Express & Star

Peter Rhodes on women at war, a lesson from Scotland and the question that won't go away

Vladimir Putin announces he is moving nuclear weapons into Belarus, on Ukraine's doorstep.

Better than men? Women of the ATS.

Ukraine, facing a direct nuclear threat, must be worried. Belarus, exposing itself to Ukrainian attacks on its nuclear bases, should also be alarmed.

But what about Russia itself? The trouble with nuclear weapons is nuclear fallout. The radiation over Ukraine one day could be over Moscow the next. Surely not even Putin would risk killing his own people with a deadly dust blowin' in the wind.

Wartime files from the 1940s reveal that RAF chiefs ordered extra tissues for women’s units, in the belief that “they’re going to burst into tears all the time”.

That comment, uncovered by historian Sarah-Louise Miller for a new book, reinforces the stereotype of males routinely underestimating women. But were such dinosaurish views the norm all those years ago?

By chance, in the week that Dr Miller revealed her material, I found a booklet issued to soldiers during the war, examining the performance of women’s units of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) at a mixed anti-aircraft battery. Although the booklet seems to approach women like some rare and unpredictable species, it concludes that: “Women learn more quickly than men and … maintained calm in action and in difficult circumstances.”

One commander wrote: “They are quite as steady, if not steadier than the men.” Tissues? What tissues?

I came away from reading that booklet with the depressing thought that those ATS women serving with men in the 1940s were probably more fulfilled and better respected than some women working with men today.

Eighty-odd years later, gender is still on the agenda. Having seen Nicola Sturgeon's catastrophic fall from power after foolishly wrapping herself in the flag of gender reform, Keir Starmer admits: “What we learned from Scotland is that you don’t make changes that you can’t bring the public along with.”

Or to put it another way, you don't embrace gender policies that the majority of voters find at best ludicrous and at worst dangerous.

Time is running short for Labour to work out a credible gender reform policy for the next general election, especially as it is still struggling with the basic questions. Such as, what is a woman?