"The Khaki Girls behind the lines. Or, Driving with the Ambulance Corps"
By Edna Brooks
New York: Cupples & Leon Company, 1918
"The Khaki Girls behind the lines. Or, Driving with the Ambulance Corps" is the second in a series of four books dealing with the adventures of two young women who are automobile-mad and determined to "find their place in the Big War". That phrase is used as the subtitle of the first book in the series, and it hints at the divergence of feminist responses to the war effort in World War I.
An advertisement for the series reads:
"Joan Mason, an enthusiastic motor girl, and Valerie Warde, a society debutante, meet at an automobile show. Next day they go together to the Motor Corps headquarters and in due time are accepted and become members of the Corps, in the service of the United States… As a result of their splendid work in the Motor Corps, the Khaki Girls receive the honor of an opportunity to drive with the Ambulance Corps in France."
Joan and Valerie, then, are in many ways laudable feminist heroines. They are capable, brave, and take initiative, aggressively stepping forward and preparing themselves to become ambulance drivers behind the front lines, and overcoming substantial obstacles to reach their goals. They are happy under a car, fixing it, and determined and competent drivers, even when under fire. In creating a place where they can contribute to the war effort, they are overcoming gender restrictions about what women can and cannot do. They are also devoted friends, and affectionate and supportive of the other women with whom they work.
They are also -- not surprisingly for popular fiction of the time -- both adamantly patriotic and anti-German.Throughout the book, stereotypes abound. Germans are "Huns", "Boche", "beasts", a ruthless and ignoble foe. "Our boys" are "true blue", "gritty", gallantly singing on their way to the trenches. French peasants are steadfast, enduring and perhaps a little subservient.
Another woman ambulance driver, who has killed an enemy soldier, does express conflicted feelings. "I felt queer about having killed even a Hun. The boys made a lot of fuss over me, but I couldn't say a word hardly. I was glad I killed him, but sorry I had to do it. It doesn't seem just right for women to kill, even in self-defense. It is right, though."
Reading the Khaki girls today is somewhat disconcerting. Their competence and ability to challenge gender roles are appealing, but their blood-thirsty patriotism is not. The tension between feminism and pacifism that I experienced, reading this book, was in fact central to English feminist politics at the time the book was written. Feminist historians such as Jo Vellacot have argued that in Britain the war was not a major factor in gaining the enfranchisement of women, and in fact, split the feminist movement.
In Britain, two main organizations were campaigning for the enfranchisement of women when World War I broke out. One was the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) while the other, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, was the Women's Social and Political Union. Both groups limited agitation for the vote once the war began, but beyond that, they had very different approaches to war and the war effort. The NWUSS helped by sponsoring women's hospital units, but refused to collaborate in recruiting. In contrast, the WSPU actively collaborated in recruiting, in exchange for the government's release of women imprisoned for political activism. Over time, the NWUSS women became more supportive of pacifism while the WSPU allied with the government and its pro-war propaganda. The women's peace movement, culminating in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, reached across class lines that the pro-war groups did not challenge.
The Pankhurst family is an interesting example of the type of divisions that occurred. Though all had worked together in support of woman suffrage, the family split over the war. Emmeline and her daughter Christabel formed the 1917 Women's Party on patriotic lines, eventually becoming anti-trade union. Sylvia Pankhurst held to their original socialist beliefs and became an active pacifist. Emmeline and Christabel favored conscription, while Sylvia actively opposed it. Emmeline and Christabel supported a limited class-based women's franchise, while Sylvia supported universal suffrage .
The Khaki girls don't discuss the vote, but I like to think they would have supported woman suffrage. In the USA, the 19th Amendment, ratified by Congress in 1920, enfranchised American women in recognition of their readiness to aid the war effort. So the Khaki Girls, had they been real, would have returned from their wartime service with the right to vote alongside the boys they had transported in their ambulances.