Україна Модерна

Tetyana Dzyadevych. Gender and WWII: framing new approaches

Опубліковано 22.06.2014

// Tetyana Dzyadevych

movie 222The war per se not only violates human lives, destroys material objects, redraws political maps and changes world power order. The war also violates the system of values and fundamental beliefs, challenges the ethical and moral basics of people's everyday life, and changes the fundamental everyday routine and customs. Ordinary things become extraordinary and vice versa, the things that were unbelievable and unlikely in peaceful time become the part of the everyday existence during the wartime. In the war period gender-related tensions are visualized and many issues that remained hidden in the peaceful times are revealed and become more visible. At the same time the war system depends to a large extent on the gender roles’ presentation. Hitherto the gender representation is one of the most questionable aspects of the war system: women are supposed to substitute men while the wounded handicap men are coming back from the front-line unable to accomplish the traditional male role.

Traditionally WWII studies focused on the military activities and political history. Today researches are coming up with new areas of study, new topics, new objects and subjects. In my paper I will talk about three relatively new research fields where WWII and gender studies overlap. They are: the Holocaust and women studies; everyday life of women-refugees in Siberia during WWII; and everyday life on the Western front after liberation by Allies, particularly by the USA army.

In my paper I would like to examine how the ethical aspects, challenges of the traditional male-dominated society, and switches of gender roles were reflected in the works by Katherine Jolluck, Mary Roberts, Dorota Glowacka, Amy Shapiro, and Myrna Goldenberg.

The chronological order dictates to talk first about the book Exile and Identity (2002) by Katherine K. Jolluck, then to analyze papers from the collection of articles Different Horrors, Same Hell. Gender and the Holocaust (2013) edited by Myrna Goldenberg and Amy H. Shapiro and then talk about the most recent book What Soldiers Do (2013) by Mary Louise Roberts. However, despite of chronology I decided to talk first about the Holocaust issues represented in the works of Dorota Glowacka, Amy H. Shapiro and Myrna Goldenberg (collected in the Holocaust volume), then to go back to the research of Jolluck and end up with the Roberts' monograph. I decided to follow the logic of similarity/ distinction of topics and experiences discovered in the researches.

For the long period of time the Holocaust studies were not in the focus of the historians of WWII. A lot of time was needed for establishing a new area of studies, creating various Holocaust studies center. The fact that only in 2013 the volume on gender issues in the Holocaust was published tells a lot about difficulties the researchers dealing with this issue faced. These difficulties are first of all ethical, because this research deals with different aspects of self-representations, survival strategies, and human sexuality, topics that were a taboo in the public discourse for the long time.

different 1In the collection of articles edited by Myrna Goldenberg and Amy Shapiro "Different Horrors, Same Hell" (2013) I am most of all interested in the works of Dorota Glowacka, Amy Shapiro, and Myrna Goldberg. My questions for these articles focus on the issues of the traditional patriarchy and consequences for women in such circumstances. How did the Philosophy react on the Femininity in the Holocaust? How did Hannah Arendt and Sarah Kofman respond to the women's experience during the Holocaust? Was women's experience in the Holocaust the same as men's or not? What was the difference? What kind of violence did women survive? What ethical frames were challenged by women's witnessing the sexual violence? What kind of policy was applied to such issues? Some answers for these questions are comfortable neither for scholars nor for the broad public, so as a result even after 69 years from the Victory Day we still have the hidden untouchable topics in the field of WWII studies as well as in the Holocaust studies.

Dorota Glowacka in the article “Philosophy in the Feminine and the Holocaust Witness: Hannah Arendt and Sarah Kofman” compares the personal respond on the Holocaust of two significant women, philosophers of Jewish original Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) and Sarah Kofman (1934 – 1994). Despite the fact that the writing of two women are different significantly in terms of genre, subject matter and commitment to feminism. The two women never met each in person or commented on each other's work[1] Golowacka finds the strong arguments for such comparison. First, as it was mentioned above both women were Jewish, both were assimilated to the Western European culture and were not religious, both escaped Nazi and survived, both were educated in the male dominated system and were not recognized as independent philosophers.

Writing about Arendt and Kofman Glowacka connects their intellectual contribution with personal experience, she shows to what extent their works were rooted in their biography, education, system of values adopted from the Western culture. If one emphasizes the importance of personal experience in the creating a special narration on the Holocaust I would say that one of the most important aspects that sets these women apart is the fact that they belonged to different generation.

Hannah Arendt was an adult person cultivated in the certain way (under influence of Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger) and had responded to the WWII and atrocities of the Holocaust as a mature person. Her work “The Origins of Totalitarianism” was a synthesis of her personal experience passed through her reading, her educational background, her philosophical statement.

