The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I – DUMENIL (TH-JM)

DUMENIL, Lynn. The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 360p. Resenha de: SCREWS, Raymond D. Teaching History – A Journal of Methods, v.45, n.2, p.60-62, 2020.

When considering American women’s role during a large twentieth century war, many do not think of the First World War. Outside of the Red Cross or the YWCA, the story many of us learned about the Great War does not include women. We do not have that powerful image of Rosie the Riveter of World War II to connect us to the strong woman of World War I. But Lynn Dumenil closes that gap of knowledge in her outstanding book, The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I.

Dumenil is careful not to use “American Women in World War I,” (emphasis mine) in the subtitle because she covers so much more than American women in the war. For example, she effectively weaves the women’s suffrage movement into the larger context of the story. Women’s involvement in the war effort was not only beneficial to a country at war, but also impeccably important to women’s suffrage and women’s rights in general, and the image of women in America less than two decades removed from the end of the nineteenth century. Dumenil is masterful in her coverage of the suffrage movement and the Great War in the first chapter. So this book is so much more than a study about American women working in the war industry, although that is a crucial element as well.

In a general sense, Dumenil succeeds in addressing the social and political climate of a century ago in the United States with war as a backdrop while also in the forefront, and how women.

were both plagued by American gender norms in the late teens, and how women shaped the country during a difficult time for them. But she is especially sharp in her coverage of African American women during World War I throughout The Second Line of Defense. Of course, African American women had to fight harder than white women, and organizations such as the YWCA, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, among many others, discriminated against them. Overall, White women were just as prejudiced against African Americans as White men.

The book covers women’s issues, roles, and the war domestically and in Europe. Dumenil also includes the wonderful chapter, “Visual Representations of Women in Popular Culture,” in which she evaluates war posters and the cinema. The book’s epilogue places women’s gains during the war years into the larger context of the 1920s. There is most assuredly something missing, but it does not feel that way. If there is one criticism, it is that Dumenil includes too much. But that is also the book’s strength. She embraces several areas of a complex topic encompassing a number of organizations, characters, and issues, while effortlessly meshing them into a singular story.

Dumenil’s research is broad and inclusive, with many vital primary sources cited including papers from the organizations covered in the book. She also lists a plethora of secondary sources in the bibliography. Those teaching undergraduate and graduate students should find The Second Line of Defense valuable in class, including survey courses. In introductory courses, the book can be used as a valuable tool to explain women’s roles in war, instead of the more traditional World War II studies. But it can also be utilized in American history classes from freshman courses to graduate seminars so students gain a deeper understanding of the women’s suffrage movement during the touchy and sensitive years of the First World War. And, of course, it is valuable as a study about American society during the first twenty years of the twentieth century and how women challenged the status quo in the era of the Great War.

The Second Line of Defense adds to the library of an outstanding scholar, in which she introduces new insights from her impressive use of primary and secondary sources. But it is much more that. Dumenil provides an enriched understanding of what might be considered the beginning of the modern women’s movement. That can be debated, but there is little doubt, as Dumenil so keenly illustrates, that American women during the First World War played a richly crucial role in the war effort and utilized their role to gain the constitutional right to vote.

Raymond D. Screws – Arkansas National Guard Museum.

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