Monday, September 19, 2011

Women in World War II: A Photo Essay

Heather Cox Richardson

My mother was a WAC, so I’ve always paid particular attention to women’s participation in WWII. But this new photo essay in The Atlantic took my breath away. It shows female snipers, field workers, nurses, executioners, prisoners, and pilots, from a whole range of countries.

These photos are stunning. My patience is short for photo essays. I rarely make it past the first few images, but I’ve examined this essay in its entirety twice already. It’s worth it.

Aside from their individual significance, these photos together make a statement about women, history, and women’s history. The resistance fighters, condemned prisoners, harvesters, and so on, in these images are not shown as wives and mothers, or in any role that highlights their gender; they are integral actors in the wide range of extreme roles humans assume during wartime.

Seeing these photos begs the long-standing question of under what societal conditions we can study women separately from men. Surely, in these images, ideology, survival, and nationalism trump gender. But just as surely, gender trumps other social impulses at other times. Is there any reliable way to gauge gender’s relative importance compared to other factors? Or does it have to be studied on a case-by-case basis?

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