To commemorate the role Romanian and British women played in the First World War, the Romanian Cultural Institute recently hosted a panel discussion with journalists and scholars to complement their current exhibition of the same name. With the occasion of this year’s Romanian centenary, the event explored how women contributed to the achievement of a national dream both at home and on the battlefield: a united Greater Romania.
Historian and former BBC correspondent Katie Adie marshalled the evening’s discussion with a journalistic instinct for the piquant story: she spoke of women getting married in trousers on the front, of the infamous ‘baggage trains’ that provided material of all types for soldiers’ needs, and of Elsie Ingles, the first female surgeon, who was filmed operating on a man in Romania. Adie emphasised the wave of protests against women’s emancipation from the time’s great decision makers, hesitant and mistrusting of women who ventured out of the domestic sphere, including female employment in the ammunition industry and separate corps established for women soldiers.
Lucy Noakes, a professor at Essex University specialising in feminism and war, convincingly argued that total war ‘involves every aspect of the nation’. Generally, the outlook shared by all panelists was that of a more realistic and less-discussed portrait of history than what has often been dramatized and distorted through the Hollywood lens. Professor Alin Ciupală, a specialist in modern Romanian history at the University of Bucharest, noted that women who ventured out of the domestic sphere were constantly subjected to prejudice based on moral grounds – that it was ‘indecent’ for them to occupy themselves with anything but home-making. Despite the general consensus with a statement presented by Ecaterina Lung, professor of ancient history and medieval studies at the University of Bucharest, that Romania’s agrarian-patriarchal society could have regenerated much more easily had men not re-appropriated all public roles after returning from war, the discussion’s general overview was optimistic. After all, Romania was the only country in Southeast Europe that achieved what it had entered the war for: it simultaneously experienced women’s increasing public visibility and the national independendence of a united Romania.
The panel provided a stimulating discussion throughout, in which the academics helped to ground the journalists’ charismatic and dynamic story-telling – an entertaining and informative mixture, which made for a diverting evening. Though it woud have been interesting to hear more about individual figures like Queen Marie of Romania, who played a significant role in female emancipation in the early twentieth century, the discussion was geared towards women’s independence as a general phenomenon, which didn’t leave much space for individual biographies.
For anyone keen to learn even more about women and the Great War at home, the evening also featured a dual book launch with Alin Ciupală’s Romania during World War I. Allies, Opponents and Propaganda. An Illustrated History, a compilation of rare photographs and complementary texts and Katie Adie’s Fighting on the Home Front. The Legacy of Women in World War One, which traces the role of British women in the Great War.
The accompanying exhibition, also called ‘War, Feminine: Women and the Great War’, narrates the Romanian centenary through a series of illustrated panels and a documentary. It’s at once informative and compelling, especially for history lovers, fans of unique interdisciplinary perspectives, and lovers of vintage design, too. With panels like ‘Women and War Propaganda’, ‘Grace in Uniform’ and ‘Romanian Women on the Home Front’ photographs, cartoons, colourful propaganda posters and political commentaries bring to life the intense discussions about women’s role in society in the early twentieth century.
Overall, ‘War, Feminine’ makes clear just how extraordinary an event the Great War was for women’s independence at a time when women weren’t even allowed to discuss politics. The reminder that the very word ‘woman’ carries so much weight and pliability, and is continuously charged with meaning, continues to be grappling even in the centenary year. How do we discuss a nuanced issue after a century that contained women’s greatest achievements in history? The question hangs in the air today, awaiting redevelopment in the 21st century. Not without a tinge of bitterness, ‘War, Feminine’ reminds us that necessity is the mother of invention and development and that Great War women clearly were a far more encompassing political and social necessity than they were given credit for.