Last year, I reviewed Caroline Lea’s debut novel When the Sky Fell Apart, which looks at the occupation of Jersey in the Second World War. When Caroline appeared at Jersey Festival of Words, along with local historian, Ian Ronayne, it was the story of the women, of those accused of being collaborators, that really interested me. To celebrate the paperback publication of When the Sky Fell Apart, I’m delighted that Caroline’s written a guest post on women in the war.
War is very often a male domain, or so history would have us believe. The narratives about war—taught in schools and retold around tables—routinely focus on stories of male heroism and sacrifice. But this is often not the case in occupied territories, where it is usually women who remain to resist the invading forces, however they can. The fight on domestic turf can be quieter; the strategies are more varied, but the struggle is just as heroic.
Jersey was occupied by German forces from June 1940 to May 1945. 12,000 soldiers invaded—for every four islanders, there was a gun-wielding German. Many of the local men had joined up to fight on the mainland, so the population primarily comprised of those who were too old, too sick or too weak to fight. Women were plunged into caring for their children in a world that was horrifyingly unrecognisable. Food became scarce, and the familiar routines of domestic life were increasingly constrained by the occupying forces.
When I was writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was struck by the way in which the idea of collaboration (particularly when it involved women) was referred to with a sneering contempt and embarrassment. Sometimes, this was directed at instances of actual betrayal (anonymous letters, informing the Germans about illegal radios owned by neighbours, or extra rations in someone’s cellar), but often what has been condemned as ‘collaboration’ was far more nuanced. Many women accepted washing for the soldiers, or undertook other domestic tasks, in exchange for rations to feed themselves and their children. Other women formed relationships with Germans: sometimes from necessity, but often from a genuine emotional bond. These women were labelled as ‘Jerry Bags’ and, even today, there is a certain degree of local shame about the women who betrayed their island by sleeping with the enemy. It is easy to apply our twenty-first century moral compass to these alliances and to roundly condemn them as unpatriotic, as acts of betrayal. But to do so is to assume that we can empathise with the sense of powerlessness, fear and horror that these women must have endured on a daily basis. This is something I’ve thought about a lot since becoming a mother: I would do anything to feed my children. Anything. And in war, the moral absolutes that dominate peacetime must become subject to our instinct for survival.
The idea of ‘collaboration’ as a dirty little word, focussed on dirty little relationships, also ignores the fact that many of the women fell in love. They were isolated and afraid, and had no idea when—if ever—the Occupation would end, and, contrary to expectations, many of the German soldiers were not evil or monstrous. In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith describes them as just boys. Boys with guns. In many cases, the soldiers were almost as lonely and hungry and frightened as the islanders themselves. There is a harrowing true account of a woman who sheltered her German lover when he decided that he would no longer be part of the army. When they were discovered, he was put in front of a firing squad and she was shipped to a concentration camp. As the soldier was led out to face the bullets, his lover could be heard sobbing as she waved her handkerchief from her cell window. Her behaviour was roundly condemned, with much of the criticism focussed on her lack of sexual morals. Indeed, it seems to be women’s sexual behaviour in times of war that summons the most contradictory of responses: war often sees women being used as sexual objects—part of the victory ‘booty’, and yet, women who willingly engage in sexual relationships are vilified.
The narrative of occupation, as we have seen it enacted time and again—from the expansion of the Roman Empire, to the current war in Syria, from the systematic rape of women in Berlin in 1945, to Boko Haram’s deliberate use of girls as sex slaves—is that women are conquered as part of the territory. Their homes are seized; their bodies are possessed. The conquering army’s ‘right’ to rape local women is a tragic and horrifying consequence of invasion. And, hideously, reportage and history seem to provide us with two opposing archetypes for sexual interactions with women in occupied territories: the woman is either judged to be an unwilling victim or a wilful whore.
Perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of this dichotomy is the way in which these denigrations of sexual behaviour often involve women passing judgement on each other—a common problem both in and out of war zones. The concept of ‘slut-shaming’ is a familiar beast in the modern media, but it is particularly tragic when the same attitude seeps through the consciousness of societies that have been systematically occupied and oppressed. Surely times of hardship should encourage female solidarity, not create a breeding ground for a particularly virulent form of misogyny? In France, after WWII, women who’d had relationships with German soldiers were stripped in the streets, their heads shaved before they were tarred and feathered. After the occupying forces left Jersey, the ‘Jerry Bags’ faced similarly harsh treatment, as well as social exclusion—small communities run on rumours, and the gossip machine turned these women into social pariahs.
Our judgment over women’s behaviour, clothing and sexual mores is deeply embedded into our psyche; it is entrenched within our language. I spent many years as an English teacher and worked with some wonderful young people: they were intelligent, curious and, in many cases, keen to challenge their own prejudices. Yet still, the older boys would berate each other’s sexual behaviour with the term ‘man-whore’ or ‘man-slut’. The ‘insult’ was delivered with grudging, arm-punching respect, and with a total lack of recognition for the way in which, for a woman, the term ‘slut’ is impossible to separate from its shameful roots. The difference, as I explained to the boys time and again (much to their delight, I am sure), is the question of women’s ownership of their bodies: if a woman enjoys and freely engages in sex, she is ‘giving’ her body away—she is cheap, dirty, damaged. Perhaps she is a ‘slut’ because she is emotionally scarred in some way—what else could possibly lead a woman to want to devalue herself so? But this is the problem: we still see women’s bodies as objects of value, to be taken or given or exchanged or possessed. Men are the purchasers, the possessors who set our price. And this is seen clearly in war, where women, devastatingly, are still part of the conquered land, and are taken and owned along with the territory. In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith, describes how the island is in her blood. I was conscious of creating a female character who felt inextricably tied to the landscape, because so many women are. In many war-torn countries, women are unable to leave their homes, and so they, too, are occupied.
And this is just as true now, in the twenty-first century, as it has been for hundreds of years We can attempt to convince ourselves that we are enlightened, that women have been empowered by a modern transformation of social values, but we don’t have to look very far to see the ways in which, even outside of war zones, women’s bodies still provide the landscape for political and moral battles. The rise of Islamophobia has found a convenient focus in the form of condemnations of the burqa. The question of whether women should be allowed to wear something that conceals their bodies has been met with violent opposition. In some cases, this antagonism has taken on the form of women’s head coverings being ripped from them. Defenders of this violent (and violating) action argue that women who choose to wear the burqa are being oppressed, and that the concealment of the woman’s body is somehow offensive. The irony: that we live in a culture where the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies is the norm, yet a woman’s choice to conceal her body somehow makes her morally repugnant.
Unfortunately, this use of women’s bodies as the landscape for battles doesn’t seem to be losing momentum in the current political climate. Donald Trump’s recent attempts to place constraints on overseas funding for birth control also reveals a disturbing trend, whereby male power-struggles can be executed on the territory of women’s bodies. The message is clear: women’s bodies, their minds and their choices are canvases for political point-scoring.
While writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was surprised by how many relevant and pertinent issues it raised: I had assumed, I think, that seventy-five years would be a large enough gap for the concerns faced by the islanders to seem very much in the past. But, as I wrote, I thought again about how times and beliefs might change, but human behaviour and emotions often remain the same. We will always fall in love, sacrifice ourselves for others or betray them; we will always find that the world around us conflicts with our inner values. And I think this is one of the things which makes writing (and reading) historical fiction feel so rewarding: the past helps us to hold up a mirror to the who we are today, and reflects the myriad possibilities of the people we might become. For the sake of my nieces and my sons, I hope our treatment and judgement of women’s bodies is something that can change.
Thanks to Caroline Lea for the guest post.