I am ashamed to say that, for most of my life, I didn’t consider the remarkable women in my family to be all that remarkable – I thought of them as just doing what women do.
My grandmother on my father’s side not only got a college degree, but all of her sisters did as well. My great-great-grandmother Sally on my mother’s side, after her husband died tragically in a railroad accident, refused the railroad’s offer to put her three daughters in foster care and, through sheer will, kept her family together by marrying again and having another three daughters. My father’s cousins traveled all over the world for most of my childhood – there were always letters and postcards with large, expensive stamps appearing in my grandmother’s house from China, Kenya, Guatemala, you name it. I never thought any of it was unusual or noteworthy.
So when I mentioned at a work dinner a few years ago that my grandmother graduated from Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) in 1945, my colleagues all exclaimed in surprise at once. “You must have been so proud of her for being such a trailblazer,” my department manager said. “So few women went to college at that time!” she added. I felt a bit uncomfortable since, actually, I couldn’t imagine Grandma doing anything but going to college and studying English and Latin. It never occurred to me to think of her as remarkable, but, of course, she was. They all were.
On this 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, I have been thinking all day of Grandma’s mother, Great-Grandma, another remarkable woman from my family tree who I can just remember from my earliest years. She herself served in World War I in France in the U.S.’s medical unit (I believe as a pathologist). One of our family stories was about how she carefully kept a journal on the boat over to France where she wrote every day – right up until the day she landed, which was the last entry. After that, she was too busy to write – but of course, that’s what we all wanted to read about in the journal!
I always meant to return to academia sooner or later, but never quite managed to dislike my job enough to leave it and return to school. But I frequently make up college classes in my head that I would teach if I were an English professor like I planned to become, and one of the classes I like to invent is one about Women’s 20th Century Literature and War.
I think it would be interesting to evaluate women writers’ “lens” trained on the subject of war throughout the century as they move from being almost completely shut out from the experience of waging war (where their experience is lived by proxy through fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons) and they see it more from the viewpoint of victims or witnesses only, to more and more firsthand experiences of combat as participants themselves.
A professor of mine from my undergrad days, J. Robert Lennon, once mentioned Virginia Woolf as a war writer, and I know what he means. All of her characters are shaped by WWI, just as her life and career (and the careers and lives of most of her peers) were shaped by the impact of WWI.
In fact, I’m sure feminists somewhere have written (with more formal support than I have in this blog) that Woolf and her contemporaries obtained their opportunities to publish because so many of their male contemporaries were killed in WWI. So I would certainly include a novel of Woolf’s, probably The Waves or To The Lighthouse.
I would also certainly make room on my imaginary syllabus for Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a historical anti-war novel focused on and inspired by Siegfried Sassoon, the English poet, and the experiences of British officers being treated for shell shock during WWI. Regeneration is the first in a trilogy (the others being The Eye In The Door and The Ghost Road (the last of the three won the Booker Prize in 1995). I recommend Pat Barker to anyone – brilliant writer.
I would be interested in hearing a class discussion on Willa Cather’s One of Ours. While it was a prize-winning novel at the time, it also received heavy criticism from writers who were also veterans, like Ernest Hemingway, who felt it was untruthful about war in pursuit of its patriotic goals. And yet – is this not what women at the time were always told war was about – glory and patriotism? I recently saw a display of original posters for WWI war bonds at the Yates County History Center in New York – it’s almost as though Willa took the advertisers (and other male writers) at their word about the glory and patriotism of war, and is criticized for not having any other way of understanding war. Yet, how could she? Tricky questions to answer.
For all the remarkable women and men who served in WWI and whose efforts led us, at last, to Armistice Day – we honor and remember you.