On being a woman and a war historian

This one has been a long time coming. I began writing it back in March, in response to the BBC’s multi-platform debate over Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War. I had been invited to take part, rather late in the day, but was unable to go as I had to prepare for my son’s fifth birthday party the following day. But, in between icing a castle cake and preparing knightly party bags, I tried to follow the Twitter discussion. I didn’t manage to engage with all, or indeed a great amount of it, but one thread of commentary did catch my attention. Someone commented on the lack of women on the television panel, starting a discussion which led eventually to the comment that, even if women had been invited to participate in the discussion, they would have been asked to speak about ‘women’s issues’.

This discussion got me thinking about the question of the place of female historians of the First World War in the public commemorations of the war. Because, despite efforts to the contrary (and yes, I have been invited to take place in broadcasts because the producers were looking for a female voice), the impression has certainly been given that female expertise is either to be ignored or to confined to seemingly appropriate ‘women’s’ topics. The most egregious example of this was the throw-away comment made by Kate Adie while publicizing her television programme on women’s roles in the war about the lack of female historians of the war other than Barbara Tuchman. But it was also reflected in the panel assembled for a debate chaired by Nicky Campbell where the only two women were Bonnie Greer (not a historian but clearly brought in to give a non-European and ethnic minority perspective) and Professor Maggie Andrews, brought in to speak about women and the home front.

Kate Adie was, of course, wrong, deeply and profoundly wrong. There are a huge number of superb female historians in Britain and across the world, within the academy and without, researching, writing and teaching about the First World War. Indeed, such is the breadth and depth of expertise that I was able to put together an entire day-and-a-half-long workshop on a relatively niche subject last year with only one male speaker. But Professor Andrews’ presence on The Big Question panel, while it helps to demonstrate the inaccuracy of Adie’s comment, is also misleasding. Yes, women work on nurses (such as Alison Fell, Christine Hallett) and the home front (Karen Hunt, Susan Grayzel). But the leading naval historian of the war of my generation is a woman (Laura Rowe) and there are women working on the memory of the war in Australia (Jenny Macleod), the international history of the war (Heather Jones, Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Margaret Macmillan) and operational history (Aimee Fox-Godden), to name just a very small selection. Outside of the academy, women such as Kate Vigurs and Jo Hook are working as battlefield tour guides, introducing a new generation to the landscape and material culture of the war as effectively as any of their male counterparts.

And what of my own field? Gender history is notoriously female-dominated, unsurprisingly perhaps given its intellectual and political origins in women’s history. It might seem the archetypal ‘women’s’ subject. Yet key theorists and practitioners in the history of masculinity, particularly in relation to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have often been men. In terms of the first world war, Michael Roper’s work remains a hugely important reference point for my own. Similarly, in social history, Catriona Pennell and Adrian Gregory have both written excellent and important books on British society during the war. The gender of the scholar is beside the point and limiting our reading of a particular approach to one set of voices can only serve to diminish debate and, ultimately understanding.

So dividing facets of the history of the war into men’s and women’s history is a pointless exercise. Both men and women are writing excellent history on all aspects of the war, both those seen as traditionally male spheres and those more often associated with female scholars. Yet the tendency to thinking in this dichotomous way remains. The assumption is that gender brings a particular perspective to understandings of the history of war in particular. All historians bring their own personal history to their research and practice, reflected in the stories of why they became historians in the first place – because they were fascinated by the grandparents’ stories of the past, because they visited a castle and were fascinated by what they saw. What is interesting is the number of stories of male historians which relate to childhood practices of gender construction, more specifically playing war games, of which this blog is only the most recent example in relation to the First World War. Graham Dawson and Dan Todman, for instance, have both written about how their boyhood experiences of the pleasure culture of war shaped their interest and approach to the subject.

