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Understanding twentieth-century wars through women and gender: forty years of historiography

Penser les guerres du xxe siècle à partir des femmes et du genre. Quarante ans d’historiographie
Françoise Thébaud
Translated by Anne Stevens


This article offers a historiographical synthesis of forty years of research on the subject of “women, gender and wars”, focusing more specifically on the two world wars. It traces the development of a women’s history that appeared at the same time as a social history of nations at war, and then the emergence of a gendered history of war alongside that of the cultural history of World War I. Paying careful attention to the sources used within these studies, the article considers the questions and main conclusions in these different approaches, concluding that there is a current convergence around a certain number of themes: the processes that accompany the exit from war, private life in wartime, and gendered and sexual violence.

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  • 1 On violence in former Yugoslavia, see Nahoum-Grappe 1993 and 1997.

1Summarizing forty years of historical research into ‘women, gender and war’ is not easy. This article has multiple aims: to show how looking at the history of women and developing gender-based approaches have changed and complicated our understanding of war – both of particular wars and of the general phenomenon of war; to show the variety of possible approaches, all of which facilitate an improved grasp of the effects of conflict on individual people, both men and women; and to pick out recent historiographical trends, some of them inspired by contemporary events. Thus the revival, in the 1990s, of war in Europe (in the shape of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia), which Europeans had long thought inconceivable, resulted in a questioning of the history of earlier wars around topics such as cruelty, the anthropology of the combatants, sexual and gendered violence,1 and the ways in which wars come to an end. All these questions place women and gender at the heart of the analysis. Finally, since the development of the history of women and gender is not independent and isolated, it has to be resituated within the general historiography of war and the debates to which this gives rise.

  • 2 Amrane 1991 and 1994; Branche 2001, 2002 and 2009.
  • 3 Winter 2013.
  • 4 Downs 1995; Grayzel 1999; Thébaud 1998 and 1994.
  • 5 For example Bravo 1991; Audoin-Rouzeau et al. 2002; Capdevila et al. 2010a.

2The wars discussed below are those of the twentieth century, in particular the two world wars, which were the first areas to be researched. Over the last twenty years, however, colonial wars and wars of decolonization, especially the Algerian war (1954-1962), have also been studied from the perspective of women and gender.2 While a transnational and global perspective has recently emerged in studies of the First World War,3 the work discussed here focuses on Europe and the United States, and particularly on France. Parallel research on individual countries has, though, made possible comparative analyses, which serve to emphasize differences and similarities both between national circumstances4 and between the two world wars.5

3Taking a chronological approach, this article first outlines what has been learnt from research on “women and war”. This research has been carried out alongside the development of the social history of nations at war. The article then discusses what is gained by the consideration of gender issues, an approach which has grown up in parallel to the “cultural history of warfare”. It will finally consider the themes of the most recent research. Rather than build up a long list of references, the principal works cited will be specific studies which are typical of the main trends and turns of historiography. These are mostly collective works.

Women and wars: the social history of nations at war

4War has traditionally been viewed as a phenomenon which concerns only men, since it is usually only men who bear arms and fight. Hence its history has principally been concerned with its diplomatic and military aspects. However, in Europe and North America in the 1970s, a critical look was taken at this traditional historiography, with its adoption of an elite and male viewpoint. This period was characterized both by the emergence of women’s history, which aimed to reveal the women of the past and take their experiences into account, and by the strengthening of social history, concerned with society and social groups. These two approaches have converged and raised new questions.

A social history of war

5The social history of war takes the view that any conflict can only be understood via the study of wartime societies as they undergo unprecedented upheavals: these include an at least partial and temporary separation of the sexes; a decrease in the birthrate and an increase in the death rate; the reshaping of patterns of wealth and status; and the questioning of shared beliefs and values. Social historians also assume that events on the military front are dependent on the social and political circumstances behind the lines, especially in the case of the total wars of the twentieth century and to an even greater extent in that of civil wars and wars of national liberation, where fighting and everyday life are inextricably entwined. Anglophones speak of the “home front” and the “battlefront” while French uses “avant” (ahead) and “arrière” (behind). Finally, social history is committed to a history of war – as indeed of other fields – as seen “from below” at the level of “ordinary” people.

  • 6 Fridenson 1977. Translated into English in 1992 as The French Home Front (1914-1918).
  • 7 Wall & Winter 1988.

6This historiographical turn appeared in a collective volume on France entitled L’Autre front (1977).6 It contains chapters on French public opinion regarding the 1914-1918 war, on the “sacred union” (Union sacrée) between the political parties, on the war-time economy, including the government bodies which ran it and their leaders, and on the firms turned over to war-time production, as well as on the workforce and its struggles. A later and more comparative work in English, arising out of a conference held in 1982,7 looked at standards of living and the health of the war-time population (which, paradoxically, actually improved in Britain); at the short- and long-term demographic consequences of the war; at the social and family policies implemented by the warring countries and at the ideologies which inspired them, including pro-natalism (the encouragement of higher birth rates) nationalism and eugenics. The book also included a study of women’s work in the family and in industry in France, Germany and Britain. It thus presented the results of early research into women’s history.

Women and war, or war through women’s eyes

  • 8 Thébaud 2013a [1986].

7The numerous and important studies undertaken in several countries in the 1970s and the early 1980s can aptly be characterized as “the study of war through women’s eyes”. They raised questions such as: where are women during a war and what are they doing? What do they undergo both physically and emotionally? What are the effects of the conflict both on the lives of individuals and on the place of women in society? In 1986, I published a book on French women during the First World War8 which is a very typical example of this first generation of research. Its two main sections are entitled “The women’s war” (La guerre des femmes) and “Being a woman in a country at war” (Être femme dans un pays en guerre).

  • 9 Rupp 1978.

