I was very proud to defend my dissertation on the British Indian Army on March 8 – International Women’s Day – until one of my advisors noted (lovingly) that there were “hardly any women in it.” She pointed out (and implicitly criticized) what is the troublingly common assumption – that of course stories about wars and militaries don’t have women in them, because war is about men!
Countless scholars have demonstrated how and why this is patently untrue: women did and continue to serve in a variety of capacities, as combatants, caregivers, and support staff, and in myriad other ways, across all conflicts.1 Further, armies marched through their towns, ate their food, stayed in their homes, and threatened their bodies. Even in my “hardly any women” dissertation (and first book), British Christian women rented rooms to wayward soldiers. Sikh women refused soldiers’ entry into religious spaces. Concerned Muslim wives petitioned for the release of imprisoned husbands who questioned their service.
For me, writing feminist military history means not only “finding” or “adding” women to the stories of war, even though that is, in itself, a necessary intervention. It also means understanding how gender shapes almost everything we know, understand, praise, or condemn about wars and militaries more broadly. Writing military history with a feminist-lens shapes my understanding of how militaries are formed, who serves in them, and why they matter.
Feminist historians have made it possible to extend the insights of gender history to the study of wars and militaries.2 They have applied interpretive frames about government efforts to regulate, define, and limit women’s bodies, to soldiers’ experiences of recruitment, disability, and sex.3 Recent scholarship also underlines how studies of gender and war cannot be separated from race, class, and colonialism.4 In the colonial Indian Army, British officers recruited South Asian soldiers according to the theory of “martial races.”5 This theory defined certain South Asian – and select European – soldiers as “naturally” martial and masculine based on their region of origin, faith community, ethnicity, and stature. While British discourses of “martial races” are fairly well known, comparatively few scholars consider what soldiers thought of their own bodies, or how they used and defined them to negotiate and understand their place in the world.6
My research has explored how issues as varied as the size of swords, participation in purification ceremonies, and adhering to or rejecting dietary practices were more than the “religious prejudices” condemned by colonial officials. Rather, these were contested expressions of faith, martial prowess, and masculinity for soldiers who had little control over where their bodies moved or how long they lived. Feminist military history offered an interpretive lens for making plain what men, as soldiers, already knew about themselves but could not always divulge.
This approach has shaped my current work on the colonial origins of perhaps the most famous phrase in military history: winning the “hearts and minds” of civilians. This oft-repeated phrase originated with Director of Operations and High Commissioner of Malaya Sir Gerald Templer (1951–1954) during a fight against communism. He claimed that the key to military success “lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle but in the hearts and minds of the people.” Templer identified this dynamic during the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960), an entwined struggle of decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia. While scholars have considered the influence of the “hearts and minds” concept on subsequent counter-insurgencies, few have examined what it really meant to win over “the people,” in the broadest sense, during war and colonialism.
In reality, gender was at the heart of portraying and selling the Emergency. Newspapers and films depicted white British men as heroic fighters, struggling to “save” Malaya. This was especially important in the years after the Second World War, when many white Britons endured internment (1942–1945) in Japanese camps, suffering mentally and physically from the shame of surrender. Meanwhile, white women in the Emergency won praise for their efforts in the medical field. This contrasted the wartime perception that white women shirked their duties, abandoning Malay, Eurasian, Indian, and Chinese friends, colleagues, and servants during the invasion.
Despite this emphasis on white women’s medical work and white men “fighting back,” the bulk of fighting and medical labor was actually performed by colonial subjects. Britain’s military efforts in the Emergency required the support of forces from East Africa, Fiji, and Nepal, as well as locally recruited Malay and Chinese soldiers and police. Meanwhile, Indian, Malay, and Chinese women worked as ayahs, bidans, and nurses. Asian men and women proved just as – if not more – essential for reestablishing civilians’ confidence in British leadership. Nonetheless, military and police publications relied on racial and gender stereotypes for both “enemies” and “allies.” Cartoons and photographs cast Chinese men as emaciated and emasculated communists – often deceased rather than alive and fighting. British police journals and military periodicals ranked and assessed Asian women – be they Chinese communist insurgents or Malay policewomen – according to their sexual desirability and pliability.
