War and Gender

Large curved stone wall with Attaturk's words inscribed.

Forgiveness – Kemal Atatürk’s words at Gallipoli.

Some historians are particularly interested in gender relations and gender roles during war-time. It is while a nation is at war that underlying attitudes of society about the proper roles of men and women become exposed and reinforced. Men go to battle, women are responsible for keeping things going at home.

Professor Karen Hagemann from University of North Carolina opened her keynote talk at the Australian Historical Association conference in Brisbane by talking about a landmark German mini-series, ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter(Our Mothers, Our Fathers). It was broadcast early in 2013 to a large audience. It explores the atrocities committed by Germany during the Nazi period and the responsibility of ordinary Germans. Hagemann noted that women in this program are mostly portrayed at the home front or working, or heroines of the resistance or secret agents or nurses, Her talk highlighted the fact that women did more than that.

The needs of the military as wars progressed meant that women moved from the home into the production of armaments and then into combat roles. During World War II the Soviet Union had female units which effectively shamed men into fighting.  The British used some women in aerial defence.

Hagemann said it was easier for countries who were defending their countries or liberating them to reconcile to the fact they were using women in combat positions. It was harder for Germany. She said that the Germans did “everything possible” to classify their women in combat positions as civilians. German women worked in the SS and in flak gun auxiliaries. Some of these women volunteered to do so she observed.

Hagemann gave some interesting advice for historians researching women and war throughout her talk. “We cannot simply extend military history to women’s history”, she said. “Gender must be both the subject and the method.”

The way I understand this comment is that women are not simply a carbon copy of men, just as men are not simply women with some physical differences. Our gender fundamentally affects everything we do. Women in an army are not just people dressed in skirts. There are a whole heap of societal attitudes and functions that are inextricably attached to women and men. Wherever we go, whatever we do that baggage of expectations comes with us.

Our history is men’s history with some women’s history attached. However we don’t call it men’s history. We treat it as neutral, as history of androgynous people when it is really not. It is like thinking that we don’t have an accent or we don’t have a culture. Everyone on the planet has an accent and culture. If we don’t recognise this we are regarding ourselves as the standard which everyone should meet. This attitude is arrogant and can lead to injustice.

By exploring the role of women in war we expose the fact that it is important to also consider the role of men and their baggage that they take with them wherever they go. We understand that the way they behave in a war is due to society’s expectations of men as males.

Gender history is not just women’s history even though it emerged via women’s history. It includes all genders. Historians have developed a theoretical understanding which helps them to explore the history of men and women.

When I started my research on the religious beliefs of Australian soldiers during World War I, I started with the simple proposition that the religious beliefs of men in WWI had been understated in our history. I had evidence but it is not good enough to just say that it is understated. The more interesting and searching question is why? It quickly became evident to me that the culture of masculinity at the time was one of the major reasons why men at the time were circumspect about expressing their faith publicly.

Hagemann pointed out that violence has been traditionally regarded as masculine and vulnerability to injury as feminine. There is a debate about whether mankind is inherently warlike. Using an understanding of gender I would say that the predominant contributing factor impelling men to war is the societal expectation that this is the way men behave. Their failure to fully explore alternative methods of conflict resolution is due to the fact that they are fulfilling the masculine role that society gives them. Of course there is still some choice involved but choices are limited and the alternative very difficult if you are acting against peer group pressure.

There was one other important piece of advice from Hagemann that has been reverberating in my mind. “Historians of war need to focus more on the core of war”, said Hagemann. “Violence needs to be at the centre of the history of war.”

We tend to focus on the benign albeit horrific facts that Australian soldiers were killed and their mates were killed, but we tend to neglect the fact that they were told to kill others and they did. We need to recognise that they killed others and we need to talk about it. They killed fathers, husbands and brothers of many people in wars. We can talk about that and we must. This can be done without denigrating the soldiers, but recognising the full horror of what they are expected to do.

This reminds me of a term in the Glossary of Slang of the A.I.F. during WWI. When an Australian soldier used a particular bayonet for the first time to kill a soldier, he referred to it as being an act to ‘Christen the squirt’.  A ‘squirt’ was slang for a gun.

Australian soldiers in WWI had to grapple with the horror of what they did under orders. We need to grapple with that too.

10 thoughts on “War and Gender

  1. Excellent!!! And very important and well said!!! I couldn’t agree more with all you write. I like your comparison of gender with culture and accent. Your observations about definitions of masculinity relating to war and men’s desire to downplay religion are original, at least as far as I know. (If not, tell me where I can read more.) I hope you find a way to explore these issues in an academic publication. This is gendered history at it’s best.

    I just finished Surviving Peace by Olivia Simic, published by Spinifex. The author is a survivor of the Bosnian war and she writes about some of these issues, less actually on gender. Review soon. Some problems with the book, but interesting. I only discovered war invading women’s lives when I started reading globally.


    • Thank you Marilyn. I’m chuffed about your comment 🙂 I am exploring ways I can take my research further which would hopefully include publication.

      Over the last few months I have had to be rather inwardly focused so my on and off line reading has been restricted to my research, but of course I never want to drop reading indigenous authors. I have heard about Olivia Simic’s book. I’ll be interested to read your review.

      My undergraduate lecturer for nationalism and history researches gender in war. It puzzled me at the time when she said that war is one of the best arenas to explore gender questions (it was an off the cuff remark – our course did not look much at gender). Now I understand how central gender is in war.


  2. Agreed… women in an army are not just ordinary soldiers who happen to prefer skirts. There were heap of societal attitudes and functions that started LONG before the war and continued during the war, and could not be readily changed, just because the army needed more boots on the ground.

    More so for the Germans perhaps. German beliefs privileged the notion of fecund, young, healthy women, ready to be impregnated by a virile blond man, for the fatherland! The more babies, the better; the less work and other distractions, the better. Think of the money poured into The Reich’s Bride Schools.

    I know other nations also had their mythology about proper women’s roles, even in the midst of WW2. But other nations didn’t seem to invest as much effort into perfect, full time mothering as did the Germans.



    • That is why the Germans were so embarrassed about the women they had in combat roles – the women’s work contradicted Nazi ideology. Hagemann went on to say that during the post-war period all of the countries she reviewed tried to re-establish traditional gender roles which had been unsettled during the War.


      • They certainly achieved that here in the USA. Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s fought against much of what had been newly re-established, which was more restrictive than life was like in earlier periods.


  3. Pingback: Surviving Peace, by Olivia Simic. | Me, you, and books

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