Flora Sandes - Military Maid

'Sweet' Polly Oliver went to war to be with her lover, but there were many women for whom military life was an end in itself. Julie Wheelwright uncovers the career of one woman whose ambition was amply fulfilled.

Throughout the First World War, the English press devoted much coverage to seemingly fantastic stories of women who disguised themselves as men, made it to the front lines and fought in all-male regiments. Reports surfaced in local newspapers about young women attempting to enlist while the Russian female soldiers, according to American journalist Louise Bryant, 'caught the public fancy like no other aspect of the war'. Debates raged on both sides of the Atlantic about female suitability for the ultimate masculine experience - combat – as thousands of women entered exclusively 'male' occupations on the home front. 'The tiger is in every woman; it's only a matter of what's going to bring it out' argued Dr Graeme Hammond, a leading American neurologist. 'There is a streak of innate disputiveness in women. They are a great deal more combative than men. If you don't believe me, ask any married man.' The female soldier came to symbolise women's threatening desire for the social and political power of the public sphere.

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