Films like The Planter’s Wife embodied these conflicting narratives. It depicted white, British protagonists as former Japanese captives fighting alongside Malay, Chinese, and Indian police and servants. The film became mandatory viewing for Australian soldiers but avoided specific references to or depictions of communists. Instead, it portrayed wild-eyed Asian men threatening white women. By dehumanizing and racializing the “threat” of Asian men, while also insisting on the “loyalty” of Asian civilians, it attempted to cast actual violence as not only possible but permissible.
Writing feminist military histories encourages us to go beyond propaganda and top-down understandings of strategy and ideology. This includes a refusal to regard people simply as “combatants” or “noncombatants,” “terrorists,” or “communists.” People – and especially women – often formed alliances, both colonial and anti-colonial, that served their most immediate needs for safety, hunger, and medical care. Sometimes, these choices aligned with their ideological concerns. Sometimes they did not. Collaboration and resistance did not always feel like a “choice.” The Malayan Emergency was more than just a struggle between communism and “democracy,” colonialism and anti-colonialism. Rather, it represented a particular set of experiences at the nexus of colonial rule and warfare. Militaries could be the greatest threat to an individual’s safety while also providing conditional opportunities for upward mobility, welfare, and protection.
Feminist military histories foreground how and why personal lives and experiences matter. It mattered that the family of a young Chinese girl, Dolores Ho, spent the Second World War hiding from Japanese troops, only to face similar discrimination during the Emergency. Similarly, women such as Hajjah Haslina, also known as Siti Aishah Haji Khatib,7 took to the Malayan jungles as combatants only after British leaders banned women’s organizations. These lives and experiences may not have directly dictated the attitudes and approaches of top-brass military leaders. But they indicate why communists found, and occasionally retained, support that outlasted British presence in Malaya (present Malaysia). Loyalty and disloyalty were not based solely on outside intervention, effective propaganda, or “seduction.” Rather, they were hard-earned battles that often faltered because of exclusions implemented at the boundaries of race, gender, class, and disability.
Finally, writing a feminist military history means paying attention to who’s in the room – not just in terms of historical actors, but historians. Military history events have sometimes been the worst offenders of the ill-famed “manel.” Some military history programs and centers are investing in creating inclusive spaces at events where gender parity remains a struggle. My own institution funded a mentoring group for women in military history that planned, pre-COVID, to meet at the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. The difficulty of our present moment – especially for women – nonetheless offers possibilities for alternatives. Zoom makes it (imperfectly) possible to develop writing groups, workshops, and seminars where women’s voices and contributions can and do receive validation without having to prove why they deserve to exist.8
There is still room to grow. Gender historians recognize the value and validity of studying militaries and war but many military historians regard examinations of race and gender as “niche” or fashionable. All-white and/or all-male panels still fill the halls (and zoom panels) of leading conferences around the world. Inclusivity for women of color remains especially crucial to expose the field to a wider range of experiences, perspectives, and analytical frames. Thinking of ways to make military history inclusive without overburdening or tokenizing women remains a challenge for historians more broadly. Moving forward, we must support one another, not only to make the histories we write more inclusive of feminist perspectives, but to ensure that the spaces in which these histories are discussed, reviewed, published, and rewarded, are inclusive as well. This, as much as anything, indicates why we continue to need feminist military histories.
- Recent examples include the works of Kara Dixon Vuic, Sue Grayzel, and Heather Stur, among others. Return to text.
- Scholars such as Joanna Bourke and Philippa Levine indicate the value of this approach. Return to text.
- Aparna Nair, Hilary Buxton, Rachel Moran, and Samraghni Bonnerjee are doing excellent work in this area. Return to text.
- For example Michelle Moyd and Richard Fogarty. Return to text.
- See Heather Streets-Salter. Return to text.
- Useful studies of Indian soldiers’ subjective and bodily experiences include those by Gajendra Singh, Yasmin Khan, Santanu Das, and Shrabani Basu. Return to text.
- She is one of the women discussed in Mahani Musa’s important article. Return to text.
- With thanks to Sue Grayzel, Michelle Moyd, Tammy Proctor, and Melissa Shaw. Return to text.