Women of REME: Tracking down REME women in the Museum’s collections
The first port of call in creating a successful museum exhibition is looking at what’s already in your collection. Though the REME Museum holds nearly 130,000 across our archive and object collections, preparations for the REME Museum’s new exhibition, Women of REME, uncovered some gaps in our knowledge of Corps history.
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that as women were and continue to be a minority in REME, as well as the British Army as a whole, donations of material related to REME women are uncommon. Over the years the Museum has received a small number of donations of archival material from women who served with REME in World War Two. Notably we hold material related to several women who served with REME as Radar Maintenance Officers and trained at Petersham. This includes Auxiliary Territorial Service Officers, Junior Commander Marjorie Inkster and Subaltern Susan Burges, whose stories are explored in the exhibition.
The Museum’s archive does not reveal much about what it was like to be a non-commissioned female soldier, working in a mixed-gender unit in this period. Subaltern Burges speculates on the experience of a female ‘craftswoman’ she encountered in a biographical document she sent to the Museum in the 1990s.
‘I was only to realise later how hard it must have been for her … to have survived the sexism of the men she worked with … with their teasing and innuendos … her technical skills were belittled.’
If the wartime experiences of such women were truly so unpleasant then it is perhaps unlikely they would engage with the Corps Museum. Whatever the cause, we don’t have much information about female non-Officers who served before 1990 and this is reflected in an Officer bias in the women featured in the exhibition.
REME women who served before women were formally integrated into the Corps may also have chosen to donate relics of their service to another museum. For many years there was a Women’s Royal Army Corps Museum which women who had served with the WRAC or its predecessor service branches could have donated to. This collection was moved in large part to the National Army Museum when the WRAC disbanded in 1992.
The archival material we do hold, together with conversations with women who served with REME while still, officially, members of the ATS or WRAC, demonstrate that while some considered themselves REME above all else, others took pride in their other cap badge. The latter group may not have considered the Museum as a home for the relics that accumulate over the course of a career and, if they chose to donate to a museum, may have chosen another one.
This exhibition was created quite quickly, as exhibitions go, so there has not been the opportunity to investigate the holdings of other museums in any great depth. One of the things we will be doing during the exhibition’s run is following up with the National Army Museum to see whether the collection they received from the defunct WRAC Museum contains material related to women who served with REME.
We will also be looking to reach out to women who served with REME who have not previously shared their story. The Museum tends to receive historical material from people later in life, sometimes decades after their military service has come to an end, or even from the children or grandchildren of REME personnel. Donations of material from recent decades or from those currently serving are rarer which means it has been difficult to tell the story of women who served more recently. Over the last few months we’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a range of inspirational women, from Craftsmen to Brigadiers, who have helped us understand what it’s like to be a woman in REME today. However, everyone’s experience is different and it would be wonderful if the exhibition reflected the REME careers of as many women as possible.
To facilitate this, one wall of the exhibition is given over to a ‘vision board’: a big cork board with space for lots of photos, quotes and news clippings. We’ve gathered material on a few ladies to get things started but it is a pretty massive board so there is plenty of room for lots more stories. We are interested in hearing from women who worked with REME during any period but particularly women who have served since the end of gender-segregated service or who are still serving today. Whatever your rank, whatever your trade we would love to hear from you. To get involved you can fill out a short survey at this link. Alternatively you can send thoughts on the experience of being a Woman of REME and any snapshots you would like to share to Kimberly Day at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can view Women of REME from 23 April to 5 October 2019. Admission to the exhibition is include with your ticket to the Museum.