Review of Gender and Conflict since 1914: Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives by Ana Carden-Coyne (ed.), by Ailbhe Rogers, Maynooth University

Gender and Conflict since 1914: Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectivesgender and conflict by Ana Carden-Coyne (ed.), Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke: New York, 2012, 182pp, (paperback) £21.99 ISBN: 9780230280953

Review by: Ailbhe Rogers, Maynooth University

This volume is an interdisciplinary approach to the complex relationship that exists between gender and war since 1914. It contains contributions from many different international scholars from a diverse range of study backgrounds. It brings together the fields of sociology, anthropology, political science and theory, media studies, literature, law and psychology and manages to juxtapose these in the historical context of past and present world wars.

The word ‘gender’ might automatically conjure up images of women but having read this book it has become clearer now than ever, that gender is in fact a shared experience between men and women. Most historians seem to agree that the word ‘gender’ also involves the study of the ‘social and political construction of roles, behaviours, attributes and characteristics’ that are attributed to both sexes.[1] Traditional gender roles play a substantial part in this volume and what happens when people go beyond the roles that are expected of them in society. Another theme throughout is that of masculinity verses femininity and what that can mean when faced with unpredictable situations that are brought on by war and conflict. One of the main research questions that is asked at the beginning of the volume is, whether or not gender roles in war and conflict have been reimagined over time and the consequences this may present for society. These questions and many more are explored through individual case studies that encompass almost all manner of global wars spanning from the First World War right up to the ‘War on Terror.’ In doing this we are provided with comparisons which enable us to make connections between different wars, in different places, in different time periods. It is hoped that over time this particular method will help us to learn valuable lessons from history.

This edited collection of essays is made up of eleven individual chapters that cover a vast range of subjects, those of which include: the gendered experiences and representations of male and female combatants at home and abroad on the front, gender as a military tactic in wartime countries, terrorists, interrogators, internees, civilians, injured bodies in war and the impact of physical and psychological disabilities on war veterans. It is organised chronologically for the most part. The starting chapters focus on the First World War, moving towards the Second World War and the Cold War and towards the end of the volume we are presented with trajectories on the Vietnam War, independence struggles of Cyprus in the 1950s and lastly reflections on the ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two authors consulted by contributors regularly in this volume are Joanna Bourke (Professor of History at Birkbeck University of London) and Joshua S. Goldstein (Professor Emeritus of International Relations, American University). Bourke’s work tends to focus on the history of the emotions, particularly fear and hatred (Dismembering the Male, 1994) and the history of sexual violence (Rape: Sex, Violence, History, 2007).  In the past few years, her research has centred on questions of humanity, militarisation, and pain (Wounding the World. How Military Violence and War Games Invade Our World, 2014). Goldstein focusses almost exclusively on conflict and international relations. Two of his relevant studies include War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, 2001) and his most relevant work which was just released this year The Wounds Within: A Veteran, A PTSD Therapist and a Nation Unprepared, 2015.

The volume’s editor Ana Carden-Coyne introduces the subject and contributors to the reader and highlights the historiography of gender and war thus far. Her own chapter entitled ‘Gendering the Politics of War Wounds since 1914’ documents the struggles of male disabled war veterans and how their experiences can be described as ‘gendered’. In relation to this Jessica Meyer examines how war disability and gender is represented through films such as Kitty (1927), The Best Years of Our Lives (1947) and The Not Dead, (2007). Hazel Croft’s research topic is mental health and trauma in war situations. She traces the history and representations of shellshock in World War One and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder during World War Two, The Vietnam War, The Gulf War and the wars in the Middle-east.

In his chapter, historian Matthew Stibbe addresses the experiences of civilian internment during the First World War and the ways in which male and female prisoners were deliberately degraded or ‘feminised’ by the military in the Hapsburg Empire. While reading this chapter one couldn’t help but draw comparisons with the current situation in countries like Syria and Palestine.  In a jointly-written chapter, historians Lucy Noakes and Susan R. Grayzel trace the history of ordinary citizens who become militarised through civil defence organisations on the home front during armed conflicts. They also explore the reasons why male and female traditional roles can sometimes become reversed in these situations. Manliness and military conscientious objection is the main issue in law lecturer Lois S. Bibbings’ section. She addresses how these men’s actions can be painted as being unmanly, disloyal and cowardly not just in the early 20th century but even now in modern day 21st century. Art history specialist Gabriel Koureas focuses on gender and terrorism and its portrayal during the anti-colonialist wars of independence in 1950s Cyprus and in the current political climate of the ‘War on Terror’.

Libby Murphy is a literary historian and her research centres on the image of the female ‘trench-fighter’ in French literature and film during the First World War. Also included is a chapter written by historian and feminist Laurie R. Cohen who explores early twentieth century women’s peace movements such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and compares them to their modern day counterparts such as the US group Code Pink. Kara Dixson Vuic describes the importance of Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO) or ‘Donut Dollies’ to the American military forces during the Vietnam War. These were young American women who were charged with the task of boosting morale and creating a homely atmosphere for American soldiers to relax in while off duty from the Front. They did this through the organisation of activities, pass-times and the administering of snacks and treats. The last chapter that appears in the volume is by sociologist Phoebe C. Godfrey. Her study centres around an interview conducted over a two year period (2008-9) with a gay female interrogator who worked for the US Military Intelligence in Iraq in 2003. The interview discusses her experiences as to how she best used her gender to her advantage while interrogating Iraqi prisoners. She also considers the difficulties she encountered while integrating back into normal, everyday civilian life when she quit her job.

This collection is aimed at undergraduate university students of history and anthropology but postgraduate researchers, lecturers and historians will also benefit from it. It sheds new light on the issue of gender and conflict and anyone who is interested will find this to be a delightful read – painstakingly researched, cleverly structured and altogether its contributors write in a convincing and well-balanced manner. In its contribution to research, the collection’s strengths lie mainly in its interdisciplinary approach and the comparative level on which many of the authors write. Admittedly first year students of history might find the work subject-heavy and theoretical in places. This may have been helped had it contained more illustrations and images to break up the text a little more. However, this does not in any way take away from the overall positive impression of the volume and the addition it has made in the field of gender studies.

[1] Ana Carden-Coyne, ‘Introduction – Gender and Conflict Since 1914: Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ in Ana Carden Coyne (ed.) Gender and Conflict Since 1914 (Basingstoke; New York, 2012) p. 3