Women & War: From the Fringes to the Front Line is a new exhibition opening on 03 June to 10 September 2023 at Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock.
Women & War will explore the diverse experiences of women who have been involved with all aspects of military life, from the ‘fringes’ of history to those now taking on frontline roles in the armed forces today – using unique, personal stories, pen portraits of women in historical and modern roles feature throughout.
Museum Director, Ursula Corcoran, explains: “This new exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to mark and commemorate those women who have lived through and served in conflict. The objects and stories on display give a voice to women, who are often not centre stage when we think of war. There are stories not only of suffering and loss but also of duty, innovation, friendship and love. We are extremely grateful to all of the organisations and individual women who have contributed so generously to the exhibition.”
From 1941, women were called up for war work in roles such as mechanics, engineers, munitions workers, air raid wardens, and bus and fire engine drivers. Away from these vital roles, more than 80,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army, ‘Land Girls’, enduring tough conditions and long hours in isolated rural outposts in order to prevent Britain from being ‘starved out’. Others would join women’s auxiliary units of the Armed Forces, such as the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Women’s Royal Naval Service and Auxiliary Territorial Service.
A number of objects, on loan from individuals and organisations that have also shared their stories for the exhibition, will go on show at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum for the first time. These include an Air Transport Auxiliary jacket which belonged to Mary Watkins of Leafield, Oxfordshire, who took her flying lessons in Witney. She was the youngest pilot in the county when she began in 1937. Her story will be told with thanks to Maidenhead Heritage Centre and ATA Museum.
A series of letters and a pair of officer’s gloves belonging to Rev. Elsie Chamberlain, on loan from the Royal Army Chaplains’ Museum, help illustrate the story of the first female Chaplain in the RAF, whose appointment sparked protest from both the RAF and the Church of England in 1946. Her name was originally excluded from RAF lists, and her service was concealed.
In the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Churchill recruited around 60 women “to set Europe ablaze”. They were deployed behind enemy lines, usually by parachute or fishing boats, to help form a ‘secret army’ of resistance fighters preparing the way for the Allied invasion. Objects used during the war by women recruited by SOE will also once again go on display at the museum, having last been on show during the popular Spy Oxfordshire exhibition in 2021, including a radio receiver concealed inside a biscuit tin.
Women continued to play a vital role after the war, and over the last two decades, women have taken on more jobs in the British Army. Since 2018, all Army roles have been open to them. This includes combat roles in the infantry and special forces units.
But even before that, many female soldiers had been serving on the front line and in war zones across the world. Away from the front line, women have taken on positions and broken down the barriers in what were once male-dominated roles in MI5 and MI6 – the UK’s Security Service and Secret Service.
Members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), founded in 1907, most famously played significant roles in the SOE during the Second World War but remain active today. Members of the FANY have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as providing vital support during disasters, terrorist attacks and crises at home in the UK.
“We turn up to help; whenever needed”, said Jessica Lakin, who joined the FANY in 2002. She describes the most impactful experience of her service as recent as “three months in 2017 when I mobilised for four disasters. The crescendo-ing emotional effect of assisting after the Westminster Bridge attack, Borough Market attack, Manchester Arena bomb and then the Grenfell fire, was impactful.”