Interestingly, I have yet to come across a female historian who has made the same connection to their own upbringing. Certainly, growing up in the United States in the 1980s, in a culture dominated as much by GI Joe as by Barbie, I don’t recall engaging in war games and if I did it wasn’t a spur to my interest in the history of the war. At risk of buying in to gender essentialism, does this matter? Am I less able to fully engage in the history of war because I did not engage with a particular form of gendered acculturation as a child due to being of the other sex? On the surface, the answer to these questions is obviously ‘no’, but I was once told by a former soldier that I couldn’t write about the history of masculinity in war because I wasn’t male and I had never been in the military. While the first point has the merit of being accurate (I am not male), the second seems besides the point. Most male scholars of the First World War today have not been in the military, yet they may be judged as experts in their subject. On the flip side, there also seems to be a powerful cultural assumption that (some) women will have a particular relationship to the history of war through their role as mothers of sons, as illustrated in Lisa Jardine’s recent ‘A Point of View’ essay on BBC Radio 4, a position which sidelines women who aren’t either mothers or who are mothers of daughters (I can think of several examples of both who are very fine historians of the First World War.)

So what does it mean to be a woman and a war historian? The honest answer is I don’t really know. Perhaps I can bring a dispassion to the subject unavailable to scholars whose approach is shaped, however subliminally, by their memories of playing soldiers as children. Or maybe I bring the emotional heft of imagining how I would feel if it were my small son who might one day have to fight. What I do know is that these perspective complement those of colleagues who can imagine that they, or their younger selves, might have been called on to face the guns due to their sex, or who can analyse with greater dispassion the impact that large numbers of grieving mothers might have on society.

As I say, we all bring our own histories, including our subjective constructions of gender, to our historical practice. Which is why it is important not only that we note and acknowledge that women have written and are writing the history of the First World War, but also that we don’t categorise their writing simply as a category of ‘other’. How I embed this in my own practice as a woman writing the history of the First World War is something I am still working on and probably will be for the rest of my professional life. As I say, this post has been a long time in coming.

21 thoughts on “On being a woman and a war historian

  1. “…I wasn’t male and I had never been in the military…”

    On Saturday I am holding a lecture about a Renaissance, German, astrologer. I have never lived in the Renaissance and I am neither German nor an astrologer. ;))

  2. An interesting post Jessica. I agree that we should not view historians work through the lens of gender. However, in my own field of air power history we are known use the the term, the ‘Airfix school of history’. While this is applied to historians who are technological deterministic, it can also be applied to many of the men working in the field because like those who recall war games etc. I am sure there are many male military historians who at some point built an Airfix kit.

    I am also struck by the idea that I suspect many of the emerging female scholars in the field of the history of war probably had a male supervisor. Indeed, I recall remember reading the acknowledgements in Christina Goulter’s work ‘A Forgotten Offensive’ (admitted a book on the Second World War) where she thanked her MA supervisor, the late Vincent Orange, who encouraged her to continue to her studies in a field dominated by men. This was in the late 80s/early 90s and hopefully things are better than they were then! Nonetheless, your brief list shows that women are emerging and this can only be a good thing.

    • The point about supervision is a really good one. I actually had a related discussion with my (female) supervisor about academic lineages and the need to recognise women’s lineages the way we do men’s. We concluded that these go back much further than currently appears. As I say, I was supervised by a woman (and two men). I have also been very fortunate in having both female and male mentors who have shaped my intellectual approach and career more generally. There is also the question of what the move towards joint supervision means for this sort of knowledge transmission. At Leeds, joint supervision is standard which increases the chance of women supervising men as well as vice versa.

      • Jessica, I agree that the genealogy of our work is vitally important to understand as it shapes how we approach our subjects. Its the question within the question that all students should be asking when writing literature reviews. My mentors, admittedly all men, have shaped my approach to history though I admit that I was initially a member of the Airfix School. However as wrote here (http://thoughtsonmilitaryhistory.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/the-transformation-is-complete-and-thesis-submitted/) that changed quite significantly as I undertook my own intellectual journey.

      • Thanks so much for this. A really interesting read, especially for someone who made the journey in the other direction, from full-on cultural to thinking about logistics and demographics. I’m even hoping to do some quantitative analysis for my next project!