8Looking at war through women’s eyes means, first, making the female participants visible. They might include the nurse; the soldier’s “godmother” (an arrangement made in several countries, especially in France, for women to “adopt” a soldier isolated from his family, write to him and take him in when he comes on leave); the female worker in a wartime factory; the woman who, in town or countryside, takes the place of the men who have been called up; and the mother bringing up children on her own. In the case of wars of national liberation, the list will also include the partisan or member of the resistance, who combats the occupying forces as an indispensable auxiliary to the armed resistance. It is possible to study these female characters in the singular, as ideal-types used for propaganda, like Rosie the Riveter painted by Norman Rockwell for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post of 29 May 1943,9 but they have more often been studied in the plural through the variety of their particular experiences of war, for example as nurses rather than a particular nurse.

9Looking at war through women’s eyes also, and in consequence, means analysing the place of women in wartime societies, their degree of engagement on both the battlefront and the home front, their daily life in both material and cultural terms, and the problems they endure: loneliness, bereavement, poverty, overwork, and the burdens of responsibility. It is possible to identify four thematic approaches which, both then and now, have made it possible to structure the history of women in wartime, and to demonstrate the variety of wartime experiences: women’s hardships; their activity in paid work or elsewhere; their political involvement or choices; and the use of female metaphors and allegories in the propaganda of the warring states. One war may be, more than anything else, a source of grief for women, while another war may in addition bring new opportunities for paid work. Moreover the position may be different depending on place and time, even within a single country, some parts of which may be occupied or actively fought over, while other areas are in better circumstances.

  • 10 Demenjian & Thébaud 2009.
  • 11 Braybon & Summerfield 1987; Summerfield 1984.
  • 12 Sheridan 1990.
  • 13 Gribaudi 2003 and 2005.

10In France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the USA and Canada, a large number of studies have been undertaken at every level – local, regional and national. They have not only made use of the historian’s classic sources, such as the press and public or private archives, but also new sources which have been sought out specifically to ensure that women’s voices are heard, for example letters, private diaries, memoirs written by women during or after the fighting, and interviews with survivors. The collection of oral evidence is unfortunately underdeveloped in France, where oral history is still marginalized,10 but has been more systematically undertaken in Germany and especially in Britain under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum and Southampton Museum.11 For the Second World War, Britain also possesses a unique resource: the documentation elicited and produced by Mass Observation.12 This includes records of observations, opinion polls, letters from regular correspondents, both men and women, and several hundred diaries kept by “ordinary people”. One of these, kept by Mrs Last, was published in 1981 as Nella Last’s War. Equally in Italy, a major study undertaken in the Naples region between 1996 and 2004 collected nearly 200 pieces of oral evidence.13

  • 14 Higonnet 2001; Morin-Pelletier 2005.

11Autobiographies, whether written at the time or later – in which case, of course, the question of the accuracy of memories arises – can be used both to gain a clearer grasp of collective processes, for example of political commitment, and to facilitate the writing of a sensitive history of any conflict. They can similarly be used to overturn the standard classifications of victims and definitions of heroism, and to demonstrate how varied experiences could be. And since the earliest research into women’s history in the 1970s, historians have been looking for instances of self-expression, trying always to pay attention to the ways in which women make sense, through writing or through art, of the events and upheavals of war. More recent work on the First World War has thus been particularly based on accounts written by nurses, in order both to draw up a history of the health services and to try to capture the individual and group identities of women who simultaneously experienced traumatic events and an extraordinary and previously unimaginable adventure.14

  • 15 On Germany see Daniel 1997.
  • 16 Botchkareva 1919.
  • 17 Capdevila & Godineau 2004. On France during and after the Second World War, Capdevila 2000 and Jaun (...)

12The accumulation of research on women has made comparisons between countries possible and resulted in a better understanding of global phenomena. For example, amongst the causes of the defeat of Germany in the First World War was that country’s partial failure to mobilize women as replacements for men and as war workers, whereas in Britain between 1914 and 1918, the female work force grew by 50%, and in France by 20%. Another cause of defeat was the revolt of working-class women in Germany against the scarcities which resulted from the naval blockade and their undermining of imperial authority.15 Comparisons between the two world wars can also be made within a single country, in particular in relation to the types and extent of the mobilization of women. Several monographs and collective works have looked at the question of the recruitment of women into the army auxiliary services. In the First World War, this only involved very few women and then only in Britain, except for the Russian women’s battalion raised by Maria Botchkareva, whose reminiscences, recorded by an American journalist in 1919 and published in France in 1923, have recently been re-issued.16 In the Second World War, such recruitment was more widespread. These studies ask which women were recruited, how many of them, for what purposes and with what effects on their sense of identity and on the culture of society17.

  • 18 Thébaud 1995; Weitz 1995; Andrieu 1997; Gilzmer, Levisse-Touzé & Martens 2003; Andrieu & Bard 2008.
  • 19 Most notably Lucie Aubrac: Douzou 2009.

13In France, the years between 1940 and 1944 were years of occupation and civil war. So historians have been interested in the place of women in the Resistance: their numbers, their specific tasks or those they shared, how much they suffered for their participation, and how their work has been recognized and commemorated by society. This work has illuminated both the emergence of more equal relationships between men and women, during the fighting and after the Liberation, and the persistence of cultural and social conservatism.18 More recently particular women in the Resistance have been the subject of scholarly biographies and of popular films.19 In this area, oral history studies have revealed how women often underestimated the importance of their role – saying “I didn’t do anything” or “it was normal” – an underestimation which can be explained both by their upbringing and by the fact that what they did – feeding and sheltering people, maintaining contacts and links – was so closely connected to their everyday life.

A contested issue: war and the emancipation of women

14Did war liberate women? This question has been posed since the first studies, in particular for France – where for most people the main examples of apparent liberation that come to mind are the “flapper” [la garçonne] of the 1920s, and women’s getting the vote in 1944 – and for Britain, where women aged over 30 were granted the vote in 1918. The question is indeed a key one for any history of women that stems from a notion of progress and seeks to establish a women’s chronology. What is the place of war on the long path towards the emancipation of women?

