VIU student investigates how women experienced trauma during the First World War

VIU education student Danielle Cossey-Sutton’s research sought to understand and recognize the role of women during the war, both at home and on the frontlines. || VIU photo
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There is a gap in First World War research about how women experienced that traumatic time. 

Danielle Cossey-Sutton, bachelor of education student at Vancouver Island University (VIU), spent part of the last academic year investigating this aspect of history.

“Historical scholars admit it is difficult to explore gender studies during the First World War since many women didn’t speak of the war once it ended and/or they returned home,” said Cossey-Sutton. “During and post-First World War, women were often forgotten about in discussions about their trauma and their experiences of war. This made my paper more difficult to write, but also, and most importantly, that much more important to write about. I ended up focusing my thesis around using letter-writing as a window into understanding psychological and physical trauma and war.”

A major part of Cossey-Sutton’s research, completed in April, was surveying resources from the Canadian Letters and Images Project (CLIP) and developing her own research questions relating to women and trauma during the First World War. She received financial support from a Mitacs Research Training Award, and matching funds from the Heritage Management Centre, according to VIU.

“The result was an impressive piece of original historical research — something that we might typically expect to see at the graduate level,” said Dr. Whitney Wood, Canada Research Chair in the Historical Dimensions of Women’s Health and a VIU history professor, who co-supervised Cossey-Sutton’s research. “Mitacs awards offer students valuable opportunities to gain experience in hands-on research, and for students in the humanities, these opportunities can be few and far between.”

Cossey-Sutton sought to understand and recognize the role of women during the war, both at home and on the frontlines, and the gender experience through connection and communication during wartime. Her research revealed that the traumatic experiences of female workers, both as nurses and nursing aids, were overlooked because they were not soldiers.

“Women on the frontlines 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.

Throughout her project, Cossey-Sutton consulted CLIP as much as possible, considering it an integral part of her research and project.

“CLIP provided the opportunity to hear the voice of women in a time where women weren’t really part of society outside the home,” she said. “The letters provided an intimate look into the world during 1914-1918 and gave me an opportunity to see women, some younger than I am, as human beings who happened to live during wartime.”

One thing that Cossey-Sutton observed was how the need for human connection is no different than our needs today.

“Society has learned, especially during the pandemic, how important it is to remain connected to our families and friends,” she said. “Life didn’t stop during wartime; it was simply reinvented. 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 emails, there is an intimacy with writing. Writing provided an outlet of normalcy and ensured that relationships were protected and preserved.”

Dr. Stephen Davies, project director of CLIP, who co-supervised her research, said Cossey-Sutton did a remarkable job putting together a complex research project.

“The depth of research, and the organization and analysis of that research to create a final paper, was one of the best examples of undergraduate research that I have seen,” he said. “While the letters of CLIP have been used to examine numerous aspects of the Canadian wartime experience, they have never been used to look specifically at the female experience. I was impressed with what Danielle was able to pull from the collections, not simply from female letters but also the letters of soldiers.”

Cossey-Sutton believes understanding the effects of trauma, mental illness and addiction gives not only historians, but also educators, psychologists, sociologists and political scientists the opportunity to engage with humanity on an entirely new level.

“Humanity is messy and complicated and to move forward and be better, we must address the past and learn how we can support the future,” she said.

Cossey-Sutton presented at the 2021 VIU CREATE conference last April and won three awards. She was also part of CREATE: STARs – Short Talks About Research, which involved presenting to high school students about VIU research opportunities.

“Danielle is a thorough, thoughtful and motivated student, and one of the most impressive undergraduate researchers I’ve encountered at VIU,” said Wood. “I’m looking forward to continuing to work with her to publish her findings. I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

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