Wartime Women: A Mass-Observation Anthology
by Dorothy Sheridan
List Price: $12.95 Hardback: 288 Pages
Publisher: Phoenix Press
Publish Date: March 28, 2006
by Brian Grafton
Wartime Women: A Mass-Observation Anthology : Book Review
Without offering them in any particular order of significance, this study of
wartime England is worth a read for at least three reasons.
First, this is anthology of writings about World War II by those who lived
through the war in England. We're not talking hindsight, but comments recorded
as the war was going on. Second, it is devoted to a specific gender: this is an
anthology of writings by women. Third, it is yet one more edited publication
from the archives of Mass-Observation (M-O), now housed at the University of
Sussex, a collection of pre-war and war observations concerning life in Britain
during World War II. As with other volumes from the extensive M-O archives, I
found this volume strangely compelling.
Mass-Observation was the creation of a few young, energetic university
graduates. Started in 1937, at least one of its objectives seemed to be to
provide government with information concerning the attitudes, emotions, desires
and concerns of the British people at large.
In effect, there was in M-O's inception a sense that the political rulers of
Britain were sadly out of touch with the people they governed. The object of
M-O was to collect data and inference from the "masses", in order to provide
possible correctives to government attitudes, policies and directives. To
define more precisely the attitudes of "common" Britons, M-O created a variety
of collection devices: surveys; open-ended response sheets; reporters placed
(often covertly) in specific situations; and – as war grew nearer – requests
Many have described M-O as an early sociological experiment, which might be a
bit too kind. In my opinion, M-O lacked the controls which might have given its
commentaries more validity, though in truth many of those controls had not yet
been developed for the social sciences. At best, I think that M-O collected
utterly fascinating information from self-selected citizens who believed that
M-O was a vehicle for capturing the current states-of-mind which – for whatever
reason – the government was unable to appreciate.
In effect, M-O placed advertisements and requests for information in
newspapers, magazines and the like, asking ordinary folk to respond to their
requests for information in various ways: by response to rather broad-based
questionnaires; by observing behaviour in various locations (e.g., factories,
movie theatres, markets) and offering descriptions of those observations; and,
as war grew nearer, by keeping and providing diary entries of their daily
experiences. The response M-O received, in my humble opinion, was much greater
than was expected; much of the material was never used or acted on in any way.
While M-O was always interested in publishing its data in book form (and did
so, on at least a few occasions, both before the outbreak of World War II and
during the war itself), from its inception it was receiving much more
information than it could deal with. The best it could do during the war was
provide assessments of issues critical to the war effort in Britain. It wasn't
until after the war, with the realization that M-O's collection was an
important commentary on the years from 1937 and 1945, and it's subsequent
location at the University of Sussex, that some kind of semi-systematic
explication of the M-O material became possible. This is one such volume.
Wartime Women is not, in all honesty, a volume that covers the
experience of all women in Britain during World War II. What it offers are
excerpts from women with the time, energy, insight and capability to capture,
in various forms, what life was like during the seven long years from Munich to
VE Day. It is a mixture, as well, of diary entries and M-O surveys and
It also reflects – sometimes in the most unflattering ways – the preconceptions
and prejudices of the British. For instance, it is hard to determine whether
the relatively rare comments about such groups as "Jews" reflect a war-induced
commentary or – more likely – a thoroughly ingrained attitude towards a
In the same way, I was both disconcerted and amused to see the coding method
used to describe the sources of commentary which had been received and were
used by M-O in some of its studies. As Dorothy Sheridan writes (p. 161):
"Mass-Observation had, by 1942, developed a shorthand system for designating
the sex, age and class of people observed. 'A" meant 'rich people", 'B' meant
'the middle classes', 'C' meant 'artisans and skilled workers' and 'D' meant
'unskilled workers and the least economically or educationally trained third of
our people'… . F40C therefore referred to a skilled working-class woman, aged
While this might initially shock some readers, it reflects (in my opinion, both
validly and very clearly) the continued existence of the concept of class in
the England of the 1940s.
