The Second Battlefield: Women, Modernism, and the First World War Critical Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 13th, 2019

Following the publication of the scholarly works such as the Great War and Women’s Consciousness by Claire Tylee’s, other feminist scholars such as Angela K. Smith emerged to provide an expanded investigation and a critical assessment of various writings on the roles of women in the First World War authored by women scholars.

While Women Writings on The First World War provide an anthology of manuscripts, which are not published addressing various political voices of women struggling to live in a society dominated by male chauvinism, the book The Second Battlefield: Women, Modernism, and the First World War evaluates and/or assesses various terrains that women walked through during the First World War.

This assessment helps in laying a theoretical background on the contributions that are made by women in the development of literature on war history. The evaluation and assessment are conducted in relation to the stingy and scholarly troublesome concept of modernism.

In The Second Battlefield: Women, Modernism, and the First World War, Smith develops various themes related to women’s contributions in war with particular reference to the First World War.

The first theme is the connection of writings of women on the subject of the First World War and the modernism theoretical constructs. Another important theme is the need for placing emphasis on gender issues that are prevalent in the modern world upon drawing from the role of women in the social developments showcased during the First World War.

Development of the two themes is supported by information drawn from a myriad of letters coupled with unpublished diaries. The selection of sources to support scholarly arguments introduces major weaknesses in terms of reliability of sources to give credible information to the arguments in a bid to provide solid scholarly evidence supporting the claims advanced by Smith.

However, thematic issues developed in the book are essential in helping to evaluate the roles played by women since the First World War in shaping the world order in the context of modernist theoretical paradigms.

This way, the book aids in triggering different paradigms for searching new mechanisms of women’s expression in a free and transparent society prescribed by the theories of modernism. This gives the book the strength of contributing to scholarly development of women’s contribution in modernism.

In the development of the first theme, Smith depicts the First World War as the foundation of the development of feminism. She is quick to point out her inclination on feminist arguments by subscribing to the school of thought of equal social economic and political rights of women, which were brought into societal limelight during and after the First World War.

She views various writings on the roles of women in the First World War as essentially reflecting and supporting the concepts of female modernism. This assertion is evident based on her argument that war experiences “influenced the development of female modernist practice, opening up a pathway for a diverse range of different experimental discourses1.

This case implies that, through the First World War experiences, women recognized that they had equal abilities tantamount to men. This line of argument may be challenged. History has records of women playing behind-war-scene roles during wars. Such roles include the provision of nursing services to wounded soldiers.

However, this counter argument does not imply that women were not engaged in direct combats during the First World War. The dispute is that, for Angela K. Smith’s argument that First World War laid crucial backgrounds to the development of modern feminist theoretical constructs advocating for equality of men and women to be factual, it is important to provide statistical and quantitative data.

This provides evidence for an equal ability of women and men to participate in war with specific reference to First World War beyond any doubt.

Smith sees women’s writings during and soon after the First World War as significant contributors to the bridging of the realist school of thought of the nineteenth century and the experimental and practical works of the 1920s. This perhaps reveals why she relies on diaries and epistles as her sources.

She claims that such sources “contain within them elements of stylistic change as their writers strive to find ways to articulate an experience, which cannot be easily condensed into convectional language”2. This belief is simplistic and one that is anchored on weak evidential foundations.

It suggests that the First World War led to the emergence of formal innovation, which facilitated the cognition of women’s abilities that had long been shrouded. For instance, she sees the work of women writers such as La Motte together with the work of Borden as portraying concepts of modernism accidentally3.

In particular, she argues that the work of Borden reflects high self-consciousness, a literary realization, which requires scholarly credit4. However, this perception does not consider the familiarity of women with experimentalist works advanced by Gertrude Stein together with Amy Lowell. Hence, she fails to accord justice to their works, which displayed incredible writing brilliance.

