Historian. Woman. Enthusiastic.  

10 minutes | Women | Historians | Breasts and Brains | Respect

Female military historians, eh? Now there’s a novel idea. In 2016, in a Guardian article titled, ‘‘Big Books by Blokes about Battles – Why is History Still Written Mainly By Men?”, Sir Antony Beevor made so bold as to suggest that, “only in the last 20 years or so, when the study of warfare widened and deepened dramatically to include the fate of individuals – civilians as well as soldiers – have women started to show an interest”. Ouch. It’s the kind of quote that should be quoted a lot, for devilry if nothing else. 

If a week is a long time in politics, then four years is a significant epoch for military historians. With respect to Sir Antony Beevor, I’d like to suggest that some women have had much broader interests in all things military for at least two decades. Even though I am generalising, I don’t believe I’m doing so unfairly. 

When Liddell-Hart showed his appreciation for the opposing army’s perspective in ‘The Other Side of the Hill’, he was castigated for observing that, naturally, some of his detractors couldn’t see things objectively.

Liddell Hart was a fool. He was blind to rife malfeasance among the German generals, or, if not blind, then certainly myopic to those observations’ validity. In the same light, when a woman comments on a woman’s perspective, it can lead to complex misassumptions. So, to reduce my own myopia at least, I’ll draw on a little science to support the presentation of an uncomfortable truth and I’ll also offer the new punchline to a joke in such poor taste even Frankie Boyle would give it a miss.  

Decorated Russian surgeons, 1944.

As a caveat, I know my views are controversial. Isn’t every opinion on gender these days? 

But here’s the thing.

When it comes to taking an interest in military history and being taken seriously, some women are their own worst enemies.

(Sorry ladies, it’s true.) 

Whether we’re writing about war, touring a battlefield, broadcasting, presenting, encouraging our peers to remember or nurturing the next generation’s propensity to never forget … it’s my profound belief that women with an interest in military history should a) not be backwards at coming forwards, obviously, but, b) never play the chromosome-card, and b) grow a pair, for heaven’s sakes, if some other bugger does. Liddell-Hart might have redeemed himself if he’d written a lot more about a lot less.

Surprised? Don’t be. Some of us abhor the line being drawn between feminism and anti-feminism, but then, some of us have been too busy building with those metaphorical bricks and mortar to realise some bugger thought there should ever be a glass ceiling. I have to say, having a glass ceiling is a good way to let a bit of light in sometimes. Plus, at my age, if one hasn’t learned to play the game then there’s just, no, fun. Anyway.

Who am I to make such a claim about women letting the side down? I am an enthusiast historian. Someone who posits serious and naïve questions on purpose, but has the courage to voice reasonably well-researched, piquant counterfactuals on forthcoming answers.

I’m also a writer by trade, so I also have a natural appetite for stimulating debate. Discourse delivers dividends, does it not?

My specificity of expertise lies in neither one world war or another. Believe me, it’s a rusty double-edged sword when you start enthusing about either subject with Men Who Know More Than You Do About All Matters Military. 

Go on, tell me what impresses you most. Is it a woman, engineering with a tank, or a woman engineering with a tank … in heels?

Mind you, aren’t women their own worst enemy in general? This whole debacle sits precariously close to the field of agnotology, which as all men AND women know, is the study of pure ignorance.

What don’t we know and why don’t we know it? What keeps ignorance alive or lets it be used as a political instrument? Is it a fact that men and women think differently? Hello, breasts. Of course, the answer is ‘yes’. Still, isn’t it true that we have similarities and parities in our behaviour that often go unnoticed? To quote a good friend, “sometimes you don’t need to have a dick, to be a complete and utter prick”. Whether it’s not knowing why men fall asleep so fast, or not realising – a personal experience here – that the only woman in the room might not be the tea-girl, she might be the expert who’s teaching the course … ignorance is more than a lack of insight: it’s the outcome of cultural, societal and political evolution. But let’s get back to history.

Harriett Chalmers Adams, who, during the Great War, wrote for National Geographic, on a French army press tour to Reims cathedral – recently damaged by German artillery. Source: Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

As with most things in life, if you are good enough then you are good enough.

Seminal attitudes are changing, and I used that word advisedly, but gender should have no part to play in limiting the reach of a person’s enthusiasm for a subject or – if they’ve put the work in – in defining that person’s claim to credibility for the subject matter at hand.

However, when we think about military history, and in particular the events post-1939, there’s a nuance worth considering. It may divide the room or at least make you feel a tad uncomfortable.

Warfare is an inherently physical endeavour. Spoiler: primitive instincts kick in early when the going gets tough – the intensity and frequency of female aggression is inherently constrained by a greater propensity for females, not males, to prioritise the survival of their offspring – which means men, traditionally, have suffered the ignominy of going off to war first. Women stayed behind, celebrating their good fortune to plough the fields and scatter while the boys did boy-things, fighting at the front. As a result of our manifest competence in those physical duties of the early twentieth century though, much was also done to advance the notion ‘Women Can Too’. This led to some women being curious about the theory and practice of war in general, analysing the minutiae of events and, occasionally, proposing how things might have been done better at a much lower cost. 