What amused me in particular is that, in quoting interviews with various
respondents, the class designations were carried over to print. In early 1943,
for example, M-O released a "bulletin" to its members concerning attitudes to
unescorted women drinking in pubs, where – because two responses follow one
another, the following manipulation of language stands out:
"F35D: 'I don't see no 'arm in it – it's 'ard to get stuff to take 'ome
nowadays…'; followed by F30C: 'I see no harm in it, and it's only evil-minded
folks that do.'"
Even in print, the "D's" of this world can't or don't speak as correctly as the
C's and better!
The use of spelling, usage and grammar to capture educational deficiencies or
regional accents is not unique to Wartime Women , of course; such
devices had gained currency in popular fiction long before World War Two, and
not just in Britain. But M-O took its role seriously here, recording the number
of interviews conducted, the location of the pubs, and the like. One would have
assumed that the "D" classification was sufficient to place the interviewee in
the appropriate class, without the dropping of the "aitches" and the rather
obvious double negative.
At another point in the volume, M-O asks in one of its "directives" (in
January, 1944) for responses from members about the place of women after the
end of the war. Though the directive was open to both male and female members,
Sheridan has chosen to offer only a selection of female responses. These range
from the most traditional (children need a full-time mother) to some rather
interesting discussions of the need for "more capable" British women (read,
better educated, more responsible women) to breed so as to rebuild the "stock"!
One of the more interesting comments comes from a single woman of 36 who is a
stenographer in Birmingham. In a lengthy response, the following seems to be
"The crux of the question to me is: if the economic emancipation of women goes
on, what will compensate men, in the marriage relation, for the loss of their
status as breadwinner to the family? I don't want to be a reactionary and adopt
a 'Kirche Küche Kinder' doctrine, but I do believe all the points I have
mentioned, and many more, want thinking out seriously."
So why does this book attract me, if it is so easy to raise issues about its
inception, its hint of racism, and its class consciousness? The answer is very
simple – and, again, comes in two parts.
First, the women whose writings appear in the volume are, quite simply, real.
Dorothy Sheridan, the editor, has done nothing to mask the limitations of the
source material; she has not tried to make the comments more palatable for
readers of future generations. Despite the fact that this is an edited version
of the richer archives the information is drawn from, she does not appear to
have removed the "naughty bits".
Secondly, there are excerpts in this edited volume which truly grip the heart.
Keep in mind that – at least where diaries are concerned – the contributors (or
at least the contributors Dorothy Sheridan chose) were outrageously honest:
about their war experiences; about their concerns for their children; and about
their family life. I don't know which one of the diarists you might find
yourself wanting to know more about: for me, it's "Amy Briggs"; for others it
may be "Muriel Green". But my guess is that any reader of Wartime Women
will find a favourite diarist, and will wish the Dorothy Sheridan had the
energy and the funding to print their diaries in full.
There is a great richness in studying comments and attitudes both held and
recorded during any event as cataclysmic as WW2. I'm not thinking about
commentary resurrected after the event: I'm thinking about contemporaneous
comment. This volume delivers it in spades – warts, fens and the lot.
Finally, I will admit that the cover photo for the volume is some icing on the
cake: it says so much about what the women of Britain were experiencing during
the war. The photo is identified as follows:
"The Gloucester and District Ploughing Society's ploughing match at Breckworth
Court, Gloucester, 30 September 1944. Miss J. King working with a 3-furrow
Miss J. King delights me. She is clearly engrossed in the competition, and –
with her bib-overalls – she is clearly there for the competition.
At the same time, she is quite clearly a rather slight person. Her hair is
beautifully groomed in the fashion of the day. Her blouse – at least at this
time in the competition – remains white. She is a woman who has been "doing her
bit" and is proud of the skills she has learned. But she has not forgotten that
she is a woman!
I can't honestly say that this is a volume which should be on the shelves of
every MHOer: it won't appeal to many. But I would argue most forcefully that
this is a volume that should be read at some time. And for WW2 buffs, I think
the book must be considered as one worth reading. We tend to forget too quickly
what normal folks thought about, worried about, fussed over, and/or lived
through during WW2. This book – very typical of many M-O inspired volumes – can
at least keep our connected with our roots.
Copyright © 2006 Brian Grafton.
Written by Brian Grafton. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Brian Grafton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published online: 01/07/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.