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Gender Bending (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge)

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WWI profoundly innovated how men and women thought of themselves and of each other, yet it didn’t really shake their actual social roles.

The First World War had a great impact on the idea of masculine and feminine. Feelings after the war were in great part different from feelings before the war, even if the actual social role of both men and women didn’t change very much. 
These roles went through incredible pressure during the war, when men found themselves in all-male companies for extended periods of time at the front, and women had to take up men’s jobs on the home front. This took a lot of acceptance and coping from both individuals and societies, both men and women. 
A revolution occurred in the way men and women felt and thought about themselves, though this appeared to happen more on a personal, deep level than on a social, visible level. 

The fragile, delicate woman found that she could be strong and resilient. The brave, stoic man found that he could be vulnerable and scared. And none of this diminished them at all. 
Yet, while this was mostly acknowledged and accepted on a personal level (which was particularly true for the Lost Generation), society put up a lot of resistance. Generally, in all countries involved in the war, society pushed because everything went ‘back to normal’, as if the war had never happened.
On a superficial level, this is exactly what happened. After all, women were forced out of work, and men were indeed expected ‘to act manly’. But on a more intimate level, it was impossible to erase the war experience and the changes that followed. 

Femininity and the Great War

It is apparent to even the more superficial beholder that femininity before the Great War differed greatly from femininity after the Great War. And this, even considering that a strong push for change had been underway for at least two decades, ever since the New Woman appeared in the 1890s. 

Throughout the 1800s, femininity had been tightly linked to home and family. Women had expected to be (and aspired to be) good mothers and wives. Everything else – and this included education, work, hobbies, basically anything that directed women’s attention away from motherhood) was considered improper. 

The outbreak of war forced all the involved societies to face their very fear. 
They had long debated about the masculinisation of women and the evil that would bring about. Women were unable to perform the work of men, they were unable to run a family, they were unable to earn the family money, they were unable to carry on without a man’s guidance. 
Yet, when the Gret War took away a big chunk of the male population, every government had to come to terms with the ‘masculinisation’ of women and even ask them to put themselves into men’s shoes.

Genre Bending (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge) – WWI profoundly innovated how men and women thought of themselves and of each other, yet it didn't really shake their actual social roles #WWI #history Share on X

Women had to step up in many jobs that had before been performed only by men. Some of these jobs were hidden, like those performed in factories, but some were very visible. Clerks, postwomen, policewomen, bus conductors – these were all positions that used to be men-only and now were, very visibly, performed by women. 

In addition to this, women were employed heavily in the munition factories and, therefore, involved in the culture of death. 
Even more shockingly, it was their nation that asked that of them. 
The discourse of patriotism became very thorny. Being a patriotic woman could mean being a brave mother and letting her sons go away at war; it could mean keeping a wholesome household where her husband could come back when the war was over. But it could be – and it was – also taking up men’s jobs and roles while men were away.
And not only this. 
Many women actually joined the war effort and went to the front. 

All of this created social anxiety and fear. Many nations were clear about the fact that this was ‘for the duration’—that it was acceptable because it was an emergency, and when the soldiers returned, everything was going back to ‘normal’. 
Women met this request in different ways. Some of them were more than happy to ‘go back to normal’ and shed the labour and responsibilities the absence of a man had put on their shoulders. But in general, after tasting more freedom and agency, women were reluctant to give them up. 

Masculinity and the Great War

Pinterest Pin. The title reads, "The Lost Generation—Gender Bending." The black-and-white picture shows two young soldiers of WWI, one with an arm around the other's shoulders.

At the end of the 1800s, when the New Woman appeared, masculinity took on a decidedly military characteristic that was previously only a part of the male personality. Whereas before a man could have been a father, a brother, or a husband, and all of these personalities characterised him, in fin-de-siècle Europe, the true man was a fighting man.
Consequently, war became a test of manhood, where courage, strength and the spirit of sacrifice would define a man’s worth. 

This may explain the enthusiasm that saluted the declaration of war in 1914. The young men thought they had an opportunity to show their worth and thronged to enrol. Besides, it was believed the war would last only a few months, and nobody wanted to be left out. 

But the war these young men were to face was very different from the one their elders had fought. Gone were the face-to-face fights and the opportunity to show one’s bravery and chivalry. The new industrial war transformed the soldiers into mere numbers, machinegun appendices to maw by the thousands. 

Yet, the concept of masculinity wasn’t destroyed by the new circumstances. 
Especially in the trenches, a new masculinity evolved that included many ‘feminine’ elements. Endurance and resilience became the defining qualities of the manly soldier, as well as courage and strength. 
Forced into long periods of time in an all-male community, these men developed attitudes and behaviours that could, in other circumstances, be defined as feminine: taking care of each other, nursing, become one another’s confident. It was the only way these men knew how to combat the dehumanisation of the industrial war, yet they were aware that it would have been improper in any other circumstances. 

