Wonder Woman in WWI

I didn’t jump at John’s suggestion that we go to the new Wonder Woman movie, I didn’t know anything about it and he didn’t either, but I reluctantly agreed. A woman superhero sounded a lot better than most every other movie out there. Had I known that the setting was WWI, I would have been chomping at the bit and leading him to see it.

I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised all the way round with the movie. Yes, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is drop-dead gorgeous and wears a cheesy outfit, but come on, she’s the Queen of the Amazons. I liked her character though, and Gadot did a  great job making the Amazon Queen naive/tough/caring all at the same time. It took me a minute to recognize her love interest, Chris Pine (the new young Captain Kirk), but his character was also well done. I have to like the characters (and the actors playing them), or I generally don’t like the movie.

But on to the WWI stuff. Overall, I thought they did a good job with that as well. The focus on the chemistry and the poison gas was a nice touch. It really was one of the legacies of WWI and continues today, both against people (as in recent gas attacks against civilians in Syria) and the continual assault against insects and plants (as in pesticides) which started in a big way after WWI. World War I was often called the chemist’s war which I wrote about in a previous blog. And although at first the movie portrayed the Germans as the really bad “guys” in the war, I think they rectified some of that in the end.

Now, some people may have been confused by the American Indian named Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) who shows up as a supporting character in the movie. American Indians did fight with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in WWI (as well as in Canadian forces) although not as many served during WWI as in WWII. The original code talkers started during WWI.

I have another theory of how Chief came to be there. In 1914, a Wild West show was touring Europe. The Wild West shows were really popular both in the U.S. and Europe starting in the late 1800s with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. The Indians in the shows were American Indians from a number of different tribes. When the war broke out, this particular Wild West show was trapped in Berlin and not allowed to leave. The Iroquois Nation declared war on Germany because of both the ill treatment of their stranded members in the Wild West show and because of the drafting of Iroquois men into the U.S. Army. I thought I read somewhere that since the Iroquois never had a truce with Germany, they were technically still at war, but I couldn’t find that “fact” again, so it could be an alt-fact.

Anyway, the Chief made perfect sense to me, although once I suspended disbelief in an Amazon Queen fighting in the trenches on the Western Front during WWI with god powers, it was really really easy to believe in an American Indian being there as well.

Stranded in Europe

One of my favorite pastimes over the years has been wandering the stacks (hundreds of shelves on two floors) at the UVM library. My searches have ranged from science and engineering to art, literature and books about writing. And of course, WWI. I happened to be in the memoir/biography section recently when I noticed a biography about a young woman in WWI. When I read who it was about, Nancy Johnson (my maiden name), I knew immediately I would read it.

nancyjohnsonThe book is called Deliver Us From Evil: A Southern Belle in Europe at the Outbreak of World War I, by Mary W. Schaller. It’s about Mary’s Grandmother, and she uses her grandmother’s own letters and stories. Unless you’re keen on WWI or your name is Nancy Johnson though, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. Yet, there were some interesting tidbits I learned from reading the book. This time period (late 19th/early 20th century) in U.S. history is often called the Gilded Age. There was a huge amount of wealth being made, but it was concentrated primarily in the upper classes. The author writes that 90% of the wealth in the U.S. was held by 10% of the population. Sound familiar? I think it’s even worse today.

Traveling to Europe had been for a long time, a favorite pastime of well-to-do Americans, and even the not so well-to-do. It still is. In the summer of 1914, there were 120,000 thousand American’s vacationing in Italy, France, Switzerland and elsewhere on the continent. Nancy Johnson, the daughter of a rich southern Congressman, was one of them, traveling with a friend under the protection of U.S. State Department personnel. It seems that Nancy was a bit of spoiled  rich kid, but she had her good points too, independence and intelligence.

europe_1914

Europe in 1914

Anyways, when the Archduke was killed on June 28, 1914, most of the Americans didn’t pay any attention and went on their merry way. It wasn’t until various nations declared war (end of July and August 1914) that everything became chaotic in Europe. Trains, horses, and ships were commandeered for the war effort. Banks closed and wouldn’t cash American checks. Then borders closed. Tens of thousands of Americans were stranded without a dime. Most of these were privileged rich Americans too. The U.S. government had to send cash to help out the stranded Americans because the European banks would take nothing else. The U.S. commissioned a ship, a captain, and crew, and added some U.S. marines for good measure and on August 5, the ship left New York City with $2.5 million in gold bullion in its hold. All going to help the Americans stranded in Europe. Wow!

Back in Europe, the U.S. State Department and a group of wealthy stranded Americans weren’t going to wait the two weeks it would take for the money from home to arrive. They were able to charter a ship in Genoa, Italy to take 400 people back to America. Nancy Johnson was one of the selected few to get on board. The only person who could manage to get the money for the charter (500,000 francs in cash) was Frederick W. Vanderbilt. The Italian banks, with a lot of persuading, were willing to give him cash on his credit.

It took two weeks to cross the Atlantic. They were stopped by British warships and required to take action to evade German submarines. But Nancy made it home. She soon married the man her parents had sent her to Europe to forget. Good for you, Nancy.

Women’s Suffrage

suffragettes

1913, Liberty and her attendants in front of the Treasury Building.

As I was driving down to Montpelier (our state capitol) yesterday to join the Women’s March, I couldn’t help but think about all those determined and courageous suffragettes who in the 19th and early 20th century marched and protested and worked so hard to get the vote for women. Not just in this country but around the world. The passage of the U.S. 19th Amendment in 1920 guaranteed all women the right to vote. Previously, it was on a state by state basis with some states granting voting rights and others partial voting rights and some not at all. New Zealand (1893) and Australia (1902) were two of the first countries to give voting rights to women. And of course, there are still many places around the world today where women are not full voting citizens.

U.S. women had been working since the mid 1800s (and earlier) for the right to vote.  They had Women’s Conventions, plays, pamphlets, marches, and more. They filed lawsuits, crashed inauguration events, went to jail, and went on hunger strikes to name just a few things. They were uppity! And it wasn’t just voting rights women were working for. Plenty of the things we take for granted now  had to be fought for, like property rights for women, rights to their own earnings, divorce rights, educational rights and opportunities, and the list goes on. In fact, it wasn’t until 1972 (when I was in 9th grade) that Title IX was passed. (“Title IX is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.”) One of the things this mandated was equal opportunities in terms of team and after school team sports for girls. Up until then our opportunities had been gymnastics and cheer leading. Or in other words, not a whole lot of opportunity.

By the early 20th century, women’s suffrage was gaining even greater strength, but World War I probably delayed its passing in many countries. The lack of male workers, also meant that women were taking on the roles of men in the factories, the farms, and just about everywhere so their activist efforts may have decreased then too. Women filling in for the men probably positively influenced many people’s minds about allowing full citizenship to women. Many countries granted women’s suffrage right after WWI.

Me at the Montpelier Women's March

Me at the Montpelier Women’s March.

All this and more I was thinking about as I sat for 40 minutes barely moving on the interstate trying to get off the Montpelier exit. The state police ended up closing that exit so I was glad I made it through. Many people didn’t get there until the very end of the rally, while others had to turn around and go home. They estimated about 15,000 women, men and children showed up. This in a city that has a population of about 8,000. Phew!!

I was impressed by how polite and peaceable everyone was, but that’s not surprising considering it was Vermont. Yet it also seemed the case at the other women’s marches all over the country and the world yesterday.  And so many young women there too. I was glad to be a part of it.

Women Munitions Workers

shells and womenI’ve been working on a short story about women munitions workers during WWI and so have been reading up on this topic. Women munitions workers were especially prevalent in European countries like the UK, France and Germany because of the loss of male factory workers and these countries long-term need for artillery shells. Estimates for the number of shells fired during WWI range from about 1.2 billion to 8 billion!  In the buildup for the Battle of the Somme as just one example, the British fired 1.5 million shells at the German trenches. That’s in just a few days.

The women munitions workers worked long hours (typically 12 hours/day, six days a week) under noisy, dusty, and hazardous conditions. Many women were exposed to toxic chemicals like TNT (trinitrotoluene). TNT was initially developed in the 1800s and used as a yellow dye. Later, it was found to be a good explosive. Because of its yellow dye properties, it turned the women workers a bright yellow, including their hair and skin. They were often called canary girls because of it. That was on the outside though. On the inside, it caused headaches, dizziness, anemia, spleen enlargement, and liver problems among other things. There were also reports of yellow babies being born from mothers who worked with these explosives. In the UK about 400 women died as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals. Others had debilitating illness for the rest of their livers. Due to the illness and deaths of women workers in the early years of the war, some safety precautions were implemented. For example, they would rotate women out of these jobs regularly to avoid them getting prolonged exposure to the chemicals.

But the jobs were dangerous. No doubt about it. Worker safety wasn’t job number 1. And women were generally paid much lower than what the men were paid, sometimes half of what they earned. Yet, it was still higher pay than what these women would have made in service, agricultural, and textile jobs which is why many of them left those jobs. Contrary to popular ideas, most of the women in the munitions plants were already working women. They had been maids or workers in textile or other factories. In Germany, for example, because of the British Blockade, there was a huge shortage of cotton. It was limited for use in military uniforms. That left thousands of textile workers (mostly women) out of work. Since they needed money and the munitions factories needed workers, they transitioned over to those jobs.

While women worked long and dangerous hours, some local businessmen tried to price gouge the women on rents. This happened in Glasgow, Scotland in 1915. But the working women fought back with a rent strike. It resulted in the British Parliament passing a Rent Restrictions Act which set rents for the remainder of the war at pre-war levels. Working women also used their numbers to combat food shortages and price gouging in Germany too. They also called for the end of the war. If they would have had their way, the war would have ended at least two years earlier than it did.

fara í víking

In a book I read about the Vikings, it mentioned the term Viking came from the Norse, fara í víking, which meant to go on an expedition. The men who went í víking then came to be known as Vikings. During the Viking Age (late 790s to early 1000), these Scandinavian Norsemen explored Europe, Iceland, Russia, Anatolia, and even Sicily. They traded, sometimes raided, and often settled in new lands. Many had wives who stayed home and ran the family farm.

My husband has recently gone í víking. He’s working on a farmer-to-farmer project in Myanmar and trading ideas about sustainable agricultural practices. I’m taking care of our team of horses, thirty-six laying hens, two dogs, three cats, and making sure the pipes don’t freeze. Tomorrow is supposed to be -16 degrees F with a wind chill of 38 below zero. Yikes!

The USS Leviathan (formerly the German ship Vaterland) was used to transport troops (including Harry) during WWI. The razzle-dazzle camouflage made it difficult for enemy ships to estimate size, speed and direction of the ship. It took about 8 days to get from NY to Brest, France, and about 3 days for all the soldiers to disembark.

The USS Leviathan (formerly the German ship Vaterland) was used to transport troops (including Harry) during WWI. The razzle-dazzle camouflage made it difficult for enemy ships to estimate size, speed and direction of the ship. It took about 8 days to get from NY to Brest, France, and about 3 days for all the soldiers to disembark.

It seems like going to war is somewhat equivalent to going í víking. From what I’ve read, a lot of men thought of WWI as an exciting adventure, at least when they started. My great uncle Harry called it that in some of his letters from Camp Lee in Virginia and while training in France. Once he went to the front line though and saw firsthand the devastation, the shells, the gas, the machine gun bullets, and dead comrades, he didn’t write about it as an adventure anymore. He wrote about it as being terrible.

During WWI while the men went off í víking, the women on the home front took care of the farms and worked in the factories especially in the European countries where soldiering claimed the vast majority of young men. Yet, even in the U.S. the women often filled in for the millions of men recently shipped overseas. My grandmother Esther took care of her brother’s bees, helped with the farm work that he used to do, and worked as a teamster (driving a team of horses that is). Harry wrote;

“I can’t but help feel sorry for you people at home, Esther saying she was driving team. I hope she don’t work too hard. Of course there is good money in it if she can keep it up.”

It’s funny when I think of my grandma Esther, I think of her sewing or making potato soup or smelling the lavender clump in my mom’s garden, I don’t think of her driving a team of horses. I always knew she was a special woman, but I’m now finding out how incredible she was. Just like the saying, “Behind every successful man, there is a strong, wise and hardworking woman.” Although I’d add she’s probably not getting paid much either. I guess that’s why the Vikings always brought home a lot of gifts.