In the same time the Holocaust experience of Kofman was based on her childhood memories, her early traumas and blurry memories with childish idealization of some aspects and immature rejection of other aspects. Her interest in Freud and psychoanalysis might be the respond to the events she was witnessing in the childhood. Glowacka underlines the role of the foster mother, who was Christian, in Kofman's self-understanding and her will to reject 'the dark Jewish' mother with traditional Jewish education. Kofman belonged to the second wave of feminism and emphasized the importance of the essential women's experience. At the same time she wanted to avoid the broad political statements which distinguishes her works from Arendt's writing. When Arendt tried to analyze the roots of anti-Semitism, and discovered own Jewishness, Kofman tried to escape it and to stand above it. This was her personal choice and she had a right for it.

Glowacka's work highlights an importance of the personal response to the big historical event, the role of an individual experience as well as the educational background. This article shows that identity of both philosophers was built on their family and educational background as well as gender, some aspects they wanted to reject, some were welcomed. For me the most important aspects are individual choices and educational basis, which allowed to construct and deconstruct the Holocaust discourse using teachings of the Western European philosophy which is the patriarchal system per se.

movie 33The next work I would like to talk about is the Amy H. Shapiro Patriarchy, Objectification, and Violence against Women in Schindler's List and Angry Harvest. This article examines two Holocaust movies on women's representation. It is the comparative study of two important for the public discourse of Holocaust movies: Schindler's List (1993) directed by Steven Spielberg and Agnieszka Holland’s film Angry Harvest (1985). It analyzes films made by male and female directors. The binary opposition becomes even stronger, because there are two films made by the former adversaries – the USA and West Germany. Since movies are broadly used for educational purposes Amy H. Shapiro emphasizes the role of cinematography in the creation the public discourse of WWII in general and the Holocaust in particular.

This article is a good example of the feminist reading of the film with an exposure of the objectification of the female body, emphasizing the dominance of patriarchal discourse in the film narration. The author meticulously points out all mise en scene when women are eroticized, analyzes the representation of power structure in the films, the role of the individual choice and the masses, patriarchal hierarchy and how this hierarchy was challenged. The author of this article does not take into account the aesthetics components of the film, the genre convention of the narrative film. She analyzes only the message the viewers receive when watching both films, the misogynist attitude and patriarchal conventionalism.

movie 133According to Shapiro Angry Harvest is more sensitive to the issues mentioned above and problematizes the traditional schema, which can be explained by the fact that film was directed by woman in defeated Germany. On the other hand the latest film Schindler's List is more patriarchal in the worst meaning of this concept. Shapiro concludes: Taking Schindler as a hero of the film eclipses the brutality and misogyny.... The Schindler of the film emphasizes the power of individual choices without recognizing the power that belongs to men of Shcindler's position (non-Jewish, elegant, good looking white males), thus reinforcing the idea that those who fail to choose the good always have the opportunity and are in position to do so[2].

This work is important for several reasons. First, it shows how the narrative film can be used for the analytical purposes; second, we see how traditional genre conventions can be challenged; third, Shapiro shows the tension between individual and mass, male and female. Her approach incorporates the Holocaust narrations into bigger discussion about the discourse of power, domination, oppression, patriarchy and misogyny not only in WWII or post-war period, but on the global scale.

Myrna Goldenberg in the article Sex-Based Violence and the Politics and Ethics of Survival is asking almost the same questions as Amy Shapiro does, but in the different field. Goldenberg writes about sexual violence Jewish women experienced during WWII. She claims that Jewish women were victimized both as Jewish and as women. Analyzing different cases the researcher shows that Jewish women endured not only Nazis oppression and all atrocities of the Holocaust. Jewish women suffered from the Eastern European men and even from Jewish men. According to Goldenberg Jewish women were the most subaltern during WWII.

Goldenberg claims that in the face of the systematic total elimination of Jews, rape and other forms of sexual violence were redundant tools of terror and racial dominance[3]. It makes a difference with the war mass rape in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda or Darfur where rape was rationalized and used as an instrument of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Goldenberg says that racial policy of the Third Reich did not allow using rape as a genocide tool.

Situation of the Jewish women was not much better in terms of relationships with local inhabitants on the occupied territories. Very often local male used their privileged (compared to Jews) situation and forced Jewish women to sex. Even Jewish men sexually harassed women, forced them to prostitute for food. In the labor camp men usually had more access to food. So quite often they exchange food for the sexual service. So Jewish women were the most unprotected category of human beings, though their human nature was questioned by the racial policy of the Nazi regime.

