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  • Writer's pictureHannah Sherwood

“Girl Running Wild” The Women of the ATS

The Second World War and the introduction of formalised women’s military services presented women with an opportunity to explore new roles with society. A shortage of labour provided women with the opportunity to enter the military. Women’s labour was divided between the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS). Concerns quickly arose about women’s involvement in the military, a traditionally masculine environment. Women’s contribution through these services received a negative response, with fears developing of the impact this would have on gender roles. The ATS had been the main recipient of most of this backlash and developed a damaging reputation. This change in the role of women in the ATS threatened the traditional understanding of what femininity and masculinity represented. For women who volunteered or were assigned to the ATS, the role not only came with the strain of leaving home but also the rumours and tales that they would become associated with.

The organisation of the ATS and the other auxiliary services had been a considered decision by the government. Attempts were made to avoid the formal creation of a women’s sector of the military following the disbandment of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) following the end of the First World War (Crang: 2010:343). Concerns towards women in uniform had been raised during the First World War, and with the Second World War, this issue resurfaced (Crang: 2010:344). Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan and the Marchioness of Londonderry had promoted the inclusion of women in the military through their work with the Women’s Legion and the training of women during the 1930s (Crang: 2010:346). The work of Gwynne-Vaughan, Londonderry, and Mary Baxter Ellis of the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) successfully highlighted the importance that women’s labour could play during war (Crang: 2010:350). The organisation of the Women’s Auxiliary Defence Service (WAD), renamed the Auxiliary Territorial Service, had established women’s role in the military for the Second World War. The organisation suffered initially with poor organisation and low recruitment figures. Gwynne-Vaughan was eventually named the director of the ATS following an initial lack of leadership (Crang: 2010:351).

Rumours and the whispering campaign against the ATS had focused on the morality of the women who served, but their complaints highlighted a concern for the expectations of women’s femininity. During the interwar period, masculinity and femininity had reinforced closing to expectations of a domestic family life (Noakes: 2012:737). An expectation had been placed on women to maintain a level of femininity which was connected to the home and importantly a symbol of society’s morality. With the shift of women in work due to the start of the Second World War this behaviour became increasingly difficult to maintain and caused concerns (Goodman: 1998:280). The focus remained on expected attributes of women fulfilling society's accepted level of femininity.

Women who volunteered in an auxiliary service like the ATS were presented with the opportunity to divert from the traditional role of women in society. Initially during the early stages of the war, women could choose the service they wanted to volunteer for, but as demand grew, the National Service (No. 2) Act introduced in 1941 introduced conscription of women (Crang:2008:387). The ATS had struggled with membership numbers, with many young women preferring to enlist in the WAAF or the WRNS if given the choice (Marwick: 1968:293). The ATS struggled with its public image (Noakes: 2006:106), and the ATS was often seen as the “Cinderella service” (Braybon and Summerfield: 1987:165), as well as being the less selective of the auxiliary services (Summerfield and Crockett:1992:12). Although less popular, the ATS appeared to present women the opportunity to explore their role in society. Concerns arose however to restrict the impact that entering a masculine sphere would have on women and their femininity, resulting in the government’s attempts to maintain gender boundaries (Smith: 1996:12). The British government had aimed to maintain a pre-war understanding of gender divisions (Smith: 1996:12), but as Marwick highlights, changes to the family had occurred since the start of the twentieth century (1982:67). While Marwick highlights the family as the focus of change, women in the ATS also represented this change, having moved away from the direct influence of their families. Green supports this change to the traditional image of the family, as many of those who had joined the ATS had done so to leave behind the domestic work of the family home (Green: 2012:21). Anxieties, however, remained focused on safeguarding the femininity and morality of those who had left their families (Noakes:2006:126). Summerfield and Crockett as well as Noakes comment on concerns of femininity and suggest the war had created a contest to define the meaning of masculinity and femininity (1992:435), and what it meant to be a man or woman had become a significant factor in maintaining the gender roles of society. Women in the ATS witnessed a change in their role in society, which threatened previous understandings of both masculinity and femininity. Joining an auxiliary service had presented women the opportunity to rediscover their role away from standard society. However, the ideal role within society presented to women remained the image of marriage and motherhood (Braybon and Summerfield:1987:218). While women in the ATS had experienced the opportunity to explore their role in society, many would return to the idealised image of femininity.

The freedom that the ATS had provided women caused concern for society regarding women’s exploration of their sexuality and morality, and in particular the fear of lesbian relationships. Sexual relations of an array of orientation were seen as a threat to women serving in the ATS (De Groot: 1997:82). Lesbians had existed on the fringes of society before the start of the war, but with organisations like the ATS bringing together many women, concerns arose that this would encourage women to explore their sexuality (Vickers: 2009:434). Lesbian relationships were difficult to prove in the ATS, but when the proof could be found, the issue was dealt with quickly, resulting in one member of the couple being transferred (De Groot:1997:81). The freedom that the ATS appeared to offer women caused concerns that without the influence of the family, the opportunity to explore their femininity and sexuality would lead to “girls running wild” (Noakes:2006:115). However, the ATS had been quick to respond when they were able to prove the existence of lesbian couples. In addition, the fear that women would lose control of sexual morality with men, Green highlights that the pregnancy rates compared to civilians were not that much higher (2012:150). The fear of women losing hold of their morality whilst serving in the ATS has been influenced by the fear of a breakdown of traditional gender roles. Vickers highlights that lesbians continued to be seen as either a threat or “adolescent girls who were merely affected by the conditions engendered by the war,” (2009:439). Through viewing lesbians as one of these two, the focus was on the potential development of women’s understanding of gender, as well as undermining their ability to understand their sexual feelings. Lesbian relationships are difficult to fully understand in the context of the ATS, due to officials not always being able to obtain sufficient evidence (Vickers: 2009:434), as well as many women not wishing to publicly declare them. The reaction to sexual relationships regardless of orientation, however, highlights the fear of the change in women’s role in society.

