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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 162-171
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Women In War Stories
Belinda J. Davis. Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xiv + 349 pp. ISBN: 0-8078-2526-3 (cl); 0-8078-4837-9 (pb).
Robert B. Edgerton. Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War. Colorado: Westview Press, 2000. viii + 196 pp. ISBN: 0-8133-3711-9 (cl).
Marlene Epp. Women without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. viii + 275 pp. ISBN: 0-8020-4491-3 (cl); 0-8020-8268-8 (pb).
Theresa Kaminiski. Prisoners in Paradise: American Women in the Wartime South Pacific. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000. x + 284 pp. ISBN: 0-7006-1003-0 (cl).
Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee. All This Hell: U.S. Nurses Imprisoned By the Japanese. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. xi + 228 pp. ISBN: 0-8131-2148-5 (cl).
The works addressed in this review are all examples of the expanding literature on women and gender and war. In the most general sense this field encompasses studies examining women's experiences, actions, and choices during armed conflicts at the local, national, and global levels. Yet, more recently, studies in this field have also analyzed the meanings of these experiences, actions, and choices for social ordering systems, particularly gender systems, and hierarchies that infuse specific cultural identities and form the foundation for imminent nation-states. Like it or not, these works are always engaging with and contesting the thundering Greek chorus that so often conflates "war" with "combat" and constructs both as predominantly "masculine" endeavors. Women's and men's "war stories" in this context are slotted into gendered categories defined by the iconic dichotomies of "homefront/battlefront," "warrior"/ "nurturer/mother," "protector"/"protected" and the differential value assigned to each. The question of what happens when these fictive binaries are blurred or inverted lies at the heart of each of these works. 1 [End Page 162]
In Belinda Davis's brilliant study of World War I Berlin, the suffering of the urban populace under the British "starvation" blockade led to a reclassification of the "homefront" by German citizens, the press, and the state as the primary "battlefront" in the war. Davis's work is a microhistory that intensively investigates the everyday life and struggles of World War I Berliners. She contends that "deprived consumers"—figured as female—were key to the shifting relations between the state and the people throughout the war. These female consumers, or "women of lesser means," made concrete demands on the Prussian and Imperial German state through street protests and the simple act of standing in food lines (2). They also served as the predominant symbol of both the victimization of the homefront population by the war and the inadequacy of government response to the desperate needs of its citizens. Drawing on police and military reports on "popular morale or 'mood,'" press accounts of the ever-worsening urban situation, and the commentary of private organizations, Davis describes a fascinating political relationship between the actions of female street protesters, those who "reported" on the significance of these actions to the state, and the state itself (5).
The most compelling aspect of Homefires Burning is the way in which food, or the lack thereof, becomes both a symbol of the material devastation caused by the war and a metaphor for the health of the nation and of German citizens in World War I Berlin. While the lack of food signaled potential starvation for poor Berliners, the differential availability of food was the crucial criterion for constructing "inner enemies" during the war. From the public disapproval of the supplemental food allowances provided to the wives of soldiers and munitions workers to the characterization of male farmers and merchants as stuffing their stomachs and lining their pockets at the cost of their "fellow Germans," defining such "enemies" marked the importance of discourses on food in constructing "true Germanness," or identity...