French Volunteer Nursing and the Myth of War Experience in World War I

TitleFrench Volunteer Nursing and the Myth of War Experience in World War I
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1996
AuthorsDarrow, Margaret H.
JournalThe American Historical Review
Pagination80 - 106

Margaret EI. Barrow explores the relationship between gender and war by investigating the rhetoric that both lauded and criticized French women who volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers during World War I. She finds in that rhetoric an explanation for why women's contributions to the French war effort have been so universally forgotten. Surveying a variety of pre-war and wartime publications, Darrow found volunteer nursing hailed as the best possible feminine contribution to the war yet also subjected to consistent denigration. The same publications that extolled nurses as angels of mercy also attacked them for being ambitious, frivolous, and sexual. The image of the nurse never entirely overcame the polar opposition of ''woman'' and ''war'' that Darrow argues was embedded in French culture. Instead, as women, nurses remained under suspicion as fundamentally hostile to the masculine war effort. Darrow also found that in their wartime writings and memoirs, French volunteer nurses struggled to allay this suspicion and to define themselves as the female equivalent of trench fighters. To disarm their critics, however, they constantly reaffirmed the gender hierarchy and the preeminent male claim to war experience. By testifying to their own insignificance before. masculine sacrifice, the nurses wrote themselves out of the war story.

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