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What do the female characters in Regeneration represent about 1917 British society?

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Many of the characters are male, with the exception of four women: Sarah Lumb, Ada Lumb, Mrs. Prior, and Lizzie. Sarah Lumb doesn't believe that true love can exist between a man and a woman, though she tries to force it while she is the girlfriend to Billy Prior. She works in the munitions factory in Scotland and is shielded from the horrors of war. She doesn't agree with the societal rules of sending men out to war and sees it as their own failure when they are forced to face the consequences of the war. Ada Lumb also doesn't agree that true love can exist between men and women. However, she sees a benefit to marriage: her daughters will receive a more stable life from their marriages to men. As a mother, she fears for her daughters in the eyes of the sexually repressive and sexist society if 1917. These women are progressive for their time, as they understand that men can be used as a tool for survival, and they do not necessarily submit to the strict gender rules society has placed on them. Mrs. Prior is protective of her son and also challenges the gender norms for her time. She is blamed for raising a "sensitive" son, as she pushes him to achieve in life beyond his class and station. Lizzie is a fellow munitions worker and a friend to Sarah Lumb. She sees freedom and happiness while her abusive husband is away at war. She relishes in the time away and fears his early return. From Lizzie and other women in the munitions factory, we can see that there are many different kinds of wars being fought. This disproves the sexist stereotype that women are not strong enough for war.

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Sarah Lumb, Prior's girlfriend, represents the "New Woman" who developed in World War I and in the 1920s. She works in a munitions plant and enjoys greater freedom than women had in the past. She becomes involved in a sexual relationship with Billy Prior, though they are not married--something that is still considered taboo in some circles.

Her mother, Ada Lumb, wheedles this information out of Sarah and criticizes Sarah for allowing herself to be taken advantage of. When Sarah protests that the relationship is her business, her mother angrily answers, "Would be if you were gunna cope with the consequences" (page 193). Ada advises her daughter to "put a value on herself" and "keep your knees together" (page 194). While Sarah is venturing into the world of the new and sexually freer woman, her mother reminds her that the culture of 1917 is still very repressive with regard to gender and sexuality. Women are still expected to remain virgins until marriage, and women like Ada feel that their daughters have to refrain from premarital sex to coerce men into marrying them.

Although Sarah makes some strides towards being a freer woman than her mother, she and her fellow female munitions workers are still subject to their husbands' and boyfriends' desires and wishes, particularly in relation to the war. For example, the husband of Lizzie, another munitions worker, threw "her into a state of shock by announcing, in his last letter, that he was hoping to come home on leave soon" (page 110). The war has given Lizzie some freedom, and she hopes that her husband does not return. She says about the beginning of the war, "Peace broke out. The only little bit of peace I've ever had" (page 110). Lizzie celebrates the war as an opportunity to live in peace and independently from her husband, who has a drinking problem. In addition, another munitions worker tries to give herself an abortion with a coat hanger, which shows that women are still subject to harsh judgments and realities if they choose to have sex outside of marriage. While the war provides some economic and sexual freedom for the female characters in the novel, they are still ruled by strict gender roles.

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