To mark International Women’s Day, our guest blogger, Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Jenny Abramsky, talks about how Lottery money is uncovering fascinating stories of women in the First World War.
Much has been said about how the First World War dramatically changed the fortunes of women both here in the UK and across the world. Perhaps the most high-profile is how the war directly led to the introduction of the vote for women over 30 in the UK in 1918. But what are less well known are the incredible experiences and contributions of women during the conflict not just at home, but also on the frontline.
From all walks of life
As we approach the Centenary of the First World War, it seems timely to recognise the many achievements and sacrifices of women who lived, worked and in many cases died during this tumultuous period of our history. They came from all walks of life – they were wives, mothers, daughters and sisters – but most of all they were inspirational.
When we launched HLF’s First World War; then and now small grants , I really hoped that the array of projects we supported would include some which explored the role of women and uncovered new stories and viewpoints.
However, I’ve been taken aback by sheer breadth and variety of the fascinating stories that are already emerging.
For instance, the Yorkshire Farming Museum’s Feeding the Nation project is celebrating the remarkable achievement of the Women’s Land Army which saw thousands of women take to the fields when the country sat on the brink of starvation. Elsewhere, local people in Avonmouth and Chittening are finding out about the incredibly dangerous job performed by women working in local mustard gas factories who were at risk of debilitating injuries, illness and sometimes death.
The little-known story of local Dorset woman Mabel Stobart also really caught my attention. She was an exceptional woman who in her mid-fifties led a team of female medical volunteers to help care for the Serbian people during the retreat of the Serbian army in 1915. She undertook a relentless 800 mile journey through snow-covered mountains to the Albanian coast – a journey lasting ten weeks in which she was accompanied by one hundred thousand soldiers and many thousands of civilian refugees fleeing their villages before they fell to pursuing enemy troops, just a few miles behind.
Stobart was motivated by bettering the lot of women. A supporter of the Suffragette movement, she firmly believed that women should earn the vote by demonstrating they were as valuable to society as men. Her amazing story is being told through an exhibition at the Dorset County Museum from the end of May. I have no doubt there are many thousands of fascinating stories just like these waiting to be discovered and shared – not only about women of course – but important stories nevertheless which will give us fresh insights on how people’s experiences a hundred years ago affect us all today.
If you would like to find out how to apply for an HLF grant, please take a look at our website and follow us on twitter @heritagelottery #understandingWW1