  • 20 Thébaud 2004 and 2013b.

15For the Great War, “three historiographical periods” can be identified.20 In demonstrating that war is not a wholly masculine undertaking, the earliest studies, especially in Britain (David Mitchell, Arthur Marwick), revealed how women took on new responsibilities and occupations: as heads of household, as munitions workers, as tram drivers, as ambulance drivers near the front line, and even as army auxiliaries. This work made use of the numerous sources which commented on, caricatured or photographed these novel activities, including material collected from the wartime period onwards by women’s organizations (in France and Germany) or by the Women’s War Work subcommittee of the Imperial War Museum – sources which often preserve an idealized picture of the mobilization of women. These studies also drew on oral testimony recorded in the 1970s, using approaches which, though energetically pursued, were not always careful about the status and contextualization of the evidence. The majority of the interviewees in Britain and some of them in France spoke of a feeling of liberation, of pride when they looked back, of the sense that nothing was ever the same again. Moreover, many people at the time saw wartime as a catalyst for female emancipation.

  • 21 See the research of Deborah Thom on women’s work or Susan Kent’s examination of the consequences of (...)
  • 22 Macmillan 1981 based on an earlier doctoral thesis.

16A generation gap between earlier historians and those of the 1980s is particularly clear in Britain21 compared with France – where researchers, conscious of the rigidity of the legal framework governing the status of women (the Code civil) and the rejection of votes for women in the interwar period, had never adopted the same optimistic tone of voice.22 The 1980s historians disputed the thesis that war had been an emancipator and showed, through a critical re-reading of the sources, that changes had been either provisional or superficial. War seemed to them, because of its nature and the trauma it produces, rather to be a conservative or even regressive force in the field of relationships between the sexes. Women were relegated to family duties and repressive laws were passed intended to encourage the birth of more children.

  • 23 Reynolds 1996.
  • 24 Woollacott 1994.
  • 25 Capdevila et al. 2010a [2003].

17These interpretations were further modified in the 1990s and 2000s. Siân Reynolds has described the slow processes of transformation which were operational in France between the wars, for example through literature for children of both sexes, mixed youth organizations, the gradual penetration of women into public life and recognition of their expertise on social policy. She considers that these two decades were a transitional period, laying the groundwork for later turning points.23 Angela Woollacott re-examined the experiences of “Tommy’s sisters” – the British munitions workers – so as both to underline how they opened up, both actually and symbolically, new possibilities for women and to ensure that they took their place within British cultural memories of the Great War.24 As for a comparison of the French experience as between the two world wars, this tends to show that in the Second there was less differentiation between male and female roles and an evolution of the position of women within the deployment of the nation under arms.25

18For the Second World War, whose effects on women have also been interpreted in differing ways just as for the Great War, a gendered approach has facilitated a more complex analysis and a more nuanced response to research questions. Many issues are now more clearly raised. These include: the difficulty of coming to unequivocal conclusions; the importance of the level of observation, be it that of the individual, the group or the community; the importance of the timescale considered – short, medium or long term – and of the approach adopted, whether social, cultural or legal. The impact of differences between women – in class, age, nationality, place of residence – is even more crucial. Might it be said that the question of emancipation is a “western” one, which could only be raised where there was no enemy occupation, not too much hardship, and a rapid return to political stability after the war?

Gender and war(s)/New perspectives on the cultural history of war

19Women’s history has always looked at women contextually and in terms of their relations with men, and has, from the start, asked questions about the construction of gendered (or at least female) identities and categories. However, the approach through the concept of gender, which rejects purely natural criteria for differentiating between the sexes and poses questions about all forms of sexual hierarchy, produces a more complex picture. As the American historian Joan Scott has argued, gender is “a useful category of historical analysis”, with many potential uses.

War and gender/The gender of war

  • 26 Higonnet et al. 1987.

20Since at least the 1980s, historians have asked questions about what war does to gender, looking at gender as it relates to mobilization, engagement, hardship in war, and societies’ myths and understanding of themselves. They have also asked what gender does to war, analysing both the sexual politics of war and the sexual aspects of policy. One of the most stimulating studies, still today, is Behind the Lines: gender and two world wars, a book which resulted from a conference at Harvard in 1984.26

  • 27 On these complex developments see Guéraiche 1999 and Chaperon 2000. See also Thébaud 2010.

21First, a gendered approach takes a different view of the question of women’s emancipation by war, noting how gendered systems develop in wartime, both the range of sexually differentiated social roles, and the system of representations defining what is meant by male and female, masculine and feminine. This involves drawing comparisons between the material and legal situations of men and women before, during and after the war, but also attending to all the forms of cultural expression used to make sense of the experiences of both men and women, through which reactions to the upheavals resulting from events can be understood. Hence the acquisition of political rights by French women in 1944 – the rights to vote and stand for election, which had long been demanded by the suffrage movements – can be interpreted in several ways. It cannot simply be interpreted as their reward for participation in the Resistance against the occupying forces and the Vichy government. On the one hand, there was still strongly expressed resistance to granting full citizenship to women. And arguments citing women’s specificity, suggesting that they would bring certain qualities to political life – devotion, realism, a more harmonious style – were just as much in evidence as those insisting on the courage of the women of the Resistance. On the other hand, reactions at the time, reflected in the press, clearly proclaim that women are not citizens like the others and express anxiety about possible confusion between the sexes; doubt is cast on the political abilities of women and they are enjoined to preserve their femininity. Finally, political change was not accompanied by the more general change in the rights of women which would have been its logical extension. Although the principle of equality between the sexes was written into the preamble to the Constitution of 1946, both the inegalitarian Civil Code and the repressive laws on birth control were maintained. French women at the Liberation were above all expected to become prolific mothers.27

22More generally, a gendered analysis shows that men and women may experience war differently and at different rhythms. Female roles are always subordinate to masculine ones, in spite of public disagreement about how their experiences, for example the mobilization of women into war factories and their participation in resistance, are to be understood. Sexual identities may take a battering but society’s self-image remains firmly buttressed by the notion of difference between the sexes.

