Features | By Nahda Abdalla

Women in arms

As we mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day this year, Dr Julie Wheelwright’s new book, Sisters in Arms, illuminates the characters and experiences of women in combat


History remembers hundreds of thousands of men fighting on the front lines in the Second World War, but little is known about the women who were involved in the war effort. They performed a vast number of active and supporting roles, from cooking and laundry, through acting as munitions workers and air-raid wardens, to military fighters.


The participation of women in war since the dawn of time is still a little-known fact. According to Dr Julie Wheelwright, Senior Lecturer and Programme Director for the MA Creative Writing (Non-Fiction) course at City, there are several contributory factors to the lack of awareness.


“Every time there is a woman who is doing something for the first time, in terms of moving a profession forward, the press does not see the event in the wider context of history. There is also still a lot of discomfort around the idea of women being aggressive or engaging in combat.


“Women have always had an integral part to play in war but they have literally been written out of history. There are numerous examples and we just need to look for them” she says.


Dr Wheelwright, a historian whose research interests include the ethics and construction of identity narratives and the gendered dimensions of propaganda, has taken it upon herself to break down such preconceived notions of women, while calling into question the connection between masculinity and combat.


“If we are looking at the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, there were no strict divisions of labour, particularly for women of the working classes. We have to remind ourselves that there are women who are physically fit and able and have the willingness and ambition to take on combat roles and have been as professionally heroic as men” she says.


An award-winning writer, Dr Wheelwright has written extensively on the subject of women in armed conflicts and the challenges servicewomen face in male-dominated fields. She is the author of several history books, including Amazons and Military Maids (1989), The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage (1992) and Esther: The Remarkable, True Story of Esther Wheelwright (2011).


In Dr Wheelwright’s latest book, Sisters in Arms, she writes about neglected women warriors, many of whom successfully disguised themselves as men.  Using diaries, letters and memoirs, Dr Wheelwright brings their experiences vividly to light.


Launched in early 2020, the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, the release of the book may have come at an opportune time.


It tells fascinating stories of the Scythian women who begat the Greek Amazon myth to the ‘passing’ women of the 18th century, to the re-emergence of women as proud members of the armed forces in the 20th and 21st centuries.


While participation in war is widely considered a masculine exercise that would appeal to only a select few, one has to wonder about the reasons that would compel women to enlist for military service. Sisters in Arms sheds light on this topic, explaining the circumstances that led women warriors to participate in combat and how the experience had transformed their lives.


“When I studied such women’s testimonies for my book, one of the things that came up consistently is that they were getting paid and you cannot underestimate how significant it was for them to be able to make money: they could make decisions about their lives in a way they would not have been able to do had they stayed at home. They were also motivated by patriotic reasons: their villages were being burned or there was an occupation so they decided to participate alongside men in the fight against the enemy.


“When we think of 20th or 21st century cases, for some women, being in the forces is also a means to power. It is quite interesting in the American context, with examples of women who have become American Senators after serving in the army.  Military participation, particularly as officers, paved the path to a political career” Dr Wheelwright says.


Sisters in Arms can be bought at a discounted price here.