Women in Wartime Literature

A English translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War got us thinking about representations of women in wartime

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 14 Jul 2017

When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, she surprised Anglophone critics across the literary world. The Belarusian author writes in Russian, creating books that are “a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” according to the chair of the Swedish Academy who awarded Alexievich the highest award for literary endeavour.

Her work overrides the limits of literary genre and weaves together fiction, testimony and reportage to chronicle stories from history’s disasters and traumas. The best example of her hybrid writing is perhaps Voices from Chernobyl, which brings the oral history of the environmental tragedy vividly to life and stays on your mind long after you turn the final page.

Under the spotlight of her award win and the interested gaze of the literary glitterati, there is a rush to translate and publish Alexievich’s writing back catalogue. The next book in line is her long-awaited The Unwomanly Face of War, a history of the women of World War Two that explores the role of women in war and the tangled relationship between violence and femininity.

It’s easy to think that narratives about women and war merely focus on the home front and portray the devastating effects of violence on women at home. The familiar images of women taking the place of their male counterparts in the First and Second World Wars as ammunition factory workers and car mechanics are conjured up when thinking about the position of British women during wartime. These stories are usually individualised and personalised to show the ‘extraordinary’ ways in which women can break out of their domestic sphere when placed under unusual circumstances.

Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth holds the marker as the go-to book for detailing the experience of British, middle-class women in the First World War. The popular and oft-repeated story of the young, future Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a driver and mechanic during World War Two has similarly become a byword for the supposedly equalising and reorienting atmosphere of war.

Cultural depictions of war often show the domain of war to be a decidedly masculine realm, where the male protector is forced to defend the nation state and the female members of society are forced to inhabit a helpless, secondary social position.  Alternatively, women are allowed to temporarily reverse their subservient role to assist the war effort. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s searing novel about the Biafran war, Half of a Yellow Sun, the destructive impact of civil war forces the two protagonists, Olanna and Kainene, to leave their comfortable, professional lives and fight for survival amid poverty and the threat of rape in a lawless atmosphere of immense violence.

They once again have to take primary responsibility for the family’s food supply and the children of the neighbourhood while their previous lives of university campuses and business deals seem very far away. The intelligence and economic status of Adichie’s protagonists helps them to endure throughout the novel, but the outbreak of war moves them from a world of slow progress to a regressive place of social and gendered rigidity.

While the masculine perception of war often separates men and women, the image of warrior women defending their country has always held a potent artistic currency. The story of Yazidi women and Kurds fighting ISIS gained lots of media coverage last year as the idea of IS fighters being scared of death by female hands sparked the interest of Western readers, whose idea of war is formed by the pictures of male-dominated TV military parades and fictitious superhero military characters like Captain America.

The myths surrounding the bravery and brutality of figures like Joan of Arc, Queen Boudicca and Zenobia have long provided inspiration for artists and writers hoping to capture the exceptional circumstances in which women are allowed to transgress the female role assigned to them and become equal combatants to their male enemies.

Mythic figures like Joan of Arc are unusual and notable as they break the idea of war as a male pursuit, but mythology about warrior women also tries to separate them from their femininity. Boudicca led a resistance to the forces of the Roman Empire and has been immortalised in stone with a statue near the Houses of Parliament in London. The story of Boudicca’s uprising provided inspiration for Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Boadicea.

Tennyson’s poem makes the figure of Boudicca symbolic; her female body is unsexed and she comes to stand in for a sense of British defiance and resistance against tyranny. Her military prowess automatically makes her an unfeminine object, and she loses her womanhood and simply becomes a means to express vague notions of defiance and patriotism. Even as patriotic defenders, it seems that women are not allowed to be both female and successful.

The role of women during wartime has always been a contested space where different ideas of femininity are played out. War re-establishes a gender hierarchy between the protector and protected, with women being used as bargaining tools and cast as helpless victims unable to defend themselves. However, the instability and fractures of war also turn the normal rules of gender upside down.

The progress in female employment after the First and Second World Wars largely came about because so many asked why women couldn’t have jobs in peacetime if they were able to competently take on ‘male jobs’ during wartime. By telling the stories of women and war in their own words, Alexievich allows women to resist the portrayals placed upon them as helpless victims or mythic, manly defenders, and gives them a chance to define themselves. 

Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War is released on 25 Jul, published by Penguin