And yet, they also remained fathers and brothers and sons and husbands. The bond to the loved ones on the homefront never broke. These different masculine identities resurfaced and found a new meaning and strength. 

The discourse about masculinity after the Great War became quite complex. 
On the one hand, there was a new celebration of militaristic masculinity. The ideal of the true man was of the fighting man. Not of the young man who should have the opportunity to prove his value in war, but the young man who had been in the war, had fought and survived and had come home stronger and more motivated. 

On the other hand, many men who came back from the battlefields were damaged in one way or another. Societies and even families asked of them to be brave and get on with their lives, but for disabled, disfigured and shellshocked soldiers, this proved to be harrowing and sometimes impossible. 
Society had a very hard time handling this vulnerable masculinity and often reacted by simply trying to ignore it. 

The Lost Generation and the discourse about gender after the Great War

This was the world the Lost Generation lived in. A world were male and female experiences tended to converge rather than separate. 
The Lost Generation was truly the first in a long time to come together when men and women shared their time and most of their experiences, where they lived their feelings more freely and accepted each other with more “equality”. 

The Lost Generation felt vulnerable. They felt betrayed. They found it hard to look ahead after the war had taught them that tomorrow was not granted, that ideals were useless and wouldn’t serve them, and that nobody could teach them how to live since nobody knew the new world well enough. 
Yet, they also embraced the new world fully. They lived in the present and they tried to get the most out of it because it is today that we live our life. 
Fragile and demonised as they were, they were truly the master of their future. 


RESOURCES

Open Edition Journals – Masculinity and the Wounds of the First World War: A Centenary Reflection
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Masculinities
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Controversy: War-related Changes in Gender Relations: The Issue of Women’s Citizenship


Horizontal banner for the book "The Great War". On the left-hand side is the photo of a group of soldiers standing in a WWI trench. A Yellow button reads, "Go to Shop". On the right-hand side is a picture of a stake of two books, of which only the spine is visible, and the cover of a book standing upright, with the same group of soldiers standing in the trench. The stake of books stands against an olive green background. A big title in yellow reads "The Great War", and a smaller text reads "The updated ebook".

12 Comments

  • Janice
    Posted April 8, 2024 at 17:30

    The seeds of change were sown but it took a very long time for changes to be accepted. Universal suffrage was not achieved in UK until 1928. Women were not awarded degrees until 1920 at Oxford and 1948 at Cambridge. (London and Durham awarded them in 1878 and 1895.) Equal pay was enacted in the Equal Pay Act of 1970

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 11, 2024 at 19:40

      True. Yet, I think the 1920s were a more pivotal moment than they normally get credit to.

  • Pearson Report
    Posted April 8, 2024 at 17:46

    Hi Sarah, I am learning a lot from your very interesting A-Z theme. I enjoy your writing. I can see these young men and woman struggling, trying to fit in after the war – and many not surviving it, leaving behind grieving families trying to carry on.

    Sending smiles, Jenny @ Pearson Report

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 11, 2024 at 19:49

      Aww, thanks so much for your kind words, Jenny.
      The stories of these people who lived through two world wars never fail to touch me.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 9, 2024 at 13:04

    I thought the men and women were overlooked after the war. So many were affected but were told to ignore it and have a stiff upper lip.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 11, 2024 at 20:03

      That’s true, especially for men. Shellshock was often considered a shame for a family. Disabled and especially disfigured men where kept away from the public eye. Understandably, people wanted to forget… but what about those who couldn’t?

  • Anne E.G. Nydam
    Posted April 10, 2024 at 23:25

    Probably healthy in the long run for individuals and society to be forced to see that gender norms had been far too rigid… but tragic that it took such violence to break the stereotypes.
    https://nydamprintsblackandwhite.blogspot.com/2024/04/magical-botany-f.html

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 13, 2024 at 18:50

      I understand that Victorian society had kind of ’embalmed’ in a state that was comfortable for them, but that was increasingly becoming disconnected from reality. Change and advancement had happened in science, technology, medicine, but also socially. The Great War unleashed all of this and of course, because it had been repressed for so long, it just exploded, happening all at once.

  • Andrew Wilson
    Posted April 11, 2024 at 15:46

    Another nuanced examination of the effects of that war. I wish I could know more about my Grandfather who fought in it though I am told he didn’t like to talk about it…

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 13, 2024 at 18:59

      It seems to be a very common beahviour. I know directly about two men who survived the Great War (one was my great-granddad) and neither liked to talk about it and very seldom did.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 13, 2024 at 17:50

    It must have been difficult all-round for them to go back to “normal” after all they’ve been through.

    Ronel visiting for G: My Languishing TBR: G
    Ghastly Ghouls

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 13, 2024 at 19:46

      Definitely. It’s something that seems to happen with war. I learned something similar happened after WWII, but I heard even after Vietnam and the Gulf War. It must be hard.

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