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.

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