Women and War

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Women and War


The idea of being under attack—by enemies, by fellow countrymen, or by circumstances—is a frightening one. What lengths does one go to in order to protect oneself, one's children, and one's community? What possessions and liberties could one be willing to sacrifice in order to stay alive? What allegiance is owed to one's nation? These are only a few of the recurring questions asked by women in diaries, memoirs, short stories, novels, and essays on the subject of war. Over the boundaries of time, place, and culture, the literature of women on the subject of war often presents a perspective unique from that of soldiers or men in combat. Whether at the home front or the battle front, women experience war and its aftermath differently. In turn, their stories help readers understand the other side of war, distinct from the traditional soldier's tale or war narrative.

The Home Front

Though "home" would seem the safest place to be in times of war, it is often the site of struggle and determination as great as any combat zone. Shifting battlefields and advancing front lines can bring war into women's lives in such a way that it forces them to becomes soldiers in the battle to merely stay alive. As Ada waits for Inman's return in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (1997), she must keep her deceased father's farm going with only the help of Ruby, a local farm girl. With all the area men away fighting for the Confederacy, the women become home front warriors with the burden of sustaining a way of life. As the Civil War rages and the women are left without men folk, Ada and Ruby know they must support themselves or starve. In the face of hardship, Ada evolves much in the way that young soldiers in war narratives grow from scared novices to accomplished soldiers. Her war experience, though not on the battlefield, makes her a different person. She grows from a woman with a high education but no skills—she could "play on the piano … [but] could not weed a row of young bean plants without pulling half of them out along with the ragweed"—to a confident and self-sufficient farmer and outdoorswoman. Terrorized by a rogue rooster at the beginning of the story, Ada is able to kill two wild turkeys toward the end of the novel, her first time shooting a gun: "She fired, and to her amazement a pair fell."

Though Ada and Inman's eventual reunion is short-lived, the women whose men actually return from war are the lucky ones, though the men seldom return unscathed. Dame Rebecca West, a Dame Commander of the British Empire, offers a portrayal of life on the English home-front during World War I in Return of the Soldier (1918). Like several women writers at the time, West created a fictional account of her life to avoid government sensors that forbid antiwar sentiment. Living safely in a country estate outside London, Jenny, the narrator, shares her recurring dream, "packed full of horror" about her cousin Chris on the battlefield, and concludes, "Well, such are the dreams of Englishwomen to-day. I could not complain, but I wished for the return of our soldier." When Chris finally returns from the war, he suffers from shell shock and is unable to remember anything about the last fifteen years. The women in his life nurse Chris back to normalcy, knowing that once he regains his mental and physical health, he will be sent back to the war.

Like West, Elizabeth Bowen drew inspiration from her own traumatic experiences during World War I. Bowen's short story "The Demon Lover" (1945) dramatically illustrates the psychological devastation that war brings to the overwhelmed civilians who are left behind. Set in London during the Blitz (the bombing of London by the German air force, the Luftwaffe) of August 1941, this nightmarish tale is often classified as a ghost story. The heroine, Mrs. Kathleen Drover, begins to confuse the events of the two world wars that have virtually destroyed her life. In 1916, her young fiancé was lost in the Battle of the Somme. Although Kathleen had promised to wait for his return, she suffered "a complete dislocation from everything" upon hearing of the deadly battle. Eventually, she marries another man and tries to forget her first lover, along with her feelings of guilt for having broken her promise to him.

The London Blitz almost destroys her home, where all the years had "piled up, her children were born and they all lived till they were driven out by the bombs of the next war." When Kathleen returns to her home to gather a few belongings, she becomes haunted by memories of her dead lover. The reader is left to wonder if he was a ghost or a figment of her imagination.

The War Effort

Mary Boykin Chestnut was one of the earliest female writers to document the events of the American Civil War. The lengthy title of Chestnut's diary discloses much about her background: A Diary from Dixie, as Written by Mary Boykin Chestnut, Wife of James Chestnut, Jr., United States Senator from South Carolina, 1859–1861, and Afterward an Aide to Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army. As evident from the extended title of her work, she is proud of her husband's military involvement in the Civil War, and wanted to associate herself with it. A devoted wife and the privileged daughter of a cotton plantation owner, Chestnut writes from the perspective of a loyal Confederate. While her husband conducts military operations throughout the South, she sews shirts for the military and serves as a hostess for elite officers and politicians.

Chestnut also expresses frustration at being unable to fight as she follows the account of war: "They look for a fight at Norfolk. [General] Beauregard is there. I think if I were a man I'd be there, too." After the South's defeat, Chestnut edited her diary with the goal of publishing it to raise much-needed money for her family. However, the diary was not published until nineteen years after her death in 1886.

As a child, British novelist Dame Rose Macaulay wanted to join the Navy. Barred from service because of her gender, she worked first as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, then as a civil servant in the War Office and the Propaganda Department. Based upon her personal observations and experiences, Macaulay portrays wounded soldiers suffering from shell shock, now called post-traumatic stress disorder, in Non-Combatants and Others (1916). Macaulay's heroine, Alix, is so tormented by the realities of trench warfare and its effects upon the combatants that she becomes a pacifist. Non-Combatants and Others was one of the first books in Britain to protest World War I.

