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Women's Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War.

Women's Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War, by Susan R. Grayzel. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xix, 334 pp. $55.00 U.S. (cloth), $1995. U.S. (paper).

Susan Grayzel's excellent study of gender, motherhood and politics in Britain and France during the First World War joins a growing body of literature which makes gender central to the analysis of war and violence in the twentieth century. Grayzel's study offers an analysis of the cultural constructions of gender and national identity during the war years. Her subject is not women and war per se, but rather gender and identity. Her comparative study, based upon extensive archival research of British and French sources contributes to our understanding of how gender and national identities were affected during the period of the First World War. This book differs from recent national studies by Susan Kent on Britain (Making Peace, Princeton, 1993) and Mary Louise Roberts on France (Civilisation without Sexes, Chicago, 1994) which argued for the reconstruction of gender roles after the First World War. Grayzel emphasizes the continuities before, during, and after the war years, arguing that "the effects of the war were not transformative for women because of how some of the most traditional elements of the gender system became implicated in the maintenance of the war from the beginning" (p. 6).

The predominant note sounded by Grayzel is the persistent work of "motherhood" or maternalist discourse which linked women's bodies to motherhood as a primary source of women's agency and patriotism. Starting from her first chapter, "Defining the Geography of War," Grayzel directs attention away from the binary structures of "home" and "front," peace and war, and combattant and civilian. Complementing the international studies found in the excellent volume, Gendering War Talk (Princeton, 1993), edited by Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott, she challenges the assumption that war is removed from civilian society and the "home" front with a textual re-reading of canonical soldier-authored literature, as well as male and female French and British writers, illustrating the gendered "boundary crossings" between the "home front" and "war front."

Throughout the book Grayzel makes clear the discursive pre-eminence of motherhood as the standard of women's gender role and national identity. One chapter studies the representation of the maternal body as a "site of conflict" in war literature of rape. Another chapter analyses pronatalist arguments which represented women's labor as the work of reproducing the nation. An outstanding analysis of the various strategies for the moral and social regulation of sexuality is offered in a fascinating chapter entitled "Women's Wild Oats." She analyzes the public debates about female sexuality as threat to both health and social order. In Britain, the unbridled effects of "khaki fever" -- engendered by the sight of young males in uniform -- serves as both sign and symbol of a kind of hero worship and patriotic fervor which was thought to lead young girls to "flirt" and more. Associations in Britain to promote public morality and combat vice alluded to the sexual susceptibility of young girls. Terms like "flappers" and "amateur girls" were associated with an allegedly new kind of female sexual activity. The result was the restriction of the behaviour of women not only in London but in newly established training camps for soldiers in Britain. The 1914 Defence of the Realm Act in Britain (DORA) was designed, Grayzel notes, to "combat internal enemies by eventually allowing for the suspension of many civil liberties." She demonstrates how one of the first targets of the Act were suspected prostitutes in Cardiff who were subject to treatment reminiscent of the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act. French reformers associated the consumption of alcohol by women in public spaces with prostitution and criminality which they sought to regulate and control. Against the image of sexually independent, "wild women" in both Britain and France, reformers promoted a corporate, national identity for women, one which would promote a "sense of self-respect" (p. 126).

The concern with regulating the sexual and social body sheds additional light on the limited suffrage accorded British women aged thirty years and older in 1918. Grayzel clearly demonstrates the weight of maternalist discursive argument in Britain and France. In spite of the complexity of "wartime gender terrain," and "new forms of sexual subjectivity," Grayzel notes, "whatever they did, they were always "women," usually regarded as potential or actual mothers" (p. 7). Britain's limited extension of the suffrage to mature women and the exclusion of the younger, "flapper" vote at the war's close, follows from the dominant sexual ideology.

Grayzel is less effective in demonstrating the differences which informed discussions concerning citizenship, the nation, and female suffrage in France at the close of the war. She represents the arguments of French feminists who opposed a divided citizenship for women on the British model and also cites a recent study which argues that a revival of anti-Republican, clericalist argument in post-war France contributed to the delay in extending suffrage to women in France until 1944.

Feminist pacificism and women's resistance to war also receive less extensive albeit fascinating treatment. In a chapter entitled "Feminism On Trial" in which the author cites briefly those British feminists like Helena Swanwick who equated war with male violence and Sylvia Pankhurst who argued that mothers opposed the loss of sons in war. The greater part of the chapter is devoted to the 1918 trial in France of the feminist-syndicalist schoolteacher Helene Brion, who was charged with spreading "defeatist" propaganda. Grayzel forcefully demonstrates how Brion, in spite of prosecutorial representation of her gender as both suspect, for example, disloyal to a womanly, maternal role and at the same time represented as too womanly, in other words, hysterical, managed to turn her trial into an arena in which to debate feminism, the rights of women, and the enfranchisement of women as an antidote to war. This case-study of feminist resistance to the war is fascinating and a succinct illustration of a particularly brilliant feminist argument against war and violence. Those who would seek a more extensive discussion of feminist resistance and alternatives to war may consult volumes such as Most Dangerous Women: Feminist Peace Campaigners of the Great War by Anne Wiltsher (Pandora, 1985) and Militarism vs. Feminism: Writings on Women and War edited by Margaret Kamester and Jo Vellacott (Virago, 1987) as well as Margaret Higonnet's remarkable collection of women's writing from the First World War, Lines of Fire (Plume/Penguin, 1999).

Grayzel's book should be an essential library acquisition as well as integrated into the programs of study for those engaged in the study of modern/contemporary history, political science, gender and feminist studies, women's history, international relations, and literature.

Ellen Jacobs

Universite du Quebec a Montreal
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Jacobs, Ellen
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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