Hallie Rubenhold broke into the true crime scene and riperology in 2019, and caused quite the stir. What was so shocking about Hallie’s take on the ultimate cold case? Had she found definative proof that connected Jack the Ripper to the royal family or the Masonic Lodge? Was there a whole new theory about who committed those highly violent crimes? No. She sent shock waves through the dedicated followers of the twists and turns of trying to solve a cold case over a hundred years later, by focusing on the victims. The five women who the ripper had killed and who previously had been dismissed as just “prostitutes.” Rubenhold instead paints a picture of each woman which is more whole and rounder, and in it gives us a glimps into how easy it could be to fall from grace in an era where there was no social saftey net.
For many it was only after Rubenhold pointed out how deficient any analyasis of the Jack the Ripper crimes were without a bigger picture of his victims lives, that they were able to see this. So ingrained in our culture it was to focus solely on the purpertraitor. It is one of those truths though that once seen, cannot be unseen. And it’s simplicity, is what leads one to see that indeed there is a truth there.
Rubenhold is back hosting the Bad Woman’s podcasts second season, and it is one that is as likely to upset people. Not because she and co-host criminologist Alice Finnes are rehabitlitating women who had previously been seen in only a reductive light, but because of the era on which they are shinning a light on. The blackout, was when London, and much of Britain, to avoid the bombing campaign of Nazi Germany known as the Blitz, would shut off most of it’s lights, in a nation wide blackout.
For many of us our image of the blackout is garnered from film, tv and books. We see it as a time where ordinary people showed extraordinary courage and bravery. This of course is true. However it remains a hallmark of maturity and wisdom to be able to hold opposing things as both being truth at the same time. The opposition that Finnes and Rubenhold present to us is that the blackout was also a time of great danger for women.
It is well known that the vast majority of crimes are crimes of opportunity, and the daily blackouts must have been the ultimate opportunity for anyone with less than honest intentions to find cover and get away with terrible crimes. Bad Women: The Black Out Ripper follows a series of murders across London, which show the hallmark of a serial killer. However amoung those murders there is also a litnay of domestic abuse, sexual assault, harrasment and rape. Often not commited by men who were obvious criminals, wearing an eyemask and carrying a bag with the word SWAG stamped across it, but from men in the uniforms of the British forces.
One of the questions which could have been more developed is why we have not heard more about those who when the opportunity presented itself used the circumstances of war, and the trust put in their uniform, for their own selfish ends? Just as there are opposing views of the blackout and the charactors of people within it, there are differing views on this question too. If a time machine meant we could ask people from this specific past many of them would not recognise sexual assault or harassment in the way we do now, so much having changed in eighty years and a few generations. Others, with some clarity, did not think they would believed, something that unfortunately has not changed for many women today. Still others would make the assumption that the women had done something to invite her assault, and absolve the men of wrong doing in the strong vein of homosociality that runs through our culture.
All these reasons led on however to more questions. Why have we, with the historical distance from these events not been able to be more pragmatic and honest in our assessment of how women were treated in that period? Again the reasons we come across are probably also very complex. While for younger generations the second world war will feel firmly in the past, there are still those alive who if they were not active during the war grew up in it’s shadow, with their parents generation dealing with the trauma and difficulty of surviving war with little to no understanding or mental health or support.
While some countries have worked hard to reflect on the part they played in the rise of fascisim, that has never been the case in Britain, and the pockets of people of all classes who marched with Oswald Mosley or quietly thought Hitler was right, has never been fully acknowledged and explored. If we are unable to look at ourselves and our past squarely in the face, it is no wonder people also want to brush the terrible treatment of women by men in uniform under the carpet.
It is an unpleasnat conclusion, but one that feels inevitable, that while many British people showed incredible courage and bravery during the second world war, that as a nation we have not had the courage or bravery to look at who we were then, square in the face. Living instead in a childish fantasy world where our parents or grandparents can only occupy a soothing position, so fragile that any attempt to round out the image is thoroughly quashed. Self reflection is not an easy path to take, wether it is as an individual, or as a nation, and perhpase now, eighty years on Rubenhold and Finnes can help us start down that path by looking at ourselves as a more well known British military commander once did “warts and all.”