Plate 5.1 Hired girls leaving for a new life, 1947
Despite these anxieties, under the first scheme, initiated in 1946, more than 1,000 women were recruited, under a programme rather ludicrously designated the Balt Cygnet scheme, or as one of the women I interviewed dismissively called it, ‘that white swan thing’. It is interesting to contemplate the image that the
recruiters assumed would be associated with this name – perhaps a vision of vulnerable yet attractive young swans, redolent of purity, sailing across the water to the UK and emerging from their drab protective colouring as cygnets into the full beauty of an adult swan under the guidance of the British state or public? While there are clear connections between this imagery and the differential construction of post-war migrants explored above – their whiteness for example – the appropriateness of the label for the underfed and anxious young women so recruited stretches the imagination. The theorisation of the significance of whiteness is a relatively recent development in critical social theory and until recently typically has been assumed to be an advantage in the labour market (Roediger 1991). As Linke (1999), among others, has argued whiteness is both unmarked and invisible and yet is a mark of domination and superiority in the construction of racialised hierarchies. Thus, she has argued:
Whiteness therefore represents purity, spirit rather than body and, as Dyer has argued white people are ‘socialised to believe the fantasy that whiteness represents goodness and all that is benign and non-threatening’ (Dyer 1988, p 45) in comparison to the dark skin of ‘others’. Recent work by Bonnett (1997, 2000) and Dyer (1997), among others, has begun to unpack this polar dichotomy and the taken for granted associations of superiority and inferiority, constructing a new research agenda. In this agenda the question of the meaning of whiteness and its implications is being probed by research exploring the cultural and institutional conventions and practices that continue to normalize white invisibility. As Linke has noted: ‘Until quite recently, the multiple ways in which whiteness has been politically manipulated, culturally mediated and historically constructed have in large part been ignored’ (Linke 1999, p 28).