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Old letters provide ‘window’ for VIU student’s research into women’s wartime experiences

VIU education student examines trauma on the front lines of First World War
Danielle Cossey-Sutton, a VIU bachelor of education student, used online resources to research the traumas experienced by women during the First World War. (Vancouver Island University photo)

A Vancouver Island University student is researching the impacts of the First World War via women’s perspectives.

History teachers admit that gender studies in the First World War are difficult, as few women broached the topic after the war concluded, said Danielle Cossey-Sutton, a bachelor of education student, in a press release. A majority of her work consisted of poring through material from the university’s Canadian Letters and Images Project, an online digital collection of wartime letters, pictures and diaries, the press release stated.

“During and post-First World War, women were often forgotten about in discussions about their trauma and their experiences of war,” said Cossey-Sutton. “This made my paper more difficult to write, but also, and most importantly, that much more important to write about.”

She ended up focusing her thesis around using letter writing “as a window into understanding” psychological and physical trauma and war, she said. As her research progressed, she began to see that the “traumatic experiences of female workers, both as nurses and nursing aids” were neglected as they weren’t soldiers.

“Women on the front lines danced intimately with the line of war, where they experienced physical, emotional and sexual traumas every day, yet were dismissed by male doctors,” she said.

While material from the letters project was from the 20th century, there are aspects that are applicable to today, according to Cossey-Sutton. During the COVID-19 pandemic, society has learned the importance of remaining in contact with friends and family, she said.

“Life didn’t stop during wartime; it was simply reinvented,” Cossey-Sutton said. “People used letter writing to make sense of their experiences; they wrote to each other to work through their traumatic experiences and maintain relationships outside of the war. Like today’s texting and e-mails, there is an intimacy with writing. Writing provided an outlet of normalcy and ensured that relationships were protected and preserved.”

Whitney Wood, VIU history professor and Canada Research Chair in the historical dimensions of women’s health, and Stephen Davies, VIU Canadian Letters and Images Project director, supervised Cossey-Sutton’s work. Wood said the historical research is impressive, especially at the undergraduate level.

Cossey-Sutton’s work was made possible through funding via the Mitacs Research Training Award, as well as matching funds from Heritage Management Centre.

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