Lane Winslow is a fictional character who reflects only one of the hundreds of thousands of roles women took in the British war effort. It is arguable that women made the difference in winning. In a very real way, the more women worked, the more men were freed to engage in actual fighting overseas. At the same time that Britain was scooping women by the thousands into a vast array of roles that ranged from food production, to weapons manufacturing to domestic defense and right through to front line work, Germany was doing the opposite. Hitler ran on a campaign of pledging to get women out of the work force, and during the war forbad absolutely any role for women that was not purely domestic, and focussed on having and raising children for the Reich.
What is remarkable to me is how counter to the current social norms of the day all of this recruiting was. Women in British society were still largely expected to be at home. When they did work it was in strictly ‘women’s jobs’ such as secretarial work, and if they married were expected to give up their jobs and return home. The war was in many ways a boon to women. “There’s a war on, you know” became the underlying patriotic motivation for the many women who dropped everything to serve.
The key in some ways to women’s success was the ingrained view that women were simply not as smart as men. For women like Lane Winslow, serving in the Special Operations Executive or SOE, part of what made their work so effective was the cultural norm in Europe of women as domestic creatures; women intelligence officers were often able to go about freely delivering intelligence, training resistance fighters in the use of explosives and new radio equipment because it was simply unimaginable that that pretty young woman cycling down a French lane with a baguette in her basket could be a skilled technical adviser on explosives.
And of course, women took a lot of stick early on. So deeply ingrained was this notion of the sharp division between a woman’s world and a man’s, that men were often suspicious and surprised by their abilities. One report offers: “Many men were amazed that women could make adequate gunners despite their excitable temperament, lack of technical instincts, their lack of interest in aeroplanes and their physical weaknesses.” My temper would be excitable if I had to listen to men being amazed that I could change a tire.
It is difficult from my vantage point in the twenty first century to imagine the bitter disappointment after the war in being forced back into pre-war roles. Here is what one woman wrote: "Demob (demobilisation) was a big disappointment to a lot of us. It was an awful and wonderful war. I wouldn't have missed it for anything; some of the friends we made were forever”
For university educated women like Lane, giving up the independence and the freedom to shape her world as she would have it would have been particularly hard. There was an excellent series on PBS called Bletchley Circle that illustrates this point so well. Intelligent women, obliged to keep their war work secret forever from even their closest family members. Their own husbands, so immured in the pre-war notion of the little woman in the home, vastly under-rating the brilliance and capacity of the women they loved and lived with. It is no wonder that Lane is shy of any entanglement. She has way too much to lose.