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on women and peace
Yet there were also other variables at play. For Vera Brittain, her feminism was an integral part of her pacifism, and vice versa. In the 1920s and early 1930s her literary and journalistic output, her public addresses and lectures, all revolved about feminist themes and women's issues. But following her conversion to pacifism, there was a marked change in her concentration and much of her energy was devoted to discussing questions of war and peace. Yet Vera Brittain never lost sight of her early commitment to feminism. In 1941 she wrote:
The women's movement ... began when civilisation reached the point at which a sufficiently large enlightened minority perceived that the operation of reason was superior to force as a factor in human affairs.
That is why the struggle against war, which is the final and most vicious expression of force, is fundamentally inseparable from feminism, socialism, slave emancipation and the liberation of subject races. (7)
Indeed, the cumulative intensity of her commitments to feminism, to socialism and to pacifism, produced innumerable articles and lectures combining these themes.
In February 1934 Brittain published one of her first articles on the subject of women and war; it was entitled, 'Can the Women of the World Stop War?'. (8) Although the metaphor is singularly inappropriate on the subject, Brittain came out of her corner swinging. She seldom wrote with subtlety and her journalistic efforts (which were, in my opinion, far superior to all her literary efforts, barring 'Testament of Youth') show off Brittain's punchy style to good advantage. A short, sharp delivery where motive and purpose did not require complexity suited her approach to writing best of all. In this article, published in the 'Modern Woman', Brittain referred to the '... terrible, inert mass of lethargic womanhood'. In an apparent effort to shake women out of their collective apathy Brittain made a number of stinging criticisms which proved to be recurring themes of her articles on women and war. Writing against a backdrop of the failure of the Geneva disarmament conference which opened in 1932, the accession of power to Adolf Hitler in 1933 and a crisis in the Far East, Brittain stated that a woman whose interests revolved only about the world of domestic details and one who
... refuses to accept what Sir Norman Angell has called 'the moral obligation to be intelligent', is guilty of gross irresponsible selfishness toward her children and society.
Brittain believed women could bring an end to war if they overcame their domestic myopia. To achieve this women involved in the peace movement needed, in Brittain's opinion, to take a leaf out of the book written by the militant suffragettes and to be prepared to adopt militant tactics involving civil disobedience. In another article of Brittain's on 'Women and Disarmament', which was published in the same month, Brittain suggested a General Strike on the part of women:
What more effective General Strike could ever be proclaimed than a strike of women who refused to mend another garment or cook another meal until the sums intended for additional bombing-planes or new 9,000 ton cruisers were dedicated instead to their health and their housing? (9)
But to effect such a strike Brittain was well aware that the collective political and international consciousness of women would have to be raised and that women would have to begin to take an interest in events 'beyond their own little doorstep'. (10) Brittain also advocated that women join organisations, 'from the right-wing League of Nations Union to the Anti-War Movement on the extreme left', according to what suited best their political persuasions. Brittain thus spoke to all women, as women, rather than out of some vested political interest; for her the necessity of political awareness and the ability to translate consciousness into effective action was a paramount concern.
Vera Brittain had no illusions about the enormity of the task she was advocating. One of the largest obstacles she perceived as lying in the path of women was the 'infinite capacity of most women for resignation ...' which she understood not only to be a severe handicap for women themselves, but also 'a menace to the civilisation which their united efforts could save'. (11) Her understanding of women's uncomplaining endurance in the face of unnecessary adversity was a lack of education and confidence.
Any system of education which inculcated in women a truer valuation of their needs and functions would ... mean a real service to the cause of disarmament.
For Brittain education was a critical factor. Her own experiences had given her a keen appreciation of the value and importance of educational opportunity. Ignorance ensured inequality and deprived women of the confidence and ability to express themselves and to exercise their rightful influence at the domestic and international levels. (12) In the late 1930s Vera Brittain believed that enthraldom of the majority of women to domesticity, and what she understood as the inherent tendency of the domestic routine to anaesthetise, numbed the intellectual development and capacity of women. (13) Righting this wrong was not simply a question of extending educational opportunities for women, although Brittain understandably was a fierce advocate of university education for women. Rather Brittain was anxious that the provision, for example, of communal services would enable women to have the choice and the possibility of involving themselves in activities outside the home. Through widening the bounds of awareness Brittain hoped that the political consciousness of women would be awakened, not least because it was a necessary prerequisite for political action:
Progress for women has been rapid where it depended on political action, slow where it depended on changes in heart and habits. (14)
The task as Brittain understood it, however, would be a complicated one, since in the 1930s women were still new to the exercise of political responsibility and the early political education of women was lamentably lacking. Brittain, for example, slated the women's magazines for encouraging apolitical problems in their columns, implicitly suggesting that political issues did not interest or affect women. Caustically, Brittain noted that even men's sporting papers oftentimes included items of political interest. She was herself, however, well able to translate her case for the necessity of women's involvement in the peace movement into strictly domestic language geared to touch the 'lethargic mass'. (15) Education and increased awareness were a means of overcoming such obstacles, not least because 'no sudden advance is possible over ground which has not been prepared.' (16)
Yet education was not the only issue raising serious difficulties in the way of the successful involvement of women in the peace movement. The peace movement itself, in Brittain's opinion, badly needed an image change. War was glorious, exciting and rousing, whilst peace, on the other hand, simply did not 'appeal to the imagination, and has, therefore, no glamour'. (17) The answer, as Brittain saw it, was to instil a 'spirit of adventure in the peace movement'. She suggested the launching of a giant peace crusade which would employ the advice of 'several advertising experts who have studied the psychology of human response to every kind of appeal, and who would know how to invent slogans to arrest popular attention'. Dramatic methods and daring initiatives would revitalise and rejuvenate the movement.
Money? Well, it would be needed, of course, but money is apt to flow in whenever a movement is dramatically presented as a life-or-death issue. Organisers? They should be forthcoming quickly enough, as they have been for Fascism, if peace were associated with action and initiative instead of being identified with perpetual pamphlets and the droning of tired voices in somnolent lecture halls.
Given the experience of the last few years, Brittain's ideas cannot be easily dismissed as occupying a position somewhere out in left field. The women of Greenham Common most certainly would have had her wholehearted support. (18) The large peace demonstrations held in so many of the world's major cities in recent years, the protests of the women of Northern Ireland and those of the mothers of the missing in South America are an eloquent witness to the possibility of realising goals Brittain voiced for women and for the peace movement half a century ago. (19)