By Elsie Dwyer, Calgary Martin, and Abra Stokowski
Various magazines during and immediately following the first World War dealt with gender in a variety of ways, both subtle and explicit. While publications like Blast sought outright to affirm specific essentialist beliefs about both men’s and women’s roles during wartime, others, like The Owl, shied away from making overt political statements. However, even within the pages of The Owl and similar magazines with a strictly literary mission, like Poetry and the Sitwells’ Wheels, gender roles were often explored and re-imagined. While male poets like W.J. Turner depicted female objects as symbolic of the innocence and harmony which was lost as a result of the war, female poets like Edith Sitwell and Iris Tree defied Blast creator Wyndham Lewis’s view of women’s domestic roles during wartime, by writing poems with female speakers whose interior lives are far richer than Lewis’s or even Turner’s simplistic, essentialist vision would allow. Further, essays in The New Age, such as Alice Morning’s piece “The Enemy in the House,” imagined roles for women as dissenters who could affect the war’s outcome despite being removed from the action and relegated to the home.
Blast magazine, and Vorticism in general, was male dominated. The magazine’s general impression of the war was that it was a necessary fight for the country of England and for the freedom of art. On the contrary, the magazine’s impression of women was that they had a very specific role in society, and very little to do with war, a concept that the editors believed women could not possibly understand due to the fundamental differences between the genders. Blast’s July 1916 issue is called the War Number and is dedicated almost exclusively to World War I. It speaks openly about the war, discussing it explicitly and implicitly in essays and poems. The masculine magazine establishes a pro-war agenda immediately, and leaves no question of allegiance.
In Wyndham Lewis’ piece “The European War and Great Communities,” he analyzes specifically what brought on the war. He also examines what makes men fight, deciding that it is a fundamental need for their gender, as they have had to fight for their lives for centuries and will continue to have to do so in the future. He explains that it does not matter what they fight about, or who is correct, because “they are as willing to fight for one immediate thing as another, under these circumstances; since, ‘life is the only thing that matters,’ and it is for life both sides fight, and therefore both are right,” (No. 2, page16). He asserts that war will never go away, for as long as men vie for power as communities, which they inevitably will, there will always be war. In proclaiming this he begins to explore gender roles.
Murder and destruction is man’s fundamental occupation. Women’s function, the manufacturing of children (even more important than cartridges and khaki suits) is only important from this point of view, and they evidently realize this thoroughly. It takes the deft women we employ anything from twelve to sixteen years to fill and polish these little human cartridges, and they of course get fond of them in the process. However, all this is not our fault, and is absolutely necessary. We only begin decaying like goods kept too long, if we are not killed or otherwise disposed of. Is not this a proof of our function? (17)
Ignoring the fact that women also age and “decay,” Lewis decides that this is a woman’s only role in war: to make male babies that will eventually entrench themselves in battle to serve their primary duty. He goes on to state that women, due to the basal differences between the genders and thus their different roles in society, will never understand war. “I overheard two ladies the other day conversing on this subject, and one, with an immense jaw, flabby cheeks, and otherwise very large, said: ‘It is such a waste of good human flesh!’” (17) Other than in the production of soldiers, women have no role in war because they cannot understand the duty that drives men to fight.
One of the few female Vorticists, Jessie Dismorr, writes about wartime London in the same July issue of Blast, in a piece entitled “London Notes.” She writes about the ways in which public meeting places in London were completely unaffected by the fighting that raged on around them. Describing the places and people in rather grotesque terms, she does not mention the war. She merely makes implications by ignoring it, in the same way that regular citizens tried to ignore it. The war was not an issue for The Reading Room or Fleet Street. These were not literally the battlegrounds. She describes Hyde Park saying,
[A]ll the morning women sit sewing and knitting, their monotonous occupation accompanying the agreeable muddle of their thoughts. In the Row. Vitality civilized to a needles-point; highly-bred men and horses pass swiftly in useless delightful motion; women walk enamoured of their own accomplished movements. (66)
Despite being a woman, Dismorr sticks to the agenda of the magazine. She describes women in wartime as being mostly useless, and all but thoughtless. The men are well bred and on horseback. Calling to mind images of battle, they are described as being almost heroic. Though they are not literally at war, they seem to possess the same qualities of the men at war. The women sit and knit, thinking frivolous things, and find it difficult to walk and think at the same time. They cannot understand the concept of war, if questions about war even occur to them at all. They stick to their sewing, and their subordinate role as the mothering twits of society.
