Sarah Waters: the Second World War liberated women

The Night Watch author explains how war brought women the freedom to work, play – and love

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For the people of Britain, the Second World War was a period of horror, of danger, of loss, of gnawing anxiety, on a massive scale. Many men and women caught up in the turmoil must have longed for the return of the safety and regularity of peacetime.

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But for others, along with the dramas and the dislocations of war, there came unexpected freedoms and excitements. When I was researching my novel of the 1940s, The Night Watch, which is now a major BBC drama, I was struck by just how liberating the period was.

This was especially true for women. Women, after all, were active in this conflict as never before, facing enemy bombardment in their homes just as servicemen overseas were facing it on the battlefield – in fact, between 1939 and 1941, fatality rates were actually higher among the civilians of Britain than among its soldiers. Women had new responsibilities, and with them came new rights and opportunities.

Rising to the demands of the hour with extraordinary readiness and courage, they took up roles in civil defence, as air-raid wardens and in the fire and ambulance services. They braced themselves for German invasion, learning how to handle guns and make Molotov cocktails. They took on challenging masculine jobs, with higher pay packets to match. And they found they rather liked it.

They liked, too, the new social freedoms of wartime life. Some simply enjoyed the liberation of getting their hands dirty by working on machines, of replacing prim feminine fashions with practical clothes and shoes: this was a period when donning a pair of dungarees could feel like a contribution to the war effort. And once female conscription came into force, and women were moved around the country into new settings, new friendships, new experiences, they were at liberty to abandon the constraints of home and reinvent themselves.

War, shaking up all the nation’s conventions of gender and class, led to personal shake-ups, too. As one male Mass Observation contributor put it in 1943, when asked for his opinion on the fact that women were now to be seen drinking unaccompanied in pubs, “Before the war I was a bit old-fashioned about such things, but war broadens one’s outlook somewhat.”

Pubs and clubs, in fact, seem to have played a surprisingly large role in wartime life, for men and women alike. We might imagine that the drink of the Blitz was strong sweet tea, but to read the novels and memoirs of the 1940s is to encounter a distinctly boozy world, a world of people doing their best to drink themselves into a good time on the dubious tipples of wartime: “Colonial sherry”, gin and orange, gin and lime.

Some people kept a clear head by combining alcohol with drugs – as a young WAAF officer, Joan Wyndham, did for a Valentine’s Day party in 1943. “I took a little Benzedrine,” she notes matter-of-factly in her diary, Love Is Blue, “and remained completely sober in spite of gin, crème de menthe, rum and Algerian wine” – which was “just as well”, she adds, because she ended up locked out of her billet and had to climb back in over “a 10ft spiked gate”.

Inevitably, the new freedoms extended themselves into the nation’s romantic and sexual life. Lots of people who lived through the 40s speak of the particular intensity of wartime romances. This was a period in which, quite literally, any day might be one’s last. There was no time for extended courtship; intimacy was accelerated, and the carpe diem spirit increased the appeal of dating and sex.

Some people sought to legitimise their sexual pleasures through marriage: the early part of the war saw a rise in the number of weddings, as couples hurried into unions before the demands of service life tore them apart. But others cast off old inhibitions and developed a more casual attitude to the whole business.

We tend to locate the British sexual revolution firmly in the 1960s, but the loosening of social codes was clearly well under way in wartime, and led to some striking sexual adventuring. Cinemas and air-raid shelters became full of smooching couples. Lesbian and gay life grew freer. The blacked-out streets and bombsites provided endless opportunities.

Married women with long-absent husbands sometimes found companionship and romance with the foreign servicemen who came flooding into the UK as the war progressed; and some of these affairs, of course, ended in pregnancy. Almost a third of the illegitimate children born in the last two years of the war, in fact, were produced by married women.

Many of the illicit sexual experiences of wartime must have been marvelous adventures, memorable and thrilling. Others inevitably led to problems, especially with the return to peace, as reunited couples tried, and frequently failed, to pick up the threads of old intimacies: the divorce rate rocketed after the war, just as hasty marriages had increased sharply at the start of it.

Male and female expectations had changed dramatically. Wives who had been managing their own finances now had to revert to economic dependence on their husbands – and their predicament wasn’t helped by government decisions such as the closure of wartime nursery care, which effectively pushed them back into the old-fashioned roles of homemakers and mothers. Women, and men, who had played heroic parts in the services or in Civil Defence now had to readjust to less glorious domestic occupations. It was a hard transition.

After 1945, Britain would never be the same again. It emerged from conflict determined to reconstruct itself as a fairer nation, with a new socialist cabinet committed to making real improvements in health, education and housing.

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But the war itself, against all odds, had been a period of tremendous purpose and thrill. It had given many people, simply, the time of their lives. Some felt in its aftermath that they were inhabiting – in the words of a character in Godfrey Smith’s 1954 novel The Flaw in the Crystal – a “cardboard world”, dazedly mourning a time when “people used to talk and sing and love; they used to meet; and above all they used to live”.