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In researching the roles played by women during the First World War, I was keen that the display presented some of the less discussed roles women played and that it make the best use of the strengths of the Gallery’s collection. For this reason the selection of portraits shown in Women and the First World War predominantly features middle and upper class women who would have been able to afford to have their portraits taken and are therefore more prominent in the Gallery’s collection. The story of the working-class women’s contribution towards the war is touched upon with a series of postcards but there is certainly a great deal more that could be said about their work.

The Gallery’s displays are an opportunity to showcase objects in our collection that are not normally on permanent display and to explore themes that would not necessarily be made into larger exhibitions.

The selection I made sought to demonstrate the varied ways women contributed to the war effort, both at home and abroad. To pick out a few examples: Constance, Lady Baird received five war decorations for her work as a nurse and went on to become one of the most famous female yacht racers in the world. Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland was captured by the Germans soon after arriving in France with a Red Cross unit but managed to escape and continued to run the unit until the end of the war. Edith Champneys was a member of the Women’s Police Service (WPS) which was founded in 1914 to protect women in British cities from a perceived increase in immorality; she rose to the rank of Chief Inspector and continued in the role after the war. Flora Sandes, who fought alongside the Serbian army, holds the accolade of being the only British woman on record to serve as a soldier during the war.

A final mention should be given to Edith Cavell who features as a case study in the display. 2015 marks the hundredth anniversary of her execution after being found guilty of aiding the escape of Allied soldiers. She was raised to the status of a martyr by the British press and her memorial statue by Sir George Frampton can be seen opposite the entrance to the Gallery.

Not every story could be told in one display and one aspect which is notably missing is the role of women writers, many of whom served as nurses, such as Vera Brittain, Enid Bagnold and Mary Borden. Hopefully their story can be told in a future display.

The portraits of the twenty-three women in this display illustrate a variety of roles, from nurses, doctors and administrators to policewomen, football players and soldiers. Some had their war-time work recognised by national newspapers and became celebrity figures but most carried out their work quietly, returning to the roles of mother and wife after the war had ended.

Image credits

Constance Barbara (née Clarke), Lady Baird by H. Walter Barnett, 1914 (x45254)
Edith Champneys by Olive Edis, 1920s (x5744)
Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (née St Clair-Erskine), Duchess of Sutherland by Lallie Charles, 1906 (x68967)
Flora Sandes by Raphael Tuck & Sons, circa 1915 (x137838)
Edith Cavell by an unknown photographer, 1915 (x46560)
The unveiling of George Frampton's statue of Edith Cavell, by Reginald Silk, 1921 (x125691)


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09 October 2015, 17:43

Beautifully curated display including many previously unshown images of important women. especially good to see Olive Edison portrait of Lady Norman who arranged for Edis to be the only official woman photographer to travel to the war scenes in Europe. Timely inclusion of Edith Cavell one hundred years after her execution

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