  • 28 For example Huss 2000.
  • 29 Leed 1979; Fussel 1989, French translation 2003.
  • 30 For example Capdevila 2002; Lunn 2005.
  • 31 Capdevila et al. 2010b.

23Gender analysis also implies that women are not the only ones with a gendered identity: masculinity too is a culturally and socially constructed concept, which can vary depending on time and place. Societies at war make use of virility, calling on men to be brave, to protect women and children, to defend territory and nation. All forms of propaganda – speech and images – use gendered registers.28 But war also puts men and their virility through many kinds of suffering: physical and mental anguish undergone on the front line
– wounds, fear of pain and death and ailments with “feminine” symptoms, like the “shell shock” identified during the first war – or identity crises produced by the gap between the ideal and the reality of war. Here too, in order to approach this intimate side of war, which affects military developments as well as post war societies, the
historian can utilize instances of “les sources du moi”, forms of self-expression such as letters, wartime diaries, memoirs, as well as literature and other types of artistic expression, and photographs which show bodies and faces. There have been numerous studies, following on from pioneering work in English,29 on “war-weariness” and the identity crises which have troubled soldiers faced with cataclysmic and unprecedented events.30 Through their questioning of the designation of individuals in accordance with gender norms and on the adjustments induced by wars, this work has now resulted in a history of gender identities, both individual and collective, masculine and feminine.31

  • 32 Le Naour 2002; Rouquet et al. 2007.
  • 33 Horne 2000.
  • 34 Melman 1998; Auslander & Zancarini-Fournel 2000.

24An interest in the gender of war must involve looking at the gendering of wartime policies and of society’s myths and beliefs about itself in wartime. Countries at war define and divide gender roles through legislation on military and civil mobilization and through measures for social and family protection, such as allowances for soldiers’ wives, widows’ pensions etc. They also control sexuality, not only that of the soldiers but also of the soldiers’ wives, whose marital fidelity is elevated into a patriotic necessity. Marital unfaithfulness, especially with one of the enemy, is regarded as national treason.32 Indeed states and societies at war appropriate the cultural representations of masculine and feminine to serve the national interest, for example by feminizing the enemy to emphasis its weakness, or likening the conquest of territory by the enemy to the rape of the female-nation, so that female bodies symbolize the body of the nation and the land of the ancestors. The deeply sexualized discourse and iconography of war highlight a parallel division of the nation into the male-soldier on the one hand and on the other the women and children equated with the land which he is defending.33 More generally, and much more clearly than in peacetime, gender helps the understanding of national identity. It is used as an index of (and for) national belonging, so that whether or not men and women fit into gender categories becomes a criterion for inclusion or exclusion.34

The cultural history of warfare and the history of women and of gender

  • 35 Details of its permanent collection, the associated exhibitions and its academic activities are on (...)
  • 36 Audoin-Rousseau & Becker 2000.
  • 37 Becker et al. 1994; Audoin-Rousseau & Becker 2004.
  • 38 The wartime experience of children, which was initially studied in terms of the efforts to incite t (...)
  • 39 The debate is outlined in Prost & Winter 2005 (translated from Prost & Winter 2004).
  • 40 For example, Delaporte 1996 and Le Naour 2011.
  • 41 Leclerc & Weindling 1995; Simonin 2009.
  • 42 Ponzani 2012.
  • 43 Current research by Camille Fauroux.
  • 44 Mailänder 2009 and 2012.

25The “cultural history of warfare” can be seen as emerging in France with the creation of the Historial at Péronne, a historical museum of the First World War on the site of the battle of the Somme.35 This historical approach has been theorized by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker36 and published in two international collections of essays.37 It does not assume any kind of a priori convergence with the history of women and gender. These convergences do however exist, if only in the themes tackled, for example the experiences of children in warfare and the enlistment of their support;38 bereavement; rape; the suffering of men at the front; and the gendered forms of wartime culture. Beyond the heated scholarly debate which it stirred up in the 2000s on the question of the acceptance of war by soldiers and by the home front,39 this approach has numerous benefits. Like the “new cultural history” among English-language historians, it offers the possibility of taking into account the whole cultural dimension of conflict and wartime societies, including visual culture with its manifold sources such as postcards, posters, films and photographs. This approach also looks at suffering in body and mind40 and all forms of physical violence, whether committed or undergone, posing pioneering questions about the acceptance of violence. It has also undoubtedly inspired women’s and gender history to study the types of women’s involvement that are less “positive” than those of feminist activists or strikers – such as female collaborators in occupied France in the Second World War,41 members of the women’s section of the Falange in Francoist Spain, women auxiliaries in the Salò Republic in Italy,42 civilian women who went to work in Germany during the war43 and female warders in Nazi concentration camps.44

  • 45 Thébaud 1990; Bard 1995.
  • 46 Layton 1987.

