Christian Women in World War I

Kate Adie discusses the changes occurring on the home front a hundred years ago

Former BBC correspondent Kate Adie gave a lecture at St Martin-in-the-Fields last night on the subject of 'Christian Women in WWI', held by campaign group Women and the Church (WATCH).

Adie has reported from the frontlines of some of the world's most challenging events, from the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 in China to the Rwandan Genocide and the war in Sierra Leone.

She is passionate about sharing the stories of all those involved in war, not just those on the front line, and her address last night therefore gave an interesting perspective of the Christian women who were left at home in England during World War I.

She began her lecture by noting that 100 years ago, she would not have been allowed to speak in a church. Women, in fact, were not allowed to stand on a raised platform and give any sort of address, much less so in a church setting.

"How am I allowed to do so now?" she asked. "The answer is embedded in World War One.

"To understand what was happening abroad, we have to look at what was happening on the home front.

"And to do that, we must look at the women, but I find that their story is not so well told. It is not so clear what happened to women in society [during that time] or women involved in the church.

"Women were still not actually citizens.  They had no say in the war because they didn't have the vote, they had fewer rights than men and had secondary status in society."

Adie focused much of her talk on the determination of Maude Royden, a suffragist Christian who believed in the right of women to preach in church.

As women began to take on the vocations and roles of the men away at war, there was a real fear that the "womanliness of women" would be lost. Adie noted that in 1916, The Times reported one morning that those of a nervous disposition should stay at home because the first female taxi driver was on the roads.

Despite fierce opposition, however, changes were visible.  Women started wearing trousers and even daring to show their ankles in public, and were becoming a greater part of full civic life.

Then, women over the age of thirty were given the vote in 1918, but just as women were beginning to make their mark, the war came to an end.

"The country was exhausted," Adie remarked.

Maude, however, remained determined to continue her fight for equality, and was invited to preach by her good friend - and later husband - Reverend Hudson Shaw on Good Friday in 1919.

"Extraordinary changes were made by some determined women, who fought for equality, fairness, to be valued as citizens and as individuals," Adie said.

"They showed that they had talent, spirit, and in the case of some, great spirituality. They achieved some great things."

Adie urged her audience to continue the push for full equality for women in society a hundred years on.

"There is a little further to go. We can take heart from the wonderful women who achieved so much between 1914 and 1918. They tried and got a great way – let's try and continue their work," she finished, to rapturous applause.

Adie's speech is impeccable in its timing – as this week the Church of England's General Synod meets to discuss the issue of female bishops. WATCH are actively campaigning for the ordination of women into the House of Bishops, which they hope will go through the Synod to become a reality this July.

It is expected that a vote in the Synod today will take the Church of England a step further towards this goal.