Writing eighty years after Chestnut, but sharing her sense of American patriotism, Constance Bowman Reid and Clara Allen describe their experiences as aircraft assembly-line workers during World War II in Slacks and Calluses: Our Summer in a Bomber Factory (1944). Though barred from actual conflict, the authors—middle-class school teachers at the time—responded to the government's call for female volunteers to help in the defense industry. These women workers, who became known as "Rosie the Riveters" in the popular press, faced many challenges as they began occupations previously denied to them. After each grueling shift on the job, Reid and Allen wrote a journal of the difficulties in installing windshields, bomb bay doors, windshield wipers, and de-icer tubes in B-24 Liberator airplanes.

The authors fulfilled a patriotic duty by working fifty-two hours a week for sixty-eight cents a day, and enduring the constant problem of aluminum slivers in their hair and skin. Nevertheless, they were frequently insulted by men on the streets when dressed in work slacks, instead of their customary skirts. Reid and Allen took comfort in the fact that their work was only a temporary sacrifice. A publisher immediately accepted Reid's and Allen's memoir for publication, complete with thirty illustrations by Allen, because it would "raise the sagging morale on the home front." Within months of publication, Americans starting sending the book overseas to encourage soldiers.

Front Lines and Battlefields

Not every woman in every country is permitted the pride of patriotism or participation in peacetime, let alone in times of war. Often, merely being a woman is enough to make her a victim, a refugee, a non-entity. Literature is filled, however, with stories of women who refused to be relegated to the sidelines during war, and who fight with their voices to make their stories known.

Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior is a memoir of several "talk-stories" that her Chinese mother used to tell her when she was a child growing up in California. In "White Tigers," Kingston adapts the story of Fa Mu Lan, a Chinese mythic heroine, to inspire girls like herself, who lack power because of their gender. Just as Kingston's mother burdened her daughter with complaints about her hard life, Fa Mu Lan's father carved a list of his grievances onto his daughter's back when she was a child.

After many years of painful training and near-starvation alone on the mountain of white tigers, Fa Mu Lan becomes a "Woman Warrior" who successfully battles against an oppressive giant and a tyrannical emperor. She avenges the torture and death of her villagers by decapitating their evil baron. Yet, even though she is more powerful than any man in her nation, she still obeys her parents' command to marry the husband they chose; after giving birth, Fa Mu Lan carries her baby son into battle.

At the completion of this story, Kingston contrasts the adventures of Fa Mu Lan with her own situation as the daughter of exiles from a country she has never seen, confronting racism in both cultures. Unlike Fa Mu Lan, Kingston must learn to defend herself with words, not swords.

Like Fa Mu Lan, the Mirabal sisters in In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez want to fight. They become prime players in an underground revolution in the 1940s and 1950s in the Dominican Republic. As each of the four sisters—Dedé, Minerva, Patria, and María Teresa—eventually become involved in the movement to overthrow the brutal Trujillo dictatorship, they each do so for different reasons. Minerva is the first to get involved, and María Teresa, eager to be like her sister, joins the rebellion as well. Patria, who is religious and cautious, eventually allows the underground to bury weapons and supplies at her house. When the three are imprisoned in the 1960s for their involvement in the underground, Dedé realizes that "[w]hether she joined their underground or not, her fate was bound up with the fates of her sisters." Though the underground movement in the Dominican Republic is not a declared war, the people involved fight and give their lives all the same. Minerva, Patria, and María Teresa are murdered for their involvement in the underground, but Dedé continues to fight by telling their stories. Alvarez's story, which is based on actual events, demonstrates the tremendous power of language to heal as well as fight, the power to create as well as to bring down.

The power of words again saves women in a combat zone in Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi. Upon quitting her job as a professor at Tehran University in 1995, Nafisi and seven female students start a book club to secretly read literary classics that were banned by the university and the government of Ayatollah Khomeini. Shedding their heavy black veils behind closed doors, Nafisi and her students "rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings … no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were." Books allow them to escape the terror of living on the front line of the Iran-Iraqi war. Soon the group becomes more than a book club; it became a lifeline for survival and identity as women, during a time of upheaval and conflict. Nafisi instructs the reader to picture her and her students doing normal, everyday things, "And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us."

Conflicting Images of the Warrior

The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (2001), by Allan Gurganus, might be considered a type of ghost story insofar as the narrator is repeating stories told to him by Lucy Marsden, the ninety-five-year-old widow of a Civil War veteran who loved to reminisce about his war experiences, greatly exaggerating his exploits. Her veteran husband was still only a teenage private by the end of the war; nevertheless, he called himself "Captain Marsden."

Lucy had married the veteran when he was fifty and she was merely fifteen years old. At first, she was willing to listen patiently to his elaborate interpretations of the war, including the burning of his plantation by General Sherman's soldiers. Eventually, the stories changed and became her own rich source of entertainment, although they were not historically accurate. His war experience, in essence, became her war experience. Even though Captain Marsden suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, Gurganus, a Vietnam veteran, glorifies the role of the warrior in this novel.