26The question to what extent and on what grounds the home front assented to the war has been raised by women’s history, and the responses proposed have been nuanced. In France, as in Germany and Britain, the consent, indeed the crusading zeal against the enemy, of the majority of feminists during the 1914-1918 war was undeniable. The feminists suspended their demands, in particular the demand for votes for women, which had been so important before 1914, preferring to speak of patriotic “duties” and to demonstrate their competence. They called on women to be willing to serve and to take action. They renounced their pre-war internationalism – “for as long as the war lasts, the enemy’s wives are also the enemy”, Jane Misme wrote in La Française of 19 December 1914 – and saw themselves as the moral leavening of their countries. They condemned the women who tried to organize pacifist congresses in Bern and The Hague in 1915, finding their attitude disgraceful and premature. After 1918, traces of the wartime culture persisted, even though the transnational feminist culture which had been shaped by international congresses, travel and correspondence began slowly to reassert itself.45 But these feminist leaders were an elite, who aspired to integration within the nation, both for themselves and for women as a whole. Was their acceptance of war shared by women in general? Both police reports on the state of public opinion, and the letters of “ordinary” people tend, despite a wide range of attitudes, rather to show that people were resigned to the inevitability of conflict, weary of the persistent fighting, and condemnatory of the suffering and destitution produced by the war. In this context, the study of bereavement, in both its individual and its collective effects, invites a nuanced response. The most painful kind of grief was no doubt that of those whose relatives’ bodies were listed as missing, but whatever form it took and however faced, the loss of their menfolk was invariably experienced by wives and mothers as a violent blow and almost always as unacceptable. Post-war society was thus profoundly affected by it. A particularly interesting individual trajectory is that of the British woman, Vera Brittain. Her wartime writings – her letters and diary – show how deeply torn she was between idealistic patriotism and her horror of the conflict which she discovered as a hospital nurse. Her later autobiography is an anti-war manifesto, and still later she converted to a Christian pacifism with a belief in the pacifist nature of women.46

  • 47 Audoin-Rouzeau 1995.
  • 48 There is some information in Becker 2010.

27Similarly, women’s history, particularly for those countries which were partly or wholly under occupation, has been concerned with the violence suffered by women, envisaged not only in the light of the debates to which it gave rise and the ways in which it was represented in post-war culture, but also and principally as a traumatic and painful experience with a long-term impact on the individual women themselves. So rape perpetrated by enemy soldiers, – in this case suffered by Frenchwomen during the invasion of northern France in 1914 – cannot be approached simply through society’s debate about “what is to be done about the child conceived by rape” – a debate which led to the acquittal of mothers accused infanticide in some cases.47 It also has to be approached through the testimony of the victims and judicial sources, in order to acquire an understanding of the actual act of violence, its perpetrators, its victims and what became of them (see below). Women’s history is also beginning to consider collective actions against violence towards women such as, for example, during the First World War, the creation within international law of a Committee for the Protection of Women. Chaired by an American woman, it worked for the amendment of the “laws of war” and for protection for civilians. This number of Clio, the first to consider the gendered laws of war, has not been able to cover the question of the role of women in “humanizing” war in the twentieth century, which needs further research.48

  • 49 Virgili 2000.

28The history of women and of gender does not only illuminate violence suffered (or inflicted) by women, but also raises the question of the gender of violence, whether suffered or inflicted. For example Fabrice Virgili has discussed the shaving of the heads of women who, during the Liberation in 1944-1945, were accused of sexual relations with Germans. He shows that this was not so much a punishment for “sexual collaboration” as a gendered punishment for collaboration – of any type, sexual, political and economic – and that the post-war Purge (épuration) was thus gendered.49 This head-shaving was a mass phenomenon, which occurred in several waves and in almost every département of France, involving 20,000 women. It can be regarded as one of the means for rebuilding both national identity and the masculine identity which had been undermined by defeat, occupation, and the civil war. As many newspaper articles pointed out at the time, head-shaving was “purifying”. But it was also a mark of the domination of women by men and of a refusal to allow women sexual autonomy. Virgili’s study of a phenomenon which is often referred to, but generally thought to be a largely incomprehensible “ugly carnival”, is representative of the most recent work on gender.

Current convergence around various themes

29The final (and shorter) section of this article will highlight current research themes around which women’s and gender history, cultural history and the social history of war are all tending to converge.

Exiting war/gender and the exit from war

  • 50 A teaching and research seminar on this topic has for several years been held at the University of (...)
  • 51 Prost 1977.
  • 52 Petit 2004; Bette 2008 and 2012.

30Exiting from war is not simply a matter of laying down arms and picking up the activities of peacetime. A war does not end with the armistice or the peace treaty. Even without invoking here the questions raised by the representation of wartime in memoirs and by the ways in which a combatant past is handled and presented in later life, we may observe that the effects of war persist well beyond the actual fighting: real scars are left on bodies, minds and landscapes.50 Antoine Prost analysed in the 1970s the permeation of French society between the wars by the experience of the war veterans, and shed light on their desire to exert a moral dominance over civilians.51 More recently social history and women’s history have taken an interest in widowhood, looking at the social position and the life histories of the war widows.52

  • 53 Roberts 1994: 217.
  • 54 Kent 1993.
  • 55 On the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom see Rupp 1998.

31Anglo-American historians were the first to insist on the fact that the construction of peacetime was also the reconstruction of the gender order. In her cultural history of France 1917-1927, the American historian Mary Louise Roberts does not attempt to measure the changes that took place, nor to show how women incorporated contradictory images into their sense of self, but does assert that the reconstruction of gender worked to alleviate the sexual and cultural unease which the upheavals of the war had created, and she applies this logic of catharsis to the interpretation of the symbol of the ‘garçonne’ – the bachelor-girl flapper. She analyses the full range of discourses on the limited and conflictual possibilities of visualizing “the feminine”, and distinguishes between three models: the “modern woman”, around whom cluster the fears of change; her opposite, the reassuring model of the “mother”, bearer of both moral and demographic remedies; and finally the ‘single woman’, active but unmarried and chaste, enabling the French to negotiate change, to reconcile the old domestic ideal with a changing social structure and to look “backwards to the future”.53 Other historians have demonstrated the effects of war on feminist movements: they came out of the war divided, with different concepts about gender norms and different ideas about which struggles should be prioritized.54 Others again have examined the slow reconstruction of relations, through cultural activities and the work of their associations, between activists from former enemy countries. There were new organizations working for this rebuilding, like the French Union féminine pour la Société des Nations (Women’s League of Nations Union) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which reasserted the role of women in the dissemination of a culture of peace.55

  • 56 14-18, aujourd’hui, today, heute 2002.
  • 57 Mosse 1990, translated into French 1999.
  • 58 For example, for the First World War in France Cabanes 2004 and Pignot 2009. For a comparative appr (...)
  • 59 Cabanes & Piketty 2009.

