by Ashleigh Percival-Borley
The 20th century saw the greatest mobilisation of women serving in Britain’s auxiliary services. 43,000 women volunteered in the December of 1939, more than double of what had been initially projected. The total number of women to serve in the WAAF, WRNS and ATS during the war is suggested to be 612,000. Yet this movement also created considerable discomfort in Parliament, where concerns were raised that women in uniform would have a detrimental effect on society. It was suggested their femininity would be under attack from the dreaded ‘manliness’ of, not just the war work they were duty-bound to undertake, but the uniforms they wore while carrying out that patriotic duty. Indeed, worried MP’s were attached to the idea that women would turn to lesbianism if they were allowed to don uniforms that reduced or subverted their feminine attributes. Lesbianism then was a concept officially debated by Parliament at the start of the Second World War.
Lesbianism has had somewhat of a secret history. While male homosexuality was criminalised as early as the 16th century, lesbianism was neither illegal nor acceptable. It stayed in the shadows of a British society unwilling to see people as autonomous sexual beings. There was a debate around lesbianism being made illegal in 1921 as an amendment to the Criminal Law Act of 1885, but it was ultimately thrown out due to MP’s believing that the majority of women did not even know what it was, so why bring unwanted attention to it? Such ignorance seemed preferable, instead of encouraging experimentation by acknowledging the existence of the concept. However, the official worry that women would lose interest in heterosexual relationships and be ‘less feminine’ due to this ‘manliness’ was so established that magazines printed articles on how to ‘avoid manliness’ when in uniform. Edith Summerskill, one of only 15 women in parliament during the war, argued against such notions:
‘One Eton crop combined with long strides provides these people with a case from which to generalise. They forget or do not know that certain ductless glands determine the degree of femininity displayed by women and that it is scientifically impossible and quite unsound to suggest that a uniform, however severely cut, can influence the secretions of the hormones.’
Penny Summerfield suggests these attitudes towards servicewomen were unavoidable consequences of established societal patterns disturbed by war. As such, the war gave women the freedom to escape societal and family expectations and to try something new. In the case of lesbians, they were able to break free geographically and socially to find other women with the same sexual preferences. It could be seen as a welcome opportunity for women to not only meet others with the same desires, but also to explore their sexual identities. Indeed, the wartime need for ‘womanpower’ even helped enable these connections. Both the WAAF and ATS generally ignored accusations of lesbianism throughout the war, while the stigma of same sex attraction helped to create a culture of silence. Discipline measures were established – but only if the suspected women broke the military codes of conduct or behaved outrageously. And even then, the most frequent course of action was to post the women away to separate bases. While this can be considered cruel, and was often traumatic for the women involved, it is a far cry from the later more severe policies of the Armed Forces that only saw the ban on members of the LGBTQ+ community serving openly officially lifted in 2016 (the ban itself had generally not been acted upon since the year 2000).
It seems the war, despite its atrocities and human loss, was to be a place where a small minority of women found love, identity and friendship in a society that was unwilling, and could not, accommodate them. As a gay woman and a member of the Armed Forces myself, I am happy for them and grateful to them – in a small way they have helped to change attitudes and expose prejudice. May we continue to do so for as long as it is needed.
‘Infantile Desires and Perverted Practices’: Disciplining Lesbianism in the WAAF and the ATS during the Second World War by Emma Vickers.
‘You weren’t taught that with the welding’: lessons in sexuality in the second world war by Penny Summerfield & Nicole Crockett
Creating a (gendered?) military identity: The Women’s auxiliary air force in Great Britain in the Second World War by Tessa Stone
About the Author:
Ashleigh Percival-Borley is a military and gender historian with an MA in War, Culture and Society and is currently studying an MA in Military History. Her current research focuses on women’s history in a military context, examining discourses of gender and how it interconnects with cultural representations of war in the twentieth century. She has researched widely on the SOE and the women who worked for F Section as secret agents during the Second World War. Discussing how these remarkable women have been represented in popular history since 1945. Her work on the SOE has led her to recently contribute to local museum exhibits.
Ashleigh’s passion for military history derives from her 12-year service in the Royal Army Medical Corp in the British Army, of which she served overseas on conflict and humanitarian operations. Her military service allows her to take a unique perspective on less known topics of women’s history and its intersection with military history which she writes about in her blog The Soldier-Historian.
When not studying history, Ashleigh likes to take her daughter out walking, to read with a cup of tea and go rock climbing!