Violets Drenched in Red: Queer Women in WWII
Intertwining Love and War, Literally The impact of the world wars on society and culture can be categorised in many ways: the growing economic instability, industrialisation, and desire for modernity and cultural regeneration are all parts of history passed down to the present generation. History, being so vast and expansive in its size, inevitably gets lost in itself sometimes. Hence, it remains to be seen just how much of it is still buried six feet under. Wars, for one, shrouded in death and grief, are rightfully associated with blood and destruction. Yet, love and war always go hand in hand. Be it the legend of Troy or the unsung romances of several martyr soldiers, some things always escape the eye. Social roles played out by men and women began to change as boys wore blue and hems of skirts shortened. During World War I, although most women were forbidden from voting or fighting in military combat duties, many regarded the war as a chance to not only serve their nation but also to fight for their rights and independence. With millions of men deployed, women filled the industries and the fields. Others served on the front lines as nurses, medics, ambulance drivers, translators, and, in rare circumstances, even combatants. By World War II, around 350,000 women had volunteered for military service. Married women outnumbered single women in the labour force, and many of them were mothers. Women’s rights were finally on the rise, but queer rights? Not so much. Striking Sexuality On the far ends of World War II, different gender norms and alternative perspectives on sexuality emerged. This was a result of the newfound freedom experienced by all women, leading to greater possibilities for women to socialise and meet other women. In addition, WWII gave lesbians a cover to openly explore gender and sexuality. Unlike earlier, when society defined gay women by "masculine" characteristics such as more male dress choices, professional trajectories, or masculine mannerisms and hobbies in general, now butches could wear pants and military suits freely. The absence of a spouse and children was another way in which the public blatantly identified and discriminated against LGBT women. However, the absence of a family unit and indifference to same-sex interactions provided lesbians participating in the WAC an escape to focus on their military careers and pave their way in a male dominated field. The military had established policies prohibiting homosexuality among service members, for both men and women. Despite this, many lesbians (as well as other LGBTQ+ military members) established their place within the United States Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Although homosexuality was illegal in the military, higher-ups were more concerned about the 'appearance' of lesbians in the WACs than their actual existence. The general public was apprehensive that either the WAC was drawing women who were already "sexually deviant" or that their exposure to military life would turn them into such individuals. The growing number of working-class lesbians inside the WAC made it “problematic” to project an image of the WAC as “chaste, powerful, and moral” women. Pride, Patriotism and Power Johnnie Phelps was a feminist and gay rights activist who first enlisted in the WAC for patriotic reasons and later discovered her love for women while serving in the military. Being full of courage, Phelps was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded by enemy action. She had gained enough points to return home, but the war continued, so she re-enlisted. While under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Phelps claimed to have been given an order to “ferret out the lesbians.” Her response remains a military legend to this day. “I’ll make your list,” she said, “but it’ll be unfair of me not to tell you that my name’s going to be first on that list.” On hearing this, Eisenhower’s secretary added that her name would come second. Sergeant Phelps noted that WAC was one of the military's most decorated battalions and its troops had excellent records in general. She remarked that lesbians served in every position in the corps, and had no charges of misconduct or pregnancies. Eisenhower withdrew, saying, “Forget that order. Forget it.” Later serving as the leader of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, Phelps helped to boost morale and provide vital strategic support for the notorious Norton Sound lesbian harassment and the witch-hunting episode of 1980, also acting as a driving force behind the March on Sacramento for Gay Rights. Having done so much for the LGBT community, her contribution and personal tales serve as substantial material for various socio-cultural purposes. Lesbian Love in Nazi Germany Lesbians were not routinely persecuted in Nazi Germany the way gay males were. Except for Austria, other regions of Nazi Germany did not have laws on female homosexuality. The lives of lesbians in Nazi Germany are unclear as the government showed less interest in female homosexuality than it did in male homosexuality. The German criminal code penalised male same-sex relations, but on the other hand, this law did not apply to intimate relationships between women. However, starting in 1933, the Nazi government targeted and eviscerated lesbian communities. The administration completely dismantled the lesbian groups that had grown under the Weimar Republic (the German government from 1918 to 1933) by destroying LGBTQ+ social spaces. Depending on their dispositions, lesbian relationship accusations against women in Nazi Germany had a wide range of consequences. Jews, Blacks, and political opponents of the dictatorship risked execution or incarceration in a concentration camp; in certain cases, the victims' lesbian status probably made the penalties more severe. Yet, the historian Samuel Clowes Huneke concluded that lesbians who were charged with non-political crimes were not treated differently because they were lesbians, and that merely being accused of being lesbian typically resulted in a police investigation but no punishment. However, as a result of Ilse Totzke's imprisonment in Ravensbrück concentration camp, historian Laurie Marhoefer argued that "though not the targets of an official persecution, queer women ran a clear, pronounced risk of provoking anxiety in acquaintances and state representatives and could, ultimately, inspire state violence." Coming Out Unscathed? The debate about homosexuality in the public discourse was altered by World War II. The notion that gays made up a minority in the United States began to be explored. This development and exposure also brought them to the notice of the government and the media. The mid-20th century "lavender scare" was a moral panic over homosexuals working for the US government that resulted in their widespread termination. America used the concepts of conformity and the nuclear family after the war to return to normalcy. Marriages climbed by 50% in the first full year after the war and then by 20% over the next ten years compared to prewar levels. In America after the war, the nuclear family was flourishing. This glorification of the nuclear family was related to the harsh treatment of lesbians and LGBT people. Homophobia evolved as a strategy for restoring rigid gender norms and male supremacy that had been overthrown by the war. Lesbians experienced an especially tough post-war existence. Women who had joined the workforce in great numbers during the war were urged to stay at home and be with their families after the war. Unmarried women who opted to continue serving in the military during peacetime were singled out as abnormal and stigmatised as homosexuals. Even though the post-war effects of WWII were not so great, the seeds of change had been sown. There was a stronger emphasis on human rights and gender issues, and queer women proceeded to create their own, more visible kinds of social support in a setting where they could live in harmony with one another in a heteronormative and male-dominant society. As the poets say, all’s fair in love and war.