The extent of the newfound freedom women could find in the ATS was often far more limited than many expected. Many had volunteered to an auxiliary service, like the ATS, as they searched for an escape from the influence of the family and found a job that would stimulate them (Crang:2008:383). However, this was not the universal expectation of the ATS. A Mass Observation diarist recalled seeing many young women unwilling to join the ATS because they did not want to leave their homes (Mass Observation, D5418, September 1941, 8). Furthermore, a Mass Observation report which interviewed women looking to volunteer noted that home ties were often a reason that had stopped women from joining a service (Mass Observation, FR952, ATS Campaign, November 1941, 49). For women who wanted to explore their freedom, the ATS provided them with the opportunity to serve anywhere in the country and develop their role in society (Crang: 2008:282). Smith highlights that this opportunity to disrupt expectations in the ATS led to many fearing that the “restrains on female sexuality were dissolving” (1996:13). However, Summerfield highlights that woman were not set free of morals and expectations on entering the ATS. Women were aware that if they did act outside of feminine expectations, they would be attacked both by other women and men (Summerfield:1997:7). The freedom of women was limited by expectations of femininity with which these women had been raised. In addition, fears of what this new freedom could lead to meant parental controls were quickly replaced with military control over these women. Joyce Car recalled initially enjoying the freedom from her parent’s control, but this was quickly replaced by the strict supervision in the ATS (1995:108). The women in the ATS were not left with complete freedom or influence over their behaviour and were encouraged to maintain feminine gender distinctions. Carr recalled at dances that she was not allowed to kiss any of the men she danced with (1995:109), so control was maintained on both women’s femininity and sexuality. De Groot highlights that the opportunity had provided women in the ATS with self-esteem and belonging (De Groot: 1997:92), rather than explore and change their portrayal of their femininity or sexuality.

Women in the ATS had been seen as challenging their role in society as women and entering a masculine sphere of war, and attempts were made to restrict the impact of this on their femininity. Concerns around women in the ATS centred on the belief that through entering the military, women would develop masculine characteristics and behaviours, such as excessive drinking, swearing, and sexual advances (Summerfield:1997:77). Moving away from what was considered inherently feminine. Attempts were made to restrict the involvement of the ATS with roles on military bases considered masculine jobs, hoping this would maintain the gender roles of women and men in this context. Work assigned to women on aircraft bases mirrored roles accepted in civilian life as feminine roles, such as domestic and administration task (Smith:1996:13). When women were assigned roles more associated with military work, such as plotting directions and loading shells into guns, strict restrictions were put in place such as those that ensured women could not fire guns at enemy aircraft (Noakes: 2005:9). In direct contrast to this the 1943 film The Gentle Sex which follows a group of young women entering the ATS depicted the majority being assigned more masculine roles, such as working with the guns, driving, or becoming mechanics. Significant to this narrative was that the women who took part on more domestic roles were unhappy and attempted to be reassigned. There is a conflicting narrative that a film was created to promote the masculine roles of the ATS but, restrictions continued to be implemented to ensure women were not carrying out too manly a role.

Distinctions were made to ensure that women's role in the ATS on aircraft bases mirrored their roles in society. Smith highlights this distinction of boundaries further through the limitation of leadership roles to men, and attempts were made to exclude women from this advancement (Smith: 1996:61). Peggy Terry, a member of the ATS, recalled being told by soldiers that the ATS were only camp followers (Terry: 1996:83). Mass Observation collected a diary entry that stated one women had worked alongside male soldiers who they recalled as being unfit for overseas service and she had been able to complete the same roles often a higher standard (Mass Observation, D5358, Diary entry from February 1945,18). Despite working alongside men in these environments the women of the ATS continued to be criticised by wider society and the men in the military. In the case of Peggy Terry, attempts were made to undermine the legitimacy of even the average ATS recruit, let alone those who wished to take a leadership role. Noakes (2005:9), Summerfield (1997:5) and Smith (1996:13) have suggested that the work provided to women existed within what was acceptable of society’s gender roles and feminine enough for women to compete. However, Summerfield previously stated with Crockett that some women themselves felt the work threatened their roles as women (1992:446). The women in the ATS explored and considered do not fit one mould, so what is acceptable work for one may be pushing the boundaries of gender for another. However, it can be understood that attempts were made to restrict exposure to what would be considered masculine work in the ATS. Restrictions to control the role of women in the military went as far as the example of Peggy Taylor, who served abroad in the ATS in Italy, and if she wanted to leave the base, she had to be signed out and back in by a man, another woman was not allowed to complete the same task (Terry: 1995:83). An innocence was expected of the women in the ATS. Many in the military believed women did not have the skills needed to work on air bases (Summerfield and Crockett: 1992:447) or were unable to sign someone out of the base. The intersection of femininity and masculinity in which the ATS work appeared to threaten the role of women in society and resulted in society’s attempt to control any changes.

Women in the ATS were presented with the opportunity to move far from home, serve overseas, and to work on aircraft bases. The entry into the military sphere, however, resulted in limited freedom that many feared would result in immorality. The reality of the ATS saw women experience new opportunities but were constantly reminded of the expectations of them as women. Concern focused on ensuring that what it meant to be a woman never shifted too far from the unspoken gender rules developed by this point in the 1940s. What the ATS had given women were these opportunities of jobs they may not have had access to prior, and the ability to start to question their role.


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Games, A. (1941) Join the ATS [Poster], Imperial War Museum, Catalogue number Art.IWMNPST2832

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