A woman in a nurse's uniform wraps a bandage around a male soldier's arm. There are other white men in the background, one doing paperwork, one lifting a stretcher.

Listening to Women: Accessing Women’s Pain from First World War Pension Records

In March 1917, Nurse G., a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, was on duty at 29 General Hospital in Salonika, Greece, when the hospital sustained its second air raid in a week.1 According to the matron of the hospital, “in the next tent to where she was on duty a bomb was dropped, completely wrecking the tent and causing several casualties.” The tent in which Nurse G. was working “was perforated … all over.”2 Upon her return to her home outside of Dublin in 1919, Nurse G. reported to her doctor that she was suffering from “nervousness, waking with a start” and ongoing tremors, conditions that rendered her incapable of working.3

When she applied for a pension for her condition, the Pension Board noted that it was “satisfied that this nurse suffered from the effects of several ‘Air Raids’ and that her claim for Neurasthenia is established.” However, because she remained on duty in Salonika and did not report any symptoms until after her discharge, the Board also noted that it “did not feel justified in recommending entitlement on account of Neurasthenia,” because “there is no evidence that she sustained any serious shock.”4

Listen to women.” It’s a phrase that should be so obvious we shouldn’t have to remind ourselves of it. But if our current discussions about the harms of a misogynistic culture show anything, it’s that we, as a society, still have not mastered the ability to hear women’s expressions of pain — physical, emotional, and mental — as real and valid. Leslie Jamison has noted that, “The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution … that being a woman requires being in pain, that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness.”5

A color poster showing three white women in nurses uniforms, with "VAD - Volunteers needed urgently" written across the bottom.
British Voluntary Aid detachment dressing station. (Library of Congress/Flickr)

Jamison’s essay points to the ways in which women’s pain, and women’s descriptions of their own pain, are trivialized or misunderstood within a patriarchal system that thrives on women’s service and women’s silence. If that system is to change, we need to begin recognizing and honoring women’s expressions of pain, as well as analyzing why those expressions go unheard. This becomes especially evident in searching through the pension records of female veterans of the First World War. Reading nurses’ statements, and the ways in which their testimonies of service and expressions of suffering were validated and judged, sheds a great deal of light on the way women’s experiences are heard, or go unheard, to this very day.

The Ministry of Pensions was created in 1916, and was given the responsibility for the care and welfare of soldiers and sailors disabled by war. Although there were voices advocating for the inclusion of nurses into the pension scheme throughout the war, it fell on private enterprises and charities to collect money for sick nurses. These institutions used “the heartrending cases of misery and want amongst … our nurses” in order to collect funds.6

Such stories effectively reduced many professional women who had served at a warfront to the old Victorian image of frail, helpless women dependent on the generosity of those around them for care. Not only was such a vision refuted by professional nurses who rejected the idea of being seen as objects of charity, but it was also financially untenable, given the number of nurses who were mobilized during the war (it is estimated that approximately 80,000 women served in the British forces as non-combatants during World War One).

Ultimately, it was not until the Royal Warrant of 1920 that women were legally declared eligible to apply for pensions. As a result, women had to be fit into a complicated bureaucratic system that involved a lengthy application process within an institution that had already developed its own unique (and often somewhat eccentric) processes. Women also had to prove their eligibility to receive a pension, and, finally to substantiate their claims.

This last step often proved the most difficult of all, especially for women who were dealing with trauma and other psychological conditions brought about by the war service.

Though there were many women who were successful in navigating this process and securing pensions for their war service, there were many others whose suffering went unheard. This is the result, first of a lack of understanding about trauma, and the myriad ways it can affect the human mind and body. It is also due to the fact that western society has generally failed to listen effectively to women’s pain, both physical and mental, particularly when it is voiced in a public forum.

Handwritten letter explaining that she (M Turton) is resigning from her post at the hospital.
Letter from M Turton to the matron in charge of her assigned VAD hospital. (British Archives/Ref #WO399/8500)

Examples of this can be found throughout history, though the specific contexts and outcomes vary greatly by time, place, and the identity of the women who were speaking up. In this instance, nurses of the First World War spoke from a place of relative privilege — through their nationality, their medical expertise, and their service, they had an outlet to express their pain. However, because they were women, their service was considered secondary to men’s, and, thus the consequences of that service were easy to overlook or explain away in the postwar era.

