Did the First World War represent an irrevocable crisis of gender in the UK?
The act of war itself has, throughout history, come to be regarded as an engendering process, in some respects reinforcing and in others confusing the boundaries of gender definition. The First World War in particular represented a turning point in the discourse of gender within Britain. Previously, authority figures retained a seriously outdated perception of what it meant to be male or female. The government and military were the spheres most strongly associated with masculine traits. The idea that war served to turn boys into men was entrenched in the British public school system and in popular culture literature such as the writings of Rudyard Kipling. Battles were a man’s business, not a lady’s. Women were deemed to have a much more peace-oriented temperament and were thus suited to maternity and caring professions. Historian’s like Elizabeth de Cacqueray have pointed out the ironical paradox of World War One ‘according to which the nation had, on each occasion, a vital need for its women folk’s energy and competence whilst, at the same time, many members of society feared the consequences of women’s introduction into previously male dominated domains’.
To establish whether the First World War represented an irrevocable crisis of gender in the UK it is first necessary to determine the difference between gender and sex. Whilst a person’s sex is literally their biological make up and cannot be altered, gender attributes are much more a matter of subjectivity and are measured by the expression of femininity or masculinity. There is undeniable evidence of changing gender roles during World War One, for instance women undertaking manual labour and the development of maternal-esque relationships between soldiers on the battlefront. As the first war of its kind, where modern technology lent a sense of anonymity to proceedings and its sheer scale necessitated the mobilization of the whole population towards a ‘total war’, changing roles and perceptions of these roles within society were to be expected.
Whether this can and should be defined as an ‘irrevocable’ crisis in particular though is debatable. A lot of these changes were based on the understanding that they were a temporary necessity during a time of turmoil and many of them were reversed once peace was restored. Some historians, such as Michelle Perot, have interpreted the changes as part of the natural progression of an industrialized society, given that masculine/feminine tension already existed in 20th Century and women over 30 were granted suffrage after the war in 1918. In this essay I will set out the argument that although a crisis of gender ensued whilst the war was raging, the only deliberate changes made were those deemed to be necessary by the authorities and the immediate postwar period indicated a return on the most part to gender ‘norms’.
There is at least some evidence of women’s desire to remain within traditionally accepted spheres of work and culture during the First World War. A great number of existing philanthropic organisations were very active during the war, most famously the Primrose League. Female members of such movements generally carried out the same activities that they had been associated with since the Victorian era, such as nursing, recruitment, entertaining the wounded and fund collecting. Traditionally those in power have portrayed women as pacifists ‘that only supported war effort due to sense of familial loyalty and refusal to shun sacrifices made by their menfolk’. As mothers, they had a patriotic obligation to watch their sons and husbands go to war. The sexual division of labour between married men and women is particular notable, since men were expected to fight no matter what their marital status whilst women with a family were to make that their top priority. The only types of war work that were accepted and endorsed were part-time...
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