berlin published anonymously, but widely believed to be by journalist Marta Hiller about her experience in this particular period, which I will be reading shortly.
Millions Like Us is not the definitive book on the subject, but it’s a good start as it’s certainly a topic that is complex, multi-faceted and needs to be discussed. And it reaches deep into the differences between men and women and why there seems to be a necessity for keeping women under control. In some ways it is frightening to read about the hostility with which women are regarded if they step outside what is considered acceptable. I’m lucky to be able to live my life in the way I want without anyone controlling me. It just hits home how privileged I am.
And do check out Nymeth’s wonderful post as well.
A big thank you to Penguin Books for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.