IMC 2017 2: What would a feminist military history look like?

Session 914 at the Leeds International Medieval Congress was a roundtable on Crossing Chronological Boundaries, with a focus on gender history and it became a passionate debate that saw me narrowly avoid using the phrase “fuck context”. (This is inspired by a recently published sociology paper, “Fuck nuance”). But the highlight of the session for me was a single question from Julia Smith, who, reflecting on what feminist pedagogy meant, asked the question which forms the title of the paper.

This post is my initial inadequate attempt to answer the question. I’m not a military historian myself (although I have written a bit on the cultural history of war), so these ideas are based on bits and pieces of work I know about, with an obvious bias towards Western Europe and the Middle Ages; other people may well have better suggestions or actually be working on the topic. I’d also make the point that where I mention specific people’s work, they wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as feminists: it’s the topics and approaches that I think are (potentially) feminist.

So, in my view, a feminist military history:

1) would make visible the women in and around armies and in supporting roles within the services: combatants, camp followers, wives like Juana Smith, nurses like Mary Seacole, entertainers, Air Transport Auxiliary etc. (see e.g. several of the papers in Susan B. Edgington and Sarah Lambert’s volume Gendering the Crusades).

2) would look at the “home front”, both in terms of the economic and motivational support provided to armies (think of Queen Fastrada organising prayers for Charlemagne’s army) and the social and economic effects on  families and communities of men away on campaign.

3) would take for granted that female rulers as well as male ones used military force, look at how they did so and include them as examples when discussing rulers’ strategy. (See, for example, the recent book by David Hay on Matilda of Canossa).

4) would analyse the strengths and weaknesses of female military leaders in the same way that they do male ones (see e.g. Kelly DeVries on Joan of Arc).

5) would look at the effects of war on combatants’ bodies and minds, e.g. the Towton Mass Grave project and Joanna Bourke’s Intimate History of Killing.

6) would look at the effects of war on non-combatants, and gendered differences in that (see e.g. the work of John Gillingham on women as war captives in the early Middle Ages).

7) would question the boundaries of warfare and combatant/non-combatant  and place warfare within a wider context of legitimate and non-legitimate violence.

8) would balance accounts of the beauty of weapons with the visceral experience of being attacked by them. (There’s an interesting recent lecture by Adam Tooze on the MG42 machine gun that talks about some of the disconnects between professional military historians and amateur enthusiasts discussing weapons).

9) would think more carefully about the usability of/training required for particular weapons and how that affected who fought in terms of sex, age and physical health.

10) would explore gendered and racialised  ideologies promoting willingness for war (e.g. the “effeminate Bengali” versus supposedly “martial races”), the Othering of enemies and the bonding of troops. (These issues are also considered in Edgington and Lambert).

As you can see, these suggestions aren’t simply adding a cultural turn to warfare. Instead, I’d say they’re fulfilling three important roles of feminist history more generally: putting women back into the historical record, denaturalising masculinity and male-dominated activities, and considering how particular activities and systems contribute to creating and maintaining inequalities of power.

As I’ve said, these are preliminary thoughts, so I’d be happy to have comments giving r examples of other research that you think could contribute to such a project or other aspects that I might not have considered.



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