One of the books that moved me most as a teenager was Vera Britten's Testimony of Youth. It is the story of her life and work as a VAD during the First World War. She tells how, by the end of the War to End All Wars, she had lost her brother, her fiance and almost every young man of her acquaintance. Yet she kept working as a nurse and saw some of the worst horrors of the wounds inflicted by the conflict. After the war was over she used her experience in the service of her political commitments. How, you wonder, did she accomplish all this and emerge as someone of sanity, vision, commitment and energy?
2014 is undoubtedly going to be a year of WW1 Memorials. Jeremy Paxman is already presenting his personal take on the war in a series of documentaries. If I am not going to get war-fatigue by the end of the year (and presumably we will have the same again in 2018) I feel I need to focus my own remembrances in some way, just as Vera used her own experience to launch and shape her future campaigns.
My grandfather fought at Passchendaele and came home one of the generation of very silent men. He would sit drumming his fingers and gazing into space for hours, as if in a place where no one could reach him - as indeed he probably was. My grandmother was fierce in her pride in what he had endured and her determination to work for something better. She was one of that idealistic generation who perhaps thought that, had women gained the vote earlier and therefore had more influence in the political arena, such a war could never have happened. (We might not share that rather naive optimism today, but I find I have to admire it.) I remember her telling me the story of the first Soroptimist meetings she attended. There was great excitement as his was a truly local and global movement, formed in 1921, with high ideals which included a vision for bringing professional women together to harness their skills and work on the international scene for peace. It grew out of the determination (ultimately unachievable) that the only way to honour the dead of the Great War was to work tirelessly to ensure that such a conflict would never happen again. The name, taken from the Latin soror (sister) and optimus (the best), signifies that these women would come together from across the world to bring about the best that could be achieved by and for women. They would seek peace, equality and international goodwill, ensuring that women and women's perspectives were represented at international level, initially through the League of Nations. Today the Soroptimist NGO has significant representation at the UN and works to create ways to transform the lives of women and girls and to bring about peace in war torn zones.
This week I have read so many stories of women being excluded or only partially included in talks that are set to bring about new political order - in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Egypt. I have also read about how the Central African Republic is bucking the trend in having Catherine Samba-Panza as its interim President; she has 'inherited a hellish legacy that leaves her trying to pull her country back from the brink of civil war,' (David Smith, The Observer here) So I thought that a good project for the blog, this year, will be to try to follow the fortunes of some of these groups and individuals throughout the year. How far are women realistically able to shape government after conflict and civil war? Has their influence grown and do they bring anything distinctive to the table?