Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Non-Fiction Review: Bomber Girls by M J Foreman

This was a frustrating one. I picked Bomber Girls up to learn more about the Air Transport Auxillary in Britian during WWII, where civilian pilots - both female pilots and male pilots ineligble for service - shuttled planes across the country, and sometimes to the Continent, so that they would be where the RAF needed them, when they needed them. 

With its plucky heroines battling against the Germans, their dangerous and unwieldy planes AND institutionalised prejudice, Bomber Girls had the raw ingredients of a ripper. But it wasn't, because it talks of the the women and their work in ways that are alternatingly patronising, sensationalist, and just plain dull, not to mention the dubious handling of the sexism the female pilots faced. 

It is not until 16% of the way through the book that the institutionalised sexism the women faced is directly mentioned, with the use of the words "gender bias", which is then allowed to fall by the wayside again until 39%, when the same term is used again. Here are those two excerpts: 
Whilst forbidden to go into combat, and never required to drop bombs, the 166 women of the ATA flew right through the barriers of gender bias in such a noble way they couldn’t help but play a significant role in securing Britain’s eventual superiority in the air. Thanks to the political guile of Miss Gower they were also the first collective of women to earn the same salary as their male colleagues doing the same job. (16%) 
The fact that young women like Curtis got to fly at all, and got to pilot the RAF’s biggest aircraft, remains a miracle if we consider the disconcerting whiff of gender bias around at the time. (39%)
These excerpts capture the overall tone and framing of the book pretty well, in my opinion. Both dismiss the institutionalised sexism of the time in their phrasing, thus absolving the men, instutitions and hierarchies who did their utmost to prevent the creation of the female branch of the ATA, and, once it was created, to place as many roadblocks in their way as possible. In the first, Pauline Gower's relentless campaign for the inclusion of female pilots in the ATA, and, thereafter, for better working conditions for them, is dismissed as 'political guile'. Although this is perhaps not the most overt example, this is part of a broader pattern of presenting the female ATA pilots not as pilots, but as women (or 'girls' as Foreman often writes), 'socialites' or dilettantes. (I consider 'guile' here to be gendered language, because I cannot imagine that a man, in a comparative situation, would have a word with such a negative connotation attached to his behaviour, instead of a neutral one like 'skillful'). The use of the word 'miracle' in the second example is again agency-robbing and makes the institutionalised sexism perpetrator-less crime.

It's actually quite impressive the lengths to which Foreman has gone to avoid tackling the sexism systematically. One has to read between the lines in a lot of places to understand the links between what is being relayed and the instense misogyny the women faced. Similarly, stories from the women themselves that make the sexism overt are treated as humourous anecdotes.

There is also a distinction in the way the female and male pilots are characterised. The female pilots come off as glib and vain, and are frequently saved by the actions of their male counterparts, who are presented as skilful and heroic. I have no doubt that many of the female pilots were glib and concerned with their outward appearance, as these are both mechanisms through which they could manage the sexism with which they were faced. But that doesn't excuse the way these narratives - which were also used by the media and other sources to paint the women as dilettantes - are reproduced in a 21st Century text.

Foreman does make some genuine attempts to tackle the subject of sexism, just as there are stories that do not fit the pattern I've described above. However, in both cases, the instances to the contrary greatly outweigh those that do fit into these discourses, and are consistent enough to cancel out any such attempts. 

Bomber Girls initally caught my interest because last year I read His Very Own Girl by Carrie Lofty, in which the heroine is an ATA pilot. Ultimately, I think that His Very Own Girl succeeds where Bomber Girls fails, as it shows the sexism of the time and the every day life of the female ATA pilots in excellent detail, as well as having a satisfying central romance. 

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