May 8th, 2005
Today is the 50th Anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) day – a time to remember all those who served in WWII, and those who lost loved ones, or whose lives were shattered by war.
To mark the occasion, I thought I’d take a trip back in time, and look at what I’d be doing as an Agony Aunt in the 1940s.
I’d be advising young women to keep smiling. Telling them ‘beauty is your duty’, to make do and mend, and to do their bit for their country and their family. I’d be offering advice to women who had lost loved ones, or who would be caring for a husband or relative invalided out of the war. I’d also be asked how to cope with separation – a separation marked by the fear of never seeing a partner again. Things like jealousy, dealing with the temptation of pre or extra marital sex, venereal disease (which I’d have called ‘VD’) and pregnancy would have also featured in my postbag.
Overall my message would be one of advising women to be brave and not complain about their lot, whilst supporting our boys at the front.
Just because there was a war on didn’t mean personal problems weren’t an issue. In fact because there was a war on, relationship problems were a major difficulty for many men and women.
Here are a few examples of problems and replies sent to Agony Aunts in the 1940s (courtesy of ‘Women in Wartime’ by Jane Waller and Michael Vaughan Rees, Macdonald Optima).
‘My husband has just been on leave; for 5 months I have had a baby tying me hand and foot. Now my husband has gone back bad friends with me because I told him he ought to get up and light the fire; he even asked me to clean his army boots for him, which is a job no woman should be asked to do. He will be home again in 3 months; how can I make him see his duty?’
‘How can I make you see yours? How are you, in comparative peace and comfort, wanting him to wait on you hand and foot when he gets a much needed rest! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, my dear. Next leave, show how pleased you are to have him home again. It would be very nice if you gave him his breakfast in bed. Make every moment one of gladness that he can look back on happily for months to come’ (Woman’s Own, 4 January 1941).
Don’t tell yet
‘My husband is a prisoner of war, and I was dreadfully depressed and lonely until I met two allied officers who were very sweet to me. Now I realise that I am going to have a baby, and I don’t know which is the father. My husband is shortly to be repatriated, and I don’t know how to tell him’
‘It is very difficult for me to advise you. I appreciate the loneliness and depression you were suffering, but that you could do such a thing – and with two men – passes my comprehension. But now the main thing to do is to avoid hurting him, isn’t it? I advise you, as soon as you know he has reached the country, to write to the matron of the hospital, or the commander of the next camp to which he is sent, tell them the whole truth, and ask them how you can arrange some way of not seeing him until your condition is not apparent. Wait until his health is better before you tell him the truth. It might be the finish of everything for him if he knew it now’ (Woman’s Own, 10 December, 1943).
‘My friend and I go to dances where there are a lot of very nice Americans. They see us home and want to kiss me goodnight. We told them that girls here think it is cheap to kiss on such a slight acquaintance, and they seem really hurt, saying that in the States boys always kiss girls goodnight. We don’t want to hurt them, but what do we do?’
‘Well, I think they should take your explanation, and will probably like and respect you all the more for your exclusiveness. If you liked to be kissed there’s no harm in it, provided you don’t let the boys get silly and excited about you’ (Woman’s Own, 24 March, 1943).
Some things have changed a lot. Relationships advisors, 50 years after WWII are now expected to celebrate sexual difference and relationship diversity. Some things have changed for the better. Agony Aunts are expected to be more evidence-based and less judgemental, and can address issues like abortion, contraception, or pre and extra marital sex. Some things remain a problem including sexually transmitted diseases, jealousy and domestic violence. But looking at that last letter above, it seems like some things haven’t changed at all.Tweet