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Introduction and exploration of historical artefacts

Professor Raelene Frances explores the topic of Women and War through letters written by a Matron from the battlefield.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Welcome back to The 100 Stories. Today will be speaking with Rae Frances, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and a Professor of History here at Monash University. Rae’s interests as a social historian are wide ranging. Trained as a labor historian, Rae has written books on the history of work, the history of prostitution, and transnational and comparative studies of empire. Rae is also a co-author of Women in the Great War, a book that looks at how women from all different walks of life were affected by that conflict. Rae is part of an international project looking at the history of Anzac Day, and the ongoing culture of commemoration.
Her most recent publications look at how women were mobilised during the war, both on the home front, and as part of nurses’ work on the battlefields.
LAURA JAMES: Rae has been examining a number of artefacts this morning on loan to us from a family who contacted the University as we were making The 100 Stories project. What can you tell us about these sources, Rae?
RAELENE FRANCES: Well, we’ve got some really interesting things here. We’ve got some letters that were written to the family of a man who was killed on the Western Front. And those letters are written by the matron at the hospital. We’ve got a medal that was seen by the Australian Government to the mother of Lieutenant Snape, the man who was killed. And we’ve also got the instructions on how knit socks. So these are all aspects of women’s involvement in the war, and they tell us different things about how women engaged with the battlefront, but also with the home front.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Historians have used the term emotional labour to describe the voluntary work that women did during the Great War. How do you understand that term to mean, and can you see it at play in The 100 Stories?
RAELENE FRANCES: Yes. Emotional labour, I think, is a really interesting idea, because it reflects the ways, the energies that women expanded to support the war effort. And they actually contributed an enormous amount in ways that are not captured by our standard ideas of work. They’re not actually necessarily at a factory. They’re not actually necessarily at the front line, although in many cases they were. What we saw with these artefacts that we looked at just before was one example, I think a really good example of emotional labour.
The letter from the matron, Matron Pesco, to the family of Lieutenant Snape, this is an example of emotional labour, that the matron would have been working all day long in this general hospital in France, and then probably as an evening she spends her time writing to the families of the men, telling them how they are. So the first letter, she’s actually telling them and giving them the news that he’s been gassed, and he’s in hospital, and he’s in a very serious condition, but that he’s getting all the care that they can possibly give him.
and then she writes just the very next day and says that although his breathing improved for a moment, his lungs were too full of muck, basically, that he choked and he died. So to actually spend the time to write to the families must have been really exhausting. And to think about what to say, and how to say it, required her to think about just to say enough so that the family were in no doubt about the fact that the man was dead. Also, though, to reassure them that he had the best of care, and that everything was done for him in his last moments.
So it was a fine balance, and to do that at the end of a long day must’ve been exhausting, especially when you can think about the thousands, and thousands, and thousands of letters someone like that would have had to have written. We find other examples, I think, though, of emotional labour. It’s common in the nursing profession, that sort of goes with the job. But in the voluntary services that women were engaged in during the war, packing comforts for the troops, knitting socks– we saw the instructions on how to knit the socks, which was common things that women did in both the First and the Second World War. A lot of emotional labour we went into that activity, too.
Although it’s physical, it’s also a way in which women felt they were caring for the troops. They couldn’t actually be with them, but by putting the love into the work they did, they were emotionally supporting the troops. And they sent them not just socks, but they wrote messages, and put them inside the socks to let the boys know– they always refer to them as boys, that they weren’t forgotten at home, which I think quite often they might have felt that they were.

Watch Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James introduce Professor Raelene Frances and ask her to explore historical artefacts related to the topic of Women and War: a collection of letters written by a Matron from the battlefield.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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