32Cultural history as defined above has highlighted the concept of a “cultural demobilization” and studied, often from a comparative perspective, the cultural processes of exit from war56 as it affected women, men and children both individually and collectively. Following George Mosse,57 who applied the concept to Germany in the 1920s, it has also been concerned with the “brutalization” of post-war societies which had become acclimatized to violence. These concepts, applicable to the analysis of every conflict, have inspired work on military demobilization, which was often protracted, on the family adjustments after the return of men who wanted to resume their place in the household as father and husband, and on collective rituals of mourning.58 Demobilization thus fitted into individual experiences of personal life, which have become a new focus for research. This was the theme of an international conference at Sciences-Po [the Paris Institut d’études politiques]. The publication of its proceedings in 2009 tackled four points: experiences of war, life writing and family stories; public space, private space and personal spaces at the end of the war; the future of violence; and the rebuilding of gender relationships and of sexual identities.59

Private life in wartime/War, sexualities and gendered violence

  • 60 Fouchard 2013.
  • 61 Thesis by Clementine Vidal-Naquet submitted and passed in December 2013 at the EHESS (École des Hau (...)

33The history of private life in wartime has many aspects which build upon earlier work. Although it attempts to identify general trends, the history of private life works on a different level – that of individual or family histories of wartime – and is based on evidence from self-expression. In France at least, the last decade or so has seen the publication (for which there must be a reading public) of numerous war diaries written by men and women of the First World War and to a lesser extent of the Second, as well as exchanges of letters, writings which had for a long time stayed within the family, even if only in some dusty attic. These publications are the outcome of a new way in which society looks at conflict, and also serve to shape the collective memory of it. It is certainly significant that amongst the most recent doctoral theses in France on the Great War, two make use of the concept of the history of private life (l’intime) which Dominique Fouchard defines as a space in which are constructed both one’s image of oneself and one’s deepest relationships with other people. 60 Looking at the sphere of the family and the period after the war when men and women rediscovered each other shows up how wartime experiences intrude upon the private life of the family, and how new ways of behaving emerge between spouses and within families. It also emphasizes the salience
– indeed the reinforcement – of stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and the development of new perceptions of “the couple”. This study once more offers a nuanced response regarding emancipation. The second thesis, only recently submitted and as yet unpublished, concerns couples whilst they were separated, using correspondence as its principal source. Its title is
“Te reverrai-je? Le lien conjugal pendant la Grande Guerre” (Shall I see you again? Marital bonds during the Great War).61

  • 62 Rouquet et al. 2007.
  • 63 Meinen 2006; Le Naour 2004; Porzio 2011; Roberts 2013 (French translation 2014).
  • 64 Ericsson & Simonsen 2005; Saada 2012; Virgili 2009.

34One of the most frequently studied aspects of the history of private life is wartime sexuality, about which a huge exhibition was staged in Paris in 2007 under the title “Love, wars and sexuality 1914-1945” (Amour, guerres et sexualité, 1914 -1945).62 The themes it considered were the control exercised over of the sex lives of soldiers and of their wives – what might be designated sexual policies; romantic relationships and experiences; and the cultural manifestations of masculine fantasies. Many studies are now looking at the sexual dimension of occupation and liberation, whether involving American soldiers in France or Italy, the Wehrmacht in France, or French soldiers in the Rhineland.63 Scholars are also nowadays interested in the children born as a result both of wartime love affairs and of sexual violence, such as the children of Franco-German couples born during the Second World War, or the mixed-race children born before and during the decolonization wars.64

  • 65 But see Chang 2007. See also the anonymous evidence of a woman from Berlin that has now been publis (...)
  • 66 Branche & Virgili 2012; Heineman 2012.

35Although little work has so far been published on rape in wartime, which constitutes both gendered and sexual violence,65 some research is being undertaken, as evidenced by the speedy publication of the proceedings of a recent conference.66 Difficult though they are to conduct, these studies attempt to measure the extent of the occurrence of rape, to understand its social, political and cultural functioning, to uncover its short- and long-term effects on the victims – the women raped and the children conceived by rape – as well as the social reactions it arouses and the social and legal measures adopted by individual countries and international organizations. This field of research, which underlines the extent to which war is for many women above all an ordeal which scars their bodies (another element in response to the war-as-emancipation thesis), is well represented in this number of Clio.

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14-18, aujourd’hui, today, heute, 2002, n°4, Démobilisations culturelles après la grande Guerre.

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Becker, Jean-Jacques, Jay M. Winter, Gerd Krumeich, Annette Becker, and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau (eds). 1994. Guerre et Cultures: 1914-1918. Paris: A. Colin.

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Branche, Raphaëlle. 2009. Le sexe, le genre et la parole : quand une femme interroge des hommes sur les violences infligées. In Quand les femmes témoignent. Histoire orale, histoire des femmes, mémoire des femmes, ed. Françoise Thébaud and Geneviève Dermenjian, 217-226. Paris: Publisud.

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Capdevila, Luc, and Dominique Godineau (eds). 2004. Armées. Clio. Histoire, Femmes et Sociétés 20.

Capdevila, Luc, François Rouquet, Fabrice Virgili, and Danièle Voldman, 2010a [1st edn, 2003]. Sexes, genre et guerres (France, 1914-1945). Paris: Payot.

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Chang, Iris. 2007. Le Viol de Nankin. Paris: Payot.

Chaperon, Sylvie. 2000. Les Années Beauvoir: 1945-1970. Paris: Fayard.

