As a ‘70s kid I grew up on a diet of Saturday afternoon war movies. Each week John Wayne or some other squared-jawed bloke would be on the TV fighting the enemy and saving the day.

It was mostly American or English WWII fare and the characters were pretty stock-standard: heroic allies fighting for freedom, liberty etc, etc. And dastardly Germans of varying degrees of badness: totally evil, followers of the totally evil, or blundering nincompoops.

But where were the women in these male-driven flicks? From memory they were relegated to supporting parts: the devoted wife, the selfless nurse, or the wicked Mata Hari-type taking advantage of our courageous boys. They were often just cardboard cut-outs who weren’t really there.

When we were developing the Women’s War exhibit, one of the first things to get to grips with was how, using personal narrative and minimal voiceover, we could show the diversity of women’s wartime experiences both here and abroad; this was to be a cardboard cut-out free zone.

After a fair bit of head-scratching and whiteboard scribbling we decided to choose six archetypal women: The Pioneer, Patriot, Entertainer, Nurse, Worker, and Wife/Mother/Sister/Daughter. We wanted to have them ‘talk’ to, and at times ‘argue’ with, each other across the exhibition space.

The plan was to find quotes from women and girls to illustrate, for example, that one mother’s experience was not necessarily like the next, that the chance to work on the family farm while the men were away would be liberating for some and soul destroying for others. In other words, these war-time women were anything but characters from central casting, but individuals with their own story.

Ettie Rout  Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-4832

Ettie Rout

Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-4832

Alright, we had a plan! Now there was the small matter of finding our women’s voices.  

Cue visits to that researchers’ Shangri la, the Turnbull Library, where we found one hundred-year-old nursing magazines containing letters from women serving on the frontlines describing the carnage they saw. We found books recording safe sex campaigner Ettie Route’s frank assertions that the government must acknowledge the troops were – surprise, surprise – going to have sex and should therefore be given condoms.

And we found letters from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union absolutely horrified by Ettie’s suggestions that their boys could possibly be interested in getting familiar with foreign women. Please, say it isn’t so.

Annie Montgomerie  Courtesy of Susanna Montgomerie Norris and Otago University Press

Annie Montgomerie

Courtesy of Susanna Montgomerie Norris and Otago University Press

Once we started digging one of the things that stood out was that in their letters and diaries women spoke mostly of the pretty ordinary stuff of day-to-day life. Annie Montgomerie, who moved her entire family to London after her two elder sons joined up, filled her diary with a mix of funny, sometimes cutting, observations about her temporary home. She wrote about her shopping trips, her worries about her sons, visits to the theatre, and her frustration with the military top brass. Bombs, bullets and the relentless fighting at the front were the backdrop of Annie’s war, but not always the sole focus.

When we started our search for our women we were not totally sure what we’d find – would we get enough to flesh out our archetypes? What we ended up with was an embarrassment of riches that had to be whittled down to tell this varied, complex story in a few short minutes.

Once that whittling was done our women’s voices created a dialogue that spoke of the mundaneness, the liberation, the brutality, the adventure, the fun, and the gut-wrenching grief of their war.

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