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Women at War

Penny Ritchie Calder of the Imperial War Museum introduces a major new exhibition for this autumn.

'My good lady – go home and sit still’ suggested the man from the War Office when confronted by a feisty Scottish doctor, Elsie Inglis, who wanted to offer her services for the war effort in 1914. Sitting still is not, however, in women’s nature. Particularly not when there’s a war on. Despite the traditional view of women as nurturers and carers whose role is primarily to keep the home fires burning, there is a long history of female warriors and other women for whom war has been a turning point.

Producing an exhibition about women and war has been a great challenge. The subject is vast, with each of the myriad avenues of research worth an exhibition in itself. And it is all too easy to be distracted by the many extraordinary individuals and arcane organisations that surface in wartime. Whatever became, for instance, of the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps, which by 1918 had 2,000 masseuses hard at work in hospitals at the front? Who could resist the tale of Hannah Snell? In pursuit of an errant husband she found herself press-ganged into the army in 1745 and fought in India as a marine, later becoming a national celebrity. From classical times to the present, literally millions of ordinary women have found themselves caught up in conflict and have displayed exceptional tenacity, bravery, leadership, or stoicism – or a mixture of all of these things.

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