Skip to content

Response to Review of ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy, and Appeasement in Inter-War Britain

It is very satisfying to be able to respond to such an incisive review of ‘Guilty Women’ by a scholar who has himself made provocatively original incursions into the field by interrogating politicians’ receptiveness and understanding of public opinion in the appeasement debates of the late 1930s. When I first embarked on this project, I wondered and even worried about how some diplomatic historians and IR specialists might respond to a gender approach, as well as how much sympathy there would be for mining source-bases that unearthed a history from below of crises in the least democratic and least transparent sphere of politics, international relations. Indeed, these two lines of enquiry proved to be intrinsic. Despite their enfranchisement, women remained structurally and culturally excluded from foreign policy-making and the diplomatic service in this period.(1a) While a number of political women did rise to prominence as committed supporters or as staunch critics of appeasement, most women had to find other outlets for intellectual and emotional engagement in the frenzied battles of the ‘war of nerves’ (this was how the Daily Mail, among others, described the unfolding of events in what would prove to be the build-up to the Second World War). To make a place for women in this story, I had to begin by constructing the conceptual scaffolding of a domestic and popular history of appeasement. It is therefore reassuring that Hucker feels that the book ‘compels us to reconceptualise the narrative by acknowledging the explicitly gendered connotations of the policy’ (p. 8), and enriches the ever-expanding canon of appeasement literature.

Hucker has asked some thought-provoking questions, prompting me in particular to position the argument more explicitly in the dialectical debates in appeasement scholarship.(2a) This is a fair question. On the one hand, the evidence uncovered tends to substantiate the counter-revisionist viewpoint that is less persuaded by structural constraints for explaining British foreign policy, and instead asserts the role of individual agency in piloting policy. Neville Chamberlain – and his umbrella – came to personify appeasement the world over. His personal strengths and failings, his confidential relationships, and the reciprocal sense of intimacy and understanding with women voters at home and women abroad as well, does much to elucidate his authoritarian style of leadership, his self-belief, and his persistence in playing the ‘Angel of Peace’ even after his policy was undeniably bankrupt. His evident ease with the new female electorate, and with the gradual but no less tangible feminisation of post-war British politics, is another way in which he was very different from his opposite in this debate, Winston Churchill.(3a)

The reviewer asks: ‘Should a heightened appreciation of the gendered representations and connotations of appeasement, in conjunction with the contemporary sexual politics of the time, make us more or less sympathetic to Chamberlain’s policy?’ (p. 7). This is another penetrating question. The new material churned up of women’s often desperate responses to the world in crisis probably does a good deal to elicit sympathy and pathos for those who were acted upon rather than for the key political actors.

On the other hand, however, I would also hope that the approach I have taken will provoke others to think rather differently about appeasement. Appeasement is the term used to describe the concessions made to Nazi Germany in order to avoid war. But it also describes a culture, a mind-set and mentality, a set of aspirations, and a psychological state (personal and collective). Appeasement (and its moral failures) brought the ubiquitous consciousness of crisis to its climax, and the most personal expressions of emotion were recorded in a range of ego-documents but also vividly displayed in public and by the public. Louis MacNeice conveyed the sensations and the fear he witnessed and himself felt as all obsessively followed the unfolding of events: ‘Did you see / The latest?… / No, what we mean is Hodza, Henlein, Hitler, / The Maginot Line, /The heavy panic that cramps the lungs and presses/  The collar down the spine’.(4a) Scholars should be encouraged to be more adventurous, and look at the linguistic, rhetorical and visual constructions, the material culture, and the emotional history of the Crisis.

Further, comparative and transnational study would be especially fruitful, and there is so much that has not been considered or contemplated about the socio-psychological experience of the Munich crisis, and on the instrumental role of domestic pressure, of popular and public opinion, on the architects of appeasement in all the countries involved. Hucker himself has provided a valuable bi-focal Anglo-French view (5a), and other multi-national (potentially multi-authored) studies would illuminate a social and a people’s history of appeasement. The tyranny of the calendar portends another round of revisionism. With the 80th anniversary of the Four Powers Conference looming, such a shared and collaborative effort would be one very promising way to move the debate forward. Wouldn’t it be an appropriate way to mark that fateful conference in Munich in September 1938, the results of which the world awaited with bated breath, by bringing together researchers in conferences in 2018 for the purpose of studying the millions of women and men who waited, rather than merely the great and guilty men?

Notes

  1. There was, however, a concerted campaign for women’s admission to formal diplomacy and the consular service. See H. McCarthy, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (London, 2014).Back to (1a)
  2. The reviewer makes note of many printing errors in the hardback edition. These will be corrected in the forthcoming paperback edition of the book, due in 2017.Back to (2a)
  3. For consideration of Churchill’s relationship to women in politics and his views on women in political life, see Paul Addison, ‘Churchill and women’, Churchill Archive Online, 2012; and Richard Toye, ‘”The men have turned against me”: Winston Churchill and the gender politics of the 1945 election’ <http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/author/richard-toye> [accessed 19 April 2016].Back to (3a)
  4. Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal (London, 1939), p. 14.Back to (4a)
  5. D. Hucker, Public Opinion and the End of Appeasement in Britain and France (London, 2011) Back to (15a)