"War Horse" is primarily the story of men, which may be why, when I pick up histories of The Great War these days, I tend to be interested in the women. Here's the extent of the obsession: I recently read not one but two full biographies of Jeannette Rankin: "Jeannette Rankin, America's Conscience," by Norma Smith, and "Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman," by James J. Lopach. As you may remember from a high-school history class, Rankin was the first woman in the U.S. Congress and the only member of that body to have voted against the entry of the United States into both World War I in 1917 and World War II in 1941. My favorite of her utterances: "You can no more win a war than you can an earthquake."
I find, however, that it is not the U.S. women involved with World War I who most sustain my interest: we were only in the war for a year and a half. No, it is the British stories. America has nothing quite like the Pankhursts, for example: mother Emmeline and daughters Sylvia and Christabel. Their family name may come down to us as nearly synonymous with the struggle for women's suffrage in Britain during the Edwardian age, but - unlike in most plays - the second act of the story is the more compelling. When The Great War broke out in 1914, Emmeline and Christabel - like many progressives afraid of being sidelined from the spotlight during the conflict - became enthusiastic supporters of the war drive. Sylvia, by contrast, remained in opposition. Her mother's about-face seemed to betray everything the Pankhursts had once believed in. Emmeline, however, would have none of it. "I am ashamed," she wrote to Sylvia, "to know where you...stand." Mother and daughter would seldom speak again once the rift was public.
Perhaps the most engaging woman to emerge from the war, however, was Charlotte Despard. Adam Hochschild makes her a central figure in his fluent, highly readable recent book, "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918." Born in 1844, in middle age Despard, in her words, "determined to study for myself the great problems of society." She befriended Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor, and forged a career of identifying with the poor and disenfranchised. Owing to a close relationship with one of the war's chief wagers (you'll have to read the book to find out his identity: I don't believe in spoilers), Despard initially curbed her pacifism when the fighting broke out in 1914.
But she couldn't be kept down for long. In April, 1915, along with Sylvia Pankhurst and 180 other British women, Despard tried to attend the Women's International Peace Congress at The Hague in Holland. In the letters' columns of newspapers, outraged readers thundered against this "pow-wow with the fraus." But neither Pankhurst nor Despard could be silenced. Hochschild calls Despard "indiscriminate in her enthusiasms" but admires her antiwar stand more than he does the blustering of some of the men in her personal life. As for Pankhurst, in the 1930s she opposed Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and became a friend of that country's leader Haile Selassie. When she died in 1960, he gave her a full state funeral. It's quite a life.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.