What is clear first and foremost in the Ministry of Pension files is that their primary patient was a male veteran. The medical/military establishment had learned to understand trauma (a condition known by any number of names, including “neurasthenia” and “shell shock”) by studying the effects of war on men. Very few people took into account the unique ways in which women experienced the war. Women were seen as natural caretakers, and the role of nurse as the ultimate manifestation of that identity. Very little thought was given to the toll such work could take on women, as they were expected to do their natural and professional duty cheerfully and efficiently.

For many nurses, this meant repressing their experiences entirely until their service ended and they returned home. But time did not diminish their reactions; if anything, repression could often make those reactions worse. Nurse P., for example, who also served in Salonika, didn’t experience a breakdown until eight years after returning home from service. Her breakdown was so complete, however, that she was brought to Bethlem Hospital for treatment. Nurse P. was fortunate enough to have her parents advocating for her to the Ministry of Pensions, as she was not well enough to write, or appear in person for evaluation. She was also lucky to be seen by a doctor who was able to hear her expressions of pain and correlate them to her service. According to a note in an official report on her mental state in 1931:

When questioned about her experiences in Salonika she became emotional and refused to tell about them, but admitted that she used to have nightmares about them and dreaded going to sleep. In my experience this reaction is diagnostic of those cases in which the stress of war has played an active part in inducing mental breakdown …. She is unfit for responsibility but should have her physical health cared for and be saved as much as possible from stress and anxiety.7

Despite this recommendation, and multiple statements from friends and family regarding the way that war changed Nurse P., the Ministry refused to grant her a pension. As one official noted in the Minute Sheet of her file, “If the mental condition had been due to service it would have been expected to show itself earlier than eleven months after discharge.” Thus, it was determined that “No good grounds are disclosed in the present submission which would warrant further consideration.”8

Women’s public roles, both as veterans and as advocates for their own suffering, were not by any means common at this point in time, and there are a number of examples within pension files of ministers interpreting and re-interpreting women’s testimony to suit their own outlooks and assumptions, often with detrimental results for the female veteran in question. For example, in 1926, Nurse S. applied to the Ministry of Pensions for an increase in her compensation. She was already receiving a pension for an injury sustained in a lorry accident during her service, but after suffering a miscarriage, she found herself suffering from insomnia and memories from her wartime experiences.

AP Television special on the role of the Voluntary Aid Detachment in WW1. (AP Archive)

According to her medical file, she was “unrefreshed by sleep–has nightmares. Feels asocial when these attacks occur and ‘everything seems wrong.’” However, in his report to the Ministry of Pensions, the doctor noted that she was “very Nervy and easily upset—suggests there are domestic troubles and she does not get on well with husband.” Unbeknownst to her, Nurse S.’s husband (who was also a war veteran) paid a visit to the Ministry, and gave a statement to the officials, describing his wife as “v[er]y peculiar in her manner … Husband contests that she is mental and he will not be able to continue living with her or to be responsible for her.”9

In response to this interview, the Ministry representative determined that Nurse S. “certainly appears to be unreasonable in her general attitude towards her husband,” and her request for an increase was denied.

Reading through nurses’ pension files, provides a wealth of information regarding women’s service and experiences, including the remarkable physical and emotional endurance that nurses displayed during their work and the pain that work caused. Even if the physical hurt could be treated, the emotional pain often endured for years after a female veteran’s service.

These women’s pension records bear out the difficulties that women faced in expressing their pain publicly. Forced to fit into a system that was not designed for them, women’s ability to win a pension relied on men listening to, and believing, their testimony. Often, their experiences were compared to those of men, the primary patient in all cases, in order to judge its validity.

While it is gratifying to realize how many women were awarded pensions in the aftermath of the First World War, it is also important not to overlook the number of women who were rejected, and recognize the pain they described in their statements. This is only one example among countless others that need to be told about women from all backgrounds and identities. Doing so helps us develop the ability to listen to women’s pain and develop a language for discussing it — not only in the past, but in the present as well.

Notes

  1. The name of this Nurse, and the others who are discussed here, have been abbreviated to protect their identity and privacy. Return to text.
  2. The National Archives (TNA), PIN 26. Return to text.
  3. Ibid. Return to text.
  4. Ibid. Return to text.
  5. Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” VQR Online. Return to text.
  6. Quoted in Debbie Palmer, Who Cared for the Carers?: A History of the Occupational Health of Nurses, 1880-1948 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 84. Return to text.
  7. TNA PIN 26. Return to text.
  8. Ibid. Return to text.
  9. Ibid. Return to text.

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