While there is little mention at all of feminism or suffrage in the English magazine Blast, American bred Scribner’s magazine has many essays and stories about the movement. These pieces, however, do not tend to coincide with anything about the Great War. It was evidentially the view of the editors of both magazines that a woman’s role in war was at home, where they desperately missed their husbands, who were fighting out of a sense of masculine duty. “The Misgivings of a Male Suffragette” is an anonymously written piece appearing in the October 1915 issue of Scribner’s. It is about a male feminist wondering in which direction the suffrage movement is heading. He begins by explaining that his wife Mary is a suffragette. She convinces him to go to a parade in honor of their movement, telling him that a friend of hers, Mrs. Watson, is also going but has not told her husband. Mary hopes that the writer will come just in case Watson finds out what his wife is doing, as the writer will be able to calm the angry husband down. (He is, in fact, Watson’s superior at work, and also on a membership committee for a club Watson would like to be involved with.) The writer explains how Watson’s wife eventually came clean about the scenario, and how Watson joined the cause. Ultimately, the writer is impressed with the success of his wife’s plan. “As far as it goes it is stupendously efficient, the feminine way of doing things!” (Volume 58, no. 4, page 494) The writer implies that diplomacy, the attempt to avoid conflict, is inherently feminine. Indeed later, when a policeman speaking to the writer says that he is willing to “give” women the vote, Mary becomes infuriated, saying that they will not have it given to them; they will take it. As the writer puts it, he had “never seen [his] wife look more handsome.” (496). When his wife demonstrates the will to fight, he begins to see her as masculine. He goes on to struggle with the fact that he thinks the same way that the policeman did. As a man, he envisioned himself giving the vote to women, who would otherwise not be allowed it. While the writer seems to embrace feminism as an ideal, he cannot wrap his mind around men and women being equal. To him their differences naturally and bodily prevent such a thing. They are not equal. Women have children and men fight. After a lengthy argument that higher taxes discourage women from having more children, he comes to the conclusion that children are work, and are in fact the work that women so desperately seek. He discusses this theory with Mr. Watson, who adds to the argument the dynamic of what war does to women:
‘It explains why in England they have militants. The colonization of the empire has drained the home country of its men, leaving upward of a million women who haven't a ghost of a show even for a husband.’ A slow grin wreathed his face. ‘And the real war-cry of the suffragettes, as they roll bombs beneath the great chair of the prime minister is: '’Give us back our husbands! Give us back our husbands!’ (500)
In their eyes even suffragettes find little value in their lives outside of their domestic lives, and with their husbands away they find little value in the war. Like the editors and contributors of Blast, this writer seems to find that women have one role in society in a time of war: to be home waiting for their husbands to arrive back. They have no concept of why the war is important, and they have no palpable role in battle.
One of the most obvious roles of women on the battlegrounds is that of army nurse. With this in mind, one might expect to see some mention of these vital cogs in the war machine in a Scribner’s piece called “War-Time Sketches in France.” Appearing in the June 1916 issue, the piece is an essay by Herbert Ward, accompanied by the writer’s drawings. The main subject is soldiers and the soldiers’ stories. A harsh look at the atrocities of battle, the writer often discusses the backdrop of the beautiful French countryside against which the dreadful fighting is taking place. Despite mentioning ambulances, doctors, and hospital shelters, there is no mention of women on the frontlines. In fact, there is only one mention of women at all throughout the entire essay, which comes after a description of the gorgeous land marred by battle: “I have had occasion to read some of the letters of these splendid, simple French soldiers, written under shell and rifle fire, wherein they actually described the beauty of the sunrise to their womenfolk at home” (Vol. 59, no. 6, page 679). Even when women were tangibly involved in the war effort they were ignored, and their rightful place was thought to be at home.
While magazines like Blast and Scribner’s were defining or even ignoring women's roles during the war, the engagement of such issues in publications like The Owl and Wheels was less explicit. The former, which distributed two issues at the close of the war in 1919, and another in 1923, purported itself to "ha[ve] no politics and lead no new movements" (The Owl, no. 1, page 5). As such, the war, no doubt on the minds of both The Owl's authors and readership regardless of any mission statement, infiltrated the magazine in more subtle ways: various pieces expressed a longing for a return to innocence and carefree beauty, while others were characterized by feelings of darkness and fear. "Petunia" by W.J Turner, from the October 1919 issue, relates the speaker/poet's vision of a future daughter he will call Petunia, who will
dance, her small face
So bright that no sorrow'll befall her.
