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Women, Sexuality and War
Philomena Goodman
New York: Palgrave, 2002.
$65.00, 180 pages, ISBN 0-333076086-7 (hardback).

Wendy O’Brien
Central Queensland University

In his foreword to Goodman’s text David H. J. Morgan points out that for the most part the public representations and stories of war “are the stories of men and their deeds and sufferings” [xi]. This symbolic and material marginalisation of women’s experiences of war is countered by Goodman’s emphasis on women’s oral histories. In an effort to redress conventional history’s discursive and representational elision of women’s involvement in the Second World War, Goodman declares: “it was a woman’s war too” [4].

During the Second World War women negotiated their lives through the perils and opportunities of a fractured gender time and space. Their stories can be held to reveal her-stories of a different kind of heroism, a heroism which encompassed the struggle by many women to make their lives count, to contribute to the war effort and to maintain the objectives they believed in. Women may not have seen their actions as heroic but as active citizens they deserve a place in history. [163]

Goodman’s cultural history draws on advertising and magazine images, oral histories presented as snippets of personal conversation, and archival materials (primarily union or government records) to offer a sweeping view of the roles and representations of British women during the years of WWII. The image that emerges from this eclectic assemblage of sources is one of broad brush strokes. There are certain areas in which Goodman offers little texture or detail, for instance, the section entitled “Women’s Welfare” touches only briefly on issues of poverty, venereal disease, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, health and prostitution. Although these issues did not figure largely the text provides an effective critique of the ideologies and institutions that served to both constrain and fleetingly liberate twentieth century women in the complex context of war.

Goodman maintains that the spatial shifts and the temporal constraints of WWII were contradictory in their outcomes, offering many women the opportunity to “colonise” male spaces despite institutionalised moves to curb women’s independence, sexual freedom and expression of identity. Mobilised by discourses of patriotism, sexually charged advertising campaigns, conscription, economic or physical necessity, women were called to “arms” in a variety of different ways. As caterers, pilots, bomb plotting specialists, labourers of the Land Army, hostesses of evacuees, “munitions girls”, or factory and industry workers like the iconic American “Rosie the Riveter” ; women’s contribution to the war effort cannot be underestimated. In fact, it is not accurate to imply that this effort has been entirely overlooked by historical or cultural accounts of WWII. While Goodman is “giving voice” to those women whose experiences form part of this gendered war contribution, there are other significant sources that have foregrounded these issues previously. Goodman draws on the prior works of Lynne Segal, Cynthia Enloe and Susan Gubar, yet finds a space for her own work by drawing primarily on the reminiscences of WWII women in her oral histories.

Spatial concerns permeate the text and Goodman constantly emphasises the opportunities and attendant backlash associated with shifts in the gendered dynamic of the public and private spheres. In her reading of conditions in the workplace, the front line and the home front, Goodman emphasises the strict (and contradictory) expectations placed upon women in maintaining their femininity and domesticity. The ideological weight of this expectation of private sphere decorum was reiterated constantly in magazine images as well as government, workplace and union policies governing women’s dress, leisure time and sexual behaviour in particular.

The argument that Goodman reiterates in each of the chapters here is that although the presence of women in the public sphere was largely regarded as risky in that it might undermine heterosexuality and encourage female promiscuity, women’s foray into the public sphere was legitimised (with restrictions) because it was only for the duration. Goodman argues persuasively that the industrial work that women undertook was constantly represented as domesticity, a reminder of the inevitable and forced return of women to their rightful roles in the private sphere following the war:

The gendered operations of the labour market were and remain organised around the sex typing of work and space. Women’s war work was likened to housework, images of knitting, icing a cake, cutting bread emphasised the domestic character of the work which was contained for the duration only. [25]

Goodman persistently interrogates the discourses and institutions that were regulating feminine identity as a means of perpetuating ideologies of masculine strength, protectiveness and heterosexual virility. The fact that women in the ATS were responsible for guiding searchlights and guns toward targets yet prohibited from firing these weapons provides an indication of the seriousness with which mythologies of masculine and feminine protector/nurturer roles were safeguarded. The text labours these points of contradiction where women are drawn into public sphere roles by the necessities of war and yet allocated ancillary positions and underpaid for their work. It is in these contradictory spaces that Goodman identifies the strength of individual women and men in negotiating gender roles; “hegemonic notions of patriotic femininity were not passively accepted” [28].

Despite the focus on these heteronormative gender roles, one of the limitations of Goodman’s study here is that it does not afford the space for a study of lesbian sexualities, either within the forces, the factory work environment or on the home front. For the most part Goodman dwells on the working conditions and leisure options for working-class or middle-class married or heterosexual single women in relatively urban centres. Class is constantly foregrounded, and Goodman directs careful attention to the specificities of experience; yet race, sexual preference and the conditions for aged women were not considered in the study. What is more, the women’s peace movement, and politicised female or feminist action (with the exception of unionism) are overlooked, and two major arenas of women’s war work, the Land Army and the significant numbers of front line nurses, are also only dealt with summarily. The dust jacket, however, does indicate that Goodman is currently researching the experiences of British nurses on the front line in WWII.

Goodman cautions against accounts that either demonise or unreservedly celebrate the wartime increase of women in the workforce and public sphere. She reminds us that there were significant numbers of women working in industry prior to the war, and that, as Penny Summerfield argues, there has been a significant overstatement of the social levelling for which women’s war work relations are commonly credited. [49] Although Goodman maintains that the contradictory spatial shifts of the Second World War allowed women to negotiate their own spaces she concedes “the idea of women transgressing so-called normal gender boundaries was, and has been, overstated” [17]. This is a relevant point, as to celebrate these struggles as transgressions is to continue the elision of experience in the interests of neatly packaged and ideologically simple histories. Many of the material and ideological struggles that Goodman details are ongoing, and although Goodman’s text doesn’t (and perhaps can’t) fully address the myriad specificities of women’s histories, Women, Sexuality and War does broaden the scope of Second World War storytelling.

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