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University Women and WWI

By Jennifer Stewart, University of Glasgow graduate and former University of Glasgow Archives intern

During the Great War, the Glasgow University Magazine (GUM) acted as a mouthpiece for the student body with regards to the experience of campus life during this period of turmoil and grief. Although male members of the publishing team dominate the contributions to the magazine, the occasional Queen Margaret (QM) edition does shed light on the opinions of female students concerning the War and their place within wartime society. Additionally, by studying the GUM as the war progresses, we can see, especially around 1916, the appearance of an increasing number of female contributors to the staff of the regular editions of GUM, suggesting the need to compensate for the absence of male students with the introduction of conscription.

QM debate - that one should support ones country

Announcement from the 1915 Queen Margaret College edition of the Glasgow University Magazine

Through a reading of the GUM, it is clear that female students were keen to engage with issues of the war as much as their male counterparts. With references to numerous QM debating meetings on topics such as whether ‘Humanity stands to lose by the present War?’ as well as appeals to attend wartime services and contribute to the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, the QM editions of GUM are evidence of the University’s female students’ commitment to the wartime patriotic ideals and the concept of ‘doing their bit’.

SWH advert

Advertisement in the 1915 Queen Margaret College edition of the Glasgow University Magazine

 

However, despite this, there is nevertheless a sense of bitterness prevailing the QM editions of GUM; bitterness towards the war and its impact on women’s expected role within this new society.

For example, the editorial address of the QM edition of 3 March 1915 reflects upon the nature of the academic term and the atmosphere of the University during this first year of war. The editor talks of the ‘general dispeace’ that has affected the psyche of the QM and caused a feeling of ‘malaise’ within the female student body. It is clear that the disarray of the war has generated discomfort and unrest. However, what is most interesting about this editorial is the attention it pays to women’s duties in wartime. The editor, Marjorie M. Fergusson, suggests bitterness amongst the female students and a feeling of being overlooked when she speaks of her sex as being withheld ‘all weapons save the knitting needle’ and denied ‘even the beggarly satisfaction of doffing a hat to the National Anthem’. It is evident that the female student body at this stage in the conflict feels somewhat useless in its inability to physically express its patriotism through helpful activity, and thereby bemoans the limitations placed upon its sex by society. Furthermore, philanthropic work is not sufficient for these women and their enthusiasm for helping the war effort, with the pervasive feeling that ‘none of this really counts’.

war services.jpg

Letter to the Editress: ‘…women are particularly conscious at this time how little they can do to help their country’, from the 1915 Queen Margaret College edition of the Glasgow University Magazine

The inclusion of the poem ‘For the Duration’ within the QM edition of 19 May 1917 is also revealing with regards to the female students’ wartime opinions in its satirical comment on the new vision of womanhood that the war has created. Referring to a quote from the Glasgow News in which women students are now cited as ‘lady students’ the author critiques this wartime phenomenon where “all women are promoted to be ladies ex officio”. However, this ‘grim fact that a man must now respect his wife and daughter’ is seen as somewhat hollow to the author, who views the title of lady with cynicism. Women are indeed helping to keep the country running – she makes mention of lady porters, conductor ladies and lady soldier-boys – but the appreciation for their services is not going to be long lasting. With this prophetic statement, the author calls on her fellow lady students at the University to be aware of the sad truth that after the war, their place in society will be demoted, and they will once again be subject to the dominance of men:

 

            The Glasgow News decrees that students

shall be ladies too.

We appreciate the compliment, as ladies

ought to do;

But we warn our fellow-ladies not to

count much on it, for

We’re but temporary ladies (for the duration

of the War).

 


 

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