  3. I believe women can contribute an objective voice about history that few men can produce. History is not only about military capabilities and battles. It is about a comprehensive “you are there” perspective just under that of a novel. The passion and perspective of a woman from her experiences from the other half of gender as, a wife, a mother, a care giver can lend an important and special vision of history, one rarely consumes from cookie-cutter history books written by men. My advice is to draw from your strengths and passions and write what you believe best portrays the truth or real story. Don’t try to compensate for being a woman by being too objective. Descriptive history writing, based on first-hand accounts, artifacts and physical evidence will bring the objectivity, we want history to come ALIVE. Maybe we should call it HERstory? 🙂

    • Thank you. I hope it is clear is that what I am suggesting is that we all, regardless of our sex, need to incorporate some aspects of both approaches to our practice. There are some very good examples of how this can be done in the field of the history of masculinity which, as I say, explicitly draws on feminist methodologies of subjectivity and the personal as political. The recent War: An Emotional History demonstrated this, with a fairly even gender split, even if the final round table was all male! (The organising committee, interestingly, was all women.)

  4. I am constantly annoyed by the usage of the term ‘First World War’ to describe the 1914-18 War. This term was invented by the American’s in late 1942 following their creation of the term ‘Second World’ for their war which started on 8 December 1943, following the declaration of War against The USA by Germany and Italy, and such with the final declaration of war against Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria (they never declared war on Finland, even though it actively involved in attacks on American shipping at sea and in Russian ports). Their ‘First World War’ started on 6th April, 1917, and their first small number of combat troops went into action in the October.

    The official title to describe the British Commonwealth war is The 1914-1920 War (look on the reverse of The British War Medal 1914-1920), as the final treaties were not signed until then, and British Commonwealth soldiers were still being killed in minor conflicts that continued after 11th November, 1918, such as Burma, Russia, Turkey, Syria et etc. et etc. Its accepted title is the 1914-18 War, with that which the men who fought at the front called it “The Great War to End All Wars’, a heart felt hope that was never achieved for them.

    Calling it the First World war is an insult to those who died, mutilated or psychiatrically damaged in the 1914-1920 War! Yours, Mackinlay

    • Your assertion is like a castle built upon the sand I am afraid. The term the First World War was used as early as 1920 when Charles a Court Repington published his account of the war in 1029 using that very title. It may have been used even earlier. It was not as you assert an American invention. However, what we call wars is interesting. Indeed, the First World War has invariably been referred to by several names, including of course the Great War. The use of this term, applied to the First World War, in itself confuses the matter as it was originally used to describe the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, naming conventions shift with time. The Gulf War of 1990-91 is now referred to as the First Gulf War due to the recent conflict there from 2003 onwards. None of this is meant as an insult but rather as shifting of historical boundaries as time and understanding moves on.

    • Thank you for the reminder that, of course, the subjectivities I bring to my work are not only those related to my gender. I am certainly a product of my upbringing in the United States and this doubtless feeds into my work in ways that probably could bear more scrutiny. However, I certainly don’t see these influences as making my work more insulting to the memory of those who served or less valid as history (as you imply), any more than my gender does. As Ross has pointed out, the naming of the conflict is fluid. I doubt that any man who served would have been insulted by the use of a particular title, although I am pretty sure that a fair few of them would have refered to it in a far more profanic fashion than we might like to think!

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  6. I too grew up in the 80s, but was a bit of tomboy (still am, I guess). I was enthralled by the Civil War and that was what lead me into getting a degree in history–so I could teach highschool. That lasted until I was nearly ready to graduate and did not want to teach, but loved history too much. I interned and fell into what I thought was a trap of military history. What I didn’t realize was that I had found my passion. Today, I am proudly a woman in male dominated field, working in the federal gov’t and getting my PhD in military history. I wouldn’t change it for the world. Thank you for your thoughts and reminding folks there are growing numbers of us ladies in this field.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I really only know the field of First World War studies at all well, but it has been really interesting hearing the perspective of women in other fields and working on other conflicts, from antiquity to the present.

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  9. On speaking recently at a Western Front Association branch, I was approached at the end and asked by one man ‘How are you interested in the First World War’? It was maybe just an opening gambit, but I simply can’t imagine him asking the same question of a male speaker…you know, at a WFA branch where you’re all there because you’re actually interested in WW1, regardless of gender!

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