Stephen Basdeo is a cultural historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom.
The Second World War (1939–45) has become one of the defining moments in the history of the English nation. It is remembered as a time when everyone pulled together in order to win the war and as the period that somehow liberated women when they moved into hitherto traditionally male jobs because they became indispensable for the war effort. The image of women taking up employment in the factories and the civilian services was promoted through contemporary media and propaganda.
It seemed by 1940 that the role of women in wartime had well and truly changed. Reflective of this was a fascinating cartoon which appeared in the 13 March 1940 edition of Punch titled ‘Welcome for the Warrior Returning from the War’. It humorously documented the supposed changing role of women in warfare throughout the ages.
Cartoons as Sources
Historical cartoons give us indirect evidence of the attitudes of artists and their audiences. The artist who produced the ‘Welcome for the Warrior Returning Home’ was Graham Laidler (1908–40), although his drawings appeared under the pseudonym of ‘Pont’. Throughout his career as a comic artist he produced many cartoons for Punch which dealt with the notion of ‘Britishness’ such as a previous series called ‘The British Character’, which showed what he assumed to be typically English reactions to certain situations.
Punch had, by the 1940s, long since ceased to be the borderline radical, reformist publication that it was at its inception in the 1840s. It no longer drew satirical attention to social injustices and had moved ‘into the drawing room’ while its politics shifted right. In short, Punch became respectable. Its readership in the 1940s was the suburban, conservatively-minded middle class.
Humour as a Patriotic Duty
At the outbreak of the war, Punch suffered a crisis of confidence as the editors wondered whether there really was a place in the media for humour whilst the country was at war. The editors soon concluded, however, that providing mirth and boosting morale was their patriotic duty. The magazine subsequently joined the contemporary propaganda campaign and represented the English nation as feisty, determined, brave, tough, spirited, intrepid—qualities that, as H. Jones argues,
‘politicians, journalists and film-makers spent the entire war attempting to convey’.
The provision of humour would be the magazine’s way of keeping calm and carrying on.
Laidler’s cartoon comprised four different illustrations. As the title suggests, each picture depicted a warrior’s return home. Each illustration appears as though Laidler attempted to copy the style of the age that he was drawing. The first three images (Figs. 1-3) depicted what he interpreted to have been a woman’s traditional role in wartime. He saw them as having traditionally been spectators, or non-combatants, anxiously waiting at home for the return of their men-folk which of course is hardly an incorrect view, for war has traditionally been a most masculine pursuit.
The Medieval Knight and his Fair Lady
The first picture (Fig. 1) is set during the medieval period. A knight in armour has returned home to his castle with the spoils of war. His wife with adoring arms outstretched welcomes him home, closely followed by her five children. Contrary to Laidler’s interpretation of history, however, in the medieval period women often accompanied their men on campaign (Maler, 2004, p.68). Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1124-1204), for example, accompanied her husband Henry II (1133-1189) to the Holy Land during the Second Crusade.
The Refined Redcoat
In the next image (Fig. 2), Laidler moved into the eighteenth century, as evident by the periwig which adorns the head of the red-coated soldier. The soldier is freshly returned from a campaign judging by the trunk by his feet. Outside of what looks to be a stately home he was depicted as politely bowing to his wife and his two children. Laidler appears to have done well representing the contrast between the eighteenth century independent man and the “weak” woman of the private sphere who, as Matthew McCormack says,
‘were conceived of [by men] as helpless creatures of sentiment, who lacked the rationality and physical and mental strength of men’.
The Soldier of the Empire
The theme of the supposedly weak and sensitive woman was continued into Laidler’s third illustration (Fig. 3) which took the reader into the Victorian period. A tall and well-built man bursts through the doors of a drawing room in what seems to be a comfortable middle-class home. The glimpse of her husband, absent for perhaps some time, proves to be too much for the wife to bear. She and her daughters are depicted as though they is about to faint. Thus Laidler’s first three images do nothing more than simply re-present what was until then the prevailing view of women’s role in wartime: delicate and subservient non-combatants.
World War Two
However, everything has changed in the final illustration (Fig. 4). The social class which Laidler depicted was still middle class, judging by the radiator which can be seen on the wall. Yet in contrast to the earlier cartoons, when the man was depicted as returning home, he was not met by an adoring, curtseying, or fainting wife. Instead, he entered to find his wife in uniform and looking as ready for combat as he was. The woman in the picture looks as though she could have been a member of one of the many civilian services which women were called into during the war, such as the ATS, or the WRNS. The illustration is reflective of how during the Second World War women were called into occupations that were previously seen as men’s jobs.
In addition to the services, many women took jobs in the factories and in agriculture. They became, in the eyes of men, ‘strong enough to fell tress, plough fields, drive tanks, [and] work in heavy industry’, according to M. Nicholson.
Laidler misled his readers somewhat in this final picture, though, for at this period during the war married women with families were not conscripted into the services or the factories. Yet in the image it was clearly a housewife who is presented as ready for duty, as are the children next to her. Nevertheless, the picture shows that by 1940 the experience of war was becoming something in which both sexes played a part. Moreover, this must have evidently been a very visible change which men like Laidler were seeing played out around them for such an event to appear in a cartoon, especially so early in the war.
Humour as a Defence Mechanism
Cartoons can seldom be read straightforwardly, and a consideration of the context in which they appeared is central to their understanding and the last illustration appears to carry an implicit disapproval of women taking on ‘manly’ roles. This image appeared in a humorous, satirical cartoon. The purpose of satire is the correction of what the author sees as a vice or a folly. Laidler was humorously deriding the new roles in which women were called to serve. Perhaps he believed, as Havelock Ellis did in the early-twentieth century, that ‘women’s function in life can never be the same as a man’s’. Laidler uses humour reinforces what he sees as traditional family roles.
Misogynistic men often use humour to mock women and Laidler’s use of humour to mock the women’s war effort illustrates that he does have some discomfort with the idea of women working. So did many men at the time, in fact, for when women first entered the factories, they were hardly welcomed with open arms. Some women even met with downright hostility in the workplace. Jean Wynne recounted her experiences of wartime munitions factory work in an oral interview in the mid-1990s and said that
They [her male colleagues] didn’t want to show us what to do and they made things really awkward’ (Wynne, 1995, p.201).
It is difficult to know exactly what reader thought of this image. As expected, research into the reception of this specific image has proven to be inconclusive. In fact, even a Mass Observation report from 1940 into morale and humour concluded that
There is practically no indication in a comic magazine of what jokes and cartoons the reader thinks funny or unfunny’.
Nevertheless, the cartoon reveals Laidler’s attitudes. Whilst women were extremely valuable to the war effort in general, his cartoon revealed a quietly disapproving attitude towards them assuming traditionally male responsibilities. Women, evidently, were thus objects of ridicule to some men when they attempted to assume “manly” war work.
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