Sunday, April 25, 2010

Misplaced feminine zeal - Order of the White Feather

The 100th anniversary of the First World War is only a few years away, and there will no doubt be many memorial events when that occurs. From this historic perspective, we can find it difficult to understand the thinking of that era, that whole populations would accept their governments' decisions so readily and that nations would rush headlong into hell before exploring every possible diplomatic solution to avoid conflict.
That particular War is also well known for the devil-may-care attitude of many of the young men of the time who thought it would be a “lark” and went off on what they thought would be a great adventure only to be brutally maimed, gassed, sent mad, or have their lives cut short in the most horrific and barbaric of situations. Its repercussions flowed for decades afterwards.
The War was also a watershed in the advancement of women, in that many of them stepped in and took over male jobs for the first time and proved that they were far tougher and more resilient than the “feeble” stereotype so beloved of Victorian and Edwardian men.
However, not all women did their bit in practical and admirable ways and some became involved in a shameful organisation that caused untold psychological damage to not only the men who became its victims, but to subsequent generations of their families. It was known as the Active Service League and its “award” was the Order of the White Feather – white feathers being presented in public places to men who were perceived to be cowards.
Surprisingly, one of its founders was the Tasmanian-born and ardent anti-suffragist, Mrs Humphrey Ward (Mary Augusta), whose family included such famous literary figures as Matthew Arnold and Aldous Huxley.
It seems remarkable today that a woman of high intellect committed to social reform for women and children such as Mrs Ward could have thought that financial, military, constititutional, and international problems could only be solved by men!
Another prominent woman who was anti-suffrage and became involved was Baroness Orczy, the popular author of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" books, and she hoped to recruit more than 100,000 women to the cause of shaming men into volunteering for the War.
Eventually, the practice of presenting men with white feathers as a symbol of their cowardice at not being in uniform got out of hand and it became necessary for returned soldiers, often wounded or invalided home, and men in protected industries to be issued with special pins so that they wouldn't be accosted in the street by zealous females keen to show them up.

There aren't any really good websites detailing the activities of the League, but some basic information about the white feather movement and the distress it caused can be found here.

Many writers and film-makers have used the symbolism since the 1902 novel by A E W Mason, “The Four Feathers”, up to the 2004 novel in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear entitled “Birds of a Feather”, which also uses this practice to construct an excellent plot that is both chilling and convincing.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Women's Melbourne" - a valuable publication and resource

Women's History Month may have just ended, but it is essential that female "herstory" continues to be brought to light, no matter the season.
There is a well-known quote by Myra and David Sadker in their salient 1994 work entitled Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls that has become almost a catchcry among those who feel passionate about how history is taught to new generations of girls: "Every time a girl reads a womanless history she learns she is worth less", and so it is wonderful to see that many historians, authors, academics and others are constantly striving to change this attitude.
A fantastic (and free!) publication was launched this week in Australia that will help to illuminate both famous and little-known women associated with the City of Melbourne. Published by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) and supported by the City of Melbourne Grants Program, Heritage Victoria, and the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, it was a "labour of love" of the National Trust's Senior Historian, Celestina Sagazio, and is entitled Women's Melbourne.
The book is most entertaining, informative and well-illustrated, and gives suggestions for a series of self-guided walking tours of Melbourne streets that focus on the women associated with them. There are buildings that once housed world-famous Melburnians such as Dame Nellie Melba and Helen Reddy, while others are primarily best known to Australians such as soon-to-be Saint Mary McKillop and Caroline Chisholm.
It is fascinating to learn new and interesting facts about women from every walk of life from prostitutes and madams to socialites and sufragettes, from artists and architects to doctors and politicians, and no doubt some of the women I have personally discovered for the first time in the pages of Women's Melbourne will inspire future blogs. (A previous subject - Nellie Stewart - is associated with a number of the sites mentioned including the Princess Theatre and the demolished Melbourne High School.)
Congratulations to Celestina and all those who assisted her in this excellent work.