A Women’s History of War, 1750-1815

Course Material 2022/23

As Margaret Hunt writes in a recent article, ‘While there have been exceptions, most military history is still represented as a male event. The focus of the ‘military revolution’ scholarship still tends to be military institutions, logistics and success in battle, while the literature on the fiscal-military state compounds this by tying military affairs tightly to the traditionally masculine sphere of politics. This does not only have implications for studying women and gender’.1
While most eighteenth-century women were not involved in the conduct of war, the so-called ‘new history of war’ has indeed drawn attention to life on the homefront. Surprisingly, however, there is no work of synthesis, at least on the early modern period and the eighteenth century, addressing the political, cultural, economic and social consequences of war on women.

War was a ‘normal’ activity in the eighteenth century. Did war reinforce gender roles, did it give new opportunities to women, or did both phenomena take place simultaneously? How did women experience life without their husbands? It is well-known that for sailors’ wives, living without their husbands for weeks, even months at a time, was a common experience, which raises the question of the specificity of the ruptures induced by war in comparison with times of peace. The absence of a husband often led to the increase of the domestic roles of the woman, but also created professional opportunities. Yet this distance, temporary or permanent, could also imply abject poverty for women in difficult times. Another concern regards the social effects of men’s return from war. It is well known that the troops’ demobilization was always a factor contributing to disorder in the eighteenth century, in addition to growing unemployment. How much was the violence of the battlefield transferred to the household? Can one establish a link between sexual violence against foreign women and domestic violence? Furthermore, armies and military institutions continue to exist in peace time, and the interactions between these men and women were notoriously fraught, a phenomenon that can be traced in judicial records. Another problem, on which historians of contemporary wars provide useful insights, is the reinsertion into civil, familial or parish life by prisoners who had been captive for years. How many stayed in their countries of detention? Married there and had families? War had consequences on civil societies at large. For many enslaved women, wars could mean the brutal destruction of their families and forced removal by new masters; for others, the redrawing of imperial boundaries and the promises of emancipation offered opportunities to conquer their freedom

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Image: Cover of Jean Bethke Eshtain's Woman and War, University of Chicago Press, Basic Books 1987.