Elizabeth Clark on Masculinity in a Time of War
Elizabeth Clark has translated her interest in gender identity into academic historical studies—but that doesn’t mean it’s not vital and relevant today.
This Michigan native studied history at Central Michigan University, but it wasn’t until she studied abroad for a year at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow that she fixed her point of passion: World War II norms of British masculinity. With a love of Scotland, it didn’t take Elizabeth long before she decided to enroll in the Master’s program at the Centre for Second World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
Today, breathless after the intense research, investigation, and training, she’s less then two months away from graduation. And she’s ready to share what’s she learned to everyone she can, because, she believes, just as gender assumptions shaped the lives of British men during wartime, so do they affect the lives of all of us today. History, after all, is a living animal.
Besides all her other impressive accomplishments, Elizabeth is also my little sister. (I mean, younger sister. She’s 24! She’s not little anymore! Funny how these things sneak up on you.)
Why did you choose to look into the World War II gender identity, and masculinity in particular?
I studied a variety of topics in my undergraduate career, from medieval British society to the experiences of women in the Bosnian war. After a few semesters, I began to notice that every course had one or two lectures dedicated to ‘gender’ that mainly focused upon the experiences of women—as if the experiences of women were separate from the experiences of men in the accepted version of historical events. I never thought much of it until I took a course on the British homefront during the Second World War, called “Bombers and Mash” at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Our professor not only regularly examined the female experience on the home front, but also included lectures and discussions about men who were not in the armed services during the war, men who remained on the home front either by choice or by government edict. Naively, I had never thought that men remained on the home front. I had the impression that men who were of conscription age were wearing a uniform. I was completely mistaken.
After the course ended, I continued to be fascinated by the experience of men, and I wanted to discover more about the men who may not have lived up to society’s expectations. My research for this past year focused on memoirs of men who remained on the British home front, and how those memoirs can be analysed in terms of “masculinity.”
What is the role of historical gender studies in academia and how does it resonate in our contemporary lives?
I believe historical gender studies in academia allow people to gain an understanding of the roles of men and women. It gives us insight into their true experiences. Although gender studies is a relatively new historical genre (it emerged in the 1970s), today it’s become synonymous with “women’s studies.” This association is misleading to younger historians; examining the experiences of men through the lens of genders allows historian to understand how their communities treated men who did not fit the stereotypical “rough and tough” image. Understanding the differences between perceived notions of both women and men in history is vital.
So what’s the story? How did traditional notions of’ ‘masculinity’ affect the lives of men and women in Britain during World War II?
While traditional ideas of masculinity affected many people throughout the war, we have to remember that a society is built by individuals—some who accepted the role of the ‘soldier hero’ as the epitome of manliness, some who had other ideas about masculinity. Leading gender historians like Sonya O. Rose (who, by the way, teaches at the University of Michigan) and Penny Summerfield have identified different ways men reacted to remaining on the home front. Some men pulled a double duty—they both worked their daytime job and volunteered for wartime organizations like the home Guard or as an air raid warden. Other men repeatedly tried to join the Armed Forces, and resented the government controlling their employment choices during wartime. Other men simply didn’t care about the war, or didn’t care about the expectation of society that all men should be in the Armed Services. It’s important to remember men were able to choose to accept uniformed men as the epitome of masculinity—and some did not. Some broke free.
In our past conversations, you’ve noted how, in the vat of World War II research, there’s a good deal of research on women’s gender roles. Why do you think the counterpart roles of men are less examined?
Masculinity has been understudied because it’s simply a new historical topic. It takes time for historians to go back and re-examine the world through the lens of gender. It’s undeniable that the Second World War was important in women’s studies. But, in the rush to re-examine the experiences of women, men who were not in uniform were overlooked. I hope more gender historians examine the experiences of women and men, in the hopes of better understanding the British home front.
With Britain involved in the Iraq war, are those same notions of masculinity emerging? If not, what’s changed?
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on contemporary British society, but there’s certainly a difference between the current Iraq war and the Second World War. As an American studying the Second World War in Britain, I don’t believe I was initially able to comprehend how the S.W.W. changed the lives of all people within Britain. Like America, there were ration books, shortages, metal drives, and women entering the factories. Unlike America, British civilians endured nights in bomb shelters, years of constant Luftwaffe bombings, homes destroyed, and a civilian death toll in the thousands. The British public viewed the S.W.W. as a great equalizer. Everyone was “doing their bit” for the cause.
Today, the war in Iraq isn’t affecting the lives of all British citizens. Yes, there were the London train bombings and the attempted Glasgow airport bombing—both events that citizens rallied around. But smaller, individual acts of terrorism aren’t as consistent and as devastating as the bombings in the S.W.W.
There’s also a difference in ideas about masculinity in modern Britain, compared to Britain in the 1940s. Notions of hegemonic masculinity have radically changed in the last sixty years—homosexuality is publicly accepted (for the most part), men are remaining at home and caring for children, and women are sometimes the greater breadwinner in the household. During the S.W.W., traditional gender roles were more strictly enforced by society: men expected to protect and defend the country and “their” women by, for many, joining the armed services. But for the significant group of men who didn’t fit that type (either because they were in a reserved occupation declared important to the war effort, leading the British government to not allow workers to leave or change jobs; or because they were conscripted into the coal mines (Ernest Bevin devised a scheme in which a segment of the men drafted into the services were sent to the mines instead—they were called Bevin Boys); some remained on the home front due to conscientious objection and ended up doing, for example, farm work. Some men on the home front were thought to be effeminate, or unfit for service; others were simply ignored.
There was just much more of a stigma for the males who didn’t join the Armed Services during the S.W.W., than there is for those who stay home from the Iraq war today.
How can feminists translate research on gender roles into concrete change today? How do we break apart the assumptions of who men and women can and can’t be?
Perhaps one of the most enlightening moments I had while reading the memoirs of men who remained on the home front was how many of them didn’t seem to mind what other people thought of them. These men had enough self-confidence to do their job, spend time with their family, and ignore the occasional judgmental comment from others.
To me, feminism is about the freedom of choice. To have the ability to choose to work, to have children, to stay home with our kids—whatever makes us happiest and fulfills our potential. Yes, there’s a stigma to being a woman, and some people still expect women to remain submissive, to be “the angel of the home.” At the same time, there are the counterpart assumptions about men: that they must be the breadwinner, they must support his wife and family in a traditional heterosexual family, and that he shouldn’t show the slightest bit of emotion. Even carrying our societal stigma of whatever gender we are, it’s important to have confidence in what we decide to do, and to do what makes us happy—whether it’s in the workplace—whether its in the workplace, remaining at home, or something else that’s not so easily categorized.
Centre for Second World War Studies
University of Edinburgh
WW2 People’s War
Archive of World War Two memories, written by the public, gathered by the BBC