In this guest blog, Carrie Dunn explores Professor Laura Doan’s research into ideas around the First World War being sexually liberating.
A focus for Laura Doan’s research is women whose lives and behaviours might now be interpreted as ‘lesbian’ but were not identified as such at the time. Her new book – ‘Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War, 1914-18’ – draws attention to the fluidity and interconnectedness of sexuality and gender in the early years of the 20th century as well as the limits of categories of sexual identity.
Professor at Manchester University, she began looking at the topic after her previous research on women’s fashion in the 1920s and the development of a lesbian culture.
“As I began to do a lot of research and extend my ideas, I started to worry that I thought I knew more about these women and how they understood themselves than was possible at the time,” says Professor Doan. “It was proclaimed that during World War One, all men became more like soldiers, and women became more like men: hyperbolic, of course, but I use that as a starting point to talk about anxieties about gender roles.
“People like to say the war obliterated Victorian gender norms. What I say is that’s not a very good way to think about it. Instead, I suggest it stretched the meanings of gender. I talk about the elasticity of gender. It’s like a rubber band, it stretches, it gets flabby, it’s not a complete rethinking.”
Doan suggests that the idea that the First World War was sexually liberating is a rather simplistic one. “If you read some textbooks on the social and cultural history of the war, it is very common to come across references that World War One was a liberating moment for homosexual cultures, and that the war created homosocial communities, communities of men and communities of women, and it gave women a lot of freedom, and this led to unprecedented levels of experimentation, also promiscuity, and a greater concern about morals,” she says.
However, she takes pains to point out that gender and sexuality as we understand it in the 21st century were often completely alien concepts 100 years ago.
“I began to realise that the way we go about thinking about sexuality in the past needs to be rethought, because what I discovered is people then did not think at all about sexuality in the way we think about it now,” she explains. “That was my big discovery. Today it’s second nature for us to imagine that people think of themselves as a certain something, and that there are these categories [of sexual orientation]. Almost no-one makes sense of sexuality like that in the First World War. If we really want to understand what’s happening to sexuality in the early part of the 20th century, we have to make that whole world strange to ourselves.”
Doan’s efforts to do that – what she describes as installing “a circuitry of a totally different way of thought” – were assisted by the award of an AHRC fellowship, giving her time to complete her research and her book. She suggests that people do not begin to identify their sexual orientation in terms familiar to us today until the middle and later decades of the twentieth century. That means that during the First World War, there was little understanding or acknowledgement of homosexuality or homosexual activity. If a woman gave the slightest indication that they knew anything about sex or sexuality, she was already “tainted” as “immoral” by that very admission.
The war, then, Doan argues, was not the sexually liberating event that some have perceived it to be. “That discourse is confined to elite and bohemian artistic cultures, such as the Bloomsbury group, or people who’ve gone to public school, but ordinary people would never think of that,” she says. “They might think that person seems a bit odd or eccentric or maybe immoral.”
This theme of sexuality being understood as “immoral” runs throughout Doan’s research. “During the First World War, for women to even acknowledge that they understood anything about sexuality, that troubled their respectability,” says Doan. “If a woman was accused of anything [such as what we now term as lesbianism], for her to even acknowledge that she understands the thing she’s being accused of already taints her, especially in the middle and upper middle classes.”
One of the case studies Doan focuses on is Violet Douglas-Pennant, head of the Women’s RAF, who was ordered to step down from her post without being given a reason. “It’s often understood in LGBT history that she was accused of being a lesbian,” says Doan. “In 1918, when she was fired, all she knew was that someone had said she was ‘an immoral woman’. That was never acknowledged [by the Air Ministry or by Douglas-Pennant] – that would have troubled her respectability.”
Doan looked through the ministry’s private papers to find out whether any of the officials had written down what had been said about Douglas-Pennant. “When I was in the archives in Glasgow, I opened up an envelope and out came all these white feathers, sent to the Air Minister to goad him to come clean about why he had really fired Douglas-Pennant,” she recalls. “The feathers were waltzing around the archive room as I tried to grab at them, and it felt like a neat little metaphor for the research. If I knew for sure what she was I could have just grabbed that feather and put it right into my chapter, but every time I tried to reach the feather it floated away. That’s how history works. It’s not a thing I can hold in my hand.”
You can view Laura Doan’s research online.