Wonder Women

22 June 2017

Cultural Studies | Gender and Sexuality | History | War and Conflict

Poster, 2017 © Warner Bros. Pictures; Women of the War, 1918 ©‎ U.S. National Library of Medicine

Wonder Woman is the property of DC Comics. Poster, 2017 ©‎ Warner Bros. Pictures. Lady Paget included in Women of the War, 1918 ©‎ U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

Wonder Woman has kicked down doors for female superheroes everywhere this summer with her Lasso of Truth, steely commitment to peace and wholly impractical wardrobe – raking in $600 million in the process. Despite an early furore at the UN, Gal Gadot’s incarnation of the famed comic book heroine has been embraced by feminists across the globe. Celebratory female-only screenings, meanwhile, have placed “meninist” noses out of joint.

Patty Jenkins’ record-breaking film sees Diana Prince leave behind an island of age-defying, arse-kicking Amazonian warriors to seek out Zeus’ son, Ares, in war-torn Europe. Wading first into the political quagmire, and later a literal quagmire, her innocent eyes are opened to the brutality of trench warfare on the Western Front. While working on Adam Matthew’s upcoming resource Medical Services and Warfare, I stumbled across a biographical collection charting the real-life women who dedicated their lives to the war effort.

Barbara McLaren’s Women of the War (1918) doesn’t feature bustier-clad Amazons acrobatically deflecting enemy ammunition in the middle of No Man’s Land. It does, however, shine a light on the heroics of doctors, nurses, policewomen, concert organisers and canteen workers who offered their services during a time of need. This celebration of women’s contributions is prefaced by former Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, who wrote: ‘They have done and are doing things which, before the war, most of us would have said were both foreign to their nature and beyond their physical capacity.’ Ironically, as PM, Asquith’s opposition to the suffragette movement was notorious.

One woman chronicled early in the collection is Lady Paget. Having nursed throughout the Balkan conflicts of 1912 and 1913, Paget established a hospital unit in Serbia at the outbreak of war in 1914 and travelled to Uskub, where embattled troops faced a typhus epidemic. Evacuated after catching the disease herself, Paget later returned in the midst of an enemy invasion; during the occupation, 70,000 refugees were fed and clothed from her stores.

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisolm included in Women of the War, 1918 ©‎ U.S. National Library of Medicine

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisolm included in Women of the War, 1918 ©‎ U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

Another chapter focuses on noted ambulance drivers, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisolm. A decree forbade the presence of women on the front lines in March 1915, but ‘an exception was made for these two, mentioned by name’. Chisolm, at the time, was just eighteen years old.

Dr Elsie Inglis, meanwhile, is honoured for her role in originating the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units – ‘one of the noblest efforts achieved by women in the war.’ In the opening months of the conflict, the War Office refused the help of women’s hospitals, so Inglis – who had qualified as a surgeon in 1892 – offered her assistance elsewhere, establishing bases in France, Corsica, Macedonia, Romania and Russia.

 

Mrs St. Clair Stobart included in Women of the War, 1918 ©‎ U.S. National Library of Medicine  

Mrs St. Clair Stobart included in Women of the War, 1918 ©‎ U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

After leading an ambulance unit, facing threats of execution and working under shellfire, Mrs. St. Clair Stobart was asked to mobilise a flying field hospital by Serbian authorities; she thus became the first woman to earn a rank – major – in the Serbian army. After leading a column, intact, during the army’s infamously treacherous retreat, the chief officer of the Serbian medical staff would write; ‘You have made everybody believe that a woman can overcome and endure all the war difficulties’.

Wonder Woman made her first comic book appearance in the autumn of 1941 and was followed onto the pages by a plethora of equally improbably-attired associates. Nevertheless, in their driving coats, pinafores and Red Cross arm bands, the protagonists of Women of the War serve as a reminder that heroines – flesh and blood, yet really rather super – have existed far longer off the page.

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Medical Services and Warfare will publish in October 2017. Module I charts medical experiences and advancements from the Crimean War through to the First World War, and comprises hundreds of documents which highlight themes including personal perspectives, nursing, government policy, surgery, sanitation and rehabilitation. Register for the upcoming webinar here or contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more details.

About the Author

Lindsay Gulliver

Lindsay Gulliver

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of resources charting the history of colonial America, popular medicine, World’s Fairs and socialism around the globe. My main academic interests lie in cultural history and Thatcherism, but I enjoy researching all areas of modern history.

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