Marching Away from War – A Different Vision in Alice Coats’ ‘Monstrous Regiment’
I’m delighted to publish third in a new series of monthly blogs, written by Geraldine Roberts-Stone. As part of her PhD research, Geraldine examined some of the poems penned by Land Girls during the Second World War. You can read Geraldine’s other posts in the series here.
The ‘Monstrous Regiment’, by Alice Coats, published in ‘Poems of the Land Army‘, p.35.
What hosts of women everywhere I see!
I’m sick to death of them – and they of me.
(The few remaining men are small and pale-
War lends a spurious value to the male.)
Mechanics are supplanted by their mothers;
Aunts take the place of artisans and others;
Wives sell the sago, daughters drive the van,
Even the mansion is without a man!
Females are farming who were frail before,
Matrons attending meetings by the score,
Maidens are minding multiple machines,
And virgins vending station-magazines.
Dames, hoydens, wenches, harridans and hussies
Cram to congestion all the trams and buses;
Misses and grandmas, mistresses and nieces,
Infest bombed buildings, picking up the pieces.
Girls from the South and lassies from the North,
Sisters and sweethearts, bustle back and forth.
The newsboy and the boy who drives the plough:
Postman and milkman – all are ladies now.
Doctors and engineers – yes, even these-
Poets and politicians, all are shes.
(The very beasts that in the meadows browse
Are ewes and mares, heifers and hens and cows…)
All, doubtless, worthy to a high degree;
But oh, how boring! Yes, including me.
After her service in the WLA, Alice Coats was one of a number of women who stayed within the field (pardoning the pun). She forged a celebrated career in horticulture and horticultural visual art. However, the small number of poems she wrote are, arguably, perhaps the most important of those produced by “land girls” during WWII.
Interestingly, the title of ‘The Monstrous Regiment’ is placed in inverted commas, implying that Coats sourced this from elsewhere. In 1558, the Scottish Protestant preacher John Knox produced a treatise entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. This was a rallying cry against what Knox perceived as the ungodly outrage of female authority, encompassed by Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I.
Rich in Old Testament references to the wrath of God, not to mention turmoil and plagues resulting from female rule, Knox sees “our country set forth as a prey to foreign nations,” with bloodshed the inevitable result.
Centuries later, Allied propaganda of WWII viewed female behaviour as placing the nation in a similarly dangerous position, with women depicted as prone to traitorous gossip, purveyors of sexually transmitted diseases and the embodiment of death to soldiers (see Gubar in Higonnet et al, 1987, p.241-245).
Coats’ opening line appears to take a derogatory view of the female sex, admitting to being “sick to death” of the sight of women. However, the reality portrayed throughout is one of co-operation, peace and harmony as women who were “frail before” take on all roles in a unified society. Women of the North and South work harmoniously in contrast to the enmity of the Allied and Axis powers.
Beneath the humorous tone, Coats makes a mockery of depictions (both medieval and contemporary) that pigeonhole women as either incapable and in need of protecting, the booty of war, or as downright lethal to the nation.
Instead, Coats’ regiment of women, aided by a brisk, marching tone in the rhyme scheme, presents the alternative vision – that of a WLA member, a non-military, non-hierarchical “army,” engaged in production of food and reclamation of the land as opposed to involvement in killing and destruction.
Coats’ productive, all-female society reflects key arguments of the period. Irene Ward MP, in a 1941 parliamentary debate, maintained that “practical women of experience could have avoided some of the blunders made in war” (Goldsmith, 1946, p.100).
Similarly, a 1939 meeting of women’s groups had reached the conclusion that “universally women feel that men are responsible for the war…as every opportunity for co-operative prevention has been wasted” (Minns, 1980, p.3).
Instead, Coats offers “Misses and grandmas, mistresses and nieces” who “infest bombed buildings, picking up the pieces.” So much for Knox’s prediction of female authority resulting in the “subversion of good order, of all equity and justice;” Coats portrays exactly the reverse, with women in the forefront of repairing and driving forward a society still reeling from the destruction of WWI let alone able to withstand a further and global conflict.
‘The Monstrous Regiment,’ whilst humorous on the surface, is a multi-layered, complex poem with radical, far-reaching implications as Coats reverses Knox, advocating the drastic need for social change and a reappraisal of women’s roles. The poem is an example of what feminist critics Gilbert and Gubar (1980, p.72) have referred to as women writers talent for “subtlety as subversion.”
Gilbert and Gubar (1980) The Madwoman in the Attic New Haven: Yale University Press
Goldsmith, M (1944) Women at War London: Lindsay Drummond
Gubar, S in Higonnet, M et al (eds.) (1987) Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars New Haven: Yale University Press
Knox, J (1558) The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women
Minns, R (1980) Bombers and Mash: The Domestic Front 1939-45 London: Virago