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.