Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation

By Helen M. Cooper; Adrienne Auslander Munich et al. | Go to book overview

Margaret R. Higonnet


Civil Wars and Sexual Territories

In the past, analyses of civil war, considered as a "family" matter, have focused on men: on Bruderkrieg or fratricide. This essay pursues civil war as a metaphor for the "battle of the sexes." Since the French Revolution, a number of major writers have used their fiction to explore the links between political struggles to restructure the national "family" and social struggles to realign the relationships between men and women. The resulting literature of civil war is strikingly overdetermined: by metaphoric transfer, political actions are shown to be personal and the private public. Men and women both perceive these transfers of meaning between the political and the personal realms, but as this study of prose fiction will show, the structures they use to represent changes in gender relations differ fundamentally.

Wars may awaken our awareness of the ways sexual territory is mapped because they disrupt the normal division of labor by gender. In modern times, for example, we have seen women entering heavy industry and engaged in guerrilla warfare alongside men. Peace in turn reverses many wartime changes in gender assignments. These ephemeral but radical shifts in women's situation reveal how arbitrary our definitions of masculine and feminine roles truly are. 1

It is my thesis that civil wars, which take place on "home" territory, have more potential than other wars to transform women's expectations. In all wars roles traditionally assigned to women are political in the sense that to maintain the hearth takes on ideological coloration. Yet nationalist wars against an external enemy repress internal political divisions and with them feminist movements. Civil wars by contrast may occasion explicit political choices for women. Once a change in government can be conceived, sexual politics can also become an overt political issue; thus in the legend of Lucretia, her rape and suicide precipitate the revolt of Brutus against the Tarquins. The sexual struggle lays bare political tyr

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