Darrow on Grayzel and Proctor, 'Gender & the Great War'

Susan R. Grayzel, Tammy M. Proctor, eds.
Margaret Darrow

Susan R. Grayzel, Tammy M. Proctor, eds. Gender & the Great War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 300 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-027107-7.

Reviewed by Margaret Darrow (Dartmouth College) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50509

Gender & the Great War is a well-integrated anthology which draws together recent scholarship on gender and the First World War, the impact of gender on the war, and the impact of the war on gender. A dozen brief chapters follow the editors' introduction, with a concluding chapter, also by the editors, sketching the historiography of the field and summarizing the overall findings. Each chapter focuses on a different intersection of gender and war: citizenship, resistance, work, race, sexuality, age, occupation, everyday life, warfare, violence, mourning, and memory. The authors are mostly scholars from the United States, Britain, and Australia whose expertise ranges from social history to labor history to cultural history, but each with credentials in the history of gender.

The book originated in a pair of roundtables organized for the Sixteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women held in Toronto in 2014. As a result of this early collaboration, the anthology is more coherent than many of the genre, with chapters building upon and in dialogue with each other. Yet they employ different strategies. Some confront their topics with a broad brush. For example, Deborah Thom's chapter on gender and work and Joy Damousi's chapter on mourning range widely across the global reach of the war, each drawing evidence from across Europe—Ireland, Romania, France, Italy, Britain, Germany—as well as from the British and French Empires. Susan Grayzel's chapter on gender and warfare takes a different sort of broad approach, exploring the range of types of warfare that came together in the First World War: new technologies of destruction (poison gas and airplanes), the information war, and the "hunger blockade" (p. 179). Others focus more tightly on one aspect or example of a topic to paint with greater nuance and detail. Karen Hunt's chapter on everyday life—a big topic if there ever was one!—looks at the key issue of food, bringing together discussions of the ways in which the war created shortages, governments' attempts to solve the problem, and women's reactions. Richard Fogarty's chapter on race stands out because, by narrowing his focus to the issue of interracial sex and romance in wartime France, he brings to us the voices of those involved: soldiers from India and Africa, French women, and French and American officials.    

The editors of Gender & the Great War, Susan R. Grayzel and Tammy M. Proctor, have attempted to construct a global study, but admit that the state of scholarship is still much deeper for the major combatant countries on the western front—Britain, France, Germany, the United States—than for the war in the east and south and in non-European theaters. Several chapters include examples from the eastern front, particularly Russia and Romania, and passing references to the Ottoman Empire, but the West dominates all chapters except Michelle Moyd's on violence that examines the war in East Africa. It seems that a global history of gender and the First World War is not yet possible, but this anthology is a good beginning.

While exploring the commonalities of gender's relationship to the war, the book attempts to understand the sources and meanings of differences. One major dividing line that emerges quite clearly is between the western front and the other battle zones. The war in eastern and southern Europe and in the Middle East and Africa often had more in common with much earlier wars than with the contemporary struggle in France and Belgium; mobile armies brought destruction, poverty, violence, and death to large numbers of noncombatants, including women. Here any separation of war front and home front was illusory in the extreme, as Michelle Moyd's chapter on the war in East Africa makes clear. The German colonial army, the Schutztruppe, moved across the landscape in devastating columns, confiscating and destroying food and livestock, raping women, and sweeping up both men and women to serve the army's needs as porters, domestic help, and sex partners. The war in East Africa looks more like the Thirty Years' War than our familiar image of the First World War.

In some chapters a division emerges between victorious and defeated societies—for example, with regard to the impact of food shortages and also memorialization practices. The severity of food shortages in the Central Powers and Russia placed an enormous burden upon women, who remained responsible for feeding their families but also politicized this normally domestic issue in ways that undermined governments' authority. In victorious countries—France, Britain—public memorials and commemorations celebrated sacrifice for the nation: the soldiers' sacrifice of their lives, and the sacrifice of widows and mothers who had "given" their men. In Russia and Germany, where sacrifice had been in vain, military honor and masculine heroism instead were the cornerstones of how the war was remembered.

A major theme of this book is what Michelle Moyd calls "the entangling of home front and front line" (p. 197). In the ideology of the war, the home front and war were separate, gendered spheres, with masculinity struggling heroically in the battle zone to protect femininity keeping the home. Although some military histories of the war continue to perpetuate this view, for example Hugh Sebag-Montefiore's monumental account, Somme: Into the Breach (2016), it has long been clear that such neat sequestration was more symbolic than real. Chapter after chapter of Gender & the Great War shows that even in the West, the reality was much more complicated and not only in areas occupied, shelled, or bombed by the enemy. Chapters on everyday life, work, age, and citizenship, as well as violence and warfare demonstrate how the lines between masculine/feminine, combatant/noncombatant mutated and shifted as the home front became the front lines of war industry, propaganda, and cultural battles. 