Goldenberg shows in those circumstances traditional behavioral norms were challenged. Patriarchal system of values was deformed by external and internal forces. Women developed those survival strategies which were above traditional ethics. If to take into account the conservative mode of being of the traditional Jewish families, such force had an impact not only on the Jewish community, but also on the discourse of the Holocaust. Community was not able to talk about this kind of experience.

Situation with investigating these issues becomes more complicated because of the general conventions of the Holocaust discourse. Jewish people are not questionable victims, and their image cannot be soiled by dirty, according to common hypocritical sense, survival strategies such as forced prostitution. The victims should be innocent in all aspects; only then they will have a right to their own voice. The Holocaust discourse was constructed and in this construction there was no place for the sexual brutal outrage.

Myrna Goldenberg opened the door for further researchers. Her work is pioneering not because she started to talk about sexuality – this was done earlier, but because she showed the hierarchy of power and that the Jewish women were on the bottom of it. She also demonstrated that it is impossible to grasp what has happened to people during WWII using traditional ontological categories. WWII and the Holocaust created their own axiological system and we should take it into account when we are talking about individual and collective experience of WWII and its impact on the post-war period.

exile 11Katherine K. Jolluck's book Exile and Identity. Polish Women in the Soviet Union During World War II (2002) was also a pioneer research in its own time. She was the first who started to talk that experience of the Exile in the Soviet Siberia was also the war experience for many Polish women. Jolluck writes about different aspects of identity in exile. She writes about the experience of Polish people. In Jolluck's book I was mostly interested in such questions as: what did determine the Polish women's identity in the extraordinary circumstances? How did the national and gender identity intersect in the situation of exile? How did women deal with difficulties/challenges/issues/problems of everyday life? What did help them to survive?

Jullock's work is interesting because she shows how cultural and national identity overlap for Polish women in the difficulties of the Soviet exile. She shows that women endured terrible conditions with the lack of the elementary basic things like food, water, hygiene products because of their cultural background, because of the language, prayers, and religion. In the situation when women did not have any chance for privacy and space of their own language and religion became their mental home where they could forget for a while about the surroundings.

The researcher says that the majority of the expatriates were women of middle class from the urban area of the Eastern Poland. They were forced to move to Siberia after Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. So for them WWII for them started in the cattle carriages on the trains to Siberia. Jolluck is not a sentimental scholar. She openly writes about lack of the elementary basic things during the long humiliating trip to the East. She writes about terrible conditions women faced in the settlements without space, heating or food. Not only the scarcity of resources but also constant brutality and humiliation, sexual violence accompanied women throughout their journey. Interesting that book’s heroines felt subaltern and abased not as regular women, but as the Polish women. In that conditions to keep their Polishness was the strategy to remain human beings. Even such elementary thing as making their morning toilette became a declaration of their own identity when they tried to wash themselves with a half of glass of the water. This half of the glass of water received a symbolic meaning of their passive resistance. To behave as a lady, to keep clean, to follow their national and religion traditions, to teach children their language – these acts and rules, became a part of the survival strategy, helped to normalize situation and saved women from despair and despondency. Jolluck shows that body had the same importance as spirit.

Another important aspect of the exile experience was a fact that Polish women were forced to emancipation. They had to forget about traditional Polish chevalier culture. First, the USSR declared the progressive gender politics; second, there was simply lack of men. Therefore women had to perform male roles as well, especially in Siberia or Kazakhstan, without proper housing and in the forced labor camps. Women could not expect any help from outside and had to count only on themselves and their Polish sisterhood. It is interesting how the romantic discourses of the Polish uprisings of the 19th century were brought back to life in the conditions of the Soviet Gulag. Jolluck shows that the Polish romantic discourse of resistance became a practical tool of the surviving strategies, building kinship, creating milieu.

what 11The last but not the least book is the recent Mary Louise Roberts' book What Soldiers Do (2013). I am interested in the issues related to the everyday life in France during the liberalization campaign in the end of WWII. How did the women's situation change after the American Army’s arrival? What was the difference compared to the occupation by the Nazi regime? How were the French women treated by the American soldiers? How did the liberalization change the relations between French men and women? What moral boundaries were destroyed during the American Army presence in Normandy?

Roberts' research tells about the reverse side of the liberalization campaign on the Western Front of WWII – about the role of intimacy and sexual relationship in the military circumstances. Through the sexual relationship Roberts shows the power dynamic in Normandy in the end of WWII. Local people were exhausted by the Nazi occupation, lack of sources, emotional pressure, absence of men, who mostly were in the German captivity. In the same time American soldiers were full of energy, material resources, feeling of superiority toward local inhabitants and enemies. Facing two realities created especially eroticized mixture.

