Public Release: 

Research analyzes the historical role of women in wars

Carlos III University of Madrid

This press release is available in Spanish.

One of the most notable myths in Western cultural history is that of women's opposition to war. This is affirmed by Professor Montserrat Huguet, of the History, Geography and Art section of the Humanities Department of UC3M, who has done research on the presence of women in traditional contemporary historiography. One of the arguments that this focus assumes culturally assigns the role of the protector of the family to men. Another myth associates women with weakness and men with strength. In fact, everyday history shows us that not all men are strong and brave, but that many women are, and they are able to endure physical punishment, arduous tasks, and unimaginable pain. "War is learned, as are so many other trades, and gender is irrelevant here," Professor Huguet explains.

Women have always been present in wars, both ancient and contemporary and generally, much to their sorrow, they have been war's victims. Another issue is whether they have, freely and legally, served among the troops or battled on the fronts, because their usual roles involved remaining in the rearguard (in the mess tents, aiding the wounded, as prostitutes, or even working as spies), roles which have been duly reflected in the historical reports. To the military commanders' understanding, women, although they were strong and battle-ready, should not enter the arena as their mere presence among the troops could be seen as a sign of weakness by the enemy. It is also true that when young women have put on uniforms and taken up arms, as is the case of the girls who disguised themselves as male soldiers during the American Civil War (1861-65) "the military authorities were perplexed and avoided recording these women's activities in the camp registers, thus extending the cloak of silence, which later resulted in a lack of data when history was being written", points out Prof. Huguet. "Fortunately, the expansion of archive sources has allowed us to gradually reconstruct the paths and activities of women at war".

Heroes for around the house

On many occasions, women were the ones who incited and promoted armed conflicts, as the rise of nationalist movements during the 19th century demonstrates. At first, the young nations managed to keep women away from the street fighting, but they also associated women with the feminine concept of the homeland, conceiving them to be the mothers of heroes and champions of the nation, as occurred for example with the symbol of the French Marianne. "They became," says Huguet "what I like to call heroes for around the house."

With regard to the two World Wars of the twentieth century, perhaps women's support of pacifism should be noted more than their interest in war. The memory of the devastation caused by World War I was so recent that, just before World War II, a veteran British pacifist named Helena Swanwick published The Roots of War (1938) and then committed suicide the following year, due to the desperation caused by the movement's inability to prevent a new war. In 1940, American pacifists asked for a national effort in favor of respect for conscientious objection. The Selective Training and Service Act already permitted this type of objection on religious grounds, but in reality the requests were not accepted, and young objectors were put in prison camps. Their wives accompanied them, showing solidarity with their cause. These Conscientious Objectors Girls were charged with helping out around the camps.

In every country there was already an extensive list of women who were pacifist activists by the end of the 19th century. Here, American women were pioneers, based on their sheer number and in their anticipation of the goals of contemporary global pacifism. Thus, "we can find pacifist associations in the United States as far back as 1815; these were connected to Protestant churches (Anabaptists, for example), and others, such as The New York Peace Society and The Massachusetts Peace Society." Later however, in the twentieth century, one focus, women's pacifism, grew at the same rhythm as militaristic feminism and both feminist postures were seen, starting in the middle of the twentieth century, as two opposing and compatible faces of the same coin: the process of women gaining control of their decisions and their own life choices. Why would all women be linked to an anti-military opinion when there was a large segment of women who sought access to the various military branches under conditions equal to those enjoyed by men?

In the case of Spain, the role of women who fought on the Republican side during the country's Civil War stands out; in the middle of the social revolution, encouraged by egalitarian ideology, they volunteered for combat, in battalions and militias. However, a Decree of October 1936 reorganized the Milicias Populares (People's Militias) calling on them to give assistance far from the front, in what were known as Brigadas de trabajo (Work Brigades) or Trincheras de producción (Production Trenches). In spite of being prohibited from participating in combat, some women, like Rosario Sánchez Mora (Dinamintera) and Aida Lafuente (known as Libertaria, Niní or Nina) did not accept being moved away from the front; these women, undaunted, faced the same risks as the men they fought with.

The idea of working on this line of research stems from Professor Huguet's progressive move toward gender-related themes from the perspective of global studies, to which she has dedicated herself since beginning her doctoral training. "In Spain, in spite of he fact that International History is already an extensively studied field, with excellent results, there are areas that have not been given the attention they deserve. Such is the case of women and their presence in and contributions to the international history of conflicts, negotiations and peace," she concludes. The study of this subject is important, not just academically, but also because of what it adds to the formation of the civic culture of contemporary societies, she concludes. "It is essential to establish the scientific foundations of women's participation in the historical construction of the culture, considering not only their social activism, but their activity in defense of their countries."


Further information:

Title: Mujeres y paz en la historia reciente (Women and peace in recent history)

Author: Montserrat Huguet

Lecture presented at "Encuentros con la Historia del Centro Riojano de Madrid" (Encounters with History at the Centro Riojano in Madrid), held at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos de Madrid (King Juan Carlos University of Madrid), 16 April, 2012

URI: e-archive

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