Pat Barker's Regeneration
Critical Contexts

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"Munition-ettes: Independence or Patriotism?"

Meghan Harris (Spring 2003)

Pat Barker's Regeneration focuses on the troubled soldiers' mental status during World War One. Barker introduces the feelings soldiers had about the war and military's involvement with the war effort. While Regeneration mainly looks at the male perspective, Barker includes a small but important female presence. While Second Lieutenant Billy Prior breaks away from Craiglockhart War Hospital for an evening, he finds women at a cafe in the Edinburgh district (Barker 86). He comes to the understanding that the women are munitions workers. Women's involvement in war work in Regeneration shows the potential growth in women's independence, but at the expense of restrictions placed on men while they were on the front lines of battle.

Munition-ettes during World War One took the places of their husbands, fathers, and brothers in order for the men to take up positions in the armed services (Braybon 45). Women working in munitions factories were mainly of the lower class; yet, roughly 9 percent of women working in the factories came from the middle to upper classes (Robb 45). Munition-ettes held responsibilities for making and filling shells and cartridges along with other basic cleaning duties, driving, and intense labor ("Twentieth Century"). They acquired some engineering skills that helped them in producing various weapons ("Twentieth Century"). Munition-ettes took the deployed soldiers' places in the factories as a way to show their patriotism as well as to earn a better living than in domestic jobs.

Munition-ettes suffered the flaws in the system of gender bias when looking at equal pay: "many [women] left low-skill, low-wage jobs, especially in domestic service, for better paying skilled labor in factories and workshops" (Robb 40). Trade unions supported equal pay among men and women only if women were fired as soon as the war ended (Robb 42). Even by supporting equal pay, women still earned less then their male counterparts, but found the pay much higher than the domestic jobs they left. Equal pay may not have been as equal as women hoped, but their experience and reason for working in the factories allowed them to feel more distinguished than working in domesticated services.

While men argued against women working in factories, the women were taking full strides to prove their strength and abilities while working under harsh and almost unbearable conditions. Women worked long hours exposed to chemicals and explosives that caused damaging health conditions. The most noticeable health problem came from TNT poisoning that caused jaundice (Robb 43). The symptoms women suffered were pains below the xiphisternum, loss of appetite, nausea, constipation, dermatitis, irritability, depression, and some change in menstruation (Thom 124). Under harsh conditions, women continued to prove their abilities though suffering with health ailments.

Barker introduces Sarah Lumb, Lizzy, Madge, and Betty as munition-ettes in order to show the experiences of the home front effort in the plot (Barker 87). Barker uses Sarah to help Billy Prior and readers understand the monotonous, harsh conditions of the factories, and a woman's desire to expand her economic status. In this scene, readers are presented with Sarah's background as a servant who finds munitions work more reliable for a decent wage. Sarah's yellow skin also uncovers the physical ailments suffered from working in munitions factories. She becomes less of a patriotic figure than one seeking independence: she moves away from her mother's restrictions and her job as a servant in order to find better wages. Barker presents Sarah as a woman desiring a better position during war that enables her to earn a higher paying job.

The presence of women in the novel shows the potential for women to grow independently, but at the same time providing evidence of their independence at the expense of men's restrictions while at the front lines. Prior experiences a restriction in terms of his emotions while Sarah grows increasingly independent from her increased wages. The restrictive nature of Prior's emotions follows him throughout the novel and is especially prevalent when conversation between Sarah and him begins. From the beginning, Sarah dominates their conversation. Her domination over communication proves she gained independence and strength while working in the factory because males do not oppress her. By contrast, Prior's experience in the army restricted him from opening up to a woman with whom he eventually falls in love. Prior's inability to open up to Sarah results from his restrictions.

While Prior's emotions were restricted while on the front lines, women like Sarah in munitions factories found their independence through economic growth. Sarah candidly speaks of her earnings before and after the war began. At one point, she explains to Prior of her desire to work in the munitions factory in response to her mother’s disapproval. She explains that her decision came the "same night [she] was packing [her] bags. No testimonial. And you know what that would’ve meant before the war?" (Barker 91). Sarah's job as a servant would have kept her from experiencing more of life as well as less pay for a domestic service; she had to leave. We hear how Sarah "worked in a factory…making detonators. Twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, but she liked the work…and it was well paid. 'Fifty bob a week…[she] was earning ten bob before the war'" (Barker 89). Her munitions job enabled her to find a source of income she desired. Sarah's independence to earn a living on her own shows a significant growth of independence in many women during the war.

Barker's use of munition-ettes in Regeneration show’s how women found their independence through increased wages, but at the expense of men's restrictions while on the front lines. Sarah's character gives insight into Barker's view that women were not necessarily interested in patriotism, as the research suggests, but that their interests were more for increased wages. Munition-ettes, according to this view, wanted to simply find a different social class. Whether munition-ettes served as home front patriots or strictly worked to increase their economic status, all these women were a testimonial to the home front effort as well as the effort to further their independence.

Works Cited

Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1993.

Braybon, Gail. Women Workers in the First World War. Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981.

Robb, George. British Culture and the First World War. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

“Twentieth Century: Military ­ The First World War 1914-18.” Dartford Town Archive. 13 April 2003 <>.

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