Daniel, Ute. 1997. The War from Within: German working class women in the First World War. Oxford & New York: Berg Publishers. Abridged translation of Daniel, Ute. 1989. Arbeiterfrauen in der Kriegsgesellschaft 1914-1918: Beruf, Familie und Politik im Ersten Weltkrieg. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Delaporte, Sophie. 1996. Les Gueules cassées : les blessés de la face de la Grande Guerre. Paris: Éditions Noêsis.

Dermenjian, Geneviève, and Françoise Thébaud (eds). 2009. Quand les femmes témoignent. Histoire orale, histoire des femmes, mémoire des femmes. Paris: Publisud.

Douzou, Laurent. 2009. Lucie Aubrac. Paris: Perrin.

Downs, Laura Lee. 1995. Manufacturing Inequality: gender division in the French and British metalworking industries, 1914-1939. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

Ericsson, Kjersti, and Eva Simonsen (eds). 2005. Children of World War II: the hidden enemy legacy. Oxford & New York: Berg.

Fouchard, Dominique. 2013. Le Poids de la guerre : les poilus et leur famille après 1918. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

Fridenson, Patrick (ed.) 1977. L’Autre front, special number of Mouvement Social n°2, Paris, Les éditions ouvrières [Revised and translated into English as The French Home Front 1914-1918. Providence/Oxford: Berg. 1992].

Fussel, Paul. 1989. Wartime: understanding and behaviour in the Second World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press [Translated into French as À la guerre : psychologie et comportement des soldats pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. 2003 [1992]. Paris: Points Seuil].

Gilzmer, Mechtild, Christine Levisse-Touzé and Stefan Martens (eds). 2003. Les Femmes dans la Résistance en France. Paris: Tallandier.

Grayzel, Susan R. 1999. Women’s Identities at War: gender, motherhood, and politics in Britain and France during the First World War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Gribaudi, Gabriella (ed.) 2003. Terra bruciata: le stragi naziste sul fronte meridionale. Naples: L’ancora del mediterraneo.

Gribaudi, Gabriella. 2005. Guerra totale: tra bombe alleate e violenze naziste: Napoli e il fronte meridionale 1940-1944. Turin: Bollati Boringhieri.

Guéraiche, William, 1999. Les Femmes et la République: essai sur la répartition du pouvoir de 1943 à 1979. Paris: Éditions de l’Atelier.

Heineman, Elizabeth D. 2012. Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: from the ancient world to the era of human rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Higonnet, Margaret R. 2001. Nurses at the Front: writing the wounds of the Great War. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Higonnet Margaret R., Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel and Margaret C. Weitz (eds) 1987. Behind the Lines: gender and the two world wars. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Horne, John. 2000. Corps, lieux, nation: la France et l’invasion de 1914. Annales HSS 55(1): 73-109.

Huss, Marie-Monique. 2000. Histoires de famille, 1914-1918 : Cartes postales et culture de guerre. Paris: Éditions Noêsis.

Jauneau, Elodie. 2011. La Féminisation de l’armée française pendant les guerres (1938-1962) : enjeux et réalités d’un processus irréversible. Thesis supervised by Gabrielle Houbre, Université Paris Diderot.

Kent, Susan Kingsley. 1993. Making Peace: the reconstruction of gender in interwar Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Layton, Lynne. 1987. Vera Brittain’s Testament(s). In Behind the Lines: gender and the two world wars, ed. Margaret Higonnet, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel and Margaret C. Weitz, 70-83. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Leclerc, Françoise, and Michèle Weindling. 1995. La répression des femmes coupables de collaboration. In Résistances et libérations, France, 1940-1945, ed. Françoise Thébaud, 129-150. Clio. Histoire, Femmes et Sociétés 1.

Leed, Eric J. 1979. No Man’s Land: combat and identity in World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Le Naour, Jean-Yves. 2002. Misères et tourments de la chair durant la Grande Guerre : les mœurs sexuelles des Français, 1914-1918. Paris: Aubier.

Le Naour, Jean-Yves. 2004. La Honte noire : l’Allemagne et les troupes coloniales françaises, 1914-1945. Paris: Hachette.

Le Naour, Jean-Yves. 2011. Les Soldats de la honte. Paris: Perrin.

Lunn, Joe. 2005. Male identity and martial codes of honour: a comparison of the war memoirs of Robert Graves, Ernst Jünger and Kande Kamara. The Journal of Military History 69: 713-736.

Mailänder, Elissa. 2009. Gewalt im Dienstalltag: Die Aufseherinnen des Konzentrations- und Vernichtungslagers Majdanek. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition.

Mailänder, Elissa. 2012. La violence des surveillantes des camps de concentration national-socialistes (1939-1945) : réflexions sur les dynamiques et logiques du pouvoir. Encyclopédie en ligne des violences de masse. Available at

McMillan, James F. 1981. Housewife or Harlot? The place of women in French society 1870-1940. Brighton: Harvester.

Meinen, Insa. 2006. Wehrmacht et prostitution sous l’Occupation (1940-1945). Paris: Payot.

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Morin-Pelletier, Mélanie. 2005. Briser les ailes de l’ange : les infirmières militaires canadiennes (1914-1918). Outremont (Quebec): Athéna.

Mosse, George. 1990. Fallen Soldiers: reshaping the memory of the World Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Pignot, Manon. 2004. La Guerre des crayons : quand les petits Parisiens dessinaient la Grande Guerre. Paris: Éditions Parigramme.

Pignot, Manon. 2009. 1918-1919 : retour des hommes et invention des pères. In Retour à l’intime au sortir de la guerre, ed. Bruno Cabanes and Guillaume Piketty, 37-50. Paris: Taillandier.

Pignot, Manon. 2012. Allons enfants de la Patrie : génération Grande Guerre. Paris: Seuil.

Ponzani, Michela. 2012. Guerra alle donne: partigiane, vittime di stupro, « amanti del nemico » 1940-1945. Turin: Einaudi.

