Vuic on Dumenil, 'The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I'

Author: 
Lynn Dumenil
Reviewer: 
Kara Dixon Vuic

Lynn Dumenil. The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 360 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3121-9.

Reviewed by Kara Dixon Vuic (Texas Christian University) Published on H-SHGAPE (December, 2018) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52889

For many years, scholars have evaluated the nature and extent of change that wars have brought to women. Some see wars as watershed moments for women who are mobilized into militaries and labor industries. Even as they acknowledge that women’s opportunities have been constrained in various ways, these scholars reveal the financial, professional, and personal gains that women enjoyed through new kinds of experiences and challenges. Other scholars note the ways that postwar societies have attempted to roll back wartime changes, most directly by discharging women from militaries and removing them from the more lucrative and stable jobs that they secured in wartime. These scholars conclude that wars have brought only limited, temporary changes to women’s lives. 

In evaluating World War I’s effects for American women, Lynn Dumenil argues for a kind of middle ground. In her expansive book, The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I, Dumenil follows women who supported and opposed the war, women who experienced the war at home and those who served in it in Europe, women who entered factories and joined the military, and women who engaged the war through their work in social welfare organizations and suffrage campaigns. Throughout, she reveals the ways that race further delineated women’s experiences. African American women found their wartime participation and opportunities limited by racism, even as they understood their war efforts as part of a larger struggle to attain the democratic ideals for which the war was fought. 

Dumenil argues that the modern nature of World War I, with its attendant mobilization of the civilian home front and economy, explains much of the expansion of women’s opportunities. Careful to show that World War I was not women’s first foray into public life, however, the author argues that “the war did not produce” but, instead, “accelerated developments already under way” for women (p. 5). She shows how women’s wartime participation drew on and expanded their prior work in the suffrage movement, pacifist groups, radical causes, and social welfare organizations. Professional women like nurses, physicians, and journalists also used the war as an opportunity to advance professionally, combat sex discrimination, and demonstrate professional equality. Women who served “over there,” Dumenil argues, were “new women” whose embrace of public roles and expanded freedoms primed them for the challenges and opportunities that the war posed. Whatever their particular role, women took pride and satisfaction in their work’s financial and personal rewards.

Still, wartime changes were met with resistance and limitation at every turn. For all the gains made in clerical and professional fields, for example, women faced great resistance in other fields. For example, women who secured jobs in factories and on railroads earned more than they would have made in conventionally feminine work but less than men who performed the same tasks. Despite official propaganda that proclaimed women’s work critical to the war effort, women received only scant government and union support. Male workers often opposed women’s employment, especially when women entered public spaces or competed with them for jobs. African American women faced  discrimination not only because of their gender but also their race. At the end of the war, employers ensured that even these limited gains were temporary. 

Dumenil argues that maternalist rhetoric helps to explain both the expansion and limitation of women’s opportunities. In the years before the war, American women harnessed popular understandings of women as guardians of the nation’s morality and welfare and used these ideals as justification for increased public roles and the vote. Official and popular wartime rhetoric similarly utilized maternalist ideals to pressure women to support the war effort and contribute their labor, and to justify women’s expanding wartime roles. But while this rationalization of women’s wartime roles as inherently feminine helped to ease public discomfort with the changes, it also reinforced conventional notions of womanhood and ultimately constrained the potentially transformative nature of women’s wartime experiences.  

Yet, however limited and temporary wartime changes proved to be, the war did bring about the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The war provided the language, ideals, and platform for an expansion of women’s political efforts, and President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic rhetoric about the war provided the rationale for an expansive understanding of citizenship that included (white) women. By linking wartime service to citizenship and highlighting the hollowness of Wilson’s war aims, women ultimately used their wartime service to secure the vote. 

The Second Line of Defense offers a sweeping history of women in the war era, from women’s prewar debates about preparedness to the war’s lasting effects for women. In fact, the book feels almost encyclopedic in its coverage of women’s involvement in and connections to the war. This broad focus attempts to provide a comprehensive consideration and analysis of women’s experiences as a whole—something that has been missing from the literature—yet this breadth comes at the cost of a more in-depth analysis of any one group and obscures important differences among them. Still, it joins an impressive list of recent works about gender, women, and the war, most notably Elizabeth Cobbs’s Hello Girls (2017) and Andrew Huebner’s Love and Death in the Great War (2018). Dumenil has provided a smart addition to the literature on World War I and an essential history of women in the war and in the early twentieth century.

Citation: Kara Dixon Vuic. Review of Dumenil, Lynn, The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52889

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