Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Women In History: Taming the Wild Savage

The Times recently ran an article about research that has "shed new light on the Holocaust from a gender perspective." Now, I have not yet read this actual research but I would be highly interested in doing so (as opposed to just reading about it in a news article) since Adolf Hitler opposed feminism and believed in the inherent superiority of the great Anglo male. Indeed, I question the appropriateness of studying Nazi Germany without having some sort of "a gender perspective" in mind as gender was an important marker of ranked classification in the patriarchal Nazi Germany.

Anyway, I do have a few things to say about how the article presents this research, creating some problematic implications and subtext. It begins:

"Amid the horrors of the Holocaust, the atrocities perpetrated by a few brutal women have always stood out, like aberrations of nature."

Setting aside the questionable claim that it's the atrocities of women that particularly stand out in cultural narratives of the Holocaust, in this sentence we learn that when men commit brutal atrocities, it's natural; when women are violent, it's an unnatural aberration. While framing male violence as natural and female violence as unnatural is a perhaps romantic, complementarist, know-it-in-your-gut thing to do, it is unrealistic.

Violence is a human thing, not a male thing. Indeed, men commit the vast majority of violent crimes, but that alone does not prove that violence is natural in men and unnatural in women. Given that many cultures entitle men to engage in violence and discourage women from violence (and self-defense), it is difficult to separate biological causes from social ones when talking about causality.

So, back to that claim that it is the atrocities "perpetrated by a few brutal" women that are said to stand out. I am reminded of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was framed as a man-hating "monster" for murdering multiple men, while male mass-murderers of women often get a "several victims were killed" or "this was a domestic dispute" pass in the media. These narratives tell us that, because violence is counter to the womanly nature, when women kill they must have had some sort of extra-special bad, oftentimes misandrist, reason to do so. Because violence is framed as something men just do, rarely are their motives examined from any sort of "gender perspective." But violence in women, well:

'[Brutal women] challenge so deeply our notion' of what constitutes normal female behavior, [the researcher] said. But the Nazi system, she added, 'turned everything on its head.'"

I would really like to know the full context of this statement. For, only a person who thinks violence is an essentially male trait, normal only to men, would find female violence or complicity in violence in a violent male-dominated society to be head-turning. That being said, I suppose we should at least be happy that women are being re-inserted back into history:

"[The researcher] noticed the frequency with which women were mentioned at the scenes of genocide. Women also kept cropping up as witnesses in West and East German investigations after the war....Women ran the storehouses of belongings taken from Jews. Local Germans were recruited to work as interpreters. Then there were the wives of regional officials, and their secretaries, some from their staffs back home."

That is, women did stuff in history too!

It's often assumed that men are the only historical actors worth talking about, so much so that the gender-neutral phrase Nazi Collaborator would of course only connote men without specifically saying so. But, women do comprise 50% of the world's population. That women would "crop up" in major events of the day doing quotidian (and brutal) things should not surprise us.

It's not my intent to disparage this researcher here. Indeed, it is often a valuable lesson in how studying things from "a gender perspective" so often reveals that much of history is, invisibly, really only about men and their deeds (and misdeeds).

How often, for instance, do groupings like "the Germans," "the Nazis," and "the Jews" really only encompass male members of these groups? For instance, I recently read the Wikipedia entry on about the Rwandan genocide, and came across these sentences:

"The lighter-colored Rwandans were typically Tutsi, the minority group, while the darker-skinned Rwandans were typically Hutu, the majority group in Rwanda. In many cases, Tutsi men, women, and children were separated from the general population and sometimes forced to be Hutu slaves. As for the Tutsi women, they were often referred to as 'gypsies' and frequently fell victim to sexual violence."

That phrase "As for the Tutsi women, they were often referred to as..." sticks in my craw, as it could have just as easily been worded "The Tutsi women were often referred to as...." Instead, the wording is confusing, causing the reader to wonder if all previous references to "the Tutsi" really only pertained to Tutsi men without specifically saying so. And given that previous references of the Tutsi were of political and military organizations, it wouldn't be a stretch for that to actually be the case. Yet, the authors do not qualify their statements about male-only groups with a "As for the Tutsi men...."

It is as though, in history, men exist without a gender, and gender only becomes relevant to note when referring to women.

This way of making man-as-default invisible likely prevents readers of history from considering gender-based explanations for historical actions committed by men. When really it should be made very explicit that societies in which domination of half the human population is seen as desirable also find it quite easy to find domination of other "others" desirable.


"Only 1 or 2 percent of the perpetrators were women, according to Ms. Lower. But in many cases where genocide was taking place, German women were very close by. Several witnesses have described festive banquets near mass shooting sites in the Ukrainian forests, with German women providing refreshments for the shooting squads whose work often went on for days."

Gah. In the same-sex marriage debates, it is sometimes argued that heterosexual marriage exists to entrap willd, uncontrollable men, who are naturally promiscuous by their very nature, into monogamy. The role of the woman, who is framed as naturally monogamous, is to tame the wild savage, ensuring that he doesn't act on his natural impulses to spread his seed with as many women as he can.

With that in mind, the above few sentences seem to contain a simliar subtext. Genocide was taking place, and women were close by! Serving refreshments! Instead of using their naturally non-violent, feminine guiles to put a stop to it all! Just as the complementarist view of marriage shifts the responsibility to stop male promiscuity from men onto women, the argument that women are naturally non-violent implies that women are naturally responsible for controlling their violent men. And if they fail.... well, look what can happen.

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