Gender Under Fire - interrogating War in South Africa, 1939-1945
Warfare in the twentieth century – with few exceptions as the century closed – provided a theatre for the consolidation of gender roles. The gender roles of "soldiers" and "mothers" in particular were remarkably uncontested during war years.
Through the last century – as in many other eras of human history – "soldiering" was seen as pre-eminently masculine activity and "mothering", even more firmly, as women's calling. The gender roles of soldiers and mothers allocated to men and women are deeply hegemonic and colour the way in which the two are viewed.
Despite the contrasting activities of soldiers, involved in wars and killing, and mothers, who are given the role of nurturers and the bearers of life, the two roles have many common elements such as acting defensively to preserve life, engaging in roles which are life-changing and the underlying notions of sacrifice and duty. Despite this clear categorisation of the two roles the boundaries are blurred – this is most evident in the case of patriotic motherhood where the nurturing and life-preserving role of the mother is given new significance as one of the sacrifice of sons in war. "Mothers of Soldiers" during war periods came to represent a complex web of patriarchal state and civic interests – and women across classes, ethnic groups, nations and regions often participated in "Patriotic Motherhood". War in the twentieth century was also more centrally controlled and directed than warfare in previous centuries. Technologies of mass communication available by the 1930s played at least as crucial a role as weaponry in mobilizing and waging warfare. One element of this mobilization centred around hegemonic gender "drilling".
This thesis demonstrates that these powerfully hegemonic beliefs were very much in the foreground in the context of the propaganda operated to mobilise the women and men of South Africa during the Second World War – calling men to the front lines to defend home, family and country against the enemy and sending out the plea for women to support their men by taking up positions in the Auxiliary Services and in industry. Women were also called to send forth their sons and to stiffen male resolve.
The way in which propaganda was received, and the degree to which any sign of challenge to this emerged, depended on a variety of factors – race, class, ethnicity, gender and political affiliation.