On the other hand, in her essay, Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), Jane Addams wrote that "Man has ever overestimated the spoils of war, and tended to lose his sense of proportion in regard to their value." Using terms like "primitive" and "savage" to describe warriors, Addams, a vocal advocate of world peace, adds that rigid loyalty to a nationalistic concept "may easily overshadow the very people for whose cause the warrior issued forth." On the other hand, she writes that the heroic warrior's virtues of courage and self-sacrifice should be transformed for the common good, helping people improve the quality of their everyday lives. Thus, peace would become "no longer an abstract dogma but … a rising tide of moral enthusiasm slowly engulfing all pride of conquest and making war impossible."

Writing in 1907, Addams could not imagine the First World War that would begin within a decade. Throughout her life, she consistently worked on behalf of world peace and the well being of all people, disregarding race, gender, or income. Believing that peace depends upon social justice, Adams documented mass starvation throughout Europe and helped to provide food to women and children in enemy countries during World War I. She co-founded the Women's Peace Party, which later became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, in 1915. In 1931, she received the Nobel Peace Prize. Her opposition to the Spanish-American War and American involvement in World War I resulted in vicious attacks against her character; the press labeled her a revolutionary radical.

Love in Times of War

Marguerite Duras's The War: A Memoir, written in 1944 and first published in 1994, described the agonizing wait for her husband Robert's return to Paris after his liberation from a Nazi death camp at the end of the war. Duras and Robert were both members of the French Resistance during World War II, along with their friend, François Mitterand, the future President of France. At first Duras was unsure of whether Robert was still alive, but he did return, more like a skeleton than the living person who had been her husband. Having fallen in love with another man in the long and uncertain years of Robert's absence, Duras greeted Robert's return with mixed emotions. While struggling to nurse him back to health, Duras made the painful decision to divorce him.

In addition to this reminiscence, her memoir also describes the interrogation of a suspected collaborator and her relationship with a Gestapo officer who courted her with offers of food that was not available to the public. After the war, she testified twice at his trial, both defending and attacking him. Duras's account of her war experience depicted the emotional pain that women experience when trying to find and maintain a loving relationship in time of war.

Another example of how the boundaries of love are not governed by the boundaries of war is the story of love between political enemies in Bette Greene's The Summer of My German Soldier (1999), a young adult novel set in rural Arkansas during World War II. Here, the shy, self-conscious Patty Bergen, a lonely twelve-year-old Jewish girl living in a Christian community, observes every detail of the world around her. The young heroine is able to see beyond nationalistic and racial differences. For example, Patty respects the wise judgment of Ruth, her family's housekeeper, in spite of Ruth's low social status as black female living in the 1940s American South.

Although Patty's father beats her whenever he thinks she is disobeying, she would do anything to win his love and approval. To earn her father's praise, Patty is tempted to betray the presence of an escaped Nazi prisoner of war, Anton Reiker, who has been sent to the camp in her town. Patty helps the handsome young prisoner hide near her home, bringing him food. She even gives him Mr. Bergen's unappreciated Father's Day gift, a new shirt with her father's initials. Secretly, she wishes with all her heart that the Nazi prisoner would carry her away with him, in spite of his affiliation with the Nazi party that murdered so many Jewish people. In Patty's eyes, Anton is not an enemy, but rather an exile like herself and Ruth.


In their own ways, each of the authors presented here may be considered revolutionary radicals for daring to look at the subject of war in a new light. Women, as is evident from literature, have always been involved in war, whether they were allowed on the battlefield or not. Those who write about war demand involvement and refuse to be victims, raising their voices on behalf of all women who have ever experienced conflict, either directly or indirectly.


Addams, Jane, Newer Ideals for Peace, The Mead Project at Brock University, spartan.ac.brocku.ca/∼lward/default.html (July 11, 2005), originally published by Macmillan, 1907, pp. 37, 38, 238.

Alvarez, Julia, In the Time of the Butterflies, Plume, 1995, p. 193.

Bowen, Elizabeth, "The Demon Lover," in The Norton Anthology: Literature by Women, second edition, Norton, 1996, p. 1584.

Chestnut, May Boykin, A Diary from Dixie, ed. by Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, docsouth.unc.edu/chesnut/maryches.html (July 11, 2005), originally published by D. Appleton and Company, 1905, p. 58.

Frazier, Charles, Cold Mountain, Vintage Contemporaries, 1997, pp. 30, 402.

Nafisi, Azar, Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Random House, 2003, pp. 6, 25.

Reid, Constance Bowman, "From the Author," Amazon.com Editorial Reviews, www.amazon.com/gp/product/product-description/156098368X/ref=dp_nav_1/102-6609535-4852111?%5Fencoding=UTF8&n=507846&s=books (July 11, 2005).

West, Rebecca, The Return of the Soldier, University of Pennsylvia Digital Library, digital.library.upenn.edu (July 11, 2005), originally published by The Century Co., 1918, p. 8.

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Women and War

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Women and War