Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in War and Peace 1939–1949

Joanna Bourke delves into the lives of women during the Second World War and its aftermath

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Reviewed by: Joanna Bourke
Author: Virginia Nicholson
Publisher: Viking
Price (RRP): £25

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On VE Day, 8 May 1945, Marguerite Patten kissed dozens of strange men in the streets of London.

Joan Wyndham treated herself to tinned fruit salad washed down with gin, danced until her stockings were in ribbons, and then, with great gusto, sang Land of Hope and Glory. Mary Angove simply roared out “YOOOO-HOOOOO!!!”

The war in Europe was over. For these women and millions like them, the statement that “nothing would be the same again” was no cliché. But their hopes that the transformation of society was going to be a positive one were ultimately dashed.

Eight million women had found employment during the war: by 1946, this number had fallen by two million. Social expectations, fear, and lack of education led many women to attempt to return to their prewar identities.

But the war had driven the sexes apart. Returning husbands were strangers. They were suspicious of what ‘their’ women had ‘got up to’.

Divorce was rife. Austerity, high unemployment, and the housing shortage placed unbearable demands on relationships.

In the words of one woman: “When their war ended, our war began.” In the years prior to VE Day, though, the needs of wartime could greatly enhance women’s personal freedoms.

In this new book, Virginia Nicholson tells the stories of women who lived in Britain during the Second World War. She explores their reactions to the declaration of war, rationing, romance, aerial bombardment, and their own military service. As the war spread, they had no option but to cope with the dreaded news that their loved ones had been taken prisoner, wounded, or killed.

Stoicism could be maintained for long periods, only to suddenly evaporate. Tears were contagious.

Thus, a young woman called Pip recalled that one day at the choir practice for the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) one of their members suddenly burst into tears and fled from the room. Soon, other members of the choir had broken down.

In Pip’s words: “A piercing sense of sadness flooded through me, causing my voice to break and my eyes to fill… I too made for the corridor, where I sobbed my heart out.”

Nicholson is an accomplished writer, seamlessly blending a more conventional historical narrative with emotional stories about everyday lives. Many times, I yearned for more grit – the women in her book come across as altogether too nice – but Nicholson is keen to present the lives of these women through their own eyes and according to their own assessments.

As such, it is an eloquent testimony to the longings of women in the decade after 1939. 

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Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, London, and author of Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present (Virago, 2008)