Gender agenda

Dr Jessica Meyer, who works on the First World War and masculinity, offers some responses to the Dublin Conference:

Following on Dan’s thoughts on things that the future organisers of this series of conferences might want to think about was something that struck me about the themes around which the conference was organised. Over the course of three conferences there has yet to be a sesson that deals directly with gender, although the first conference had a session on the war and the intimate. Which is not to say that gender wasn’t discussed during this most recent conference. Indeed, it seemed to turn up in just about every session, in one form or another. Which raises the question, as indeed one of the conference organisers asked, do we actually need a special session on gender if it is already part of the discussion?

After much thought, I think the answer is yes, for three reasons. Firstly, as Dan has pointed out, there is never enough time for adequate discussion of each paper and inevitably issues get ignored. Unless it forms the focus of a theme, gender is one of those aspects of cultural history which can be swept aside as something of a given. The gender issues raised by Rebecca Gill’s paper on Belgian refugees, for instance, seemed to me worth further exploration. How did the issue of citizenship that refugees raised interact with the other issues of citizenship being raised by women or disabled servicemen, two groups for whom the experience of war had radically changed gender norms? Similarly, Sonja Müller’s work on children’s games and literature raised issues about how gender stereotypes were received and consumed that were touched on in the question and answer session but never addressed directly.

Related to this is the second reason. By spreading the question of gender across themes rather than devoting a session to the topic, we run the risk of atomising the issues. There is still a tendency to view gender history, particularly the gender history of war, as a binary. Although we are moving beyond simply the histories of men on the front line and women on the home front, there is still a tendency to discuss gender in relation to one or other of the sexes. Dan highlighted this problem when he asked Claudia Siebrecht about the absence of fathers in German women’s art. By focussing on a specific group, as one conference paper must, the experiences of other groups around them can become lost. This is particularly true for the histories of masculinities in war. Work is only beginning to be done, by collections such as Masculinities in Politics and War (Manchester University Press, 2004), on how war impacted on the gendering of men as well as women. Having a panel focussed on gender would allow for these less visible issues to be discussed alongside the more familiar ones related to the changing status of women. In addition, the sexes did not live in isolation from each other and the ways in which various groups were gendered had direct implications for not only their experiences of war but also for others with whom they come into contact with. What happens to gender in the spaces where one person’s home front is another’s front line, an issue raised for me by Jovana Knezevic’s on the occupation of Belgrade? A panel discussing gender might go some way towards addressing not just questions of gender but also broader questions of gender relations.

Which leads to my third reason, which is as much about what gender history can gain from First World War studies as vice versa. The transnational history of gender and the war certainly exists, but it remains rather limited. Masculinities in Politics and War goes a great way towards addressing this gap in terms of masculinity and war in general and Behind the Lines (Yale University Press, 1987) covers British, French, American and German experiences of the two world wars, but has recently come in for considerable criticism both in terms of use of sources and national exceptionalism. And there still remain huge areas to be covered. These were highlighted for me by Daniel Steinbach’s paper on the war in Germany’s African colonies. Can we compare imperial and martial masculinities in Germany and Britain? And that is before we start to question the interrelation of gender and race in the uses made of non-European troops, something that could have been discussed in relation to George Morton Jack’s paper on the Indian Army on the Western Front. As someone who works very much within a national framework, limited, I’m ashamed to say, by my inability to speak any language but English, the sort of transnationalism that this series of conferences emphasises is not merely a corrective but also challenge. All I am asking for is the opportunity for historians of this particular facet of cultural history to be allowed the space to explore how we are and can continue to meet that challenge.

Dublin (1), Dublin (2), Dublin (4 – not yet active)


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