From this dark pot of earth, from this sun-clouded hollow
Like a rainbow she'll spring and a blue sky shall follow"
(No. 1, pages 10-12)
This “dark pot of earth" and "sun-clouded hollow" may easily represent the climate of hopelessness and gloom created by the war; consequently, Petunia becomes an emblem of hope for a less complicated future, one that is "bright" and free of sorrow. Turner also envisions Petunia to be a lover of the natural world, of a more primitive and carefree existence. Imagining that he will teach his daughter "the songs of Apollo," he goes on to describe the cult of the sun god, whose disciples are "white-armed maidens/ Sing[ing] in the soft dusks of summer." Contrary to a world marred by the violence and destruction of war, the picture he paints of his daughter represents not only the hope for a lighter, more joyful existence, but also for a return to the fertile simplicity of a life in harmony with nature. The worshippers of Apollo with whom he associates Petunia and in “the green” of whose eyes and “tresses,/ The forests of ocean are blowing,” are further described as personifications of that harmony. The fact that the poem has projected all this hope onto a female child rather than a male one is significant when one considers the masculinist attitudes (like those prevailing in Blast) which motivate war. Petunia represents a kind of mystical femininity, a source of magic “that flows up at dawn/ Out of earth’s darkness leaping” (No. 1, page 11) which can renew the poet, who envisions himself “wrinkled and worn,” as a symbolic representative of the war-torn world.
Another interesting example from The Owl 2, of feminine associations with nature, can be found in a drawing by Pamela Bianco entitled “Fairyland.” This drawing affirms the Blast position of a woman’s place in times of war: Bianco depicts the two central figures, both female, as stereotypic earth mothers, attired in clothes adorned with details from the natural world, and as caretakers, surrounded by naked, unself-conscious babies with angel wings. This is a scene of peace and tranquility, with absolutely no associations or references to war whatsoever. However, as with Turner’s poem and any work published during a war, the violent climate at the time of publication must be considered. While the war raged outside the pages of the magazine, this illustration represents an ideal in contrast with reality. Additionally, as Turner’s vision of his future daughter Petunia expresses a desire to return to a less complicated, innocent state of being, the appearance of Bianco’s painting immediately following the poem suggests a relationship between the two. Indeed, the painting may easily be viewed as a visual representation of the world Turner imagines for Petunia: that is to say, a place in the future, a kind of utopia, which embodies ideals from the past. The gowns worn by the women in the painting are in the Victorian style and reference a less complicated time, of a pastoral lifestyle, of fertility and harmony with nature. The absence of men in this utopia is significant: war, quite clearly depicted as the domain of men in magazines throughout the era, like Blast and even Scribner’s which aligned itself with suffragist/feminist politics, is inextricably linked with the masculine; as such, the female figures in Bianco’s painting, depicted in wreaths of flowers, with leaves traveling up their skirts and bodices, represent a rejection of masculinist ideals and the war. Rather, the ideal is represented here as it is in Turner’s poem: a celebration of the mystical feminine, of joy and harmony in nature, of peace precluding discord.
