Andrew Orr’s Women and the French Army during the World Wars adds further nuance to existing debates about the nature of women’s participation in military affairs in the first half of the twentieth century. Responding in large part to the argument advanced by Margaret and Patrice Higonnet, among others, that women’s gains in the world wars were not accompanied by long-term, sustained changes in the status of women (the double helix argument), Orr makes the case that the gender dynamic of this era was not as straightforward as previous scholars have suggested. Orr argues that the First World War reversed what had been the progressive masculinization of the French army and that while women’s incorporation into civilian roles within the army might have been thought of as temporary, the experience of demobilization in the 1920s demonstrated that it made little political, practical or fiscal sense to fire all the women who had been hired during the war. While opposition to hiring women as civilian workers in the army persisted all throughout the interwar period, Orr shows how women’s value was positively reinforced by the political and financial concerns of army leadership. Ongoing debates about the length of conscript service and its subsequent reduction first to eighteen months, then to one year, meant that women’s labour, spanning over many years, provided a certain stability to the positions they filled. Moreover, they were paid considerably less than their male counterparts, which demonstrated to army leadership the fiscal benefits of hiring women. One of the most compelling aspects of Orr’s book is his perceptive discussion about the political parameters of women in the French army. Because the interwar period was rife with concerns about the possible politicization of soldiers, reinforced by events like the Black Sea mutinies of 1919 and the communist propaganda campaigns directed at servicemen, women seemed rather safe in comparison to conscripts, given their existing disenfranchisement. Since women could not vote, they were seen as politically neutral; a balm to anxious officers in the 1920s. In arguing that women were firmly established in the French army by the 1930s, thanks to this process of slow acceptance, Orr makes a broader argument about the very nature of military identity in France. Opposition to women in the army, Orr notes, was couched in a narrative that equated self-discipline with masculinity. Immediately after the First World War, Clemenceau ordered an investigation into the ongoing use of women’s labour in the army. The subsequent report identified discipline problems as the cause of women’s poor performance on the job and noted that men often had to re-do certain tasks that had been done poorly by women. More worrying for the author, though, was the sense that male officers were often unwilling to discipline their women employees, thus the mere presence of women was undermining the men’s own self-discipline and military professionalism in general. In tracing women’s acceptance into the army, Orr argues that this gendered construction of military identity changed. Orr suggests that this change paid dividends during the Second World War, when the army called upon its many women employees and women were invited to serve as soldiers for the first time. While the establishment of the Vichy government halted this process of expanding military service, women continued to serve in a wide range of roles: as civilian employees in the Vichy army, in military roles with the Free French Forces, and with the Armée d’Afrique in North Africa. Orr very successfully shows us that space was offered to and taken by women in the French army and has opened the door to a more extensive discussion about what this change actually meant for military identity. Certainly it changed, but it is also clear that women who assumed military roles during this period still struggled with how to explain their position in what was a predominantly male environment. French women who had fought or undertaken traditionally ‘masculine’ roles during the Second World War often re-told their stories in ways that highlighted their femininity, which suggests that while military culture might have changed, women’s own engagement with it was far from straightforward. While some aspects of this subject deserve more discussion than Orr has offered here, his book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of many diverse subjects and builds on the existing work by other gender historians who have shown us the complexity of gender relations during the interwar period. What is especially noteworthy about Orr’s book is not the gender history, however, but the military history. Orr’s research provides an excellent reminder that militaries are so much more than their front-facing services. In focusing on the civilian employees of the French army, Orr is able to tease out some of the nuances of this history that would otherwise be obscured. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 3, 2018
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