Negotiating Identities in Britain During the Second World War
‘Total War on Spiritual Issues’: English feminists, Christian national identity and gender equality in wartime Britain
Relatively little is known about the intersections between faith, religious identity and feminism during the Second World War; a lacuna in British women’s history which can be traced back to assumptions that religion was antithetical to women’s emancipation. Yet more recent historical scholarship by Jacqueline deVries, Sue Morgan, and others has pointed to the need for historians to ‘overcome simplistic assumptions about religion’s conservative influence’ and shift away from viewing religion as a ‘hopelessly patriarchal institution and a primary source of oppressive domestic ideology.’1 The archival records of English feminists and organisations from the Second World War indicate a widespread interest in women’s religious identity and equality and there were two significant milestones in the development of women’s church work during the war: the 1942 creation of a female ‘chaplaincy’ to serve all women’s forces, including chaplains’ assistants for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the wartime women’s branch of the British army, and the 1944 ordination of the first female priest within the Anglican Communion in war-torn China.2 Addressing the former, this chapter elucidates the way in which both gender and religious ← 185 | 186 → identities shaped what English feminists were fighting for during the war and, also, the manner in which new opportunities and exigencies created by warfare emphasised both the ‘centrality of gender difference to the nation’3 and the persistence and relevance of English Christian national identity4 to many English in a century traditionally perceived as overwhelmingly secular. This chapter will use the female ‘chaplaincy’ scheme to...
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