We went to visit Bletchley Park [https://bletchleypark.org.uk/] recently and were given an interesting tour of the huts and environment in which the codebreakers lived during World War II. The conditions were tough. The huts were freezing cold in winter, boiling hot in summer. And full of cigarette smoke. The women were mainly young, forced, at a time of their lives when they might expect to be dating and care-free, to concentrate for hours on the information coming in across the airwaves. I felt in awe of them and what they did for us all. Them and the men who fought, of course. But these women kept silent and were not allowed to share their experiences even with their husbands. There was no accolade or acknowledgement for many years of what they did for us. They just quietly left and got on with life.
This made me think about the way women through the ages have just quietly got on with life, and still do, however tough. The mothers in Syria, the Yazidis trying to re-enter life after kidnap ordeals, The Rohingyas, countless women who are subjected to violence and abuse in Africa, India, South America and nearer to home. How they stoically knuckle down to do what they believe will protect themselves and their children. We must not forget them and cannot imagine that any #MeToo or feminist movement that has occurred so far has solved these problems.
These messages were brought home to me also when we went to see the French film Les Guardians, about the women left behind to tend the farms while their men fought during World War I. It was back-breaking work, tilling and gathering the harvest, making ends meet. And it made me think of the women who have done this over the centuries, run farms, castles, palaces while the men went to war or off to Crusade. Their skills unappreciated, often, and unacknowledged. Bringing up the children unobtrusively on their own, while their men rampaged around the countryside or globe at the behest of some monarch, prince or baron. There are few history books documenting their lives or explaining how they kept a country, community and family going in the absence of the menfolk.
Coincidentally I have also just finished the book The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, about the women left behind on their own in France during World War II, one fighting for the Resistance, the other defending her family and friends during the Occupation, finally being drawn to protect Jewish children. These women, like the women in England and elsewhere, were living on bare scraps of food with little heat or protection.
And then reading The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland, a sorry tale of a mother and child violently abused by the father. And the legacy such treatment leaves for all those who experience or witness it. This more relevant as the law is finally to change to allow women who have lived in the home of their abuser to be able to receive compensation for their injuries.
Of course women can abuse and behave badly. This I know. But these recent experiences have really made me think about the twists and turns of history where women have just quietly got on with putting food on a table and nurturing children. Of, sadly, those many places in the world where abuse of women is still an accepted part of the culture and of how those women have a daily struggle to maintain their self-respect while enduring the violent demands of husbands or those around them. And of how, even in our own society, the old assumptions about a woman’s role in life or work is often still stuck in the past, with lower pay and everyday put-downs. And until recently this has been accepted as the norm until we finally woke up to the fact that women deserve better.
And so I write this in gratitude to those women who endured so much hardship in order to give us the benefits of life today here in the UK, Europe and beyond. I hope that I would do the same and have the same resilience, but I don’t know if I could and hope none of us are put in such situations again. But what I do hope is that I leave my grandchildren with some understanding of what their great-grandmothers, great-great grandmothers and ancestors might have done that has given them the life they enjoy today.