Note: There is extensive original archival research backing up the information shared in this essay, which is drawn from my Ph.D. dissertation. While I have not included citations in-text, I am happy to provide references upon request.
Had I been alive one hundred years ago, my life might have been a little like Rose Sidgwick’s. Sidgwick was 41 in 1918, and I am 28 now, but otherwise the similarities stand. Born in 1877, the oldest child of an academic family, Sidgwick had access to impressive educational opportunities, and finished her first-class BA in history at Oxford the age of 22. Structured PhDs were not yet common for lecturers in the UK, and after her first degree Sidgwick lived with her parents in Oxford, pursuing the mix of part-time work, further independent study, and semiformal education common among many young people at the turn of the twentieth century who aspired to an academic career. While doing a job at the Somerville library she met and began a relationship with the librarian and maths tutor, Margery Fry. Fry was shortly to take up a new position as warden of the new women’s hostel at Birmingham University; she negotiated a history lectureship—the spousal hire of its day—so that Sidgwick could accompany her. Sidgwick began her first (and what would turn out to be her only) full-time academic job in 1905, at age 28.
University House, the Birmingham hostel, must have been an extraordinary place to live and work. Fry, Sidgwick, and the like-minded women they hired to join their resident academic and pastoral staff sought to build a new kind of vibrant community for the young women in their care. Most of the first women’s halls of residence at UK universities, run by wardens of an older generation, were deeply worried about respectability, preoccupied by the need to assure parents that it was safe to allow their daughters to live away from home, and aware of their marginal (and sometimes contested) status within the university. The residents, mostly in their early twenties, complained that they were treated like schoolgirls. But Fry, Sidgwick, and colleagues such as Marjorie Rackstraw and Bertha Orange were part of a younger generation of women who had been to university themselves, and who were often inspired by the freer pace of academic and social life at North American women’s and coeducational colleges. Benefiting from the support of a vice-chancellor who prioritized women’s education and gave them a free hand, the University House staff treated their students with dignity while still looking after their welfare. Inspired, perhaps, in part by Sidgwick’s father, who had fostered a similar kind of community among his men students at his Oxford college, they opted for a kind of controlled silliness that had an implicit higher purpose. Students put on plays; they made a snowman in the image of the vice-chancellor; the staff could be relied upon to do a comic song-and-dance routine in the end-of-term entertainment. Through this, they knit together bonds that might sustain these young women in the difficult life-course they were undertaking. The overwhelming majority of women university graduates in this period did not marry; a strict binary pertained between marriage and a career; women who desired to work in professional occupations or otherwise pursue a public life faced an uphill battle. Single-sex community—and a physical space where young women could be themselves—was a compensation, but also an essential form of nourishment. The letters that Fry, Sidgwick, Rackstraw, and other Birmingham friends exchanged throughout their lives testify to the richness of the love that these women felt for each other.
A new-built brick building on a hill outside of Britain’s great industrial city is not exactly the archetype called to mind when one imagines nostalgia for the summer of 1914. But the safety and surety of this microcosm, too, would be fractured by the war. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, the building was requisitioned for a hospital. The male side of the university emptied, and many women students elected to train as nurses or pursue other forms of war work. The staff each faced a difficult decision about whether and how to help, which entailed consideration of deeply personal questions about religion and ethics, and about gender, that many felt torturous. Fry, a devout Quaker, seems to have fairly easily concluded that it was her duty to engage in nonviolent war work, joining the Friends War Victims Relief Committee to bring aid directly to those civilians whose homes and sources of income had been ravaged due to their unfortunate location near to the front lines of the conflict. As crop fields became battlefields, the FWVRC’s volunteers distributed food to starving villagers, and set up schools for traumatized children. Educated women had usually received extremely thorough training in modern European languages, and their ability to communicate with French or Russian peasants was in as high demand as their organizational skills. Fry—whose social circle seems widely to have perceived her as a paragon of selflessness—inspired many of her friends, including non-Quakers, to follow her into the FWVRC, where they spent the duration of the war in camp conditions encountering famine and devastation firsthand.
