My favorite books on women and the First World War

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been fascinated by the First World War ever since I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth at the age of 19. When I lived in France in my twenties I started to read French nurses’ memoirs and diaries, and for the last fifteen years or so have continued to read and write about women’s experiences during and after the war as a university academic researcher, often from a comparative perspective. Men’s stories and memories of the First World War still dominate our understanding of it, but I believe that women’s perspectives give us a vital and often overlooked insight into the war and its consequences.

I wrote...

Women as Veterans in Britain and France After the First World War

By Alison Fell,

Book cover of Women as Veterans in Britain and France After the First World War

What is my book about?

This is the story of how women in France and Britain between 1915 and 1933 appropriated the cultural identity of female war veterans in order to have greater access to public life and a voice in a political climate in which women were rarely heard on the public stage. The 'veterans' covered by this history include former nurses, charity workers, secret service agents, and members of resistance networks in occupied territory, as well as members of the British auxiliary corps.

What unites these women is how they attempted to present themselves as 'female veterans' in order to gain social advantages and give themselves the right to speak about the war and its legacies. Alison S. Fell also considers the limits of the identity of war veteran for women, considering as an example the wartime and post-war experiences of the female industrial workers who led episodes of industrial action.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Women and the First World War

Alison Fell Why did I love this book?

This is an excellent introduction to the varied experiences of women in the war, both those on active service as workers or volunteers, those who were victims of the war, fleeing their homes as refugees, and those who remained at home, carrying out domestic roles as wives and mothers in what were often difficult circumstances. It is a book I regularly recommend to my students. Although no book could cover all nations and contexts in a four-year global war, it shows not only how the war had an impact on millions of women’s lives, but also how women’s actions had significant impacts on the war and its legacies. It has a useful chronology of the war, and a good bibliography for further reading.

By Susan R. Grayzel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women and the First World War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Women and the First World War provides an introduction to the experiences and contributions of women during this important turning point in history. In addition to exploring women's relationship to the war in each of the main protagonist states, the book also looks at the wide-ranging effects of the war on women in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and North America. Topical in its approach, the book highlights: The heated public debates about women's social. cultural and political roles that the war inspired Thier varied experiences of war Women's representation in propaganda Their roles in peace movements and revolutionary activity…

Book cover of Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918

Alison Fell Why did I love this book?

Although it’s not as well-known as Vera Brittain’s powerful 1933 memoir Testament of Youth, British military nurse Kate Luard’s letters deserve to be widely read, for the vivid and moving picture they paint of life in a front-line hospital in the last two years of the war. Luard had already worked as a military nurse in the Boer War, and was a confident and highly skilled nurse, but it is clear that four years of nursing seriously ill and wounded soldiers often stretched her to her professional and emotional limits. There are lighter moments, too, and Luard pays tribute not only to the men she nursed, but to the courageous and tenacious women she worked alongside. Make sure you also read nurse historian Christine Hallett and Tim Luard’s excellent introduction.

By John Stevens, Caroline Stevens,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Unknown Warriors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The words of Unknown Warriors resonate as powerfully today as when first written. The book offers a very personal glimpse into the hidden world of the military field hospital where patients struggled with pain and trauma, and nurses fought to save lives and preserve emotional integrity.

The book's author was one of a select number of fully trained military nurses who worked in hospital trains and casualty clearing stations during the First World War, coming as close to the front as a woman could. Kate Luard was already a war veteran when she arrived in France in 1914, aged 42,…

Book cover of They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution

Alison Fell Why did I love this book?

Although they are largely forgotten now, the five to six thousand Russian women who enlisted as soldiers were amongst the most photographed and written about women in the First World War, especially the charismatic but tyrannical leader of the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death, Maria Bochkareva. Stoff’s book gives a highly readable and fascinating account of their formation, their military action, their ill-fated involvement in the defence of the Winter Palace when it was stormed by the Bolsheviks in November 1917, and their reception by the rest of the world as the only battalions of women to carry out officially sanctioned combat roles in the war.

Stoff uses their own memoirs alongside other first-hand accounts by American, British, and French diplomats stationed in Russian in the tumultuous year of 1917, and her book provides a balanced and nuanced analysis.

By Laurie S. Stoff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked They Fought for the Motherland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Women have participated in war throughout history, but their experience in Russia during the First World War was truly exceptional. Between the war's beginning and the October Revolution of 1917, approximately 6,000 women answered their country's call. These courageous women became media stars throughout Europe and America, but were brushed aside by Soviet chroniclers and until now have been largely neglected by history. Laurie Stoff draws on deep archival research into previously unplumbed material, including many first-person accounts, to examine the roots, motivations, and legacy of these women. She reveals that Russia was the only nation in World War I…

Book cover of A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War

Alison Fell Why did I love this book?

This book shines a light on a lesser-known but key group of participants in the First World War: scientists. Fara’s book considers both the opportunities offered by the war as well as the challenges and prejudices faced by a select cohort of British female scientists. I found it particularly interesting reading it during a pandemic, at a time when scientists’ skills are once again crucial in a national (and global) emergency, but equally when scientists have a very high public profile. This book shows that historical precedents can provide relevant contexts for addressing questions that are still being asked today about gender inequalities between the career prospects and public reception of scientists.

By Patricia Fara,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Lab of One's Own as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

2018 marked a double centenary: peace was declared in war-wracked Europe, and women won the vote after decades of struggle. A Lab of One's Own commemorates both anniversaries by revealing the untold lives of female scientists, doctors, and engineers who undertook endeavours normally reserved for men. It tells fascinating and extraordinary stories featuring initiative, determination, and isolation, set against a backdrop of war, prejudice, and disease.
Patricia Fara investigates the enterprising careers of these pioneering women and their impact on science, medicine, and the First World War.

Suffrage campaigners aligned themselves with scientific and technological progress. Defying protests about their…

Book cover of Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War

Alison Fell Why did I love this book?

British people have often heard of Edith Cavell, who has been commemorated in Britain as a national heroine of the war after she was executed by the Germans in 1915 for her role in running an escape network in Belgium for Allied Soldiers. But Cavell was only one individual amongst hundreds who resisted the authorities in occupied France and Belgium. Like Cavell, young Belgian woman Gabrielle Petit was remembered as a national heroine after her execution during the war. De Schaepdrijver’s book vividly brings her story to life, explaining how she was became involved in espionage, as well as showing how a cult of remembrance grew around her in the decades following the 1918 armistice.

By Sophie de Schaepdrijver,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Gabrielle Petit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In central Brussels stands a statue of a young woman. Built in 1923, it is the first monument to a working-class woman in European history. Her name was Gabrielle Petit. History has forgotten Petit, an ambitious and patriotic Belgian, executed by firing squad in 1916 for her role as an intelligence agent for the British Army. After the First World War she was celebrated as an example of stern endeavour, but a hundred years later her memory has faded.

In the first part of this historical biography Sophie De Schaepdrijver uses Petit's life to explore gender, class and heroism in…

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