Amid the criticisms for development of the first theme, Smith writes from safer grounds by choosing to analyze the various themes reflected in the women’s writings on the First World War to unveil the concepts of modernism. Chapter 5 is dedicated to the evaluation of diverse women authors portraying their roles in the First World War. This creates various juxtapositions.

For instance, the works of May Sinclaire are not sufficiently addressed, yet she was a significant contributor of modernism that is celebrated today. Her focus is on developing arguments on the roles of women during the First World War.

Therefore, in the effort to advance the argument on the development of modernism school of thought, an intensive error is created in presenting May Sinclaire as a modernist writer whose roles and heroism in the First World War era were only recognized just before she died. In chapter 6, she explores the work of Katherine Mansfield and others presenting the theme of domestic imagery.

This capacity to run through a range of works developed by eloquently known women writers and feminists is non-canonical and unproductive. However, it is through deployment of this strategy that she is able to explore and provide expansive parameters for evaluation of various approaches to female modernism.

This way, readers are able to traverse various writings of women during the First World War to determine how they link up with the concepts of modernism as they relate to feminism.

The second theme developed by The Second Battlefield: Women, Modernism, and the First World War is the need for placing central emphasis on gender issues that are prevalent in the modern world upon drawing from the historical roles of women in First World War together with social developments.

In this quest, she emphasizes her orthodox approach to the selection of her various materials reflecting this theme in the effort to exhibit the largest possible degree of experience of women in contributing to social progression of the society5. This position is a major strength in her work to address the prevalent modern issues in the advancement of modernism issues.

Her work captures texts that are representative of the broad class boundaries. This means that the work of Smith passes the test for representation of the overall arguments on the development of women since the First World War amid cultural and geographical divides. This position is an essential characteristic for reliability and validity of a scholarly historical piece of work.

In the selection of the texts investigated by Smith, a major weakness is introduced. In her arguments against the segregation and perception of gender roles, not all women amid their class status are given sufficient attention. For instance, in chapter 4, Smith argues that women believed that, when the war broke, their only role was to oppose it since they had no other role to engage in the frontlines.

This was men’s responsibility, but not women who were also not recognized in the systems of governance. Indeed, according to Smith, women were life creators as opposed to destroyers6. The perception of life destruction was far removed from their nature. However, she claims that women who took part in the front lines during the First World War altered the traditional belief.

She further adds that such women wrote letters and diaries from which she draws her evidence of the development of perspectives of modernism during the First World War. Such women were literate. Literacy was a reserve for middle and upper- middle class group of women in 1910s and 1920s.

This raises the question on the roles of illiterate women in setting the background for addressing gender-related issues prevalent in the modernist theoretical constructs.

Women writers reflected in the book are essentially drawn from the upper-middle-class and the middle class in some instances. Many are also highly reputable in the historical writing profession. This raises the scholarly question of whether only women belonging to this societal class had the capacity to disapprove the fallacy of segregation and division of gender roles.

Did the low-class women have the ability to perform equally or out perform some men in some gender-centered roles? In the development of the argument in the text, Smith has emphasized feminist topics together with the styles of writing, which reflect the development of modernism during and after the First World War.

While this emphasis is crucial in enhancing the provision of a feminist text, which is highly informative, such emphasis acts also as a weakness. The selections are highly abbreviated. This makes them not useful for scholarly research.

Smith’s book The Second Battlefield: Women, Modernism, and the First World War is one of the books that reflect the theme of modernism. Such themes include the roles played by women in the First World War.

People interested in studies of history of the evaluation of women gender roles and/or how the subjects that have taken immense attention in the modern approaches to feminism relate to modernism will find the book worth reading.


Smith, Angela. The Second Battlefield: Women, Modernism, and the First World War. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.


1 Angela Smith, The Second Battlefield: Women, Modernism, and the First World War. (New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), 197.

2 Smith, The Second Battlefield, 6.

3 Smith, The Second Battlefield, 8.

4 Smith, The Second Battlefield, 97.

5 Smith, The Second Battlefield, 5.

6Smith, The Second Battlefield, 9.

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