14 and 15 September 2010
11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)
Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950
Living in Institutions
Krisztina Robert (Roehampton):
At Home in the Armed Forces: Living Quarters of the Women’s Services in First World War Britain and France
Between 1917 and 1919 the British military experienced a massive influx of female auxiliary workers into their ranks. As members of the government-established Women’s Services, they released soldiers for active duty by replacing them in military support jobs and thus helped relieve the manpower shortage of the armed forces. Requiring the integration of some 90,000 women into the exclusively male world of the military, the scheme represented a radical initiative in the history of warfare. Consequently, it attracted significant opposition at the time. Members of the public were anxious about the impact of the rough martial environment on the auxiliaries’ femininity, while military officers worried about the softening effects of women’s presence on the fighting capacity of soldiers. For the success of the scheme, it was vital to win over both parties. Since anxieties focused on the lack of an appropriate environment for women in the forces, the authorities and female corps leaders sought to reassure opponents by creating a new type of military accommodation for women. The paper explores this process by examining the living quarters of the female auxiliaries. Focusing on their dormitories, ablution and recreation facilities in hutted camps and hostels, it analyses the design, material culture, control and habitation of these locations. I argue that in their effort to satisfy critics’ conflicting demands, the authorities and female corps leaders combined elements of domesticity with military principles in their design and regulations. The resulting martial female accommodation exemplified a new ideal of modern living characterised by comfort and homeliness, but also by simplicity, utility and hygiene. The paper also explores corps members’ experience of inhabiting these environments. It concludes that members’ class background had a significant impact on their ability to adapt to their new living quarters and alter their material surroundings.