21 November 1917: aristocratic or autocratic women’s determination to hang on to the prestige and privilege accruing from their position in society is hindering the war effort
Inquiries among women who are in a position to take a wide view of the war work done by women in this country show the significance of the crisis that has just arisen in the ranks of the V.A.D.’s, and incidentally prove how sound is the position taken up by Dame Katherine Furse. The question now is whether the nation is going to understand its significance, or whether the present state of muddle is to be allowed to continue and to develop with the increasing demand for women’s services. For the muddle is indeed appalling, and if steps are not taken promptly to solve a not too difficult problem there is no saying where the waste, extravagance, and inefficiency are to end.
Take, for instance, the case of cooks employed on war work. If a qualified cook – and the number of qualified cooks available in the country is so near being exhausted that she is a very important person indeed – wishes to volunteer for war service she may play off three departments against each other. She may join the V.A.D.’s at a certain salary for a certain term and live in comfortable quarters under discipline. She may join the W.A.A.O. at a similar salary, signing on for the duration of the war, living under rules and in quarters rather less comfortable than those offered by the V.A.D.’s.
How are these rival claims to be satisfied? Is it to be supposed that the nation will tolerate a further duplication and reduplication of recruiting centres, medical boards, administrative authorities, and hostels, remembering that all the time various voluntary amateur societies are also advertising for recruits?
I find that there has long been among the most experienced and far-seeing women a conviction that the time had come to secure some sort of co-operation, with the establishment of a central directorate, which should leave the various main services free to carry on their work, but which should devise some scheme to avoid the endless overlapping and rivalry, establish a standard of efficiency, and see that the work women are urgently required for is carried on on democratic and sensible lines.
Clinging to Privilege.
The great hindrance is felt to be the aristocratic or autocratic woman’s determination to hang onto the prestige and power accruing from her position in the amateur society, and her fixed conviction that the purple-blooded war-worker is designed by nature for higher things than comradeship and equality with the less delicately nurtured; that she may earnestly desire to devote herself to the nation’s need, but that she cannot be expected to enter any service through the portals of the labour exchanges. This has been the real trouble with the V.A.D.’s – the stubborn determination of the governing committee not to surrender a particle of its power or privilege.
In London alone there are at least eighty-six women’s societies, each with its own more or less expensive offices, propaganda, and administration, doing war work of more or less value, and work that is more or less distinct, but that could quite well come in under a scheme of wide co-operation. This might be sufficiently amusing and harmless in ordinary circumstances, but at present it means, as leading women have assured me, that the best and most important work of the country is being held up, and plans of supreme importance are being thwarted at every turn, with a certain prospect that in the immediate future things will become infinitely worse.
A Women’s National Service Department
Various suggestions have been made as to a central administrative body dealing with women’s war work, primarily with the most urgent kinds of war work connected with the war services, but concerned in all the work for the State other than commercial, industrial, or agricultural labour. It should form a department of its own, without connection with any other department, and women are suggesting that, since it must work through the employment exchanges, a Women’s National Service Department – with power to act – is what is required. The whole matter is so urgent that it is hoped the Government will arrive at some satisfactory conclusion without delay.