It had been decided that Sidgwick would remain in Birmingham to keep open University House, now squatting in some rented rooms that were not needed for medical purposes. Numbers of women undergraduates throughout Britain remained steady or rose during the war, even as their male colleagues, like other elite men, made up disproportionate numbers of the casualties on the Western Front. Communities of university women could be important sources of momentum for volunteer aid on the home front, as students undertook first aid courses, worked in national kitchens, picked crops in the university holidays, or used their degrees to enter graduate occupations previously closed to them. But Sidgwick struggled with guilt at staying behind. Her youngest brother, Hugh, fed up with what he perceived as the uselessness of his work as a civil servant in the Education Department, had joined up; her friends doing relief work were enduring daily hardships equivalent to his. As she received their letters and posted to France the blankets and toothpaste and candy they requested, she joined the League of Nations Union and lectured to her students and the Birmingham public about how Britain might participate in building a better postwar world—as well, of course, as doing a day job that before the war would have been done by three people. She also traveled back to Oxford very often to join the rota of mother and sisters caring full-time for her father, whose dementia was steadily worsening. But none of this seemed to her like a sufficiently noble sacrifice—and she keenly felt the widening gulf between her and her brother and closest friends, who were being traumatized by experiences she could not imagine. Her grief only worsened in September 1917, when Hugh was killed at Passchendaele, leaving behind his family and his fiancée, who worked adjacent to Sidgwick as a nurse at the University House hospital. Sidgwick felt obliged to put on a brave face, telling friends that she and her family were much more fortunate than others: the word come back from Hugh’s comrades was that his death had been quick and relatively painless. But she knew that in the last year of his life Hugh had been expressing increasing anger about the pointlessness of the war and the duplicity with which politicians had sold it to the nation, and I read a hollowness into how she sought, by repeating it to others, to tell herself that her brother’s death had to be accepted.
While fighting continued on the Western Front until the proverbial eleventh hour, the wartime coalition that had governed Britain since 1916 did so with an eye also to building the postwar order. It was with this in mind that, in September 1918, University House received an invitation from the Foreign Office: would they like to send a representative to join a British Educational Mission to the United States, a delegation of academics who would meet with American colleagues and politicians to determine how universities might participate in a postwar Anglo-American alliance? Fry was the first choice, but, exhausted from her war work and with responsibilities to her aging parents, she suggested Sidgwick go in her stead. Everything happened very quickly: the five men members of the Mission had already set sail (only belatedly had someone in the Foreign Office suggested that some women delegates would be a useful addition), and Sidgwick scrambled to find someone to cover her teaching for the autumn term, ensure her father’s care was in hand, and tie up her various responsibilities at Birmingham. She and her counterpart, Bedford College English professor Caroline Spurgeon, sailed from Southampton; at the beginning of October they were met at the dock in New York by the senior woman member of the official welcoming committee, Dean of Barnard College Virginia Gildersleeve. With Gildersleeve as their host and guide, they took on a whirlwind tour of over thirty campuses in the northeast and midwest, an itinerary more crowded than that of the men, since they had to squeeze in visits to women’s colleges alongside the predetermined official list of institutions. Sidgwick initially doubted her ability to do the trip justice, but she quickly rose to the challenge, gaining a reputation as an effective public speaker about women’s role in building a new, modern, internationally-connected educational landscape. She marveled at the sense of possibility and optimism in America, at the willingness to invest in women’s higher education, and at the social ease that existed among the students she met at women’s and coeducational colleges. She toured everything she could, museums and hospitals as well as campuses. It was October, and she looked out the train window, admiring the foliage. (A couple weeks ago, in late October, I took a train from New York to New England, a not-so-different view.) The trip was life-changing: a chance to do something, be something, make something away from the violent forces that had ruptured her family and her friendships.
I am not an epidemiologist, but it seems possible that, had Sidgwick not traveled to the US, she might not have caught the deadly strain of influenza that, in 1917–1919, claimed far more military and civilian casualties worldwide than the war. By late 1918, the infection had mutated to a less virulent form in Britain, but American soldiers returning from Europe re-imported the worst strain. The last entry in Sidgwick’s diary was a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, a week before Christmas. Her immune system no doubt compromised by the punishing travel itinerary, she was admitted to the Columbia University Hospital with influenza, and died on December 28. She received the academic equivalent of a state funeral in the Columbia chapel, a High Anglican service (at that time, Columbia was officially affiliated to the US Episcopal Church) with high-ranking politicians, diplomats, and university administrators among the attendees. Her coffin—just like her brother’s—was draped in the Union Jack. Casualties of the First World War who died in the service of their country could take many different forms.
