Last weekend I read Melanie Oppenheimers article in the most recent Australian Literary Review entitled Women missing in action, I was struck by the use of the word “misogynist” to describe retellings of Australia’s World War One which did not give serious attention to women.
Oppenheimer provides us with some interesting material on contemporary attitudes to womens involvement beginning with a description of Anzacs and Anzacettes (no I’m not joking) from the RSL in 1917. The Anzacettes were the nurses. It then comments that women have received less attention in recent portrayals of the war. This is in the history written in John Howard’s Australia sentimental nationalism.
Im not much of a fan of sentimental nationalism. But I was still puzzled by this word ‘misogynist’. You see if it means anything, a misogynist is someone who goes beyond sexism. A misogynist dislikes – perhaps hates women. Perhaps a misogynist resents women. There are plenty of theories as to why.
But if someone writes a history of World War One without much stuff about the nurses, does that make them misogynist? And how do we know that their motives for such omission hidden perhaps even to themselves are hostility to women? I would have thought it was incumbent upon someone making such a claim to back it up. Now you’re unlikely to find people coming out with it – saying ‘actually I just don’t like women much’ or ‘I hate women’ – though I guess some might.
But you might be able to find things that they’ve said that suggest that they do. Or things that they’ve done. But I didnt see Oppenheimer cite any evidence of misogyny in todays sentimental nationalist histories.
As I thought some more about this I felt my sympathy for this article – or general agreement with its premise – fall away. Wouldnt the suitability of writing about the 2,200 nurses in the Australian operations (over three hundred of thousand men fought) depend upon what kind of history one wanted to write?
If one were writing strictly military history – women mightn’t play much of a role. If one were writing of the people, and the experience one would want to involve them much more. If it was a general social history of Australia during the war it would be a travesty for them not to receive considerable attention. (I have no idea whether it would show that you hate women, or even dislike them, but it wouldn’t be much of a social history).
Now the book that the author focuses on is Les Carylon’s history of WWI. Lets accept that it fits the bill of sentimental nationalism. A celebration of the mateship of the troops, of their suffering and shocking experiences in the war.
I can well imagine that John Howard might, much to Geoffrey Blainey’s irritation, insist on the book winning the PM’s prize for history. But then again, while one might prefer something different, it is, surely, a reasonable, a respectable, a legitimate thing to tell the story of the suffering of the soldiers with an essentially military focus.
One might want more about the suffering of the enemies. And of the nurses. But story telling doesn’t really work that way. Just like the nurses suffering missing out in a book about the soldiers, so Gallipoli takes up a far greater place in our psyche than the Western Front, so the soldiers of the ‘forgotten war’ in Korea get remarkably little attention compared with the soldiers of el Alamein and Tobruk in WWII. And so it goes.
Finally I wondered if I should even allow myself a little anger towards the article. I don’t think of some story of the suffering of the soldiers in WWI as something very intimately associated with me as a man. My mother thinks a lot about WWI I suspect for the reasons I do. Its a compelling story of suffering, of things turning out (catastrophically) not to be the way they were imagined and a world which is simultaneously the world out of which our own world grew and a world that is completely alien to our experience.
I wonder if the real psychic ‘pull’ of the story is not even in the soldiers who fought, but in those who went from being naive boys to being dead meat or cripples in the flash of a cannon on the battlefield. Of the dumbness we feel before that fact and the magnitude of it all. Like many of us, the singer and songwriter Eric Bogle is mesmerized by this story of loss. Hes written a trilogy of deeply moving songs about it. But women dont get much of a look in in any of them.
Still, Im pretty sure hes not a misogynist.
Speaking for myself, when reading the kinds of stories that Carylon writes Im usually put in mind of an interview with an old WWII soldier I once saw on Parkinson. He commented that charging up a hill against enemy fire, you couldn’t rely on the courage of more than one soldier in four or five. I wonder (I doubt very much) if I’d be one of the ones you could have relied on. If I got to pick someone who I would have liked to have beside me – a person who might have had the courage Id pick my oldest friend John whom I met in grade two at a one teacher school which wouldnt have been so different to the way it was during WWI, Harkaway State School. But as the soldier in the interview said, you can never really know until it happens.
Those are some of the questions that I take with me when I read about the war experience of soldiers, though I know Id never get clear answers. And the role of nurses in the story? Well, whether I was a man or a women, if those were my motivations for writing or reading the book, the nurses wouldn’t be centre stage. Nor would aborigines qua aborigines, or Italians or homosexuals or introverts or redheads or dwarves for that matter.
And I think any suggestion that they ought to be, and that if they weren’t the author somehow hated them, well Id think that was a bit rich.