Huner on Andrews, 'Women and Evacuation in the Second World War: Femininity, Domesticity and Motherhood'

Maggie Andrews
Brittany Huner

Maggie Andrews. Women and Evacuation in the Second World War: Femininity, Domesticity and Motherhood. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. 233 pp. $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4411-4068-5; $35.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4411-6411-7. 

Reviewed by Brittany Huner (University of North Texas) Published on H-War (November, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

One of the iconic images of the Second World War in Britain, Maggie Andrews points out, is children boarding trains to the countryside to escape the frequent bombings. Andrews, a professor of cultural history at the University of Worcester, UK, examines the wartime evacuations through the lens of the women involved, from the mothers evacuating their children to the foster mothers in the countryside, to the numerous volunteers required for such a large undertaking. The book gives the women involved agency, instead of presenting them as passive victims. Andrews argues that during Britain’s wartime evacuation the practices and discourses on motherhood changed and adapted as different groups negotiated experiences of wartime evacuation. The public and private spheres of motherhood and domesticity frequently blurred as the war continued.

The decision to evacuate children was shaped by a variety of practical, cultural, and emotional factors. While a majority of the evacuations took place after the start of the Blitz, many evacuated to safer locations at the beginning of the war during the “People’s Evacuation,” as Andrews calls it. Many women agonized over the decision to send children away and unfortunately, there were several cases in which children died from illness or injury while evacuated. As the Blitz continued, the government produced propaganda to help encourage evacuation with the message that children would be safer in the country and even benefit from the experience in health and character. Andrews points out that much of the reluctance came from the realization that “the government asked them to do something that in other circumstances would signify their failure as a mother” (p. 53). The public sphere continued to affect domesticity through the evacuations as the government needed to be involved in different aspects of the project. One of the main examples Andrews frequently cites is the issuing of supplies. The stipend that foster parents received did not cover everything and many families needed clothes and other supplies. Additionally, Andrews notes that the emotional stress of evacuation led to increased bedwetting in children. This normally private part of child-rearing became a public issue as foster parents needed to acquire rubber sheets for their charges.

The evacuation also led to the increase of “experts” in childhood. As part of this increase, ideas and theories on childhood and mothering became public concerns. People gave more focus to the psychological development of younger children and questioned how involved adults should be in childhood. This also affected the role of teachers during the war. More women had already entered the teaching profession in the late nineteenth century, but the shortages of men during World War II meant more women, especially older women, took on those jobs. During the evacuation, schools were used to help organize the transportation of children. Teachers helped monitor student welfare and became a main emotional connection for the evacuees. As a result, teachers took on more of a maternal and emotional role in students’ lives, representing the shifting relationship between public and private spheres of childcare.

Andrews begins her book with the context of evacuation and the external influences involved. The second half examines the experiences of specific groups of women participating in evacuation: mothers who sent children away, mothers who evacuated with children, foster mothers, teachers, welfare workers, and women’s volunteer groups. In the final chapter, Andrews briefly looks at the myths and memorialization of evacuation during the war and modern times.

The source base Andrews draws from is impressive. Much of it comes from interviews and oral histories from various sources. One of the main sources is the Staffordshire Archive and Museum Service’s project, “Children on the Move: Evacuation in Staffordshire,” which collected personal accounts of evacuation in Staffordshire. She also uses wartime films from the Ministry of Information (MOI) and other propaganda films. These include Village School (1940), Britannia Is a Woman (1940), and Countrywomen (1941). The MOI used the films to help reassure families, both sending and receiving children, about the evacuations. In the chapter on mythology, Andrews examines media during the war into the present day that addressed evacuation. These include “evacuation novels” aimed at children, movies, and television shows. Andrews observes that throughout the changes in mythology, in many cases women are frequently absent in the stories, and when they do appear they are judged the harshest and categorized into “good or bad mothers,” whether they are biological mothers or not.

Andrews’s research represents an expansion of the history of evacuation in her analysis of one of the main groups involved that tend to be overlooked. She brings women into focus and continues the traditions of women’s history that portrays women as active participants versus passive victims of circumstance. The book also contributes to the continuously growing field of the history of “ordinary people.”

This book is an especially valuable source for those studying civilians during World War II and women’s history. Andrews’s examination of the relationship between the state and domesticity also makes this book an excellent read for those interested in political history. The final chapter on mythology and evacuation would be of interest to anyone interested in memory studies and popular culture. It would be interesting to see Andrews’s work, either on women’s evacuation experiences or the mythology of evacuation, further expanded on in the future. All in all, the book is a great asset to the history of women and ordinary people during World War II.

Citation: Brittany Huner. Review of Andrews, Maggie, Women and Evacuation in the Second World War: Femininity, Domesticity and Motherhood. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL:

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