Gender and Heroism in the British Army: Women and the Victoria Cross

TitleGender and Heroism in the British Army: Women and the Victoria Cross
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1999
AuthorsSmith, Melvin Charles
Date Published03/1999

The Great War was a watershed of political, military and social changes, and in many ways set the pattern for and events of the twentieth century into play. The modern British concept of heroism in its institutional form was created during the War. As the final battles played out, the Crown and the Sword recognized the need to bring the official parameters of ultimate heroism in line with the new reality of industrial scale warfare. The technological aspects of an industrial nation at war strained the fabric of society with demands for manpower on the battlefield and labor in the factories. The nation turned to women to fill roles that traditional Victorian ideology had long held as a closed preserve of manhood. Women came to the factory and trainyard, and for the first time were brought under military discipline. To have women in garrison or even on campaign was not new in itself; the "Colonel's Lady and Judy O'Grady" were normal fixtures of the Victorian regiment. What was different in the twentieth century was the creation of officially sanctioned female elements of the British Military Establishment. These women were in uniform and under the King's Regulations. It logically followed that they were also eligible for military decorations should their conduct merit such. For the lesser awards this presented no problem. The Victoria Cross was another matter entirely; by tradition, the regulations regarding the highest gallantry award had always been rigidly interpreted, and those regulations were gender specific in the phrase "shall only be awarded to those Officers or Men who have served Us in the presence of the enemy." This article traces the debate about whether or not women could be considered for this prestigious award, a possibility which the highest-ranked British officers continued to vehemently deny throughout the war.

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