Photos of men in war are ubiquitous — as historical records, photojournalism, and complex artistic representations. Images of women in battle are less common, mirroring the stereotype that men are overwhelmingly the warring sex. Femmes au Combat (Women in Combat), an exhibition at Galerie Lumière des Roses in Montreuil, France, unearths photographs that document a history of female combatants.
The pictures, credited to anonymous artists, hail from a range of conflicts: the Mexican Revolution, the Irish War of Independence, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II. Most, with the exception of a propagandistic USSR photo from 1930, seem to have been taken either as photojournalistic snapshots or posed portraits.
Many of the images show women exhibiting traditional markers of femininity alongside their phallic weaponry. One from 1945 depicts Simone Segouin, a member of the French resistance, with her hair coiffed and pants fitted to adhere to styles of the time. She wears rings on the fingers that grip a submachine gun, and her belt, tied in a bow on her hip, doubles as an ammunition holder. Similarly, anarchist Yvonne André, depicted in a 1913 photograph, wears her fashionable hat jauntily askew.
Other pictures, however, reveal the violence and physical deprivations of war. A 1973 photograph depicts a hooded IRA member holding a machine gun, with one hand gloved. The combination of hood and glove suggest the violence of terrorism, of hostage taking, of anonymous brutality. A 1936 image from the Spanish Civil War shows a middle-aged woman whose face and hands are covered in dirt, her skin weather beaten and lined. Although she smiles, the photo reminds us that armed combat is far from glamorous.
Femmes au Combat provides much to ruminate on: lost or ignored feminine political history, the gendered nature of combat, the question of gaining societal equality through participation in violence and war.
Femmes au Combat continues at the Galerie Lumière des Roses in (12-14 Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, Montreuil, France) through January 30, 2015.