When the Representation of the People Act was passed by the House of Lords in January 1918, granting the vote to most women over the age of thirty, the all-female medical staff of the Endell Street Military Hospital threw a party to celebrate. The building, a former workhouse in Covent Garden, was adorned with flags and bunting, and the hospital’s founders, Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray, led their colleagues in a chorus of ‘The March of the Women’, a suffragette anthem. As trained doctors and veterans of the Edwardian suffrage movement, the two women had reason to celebrate a reform they had played no small part in bringing about. The eyecatching and well-publicised war service performed by British women over the previous four years had slowly recast the suffrage debate. Patriotic displays of civic duty – from making munitions to tilling the land – made demands for equal citizenship hard to resist; the needs of the wartime state, meanwhile, created new openings for capable and ambitious women like Anderson and Murray. Running a hospital of five hundred beds for the war-wounded with an exclusively female staff bore out Millicent Fawcett’s remark that ‘no one knows what women or anyone else can do until they have had an opportunity of learning how and trying.’
The Endell Street hospital showed what the First World War had made possible for the well-educated spinster. She found useful work, won the vote and became eligible to run for Parliament. Further reforms in 1919 allowed her to sit on a jury, serve as a magistrate and enter previously closed professions including law, accountancy and the higher grades of the civil service. Older women who had private incomes and were unburdened by husbands or children were best placed to seize the new opportunities. Yet for Anderson and Murray, formed socially and politically by militant suffragism, the war also marked a loss. It accelerated the end of a tradition of female community founded on single-sex institutions and relationships between women. This tradition gave the Endell Street hospital its unique character but did not outlive it.
When Britain entered the war in August 1914, both wings of the suffrage movement – the ‘militants’ under Emmeline Pankhurst and the non-violent ‘constitutionalists’ led by Fawcett – reacted quickly, suspending campaigning and throwing their rhetorical and organisational energies behind the Asquith government. With the exception of a small pacifist minority, feminists were eager to demonstrate loyalty and usefulness on the home and fighting fronts. With hundreds of qualified women on the medical register and the likelihood of significant war casualties, military medicine was an especially promising prospect. Anderson described it as ‘suffrage work – or women’s work – in another form’ in a letter to her mother, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the medical pioneer of the mid-Victorian women’s movement.
With Murray, a Scottish-born anaesthetist, Anderson established the Women’s Hospital Corps, a mobile medical unit that could be deployed swiftly to northern France, but their services were rebuffed by the War Office. (The suffragist surgeon Elsie Inglis had a similar experience with her Scottish Women’s Hospitals: ‘My good lady,’ the official told her, ‘go home and sit still.’) Their next stop was the French Embassy: France’s urgent need for medics outweighed any objections to lady doctors, and, as a result, Anderson and Murray found themselves treating French soldiers in two small hospitals, one a repurposed hotel in Paris, the other occupying a luxury seaside villa near Boulogne. The British authorities soon came to their senses and started sending their own battle-wounded. By November, Anderson and Murray’s team were officially attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps and reports of their outstanding work were circulating in Whitehall. In February 1915, the two women were called to the War Office and invited to open a new military hospital in Central London.
It was a strange turn of events for these former militants, as Wendy Moore draws out in her well-researched book. Just three years earlier, Anderson had been arrested for smashing windows and sent to Holloway prison; Murray was suspected of sheltering militants wanted by the police. She had also been outspoken in her condemnation of force-feeding women on hunger strike, some of whom she treated on their release as ‘honorary physician’ to the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Now the British state was asking these women for help, putting taxpayers’ money at their disposal and promising them full control over the staffing and day-to-day running of a large military institution.
Anderson and Murray had the power to shape their hospital along feminist lines. All 14 doctors were graduates of their alma mater, the London School of Medicine for Women, and several were fellow militants, including Amy Sheppard, an ophthalmic surgeon notorious before the war for breaking windows. The library was under the joint charge of Beatrice Harraden, a suffragette novelist, and Elizabeth Robins, who wrote the suffragist play Votes for Women! and founded both the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and the Actresses’ Franchise League. The Endell Street wards were named after female saints and had colourful bed quilts and easy chairs, striking a very different note from the ‘chilly whitewashed walls and gloomy brown blankets’ of standard army hospitals. The WSPU motto, ‘Deeds Not Words’, was embroidered on the curtains in the recreation room, where entertainments were put on throughout the war. Following a visit to the hospital, the correspondent from the British Journal of Nursing described it as ‘woman’s kingdom’.
It resembled the many women’s kingdoms established by well-educated single women in the decades before the war. From the 1880s, women had established careers in teaching, medicine, nursing, social work and academia by founding their own, all-female residential institutions. Shut out from male professions and elite universities, late-Victorian feminists found occupation and community by studying, working and living together in girls’ schools, women’s hospitals, settlement houses and colleges, and by working together for the vote. The suffrage movement was the most politicised corner of this homosocial world. As Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence wrote in her memoir, suffrage meant for women ‘the discovery of the wealth of spiritual sympathy, loyalty and affection that could be formed in intercourse, friendship and companionship with one another … for the first time in women’s lives, they realised on a great scale the power of the team spirit.’
These prewar experiences shaped Anderson and Murray’s leadership. Anderson would later say that she had acquired her organisational skills during her time in the WSPU, a body which proved ‘that women could lead women, and that women should trust other women’. The two commanding officers at Endell Street demanded long hours and single-minded dedication from their staff. Murray’s calm and slightly austere presence ‘cast a spell over all the hospital’, according to one orderly, while Anderson was ‘small, quick and energetic in her movements’ with a ‘quick fussiness’ over the correct way to wheel a trolley. Another staff member confessed that she was ‘truly terrified of them, though we admired them greatly’.