What’s more, women generally excel at articulating complex points in a way that not only preempts logical counterfactuals but also handles emotively biased responses in advance. “Does my bottom look big in this,” is neither a simple nor a rhetorical question, as wise men know if they have any sense. So, if you’re enthusiastic about military history and you happen to be female then the auspices should look good, you’d think, except …

The truth is, the second world war is the penumbra in which much of modern society has been defined. In particular, this period of conflict has given women an opportunity to advance fresh ideas to fuel the debate about what did or did not happen, how, and why. How? Well, prior to and during the second world war, views on conflict were documented and delivered with a top-down perspective by men. After that war, with an increasing amount of momentum, men have had to acknowledge women’s parity in many disciplines, the least of which is an ability to also research and communicate effectively.

Unfortunately, the good Lord and the book-buying public both work in mysterious ways. So, while there are still more men in the audience than women, women do need to be smarter about how they engage with that audience.

This is not the same thing as ‘brains not breasts’, nor is it a flag-bearing exercise for ‘breasts first, please, then brains’. It’s quite simple: if women stand up for themselves and make it clear they can be judged on the quality of their work alone … then everybody wins. Don’t you think this is a fabulous photograph? Don’t you want to know what, and who, when and why?

As far as I can tell, this group of young women were part of the BDM-Werk (Bund Deutscher Mädel) Glaube und Schönheit (Faith and Beauty Society for Girls) – a wing of the National Socialist party’s youth movement for girls between 17 and 21 years old.

Let’s face it. Every woman knows, men goof off. Whether they’re being naïve, disingenuous or just plain stupid, there’s always one idiot who doesn’t realise that comments about a person’s physical attributes aren’t being invited as part of a serious discussion. There is though, a tendency for some women to react counter-productively to this.

Me? I find a whiff-whaff approach is highly effective. Using dry wit as a rapid but acceptable rebuttal to mis-placed misogyny or sexism in general – it works for me. That old joke, by the way: why haven’t women been to the moon, Mr Boyle? You might think it’s because the moon doesn’t need cleaning. The truth is, most women are either too busy clearing up a man’s mess, or they can’t be arsed to make a stop-over while they were shooting for the stars.

A smarter offensive tactic – again, this is a personal opinion – might be to make good use of physical advantage but, at the same time, to prepare an even smarter mental defence: know how get yourself out of trouble just as fast as you realise you might be rapidly getting into it. Handle unsolicited or inappropriate flak with dignity, for a start. Don’t wobble your lip and whine, ‘woe is me’, if your work comes under scrutiny or attracts unwelcome attention. Rather, give your detractors something to think about; share knowledge; relish the chance to learn from your peers; surface insights in a professional way that gives your voice credibility and shuts down the conversation about your gender in advance. Learn something from Liddell-Hart’s mistakes. Nobody knows everything, after all.

War correspondents from allied countries: Ruth Cowan, Sonia Tomara, Rosette Hargrove, Betty Knox, Iris Carpenter, Erika Mann. Taken in 1944.

Still, back to Sir Antony’s point – “women have been developing their interest via peripheral echelons, such as the lives of civilians rather than soldiers”.

It’s not wholly invalid. 

Am I interested in the role of women during the second world war? Their work on the home front, heroism and intelligence, and influence on the outcomes of war in general – subject to societal norms of the era?

Of course, I am. Aren’t you?  

However, I am far more interested in exploring the reasons why Americans and Germans feature in accounts of the assault on Monte Altuzzo – but Italians do not. For the purpose of being fair if not accurate, is it ever appropriate to correct the mistakes in a quotation that’s attributed to Adolf Hitler? Why do we still think Canadians invented mouseholing – when they so obviously didn’t? Who’s to say, brothels wouldn’t have been a good idea for the Eight Army, Mr Montgomery? Why is it, we ignore the design influences that draw a line between the Renault FT and the modern-day Renault 4, and is ‘cute’ is an appropriate word for either vehicle; what really happened to Hans Kammler; why haven’t we heard the life story of Jack Easonsmith, among others; does Geoffrey Pyke get a bad rap for eccentricity or has nobody ever heard of Aspergers; what was the reason for only giving three hours’ training on how to use a PIAT when more time would have clearly improved its effectiveness … and why aren’t rhetorical skills and oracy taught to prospective commanding officers today, in the same way they were in the mid- to late 1930s for heaven’s sakes?

The fact of the matter is, the second world war was documented in great detail. We all have the most marvellous range of ingredients with which to satisfy people’s appetites – and not all chefs are men.

The Imperial War Museum captions this photograph, ‘An ATS spotter with binoculars at the anti-aircraft command post. A 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun can be seen in the background.’ But I know it as Woman at Weybourne.