Sunday, 1 January 2012

Virginia Nicholson – Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949


Following a cast of brave women from 1939 to 1949, Virginia Nicholson’s comprehensive book thoroughly explores the complexities of the Second World War from the point of view of the millions of women who not only kept the home fires burning, but also cracked Hitler’s codes, nursed victims at Belsen, and learned to fly planes.
Millions Like Us (Penguin, £25) is at no times sentimental, but is consistently engaging with its narratives of real women and their lived experiences, driving the narrative through very real situations – from the shortage of sanitary towels, to backstreet abortions and grieving for lost loved ones. Nicholson’s book hammers home the point that women were more than just homemakers, they were also instrumental in joining up and fighting the fight.
What becomes most apparent, though, is the disregard with which these astonishing women were treated by men. Many of these women suffered sexism, rape and abuse at the hands of men who belittled (or felt belittled by) the amazing work these women were proving themselves capable of. Despite enlisting women into the forces, there was a written rule that denied women the right to kill – which, of course, men could do. And when peace was announced, it was assumed that these women – women who had proved themselves to be more than equal to their male kin – were expected to meekly slot back into the kitchens and forget the trades they had learned. Yet, of course, many did not want to.
Nicholson’s book charts in a sympathetic way, through the narrative of real women she has retrospectively interviewed, the decade around the Second World War. From the horror experienced by women when war broke, to the sterling way they coped with the hardships at home and the horrors on the battlefields, and then the shock and lacklustre response when peace was announced – perhaps most shocking of all, the announcement of peace was not the relief everyone assumed, because nothing could ever be the same again. Families faced homelessness and poverty, and rationing continued for years afterwards. Plus the skills women had learned (from code-breaking to farming the land) didn’t translate so well into the post-war jobs market.
Nicholson’s exhaustive book is compiled with great care, complete attention to detail and confirms what a talented and empathetic writer she is. Her book makes clear that among the many atrocities of the Second World War was the abhorrent abuse women endured at the hands of misogynist men, and the great strides women made in the absence of men in a retrograde world that was exclusively a male zone. 
The paperback edition of Millions Like Us (£9.99)
is published on March 15, 2012.

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