Roberts shows that French women were victims not only of the current circumstance, but also of the general cultural stereotype American soldiers arrived in France with. Besides that American soldiers were armed with their important mission of the liberators. They were sure that they deserved women's attention and love, especially in France, from French women who hold a specific reputation. Roberts shows how the colonial discourse appealed in the Western culture, as it would appeal in any other discourse of colonization. The warrior comes and conquers not only land and sources, but first of all women.

The issue of the mass rapes in Germany during the liberalization by the Soviets was described and became a part of WWII scholarship. There were also researchers about French – German sexual relations, romances and consequences for those women who delivered babies from the German soldiers. Roberts shows the same tendencies on the Western side, where there were no reason for the revenge, in the case of Soviet – Nazi confrontation. She also shows how step by step the romance was transformed into the violence, and women, not men were blamed for it. One more time women became responsible for the situation and blamed for the moral fall.

Unlike in Jolluck's book, the main agents in this book are men, not women. Actually the title of the book is What soldiers do. And the book tells about the soldiers' actions but not on the battle field. Despite of that women are important here not only as military trophies. They help to understand the power dynamic in the relations between military and civilians, how one discourses switches to another. Yesterday the American soldiers were liberators, today they became the conquistadors without any doubts in their rightness.

Racial issue is another important aspect of the story. Roberts shows all advantages and disadvantages of the Black soldiers in France. On the one hand they were more free in France compared with the situation in the USA, but on another hand they were first to be blamed for the sexual violence and rape, even when nothing like that happened. Sometimes they were sexually objectified as any other subaltern agent. Roberts' book opened the new window in the gender history of WWII.

I think to get the picture it would be interesting to know more what American wives thought about the situation. Roberts touches this issue a little bit, but it is a separate topic and deserves an additional research. The same question could be asked about the reaction of French men and how life was improved when the USA army left France. My working hypothesis is that anti-American mood in contemporary France is rooted in the events of the end of WWII.


To sum up. I have reviewed three directions in the contemporary studies on gender and WWII, namely: how gender is related to the Holocaust studies; Polish women experience in the Soviet exile; and American soldiers experience in France during the end of WWII. Despite the differences in geography and main agents of the researchers it is possible to discern similarities in the approaches of researchers. They can be seen as a new trend in writing gender history of WWII.

All researchers mentioned above are inter-sectional. They intersect between gender and national, class and race issues. They talk about the power tensions and the role of body in it. Body receives its own agency now, almost on par with issue of national identity. After Buttler we used to think that gender is the construct, here we see that Jewishness as well as Polishness can be not only constructed, but also accepted or rejected. Blackness receives different meanings depending on circumstances.

All researchers show the ambiguity of the traditional moral frames. Even though the authors did not claim to have made axiologic analysis we can see that system of war creates own system of values. In the war circumstances even half glass of water receives the ontological meaning, because it can say a lot about the person using it. It is necessary to invent a special approach/ special language to talk about the moral challenges of the war time because traditional ones do not work. It is especially true when we are going to talk about everyday routine in the extraordinary circumstances such as the Holocaust, occupation, or exile.



avtorka 1




Тетяна Дзядевич – отримала диплом спеціаліста з української мови та літератури і російської мови та літератури в Українському державному педагогічному університеті ім. М. Драгоманова у Києві; ступінь магістра культурології в Національному університеті «Києво-Могилянська академія» і ступінь доктора у галузі східнослов’янського літературознавства в Університеті ім. Марії Кюрі-Склодовської у Любліні (Польща). Зараз є докторанткою програми зі славістики в Університеті штату Іллінойс у Чикаго.






[1] Dorota Glowacka, Philosophy in the Feminine and the Holocaust Witness: Hannah Arendt and Sarah Kofman, in: Different Horrors, Same Hell by Goldenber M. and Shapiro A.H (ed.), University of Washington Press 2013, p, 39.

[2] Amy H. Shapiro, Patriarchy, Objectification, and Violence against Women, in: Different Horrors, Same Hell by Goldenber M. and Shapiro A.H (ed.), pp. 95 – 96.

[3] Myrna Goldenberg, Sex-Based Violence and the Politics and Ethics of Survival, in: Different Horrors, Same Hell by Goldenber M. and Shapiro A.H (ed.), p. 101.








Книжкова полиця

Антропологія простору. Т. 1. Культурний ландшафт Києва та околиць / За науковою редакцією Марини Гримич. - Київ: Видавництво Дуліби, 2017. - 316 с. Антропологія простору. Т. 1. Культурний ландшафт Києва та околиць / За науковою редакцією Марини Гримич. - Київ: Видавництво Дуліби, 2017. - 316 с.

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