Although themes of female gender and the war were touched on opaquely in The Owl, the magazine noticeably lacked any female authorship to express the opinions and feelings of women themselves during the war. Wheels, however, featured woman poets regularly, particularly the work of Edith Sitwell and Iris Tree. Contrasting with the view of women as frivolous beings whose only occupation during wartime lies within the domestic sphere, Sitwell’s poem “The Mother”, from the March 1917 issue, presents a more complicated view of motherhood. While the presence of children in Turner’s and Bianco’s work ostensibly represents fertility, growth, innocence, tranquility and is, for writers like Wyndham Lewis, emblematic of women’s true role in wartime, Sitwell both reaffirms this trope and destroys it. She admits that the birth of her son was a time of great joy heralding “the spring,” “birds,” and blossoms,” and releasing streams from “winter run,” but goes on to lament the loss of the child as he grows to manhood (Vol. 1, page 48). During their time together, in the boy’s youth, his “sunlit hair was all [her] gold,” but when he becomes a man, he leaves her empty and resentful of the female lover who has come to take her place in the child’s life. This retelling of women’s roles in the lives of their children defies the simplistic, rather disdainful view taken by masculinist authors like Lewis, who saw women’s roles in the domestic sphere as inferior to the great acts performed by men in war. While women were expected by society to devote their lives to the rearing of children, the speaker in Sitwell’s poem explores the interior world of the mother, and the physical and emotional realities of those expectations, which are characterized by feelings of abandonment and a lost sense of self. When her child becomes a man, the poet imagines that her son plots to “kill her while [she] slept,” merely in his decision to leave her protection and take a lover. “The Mother” is a poem which paints women’s lives during this period of war and upheaval as equally marred by violence and loss as those of their fighting male counterparts. No longer occupied by the all-consuming demands of parenting, the speaker, as the mother of a grown child, must nagivate her way through a world in which she no longer serves any purpose: no longer actively functioning as a mother, she considers herself already dead, yet forever haunted by the memory of her beloved child, whose name her “pierced heart scream[s] …within the dark” of her barren existence (49). Another possible reading of the poem casts the mother’s enemy, not as a female lover, but as the world itself, in which wars are fought and sons are murdered. The poem closes with the mother’s lament that she has failed her child, whose body hangs like a “blackened rag/ Upon the tree—a monstrous flag” (50). In this reading, the mother is consumed by her grief and feels responsible for her failure to protect the child she loved with so much of her being. She says, “All mine, all mine the sin; the love/ I bore him was not deep enough.” In this way, the death the mother experiences comes as a result of her child’s death; she has failed the son and thus finds no more joy in living. Regardless of women’s expected or prescribed passivity during times when men fought for their countries and their homes, Sitwell’s poem makes explicit the anguish and violence that women experience, regardless, even as they are kept at a distance from the fighting.
Another poem written by a female and published in the fourth cycle of Wheels, which came out in 1919, is Iris Tree’s “Changing Mirrors.” Like Sitwell, Tree complicates conventional views of women in the post-war era. Her poem depicts a scene in which the speaker (presumably female) sees herself “in many different dresses,” each representing different facets of her personality and desires (No. 4, page 48). Interestingly enough, none of the speaker’s visions of herself include motherhood. Instead, she constructs a female identity which consists of a variety of other types, specifically “poisoners, martyrs, harlots and princesses.” Just as the above-mentioned authors in both Wheels and The Owl opaquely reference the dark climate of the world associated with the war, Tree’s speaker refers to a “grey” world “where solemn faces/ are silence to [her] mirth—a flame that blesses/ From yellow lamp the darkness which oppresses.” While the world around her is one of darkness, the female speaker is not consumed by it. Rather, the current of despair and oppression affects her just as it affects anyone, male or female, declaring: “Within my soul a thousand weary traces/ Of pain and joy and passionate excesses.” Like Sitwell, Tree imagines for her female speaker a deep interior life which belies the view that women were uncomplicated beings, incapable of fully understanding the ramifications of the war being fought by men. Unlike Sitwell’s poem, however, Tree’s is rather universal, speaking of a world in which all people, not just women or men exclusively, experience the same kinds of happiness and sorrow. Her speaker, shifting through different moods and feelings throughout her life, symbolized by her ever-changing dresses, considers not only herself but all beings when she names, in her conclusion, the “eternal beauty our [emphasis mine] brief life chases.” By exploring, however simply, the interior life of a woman, otherwise neglected and simplified by male authors of the war and post-war era, Tree simultaneously equalizes her female subject with its male counterparts. The poem asserts that joy and pain are emotions experienced by all creatures and contradicts the notion that either feeling is essentially male or essentially female.
In Poetry, as in The Owl and Wheels, gender and war are not topics addressed together directly at length, although both are ostensibly present in the minds of the poets whose writing filled the publication. When the two subjects are at play simultaneously, the consideration of both war and gender is very subtle: women often appear as caretakers, lovers, mothers, and subjects of adoration, which gives hints of how women’s roles were primarily defined, even in war times. So, in poems about female figures, the war is presented as a non-subject around which the woman’s role molds itself, but does not enter into. On the other hand, poems which do deal with the war directly, tend to be about men, and are written by men. One poem in which the female viewpoint of war’s effects can be seen in a January 1914 poem titled “A Woman and Her Dead Husband.” The poem hauntingly describes a woman addressing her deceased husband directly, apparently from their own bed, with the cause of his death left entirely ambiguous. Perhaps his death was due to war. If not, however, the focus in the poem is upon death, a war-time subject, and the poem is actually written by a male, D. H. Lawrence, who maybe imagines the reverberation of a soldier’s potential death through his household. The subject of this poem is a reflection of the idea, reiterated so often in Blast and Scribner’s, that a woman has no direct role in the battles herself, although her own role, as lover and wife, may be entirely destroyed by her husband’s death. The pleas of the woman to her husband, asking if he is playing a joke on her, being so cold and pale, serves to magnify the horror and sympathy the reader feels for the woman.