This autocratic style gave rise to personality clashes and misunderstandings, but there was no question about Anderson and Murray’s commitment to making Endell Street an institution where female expertise could thrive. It was a model of work rooted in relationships that saw men mostly as superfluous. Anderson and Murray protected young orderlies from parental demands, especially from the father who ‘likes to have his girls with him in the evenings’, and were disapproving of staff leaving to get married. On one occasion, Anderson grasped the hand of a colleague who had announced her engagement and said: ‘Well, well, you poor girl, I am sorry for you.’ Murray later remarked to someone else that she hoped matrimony ‘would not become infectious’.
Anderson and Murray had no need of men because they had each other. They had lived together before the war with their two Scottish terriers in Anderson’s Kensington townhouse and a jointly owned cottage in the Buckinghamshire countryside. At Endell Street, they shared rooms, wore identical diamond rings and appeared at staff parties in fancy dress as the ‘Hon. Mr Dug-out and His Lady’, Murray impersonating a gruff colonel and Anderson his simpering wife. Moore does little with the queer politics of this story, except to note that lesbianism was legal but rarely discussed, ‘so it was deemed perfectly respectable for two professional women to share a home without a hint of scandal.’ This is partly right. Women who loved women were not unusual in prewar feminist circles and weren’t marked out as sexually deviant by the wider culture (that would come later). But historians have debated at length whether sexuality a century ago was formative of selfhood in the way that we consider it to be today.
With only snippets of correspondence and reported speech to rely on, it’s hard to judge how Anderson and Murray understood their relationship. In a letter from Anderson to her sister-in-law, Murray was ‘la Directrice without whom I get on badly’. Murray described Anderson as ‘bold, cautious, true and my loving comrade’ in the official history of the hospital she published after the war. We don’t know if their partnership was sexual. But we find occasional, intriguing evidence of Endell Street as an erotically charged space. At Christmas 1917, Murray awarded first prize for best-decorated ward to patients from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps because, as a younger colleague reported, ‘she says she is very fond of girls.’ The following April, Murray wrote to a friend in New York asking for help with the recruitment of new orderlies. She requested fit, healthy young women aged between 19 and 32 and confessed her liking ‘for good-looking ones’. These remarks aren’t proof of a lesbian identity, but it’s clear that the community at Endell Street could encompass same-sex physical desire.
In one important respect, of course, the Endell Street hospital was not a women’s community at all. The vast majority of its patients were wounded men. Close contact with soldiers evidently tempered Anderson’s belief in the moral superiority of women. ‘My admiration for men has gone up so tremendously,’ she wrote from Paris in November 1914. ‘For years at home I had seen only their worst side & now I am seeing a splendid side of courage & self sacrifice for an ideal, that no woman would better.’ Class mattered here, too. Before the war, women doctors had little opportunity to treat male patients and were confined to specialties such as gynaecology, obstetrics and paediatrics. As the well-educated daughters of gentlemen, however, the doctors at Endell Street were secure in their authority over working-class men and this was reflected in their kindly but high-handed bedside manner. At a fundraising tea, Anderson compared her patients to ‘550 large babies’, and remarked that ‘if you have found out the way to treat children – what toys they like, what they like for tea, and what frightens them when going to an operation – you have gone a great way to finding out how to run a military hospital.’ The men were kept occupied with knitting, basket-weaving and needlework; some were let loose on the children’s swings in Russell Square Gardens nearby. A journalist from Tatler likened Anderson and Murray to good horsewomen who used ‘the gift of “hands”’ to deal with difficult patients.
This social distance between male patients and female medical staff also applied to the orderlies, most of whom were young women from well-heeled families hoping for exciting war work but with no prior medical training. Some were collected by chauffeurs at the hospital gates and went for tea at Harrods on their days off. One Australian soldier, who was sent to Endell Street after being injured at Gallipoli, called the Women’s Hospital Corps the ‘What Ho’ Corps. The nurses, by contrast, were more likely to be trained workers with prewar experience. They often resented the praise that Murray lavished on her upper-class volunteers, congratulating them for rolling up their sleeves to clean out bedpans or lift stretchers.
The tensions over class and status within the hospital workforce are suggestive of Anderson and Murray’s blindspots. Though skilled at leveraging army resources, neither woman was a natural when it came to working the power networks and structures of Westminster and Whitehall to their advantage. Others in the suffrage movement possessed these skills, including Frances Balfour and Eleanor Rathbone, who started her career in social work and local government in Liverpool. Murray and Anderson instead ploughed their energies into publicising the work of the hospital and protecting its legacy. After the armistice, they were ferocious in their efforts to remove from view an unflattering picture of the Endell Street operating theatre and to commission a replacement for the Imperial War Museum’s permanent collection. Soon afterwards, Murray wrote her official history of the hospital, Women as Army Surgeons (1920).
Perhaps Murray knew by then that honouring women’s wartime medical achievements would be her most useful contribution, now that the vote had been won. She died in 1923 of bowel cancer, aged 54. As a member of Lady Rhondda’s Six Point Group, Anderson went on to campaign for equal pay and the abolition of marriage bars, and opposed protective labour legislation as well as separate grades for women in the civil service. Moore describes it as ‘radical’, but it was essentially liberal and individualistic. It attracted younger feminists such as Vera Brittain, who was weary of the sex war and demanded only the ‘recognition of women as human beings’.
Murray and Anderson had struggled for that too, but did so through a politics rooted in female community. Feminism remained a major force between the wars, but moved away from the intense homosocial worlds that characterised the prewar life of most middle-class working women. Meanwhile, the unmarried, childless spinster became an object of suspicion or pity. It would be another half-century before the women’s liberation movement would again articulate the radical potential of relationships between women.