Working Memory: Women and Work in World War II ed. by Marlene Kadar and Jeanne Perreault (review)
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Reviewed by
Marlene Kadar and Jeanne Perreault, eds. Working Memory: Women and Work in World War II. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. viii, 248. $38.99

This edited volume presents ten articles detailing little-known areas of women's work during World War II. In a valuable expansion of the existing scholarship on women's wartime contributions, this collection moves far beyond the conventional image of Rosie the Riveter and challenges preconceived notions concerning the lives of women during this conflict. Presented through the lens of work, the articles collected demonstrate a broad definition of this area, including "the labour of survival, resistance, or collaboration, or the labour of recording, representing, and/or memorializing these experiences." Dealing with far more than wage work, women who fell on either side of the conflict navigated the disruptions of war in unique ways. [End Page 178]

With an extensive sampling of individual stories, these essays expand the already existing literature on the wartime lives of women in Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States. For instance, Eva C. Karpinski analyzes the writings of Zofia Nałkowska, a Polish citizen who observed the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. As an act of passive resistance and a coping strategy, she becomes a witness to atrocity, so close to the events she fears eventually sharing the fate of her Jewish neighbours. Lesley Farris and Mary Tarrantino present stories of active resistance as they analyse the forgotten story of British women who worked as agents for the Special Operations Executive. Providing essential support to French resistance activities, several of these women disappeared while working behind enemy lines.

Through the representation of what is left unsaid in archives, memoirs, and oral history interviews, researchers provide a glimpse into gendered and racialized experiences. Many of these essays deal with women who, by virtue of their country of origin or economic or family situation, faced drastic changes in their lives with the outbreak of war. No other narrative exemplifies this more emphatically than Charmian Brinson and Julia Winckler's essay on two German sisters who chose divergent paths. While the desperate economic situation of the 1930s prompted one sister, Martha, to pursue employment in England, Viktoria stayed in Germany, placing them on opposing sides throughout the conflict and leading to vastly different wartime experiences. In another essay, Patrick Taylor comments on the history of colonialism in relation to the wartime experience of his aunt as a volunteer for the British Army's Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). In another direction, Marlene Kadar's essay on Hermine Braunsteiner, an SS guard, offers a commentary on the complications of analysing female perpetrators of genocide. As Kadar notes, there is an inherent discomfort arising from the existence of brutal female SS guards because, according to Sara Horowitz, "this is not the way it is supposed to happen … men – not women – are Nazis." However, as uncomfortable as the subject matter is, an examination of these guards provides insight into the gendered experience of women living in the Third Reich.

Other essays discuss the unique wartime work of women as catalysts for survival and new opportunities. Natalie Robinson's paper discusses the story of Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt, whose artwork saved her life, and the life of her mother, while they were imprisoned in Auschwitz. Beverly Brannan writes about the under-represented women who worked as photojournalists during WWII. Uniquely, these women were responsible for depicting life on the home front and abroad, detailing the devastation of war and often crossing the social barriers of gender and race in their search for meaningful subjects to photograph. In separate essays, Tanya Schaap and Catherine Speck both write about artistic representations of war. [End Page 179]

As a considerable contribution to social history, this work fills a gap in scholarship concerning the effect of war on women and the family. The significance of scholarship such as this is exemplified by Pierre Nora, a French historian, when he describes archival research as "no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded." With this in mind, Working Women adds essential pieces to the historical puzzle concerning the crucibles women faced...


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