Another poem from Poetry was published in August of 1918, and is titled “To a Grey Dress.” In this poem, gender roles are more pronounced, and the subject of World War I is not present except for in the very conspicuousness of its absence. In the piece, a woman whose face is never seen is admired by a male as she walks through the trees: just a gray dress and the curves which fill the garment. The man watching her is thrown into fantasies based simply upon the femininity of her figure, although her identity is entirely unknown. The tone of the poem is one of happy distraction, and even the title itself is playful in its slight absurdity. This is another example of women’s perceived roles during World War I: as figures of joyous, simple preoccupation, creatures who stand apart from the violence of the battle, although nameless and faceless, without identities of their own.
While Poetry considered the conflict in a more indirect and emotional fashion, another magazine, The New Age often featured articles which addressed the war in a more theoretical way. The New Age included opinion pieces, reviews, and creative writing, and two such articles in the magazine were published by Alice Morning. The first was included in January of 1916, and was a quite heavy-handed allegorical tale called “Feminine Fables: The Style of the Peri.” The story describes a female angel who is banished from Paradise for one day, due to missing the closing of the gate at dawn. It was assumed that if an angel is late, he or she was committing an indiscretion while visiting the mortals. Rather than sulking over her temporary banishment, the angel declares, “I shall not walk in solitude around this idiotic style!” referring to the “distorting column” around which the excluded are expected to pace in distress (Vol. 7, no. 4, page 257). In the lone paragraph of the story which diverges from the symbolic tone, the author’s voice seems to shine through with passion, stating that similar punishments exist in the world of mortals: men, like the Peris--and like the devil, Morning adds--only punish what is detected. Had the angel been committing indiscretions, but returned on time, there would have been no punishment. Having missed the dawn, it is assumed that she was engaged in disallowed behavior. Whether this refers to lack of loyalty to one’s country is unclear, but it seems that a political and perhaps gender-based unfairness is being pointed out by Morning. The angel is described as exceedingly feminine, with a full bust, wide hips, jewelry, and the pouting tone of a spoiled child. In the end, however, the angel makes peace with her fate and feels “very good friends with herself.” (258) The independence of the angel is contrasted with the entitled and flippant attitude with which Morning generally characterizes this very feminine creature, suggesting perhaps a changing sense of female identity.
Another article by Morning was published in June of 1916, an essay about the terrors of war, called “The Enemy in the House.” In this piece, Morning argues that the so-called "impotent horror" (Vol. 8, no. 3, page160) of war needs to be transformed into “horror potent” (161). This outcry against war, she writes, most naturally comes from women themselves, who provide a kind of check on violence by voicing their objections. That, she argues, is a woman’s role during war: as a protester. Under no circumstances should women mingle freely and routinely among scenes of violence. She believes that a woman’s horrified reaction to violence is the key to preventing barbarism. In writing this article, with confidence and an outspoken quality, the author asserts her ability to form her own opinions and hold them firmly. However, the role which she advocates for women is rather stereotypical. While the piece affirms a woman’s ability to think independently, ultimately her ideas about women’s roles away from the violence and action of war do not defy convention.
Clearly, gender proved, as ever, to be a complicated, even contentious issue both during and after the Great War. While some male authors persisted in their belief that women could not serve any useful purpose outside the home and were thus inferior to the valorous men who risked their lives to protect their countries, other writers sought to depict women in less benign ways: as symbols of the very peace and freedom of spirit which male soldiers fought for. Less romantically, female authors depicted women as mere humans whose emotions and interior lives were as rich as their brave male counterparts. Regardless, or perhaps as result of the divergent and often dichotomous positions taken by writers and artists of the time, the “little magazines” provide an interesting glimpse into the interplay between men and women as they struggled to reconcile their evolving roles in a world forever changed by the four-year war.