Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month, observed every March to coincide with International Women’s Day, is a celebration of the contribution of Women to history. Here at Bury St Edmunds we have mounted an exhibition that draws our attention to some interesting aspects of women’s lives, using them to tell different histories.

Our exhibition focuses on diaries kept during times of war by three Suffolk women. Conventional wisdom tells us that war is men’s domain whilst peace is women’s. Keen to find out the “roles” women played during wartime, we are told that women stepped out of prescribed pre-war roles for the duration of the conflict into a time of change, emerging into the public sphere as if before the conflict they had no interest in the world around them.

The diary of Catherine Westcomb shows how close women could get to the action of the Crimean War. Following her husband, Lord Frederick Fitzroy, to Scutari Catherine appears to have had no difficulty moving around a place that has become infamous for disease and death. Her diary almost reads as a travel journal filed with tales of balls and dinner parties (HadminA513/11/93a).

Lady Frederick Fitzroy, late 19th cent (HA513/22/46)

Vicar’s daughter Evelyn Cockell of Eriswell, began to keep her diary just after the start of the First World War (HD1738). Strikingly Evelyn does not seem to give an opinion on the war or make any real reference to how the war is affecting her or anyone that she knows, we seem to learn more about how many times she has washed her hair. Arguably it is the ordinariness that makes her diary interesting.

Photograph of Evelyn Cockell of Eriswell, 1931 (HD1738/18)

Lady Winifred Magnay served in France with the YMCA in 1917, however her diaries that she kept during the first few years of the Second World War are arguably the most fascinating of the three (HD1369). They cover the crucial period of the Second World War, where for all intents and purposes, Britain stood alone. Invasion was a real possibility and although Winifred seems to have had some normality, the threat of this looms large over her writing.

Lady Magnay opening the exhibition of the replicas of the Crown Jewels, 15 Jun 1937 (K511/497)

Although these women come from different backgrounds their diaries allow us to see that rather than occupying a set role some women were just as interested in the politics and world view as the men. The diaries give us information on ideas of gender and class and show us the perspective of war from a woman’s point of view.  From these diaries it appears that in times of war, women’s lives have much more continuity than change.