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Omitted history

National award for First World War sexual encounters research


By Chad Pelley

History PhD candidate Allison Bennett is the recipient of the Canadian Federation of University Women’s 2022-23 Linda Souter Humanities Award.

Allison Bennett leans agaaint a rail, wearing a green top
Ms. Bennett is currently pursuing her fourth degree at Memorial: a PhD in history.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The annual $6,000 award is given to a Canadian graduate student studying in the humanities.

Ms. Bennett’s doctoral research examines the implications of sexual encounters between British and Australian servicemen with civilian women during the First World War in Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Macedonia.

Specifically, it explores how these encounters, and resulting cases of venereal disease, impacted how servicemen understood their own identities and the identities of their sexual partners, according to imperial perceptions of race, gender, sexuality and health.

“There is more to the history of the First World War than the Western Front and the Battle of the Somme,” said Ms. Bennett. “So much happened behind the front lines for all armies, on all fronts, that shaped servicemen’s and civilians’ wartime experiences.”

Threatened identities

Ms. Bennett’s research demonstrates that the sexual encounters threatened not only servicemen’s health, but their masculine, imperial and military identity, as well.

“Societies, governments and the Armed Forces expected servicemen to embody a white, hegemonic masculinity, based on residual Victorian social mores, especially middle-class values,” she explained.

“Not only were men thought superior to women, but their whiteness determined their perceived superiority over “others”, including people of colour and anyone who displayed “immoral” behaviour, such as prostitutes.”

Civilian women in First World War Macedonia and the Middle East were “othered” for their racial identity and/or identity as a prostitute and it was feared they carried more virulent forms of contagious diseases.

British soldiers in military hospital beds
Allison Bennett’s work addresses whether or not venereal disease impacted veterans’ pensions and how the diseases challenged ex-servicemen’s potential for marriage and children.
Photo: Pexels

Ms. Bennett says sexual encounters with the women challenged servicemen’s imperial and military identity because the women’s “otherness” “contaminated servicemen’s whiteness and morality, and risked their health, rendering them unfit for service and jeopardizing the future health of the white population.”

Persistent prejudices and biases

Her hope is that her research encourages critical discussion on the intersectionality of gender, sexuality, race and racism, and imperialism both within and outside the field of history.

“Now more than ever, we should look to the past to help us confront long-standing systemic prejudices and biases that persist as major social issues.”

In addition to demonstrating how these encounters stressed pseudoscientific ideas about race and male and female bodies, and challenged the white heterosexual male and his imperial and military identity, Ms. Bennett’s work also addresses whether or not venereal disease impacted veterans’ pensions and how the diseases challenged ex-servicemen’s families or their potential for marriage and children.

Her PhD supervisor, Dr. Justin Fantauzzo, recommended the research project, after a research trip to London brought the topic to his attention.

“This topic was the perfect fit for my interests, so I immediately agreed. Though challenging at times, especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my research has also become a passion project because it touches on so many areas of history that I’m interested in and so many themes within are important to contemporary social justice issues.”

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