Professor's Book Examines Photos of Women in France During World War I
Nicole Hudgins, assistant professor in the University of Baltimore's Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences and director of its undergraduate history program, has shed light on the role of women in France during World War I with her new book, Hold Still, Madame: Wartime Gender and the Photography of Women in France during the Great War. The book, which combines text and period photographs, investigates the various ways that women were portrayed throughout the conflict, which lasted from 1914 to 1918 and claimed the lives of 9 million combatants and millions of civilians far beyond the battlefield.
In photo after photo, Hudgins builds a portrait of the women of France of that era as "that Divine Consciousness," as the writer Maxence Van der Meersch described them in his epic World War I novel, Invasion. The images represent ideals, Hudgins says, but they served to obscure more complicated realities. As she points out, since the Middle Ages, "the history of female suffering in French art has included altar pieces of saints and martyrs, sculpted pietàs, images of Joan of Arc, and modern female visionaries." With the addition of wartime photographs depicting women tending to wounded soldiers, marching for peace, and managing humanitarian crises, the overarching theme is "female suffering as symbolic of social redemption."
"These are photographs produced by soldiers, police, and commercial photographers during the war," Hudgins says of the collected works, which she researched in libraries in both the U.S. and France, in public and private archives, and in university collections. "The camera operators all being men, what we have here is a masculine projection of how unenfranchised women should appear during wartime. Drawing from religious and secular imagery, they created modern images of devoted damsels in distress."
Some of the photos are strikingly candid, showing women doing traditionally masculine jobs such as mail delivery or wine making. Others seem to celebrate the participation of women in manufacturing weapons. Some of the more disturbing photos capture women and children as refugees. One photo from a 1918 edition of Le Miroir magazine centers on a group of nuns, who have been rounded up and temporarily imprisoned by Germans who accused them of hiding French soldiers in Belgium. The women's lives were later spared when they reentered France through neutral Switzerland.
This side of World War I—now in its centenary year—has rarely been seen, Hudgins says. The enormous brutality of the war, when layered with images of women as angelic, self-sacrificing or grieving figures, takes on a heightened, almost surreal sense.
Hold Still, Madame also establishes a visual path to the similar iconography used during World War II. While the technology was somewhat primitive, and the photos generally restricted to black and white or hand-colored treatments, the message is similar in both of these global conflicts: The role of women in war is to both relieve the suffering, and to remind men of the vitality and stability that peace can bring. The quintessential "We Can Do It" message of World War II's Rosie the Riveter is more subtle in these early pictures, she says, but it is there.
And yet, "the photographers' images did not represent the emancipation of the French woman, but rather her virtuous self-sacrifice," Hudgins writes.
In fact, some of the images include a subtle message that is likely not welcomed: that women actually inspire violence. "Never forget, Marianne, this is all for you!" reads the caption of an illustrated French postcard from World War I.
"Presenting women as vulnerable to German crimes was one important way the media rationalized the war's continuation after the stalemate set in in 1915," Hudgins says.
Hold Still, Madame is available in an electronic version from St Andrews University Studies in French History and Culture, a peer-reviewed academic publishing concern that is part of the Centre for French History and Culture. As part of a series of shorter monographs and studies, the works collected under the St Andrews appellation represent a new frontier in scholarly publishing: free, for private use or educational purposes, and available for downloading, printing and circulation. Hudgins says she expects the subject matter to be of interest to educators and researchers who may seek insights into an aspect of World War I that previously was relegated to boxes of old magazines and postcards.
"The shorter length and digital accessibility of works in this series make them great for course assignments. But what I especially like is the fact that anyone researching World War I on the Internet can find my book—and search within it," she says.
Learn more about Hold Still, Madame and the other books in the St Andrews Studies in French History and Culture series.
Learn more about Nicole Hudgins and the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences at UB.
The University of Baltimore is a member of the University System of Maryland and comprises the College of Public Affairs, the Merrick School of Business, the UB School of Law and the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences.