- Exploring the Diverse Experiences of the Great War One Hundred Years Later
Because of the centenary anniversary, the Great War has benefited from a wave of renewed attention. From 2014 to 2018 newspapers, archives, and museums have devoted special sections to recapping the events of the war and reminding us of the ways the war ushered in the modern era. The historiographical debate about women's experiences in the Great War has hinged on the issue of how the war affected women as a category; was it a monumental moment of change that opened up new roles or did it seem to provide opportunities that turned out to be ephemeral? Three recent publications push beyond the terms of this issue to highlight women's diverse wartime experiences and analyze the varying ways the war affected female identity. In Gender and the Great War, contributors survey a range of topics, calling attention to understudied themes and providing a current synthesis of available scholarship. In Gabrielle Petit, Sophie De Schaepdrijver makes the story of one woman, a Belgian spy executed by the Germans, a vehicle for examining national identity and ideas about class and gender. Lynn Dumenil, in contrast, looks at American women's participation in the war to evaluate how successfully they, as individuals and as a group, challenged traditional notions about femininity and womanhood. Although each focuses on issues of sex and gender, all three books demonstrate that "women" do not belong to a monolithic category. [End Page 156]
Gender and the Great War reveals how rewarding it can be to consider war through the lens of gender. Each chapter uses an open-ended analytical category, like citizenship, work, race, and violence, to complicate our understanding of the war by deliberately showing the "ugly, uncomfortable parts of the war" (1). With varying degrees of success, each chapter surveys the selected theme with some attention to the experience of women and men in multiple nations and offers suggestions for future research. The editors, Susan Grayzel and Tammy Proctor, are two of the most respected historians writing on women in the Great War. As they acknowledge, there are gaps in this volume, but it is a welcome attempt to broaden conversations about the war.
One difficulty with the book is that some essays zoom across national borders without distinguishing peculiarities or calling attention to commonalities. Richard Fogarty, however, strikes the right balance when he uses the international population living in wartime France to evaluate "Gender and Race." His thoughtful review of a variety of sources confirms that the Great War was a "multiracial experience" (68). In "Gender and Occupation," Jovanna Knezevic gives Eastern Europe some much deserved attention, but she overlooks comparisons to other nations that would strengthen her arguments, and some important works on the topic, including Helen McPhail's detailed account of northern France, are absent.1 Knezevic recommends researching "the experience of ordinary people" to show that occupation was not only "a central experience" of the war but also one disproportionately endured by women (133). Her description of Hapsburg soldiers overrunning Belgrade recalls what happened in dozens of towns and villages in Italy at the same time.2 The women enduring occupation, she reveals, transcended archetypes as they made "difficult, sometimes impossible, choices to survive" (146).
Both Grayzel and Michelle Moyd use their chapters to highlight the connectivity between the home and fighting fronts. In "Gender and Warfare," Grayzel explains how "the war further complicated assumptions about gender, heroism, and even citizenship" by...