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Rouquet, François, Fabrice Virgili, and Danièle Voldman (eds). 2007. Amours, guerres et sexualités, 1914-1945. Paris: Gallimard BDIC/Musée de l’Armée.

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1 On violence in former Yugoslavia, see Nahoum-Grappe 1993 and 1997.

2 Amrane 1991 and 1994; Branche 2001, 2002 and 2009.

3 Winter 2013.

4 Downs 1995; Grayzel 1999; Thébaud 1998 and 1994.

5 For example Bravo 1991; Audoin-Rouzeau et al. 2002; Capdevila et al. 2010a.

6 Fridenson 1977. Translated into English in 1992 as The French Home Front (1914-1918).

7 Wall & Winter 1988.

8 Thébaud 2013a [1986].

9 Rupp 1978.

10 Demenjian & Thébaud 2009.

11 Braybon & Summerfield 1987; Summerfield 1984.

12 Sheridan 1990.

13 Gribaudi 2003 and 2005.

14 Higonnet 2001; Morin-Pelletier 2005.

15 On Germany see Daniel 1997.

16 Botchkareva 1919.

17 Capdevila & Godineau 2004. On France during and after the Second World War, Capdevila 2000 and Jauneau 2011.

18 Thébaud 1995; Weitz 1995; Andrieu 1997; Gilzmer, Levisse-Touzé & Martens 2003; Andrieu & Bard 2008.

19 Most notably Lucie Aubrac: Douzou 2009.

20 Thébaud 2004 and 2013b.

21 See the research of Deborah Thom on women’s work or Susan Kent’s examination of the consequences of war on feminist movements and demands: Thom 1998 (research commenced in the 1980s); Kent 1993.

22 Macmillan 1981 based on an earlier doctoral thesis.

23 Reynolds 1996.

24 Woollacott 1994.

25 Capdevila et al. 2010a [2003].

26 Higonnet et al. 1987.

27 On these complex developments see Guéraiche 1999 and Chaperon 2000. See also Thébaud 2010.

28 For example Huss 2000.

29 Leed 1979; Fussel 1989, French translation 2003.

30 For example Capdevila 2002; Lunn 2005.

31 Capdevila et al. 2010b.

32 Le Naour 2002; Rouquet et al. 2007.

33 Horne 2000.

34 Melman 1998; Auslander & Zancarini-Fournel 2000.

35 Details of its permanent collection, the associated exhibitions and its academic activities are on the website of the Historial at

36 Audoin-Rousseau & Becker 2000.

37 Becker et al. 1994; Audoin-Rousseau & Becker 2004.

38 The wartime experience of children, which was initially studied in terms of the efforts to incite their patriotic and cultural involvement, is now approached from their own point of view (by looking at evidence from their writings and at their drawings) with a gendered angle and an interest in the history of parent-child relationships. Pignot 2004 and 2012.

39 The debate is outlined in Prost & Winter 2005 (translated from Prost & Winter 2004).

40 For example, Delaporte 1996 and Le Naour 2011.

41 Leclerc & Weindling 1995; Simonin 2009.

42 Ponzani 2012.

43 Current research by Camille Fauroux.

44 Mailänder 2009 and 2012.

45 Thébaud 1990; Bard 1995.

46 Layton 1987.

47 Audoin-Rouzeau 1995.

48 There is some information in Becker 2010.

49 Virgili 2000.

50 A teaching and research seminar on this topic has for several years been held at the University of Paris I under the title “Scars of war and post-conflict mediation: actors, sites and stories, twentieth and twenty-first centuries” (Traces de guerre et mediations après les conflits: acteurs, lieux et récits. xxe et xxie siècles).

51 Prost 1977.

52 Petit 2004; Bette 2008 and 2012.

53 Roberts 1994: 217.

54 Kent 1993.

55 On the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom see Rupp 1998.

56 14-18, aujourd’hui, today, heute 2002.

57 Mosse 1990, translated into French 1999.

58 For example, for the First World War in France Cabanes 2004 and Pignot 2009. For a comparative approach Cabanes & Piketty 2007.

59 Cabanes & Piketty 2009.

60 Fouchard 2013.

61 Thesis by Clementine Vidal-Naquet submitted and passed in December 2013 at the EHESS (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales).

62 Rouquet et al. 2007.

63 Meinen 2006; Le Naour 2004; Porzio 2011; Roberts 2013 (French translation 2014).

64 Ericsson & Simonsen 2005; Saada 2012; Virgili 2009.

65 But see Chang 2007. See also the anonymous evidence of a woman from Berlin that has now been published in several languages: Anonyma 2003.

66 Branche & Virgili 2012; Heineman 2012.

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Electronic reference

Françoise Thébaud, Understanding twentieth-century wars through women and gender: forty years of historiographyClio [Online], 39 | 2014, Online since 10 April 2015, connection on 27 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Françoise Thébaud

Françoise Thébaud is emerita Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Avignon, and a research associate at the Institut des Études Genre at the University of Geneva. She is a founder member and co-chief editor of Clio. Femmes, Genre, Histoire, and with Rebecca Rogers has edited several numbers, including Voyageuses (28/2008) and Relectures (32/2010). Her book, Ecrire l’histoire des femmes et du genre (Lyon, ENS Editions 2007) has recently been translated into Spanish (Oviedo, KRK Editions). Among recent publications are a revised and updated edition (Paris, Petite Bibliothèque Payot 2013) of her 1986 book La Femme au temps de la guerre de 14, and two articles: “Le féminisme et la question du travail, hier et aujourd’hui” in M. Maruani (ed.), Travail et genre dans le monde l’état des savoirs, Paris, La Découverte, 2013, and “Écrire la biographie de Marguerite Thibert (1886-1982) ; itinéraire d’une recherche”, Modern & Contemporary France, 20/4, 2012, p. 421-435. She is currently writing a biography of Thibert – scholar, feminist, socialist and expert on women’s work at the ILO in Geneva.

By this author

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