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Women in Wartime by Michael Brooke
Introduction WWI WWII: Propaganda WWII: Newsreels WWII: Food Features: 1939-42
Features: 1943 Features: 1944-45 Gainsborough Women Filmmakers    
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WWII: Propaganda
Still from Jane Brown Changes Her Job

Women aircraft workers in Jane
Brown Changes Her Job

Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. The very next day, in line with longstanding plans drawn up by the Committee for Imperial Defence, the government re-established its Ministry of Information, which had previously been wound up, at the tail-end of World War I in 1918. The MoI had two primary aims: the censorship of news media, and the creation of pro-Allied propaganda for both home and overseas audiences.

Given the importance of the cinema as a mass medium (between 1939 and 1946 audiences would climb to a peak of nearly one and a half billion admissions per year, an all-time, unmatchable record), the MoI took a keen interest in the ways in which it could be used for propaganda purposes. Often working in tandem with other ministries (War, Food, Supply, Health, Labour), one of the MoI's main aims was to persuade as many people as possible to make a direct contribution to the war effort.

From the start, the MoI specifically targeted women and even schoolgirls - Tomorrow Is Theirs (1940), a film about school evacuations, devotes its second half to the change in the curriculum of an evacuated girls' school, where needlework has a specific wartime purpose, as does secretarial training and the all-important air raid drill.

Other films dealt specifically with women's work. Jane Brown Changes Her Job (1941) was co-sponsored by the Ministry of Labour and depicts well-spoken woman being encouraged to give up her humdrum job as a typist and go on a government training course with the aim of making Spitfires in an aircraft factory. They Keep The Wheels Turning (1942) was made for the Ministry of War Transport in order to promote the importance of keeping civilian vehicles roadworthy - and stressing that women are perfectly capable of taking on this work. Revealingly, it also pleads with skilled workers not to join the armed forces, as their talents may be more useful at home. Night Shift (1942) looks at a single night at an armaments factory largely staffed by women, whose often forthright opinions pepper the soundtrack. The last of this trio is also the least patronising - the first two are marred by an all too audible surprise on the part of the male narrator that women are even capable of doing these jobs.

The piano recital making up Myra Hess (1945) seems out of place here, but the MoI also had a propagandist purpose in backing it. Hess, along with Vera Lynn, was one of the great living symbols of British patriotism, famously cancelling a tour of America after war broke out in order to arrange live concerts in London (many at the National Gallery) throughout the Blitz. She also made a point of emphasising German music, which helped convey the message that regardless of the atrocities of the Nazi regime, Germany had a culture that was worth preserving and celebrating, and by sponsoring this film of one of her performances (of Beethoven's 'Appassionata' sonata), the MoI showed that the government shared this view.

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