Though the chair of the British Educational Mission did not mention Sidgwick or Spurgeon in the memoir he wrote of the trip, Sidgwick’s death sent shockwaves throughout the community of university women. Numb with grief just after the funeral, perched on trunks in a New York hotel room, Gildersleeve and Spurgeon (who had just begun a decades-long romantic relationship of their own) resolved to found the International Federation of University Women in Sidgwick’s memory, tying together groups of graduates across Europe and North America in the name of internationalism and world peace. Its first act was to found the Rose Sidgwick Memorial Fellowship for a British woman pursuing graduate study in the US. At memorial services in Oxford and Birmingham, the tributes to Sidgwick poured in. Sidgwick had left her estate to University House; the new warden, Bertha Orange, decided to spend the money on a fund for books and travel for low-income students. A year later, after their father had died, Sidgwick’s sister Ethel made the trip out to New York to visit her grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Ethel and their mother had written the inscription on the headstone, and Gildersleeve had seen that it was installed. It read, very simply, “In loving memory of Rose Sidgwick, of the Universities Mission of amity to the United States, died Dec 28, 1918, aged 41 years.”
I have told you Rose Sidgwick’s story on the eve of the centenary of the 1918 Armistice because not only those who take up arms are the casualties of war. Sidgwick did not have the pacifist convictions of her beloved friend Margery Fry, and remained genuinely ambivalent about whether the Great War was a just conflict. Her pride in Hugh’s sacrifice only turned sour after his death. But she, too, was a casualty of war, one whom we might care to remember this special Remembrance Day. The Sidgwick family lost two children to the war. Their loss was as real as that of any other family who lost a child—and as real as the loss that accompanied the fracturing of the University House community; as real as the deprivations endured by the families in France whom Fry and other Friends War Victims Relief volunteers sought to help, who saw their crops burned and trenches dug through their fields; as real as the grief of German-speaking parents who lost their children. Like many of the most ardent members of the League of Nations Union, Sidgwick sought a forgiving settlement with Germany, and a postwar order that would quickly incorporate it within a liberal community of nations. Like them, too, she probably gave less serious thought to the ways that postwar internationalism might align all too neatly with British and French imperial ambitions. But there can be no doubt that she, and the family and friends who survived her, knew that modern warfare does not discriminate in those on whose lives it drops (literal, figurative) bombs.
The Rose Sidgwick Memorial Fellowship was still going strong in 1933, when members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild adopted the practice of displaying white instead of red poppies to protest the ways that remembrance observances were being used to stoke nationalist fervor and justify rearmament. The following year, the symbol was adopted by the newly-founded Peace Pledge Union (nondenominational but founded in connection with the Church of England), which continues to encourage its use to this day. It is above my pay grade to re-litigate the story of the appeasement of Nazi Germany, and the place that popular opposition to rearmament had in that story. And it is somewhat outside the scope of this essay to consider the ways in which this kind of women’s political activism intersected with popular imperialism—(which it, like basically every other form of British politics, did). But what the Women’s Cooperative Guild understood—like, I think, the International Federation of University Women, like Rose Sidgwick and her friends—is that if war is in some times and places a necessary evil, it is always and everywhere an evil. There is nothing glorious about war. Mostly it is death, and it is mud. And even when we imagine the antithesis of this particular vision of war bequeathed to us by the Great War—the sanitized, automated drone killings of today’s wars—the pervasive stink of evil endures.
When I was the age Rose Sidgwick was when she took her degree, and I too was living in Oxford, I sang in a Remembrance Sunday service in which the processional hymn was “I Vow to Thee My Country.” I know it’s a state church, but the conflation of nationalist battle fervor with Christianity sickened me, and has sickened me since, all throughout these years when the red poppy has become ever more commercialized and ever more mobilized as a litmus test of empty, amoral patriotism. For people like Rose Sidgwick and Margery Fry, and many like them who lived through it or didn’t, the Great War gave lie to patriotism. This year I hope you will join me in remembering them, as well as the countless unnamed casualties of war before and since who were not given a choice about whether to identify emotionally with a conflict fought in their name or on their land or with their bodies. I hope you will join me in doing what you can to resist war and violence in your own lives and communities; in informing yourselves about the wars fought overseas, including those fought in your name, and whether you want to be party to such conflicts. There is far too much anger in our world, as there was a century ago. I hope that, like me, you seek to commit yourselves to peace.