The book argues that although the war appeared to reshape gender, in particular, femininity, in practice any change was limited and temporary. As Karen Hunt concludes, the war sustained "a robust sexual division of labor whose foundations were never really shaken by the crisis" (p. 165). Karen Petrone, in the chapter on memory, states that the overall impact of the war on gender—and also on race—"tended toward reinforcing and stabilizing traditional prewar and military roles" (p. 244). However, the war's manipulation of gender, as Ana Cardin-Coyne and Laura Doan argue in the chapter on sexuality, did have an important legacy: it "made more visible the intrinsically mutable and unfixed character of gender" (p. 110) and thus opened the path to postwar experimentation.

Besides summarizing the state of the field, Gender & the Great War also introduces new scholarship and insights, especially in the chapters on sexuality, age, and occupation. Jovana Knežević points out that occupied territories in the First World War are often viewed via the lens of the Second World War rather than studied on their own. Gender was central to the way societies made sense of occupation, with women embodying the victimized nation. This synecdoche then left women vulnerable to accusations of betraying the fatherland if they reached any kind of accommodation with the enemy. "Anxieties of nation were borne particularly by women" (p. 141). Tammy Proctor argues that the intersection of age and gender in the war is hidden from sight in a standard narrative of a war fought by soldier boys. As the war dragged on, older men were conscripted, suggesting that there is work to be done in understanding the dynamics of trench comradeship and wartime masculinity with this factor in view. One need only think of the relationship between Paul and Kat in All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) as an example.

One of the most interesting, but also most frustrating chapters is Ana Cardin-Coyne's and Laura Doan's discussion of sexuality and the war. They point out that most of the scholarship on the subject is anachronistic, leaning heavily on our current understandings of sexual identity. The First World War occurred in a different sexual climate when sex was an action, not an identity, and was tied up with respectability and morality. They posit that the wartime postcards and cartoons of cross-dressing and women kissing women did not convey to people of the early twentieth century what they convey to us in the early twenty-first century. But what did they convey? This remains a mystery.

In an anthology like this, there is bound to be overlap and redundancy, and, on the other hand, blank areas. The latter largely follow the state of the scholarship in the field, which has had much more to say about women and femininity than about masculinity and men. In the introduction, the editors point out that "gender" has often been code for women's history and/or a history of femininity and that this is not what they intend. Nonetheless, women's wartime roles as well as the symbolic value of womanhood figure much larger in most chapters than masculinity. An example is Deborah Thom's otherwise excellent chapter on women's war work. Although the chapter initially relegates men and masculinity to the battlefield, a subsequent discussion of efforts to prevent women from learning skilled trades (p. 55) suggests that men were not merely protecting postwar jobs but also a valued component of masculinity that did not depend upon combat.

One surprising blank spot is combat. The two chapters that would seem to be best placed to discuss the relationship of gender and combat, "Gender and Warfare" and "Gender and Violence," go in other directions. The questions of how combat shaped and reshaped gender and vice versa deserve more explicit and extended attention. This was the first war of mass male conscription, in which men and combat were closely identified (and not only combat and men), in which, as Susan Grayzel and Tammy Proctor point out, for men "opting out was not possible" (p. 5). How did this disturbing identification affect concepts of masculinity and also the men who embodied them? But this war was also the first to enlist women in official military auxiliaries rather than, as in the past, to depend upon the unofficial support of women who were usually condescendingly termed "camp followers." Despite a photograph of militarized women on the book's cover—they appear to be British Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps—none of the chapters discuss the debate over women's roles as perpetuators of war, whether as munitions workers, military employees, or auxiliaries. The chapter on memory briefly discusses women's combat units in Russia (p. 232) but not in the larger context of women's role in combat and its impact on gender.

It is perhaps curmudgeonly to expect Gender & the Great War to deliver even more than it does. The book's range is indeed impressive and each chapter is so well written that it is a pleasure to read. This is both a useful book, bringing us up to date on the state of this field, and a provocative one. Each chapter concludes with a series of questions and topics for further research to entice more scholars to join the investigation. The authors collectively show us how far our understanding of gender and war have come in recent decades, but also how far we still have to go.

Citation: Margaret Darrow. Review of Grayzel, Susan R.; Proctor, Tammy M., eds., Gender & the Great War. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50509

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