BLS 386: Women, War, & Terror

Nearly 70 years ago, on the eve of World War II, an invitation to join a peace society incited Virginia Woolf to respond with Three Guineas, an insightful and pathbreaking analysis of women’s place in the political, economic and social structures that produce war. How might we change politics as usual, she wonders, if women were empowered to propose their own solutions to war, to find their own words and means for reasoning with the forces of fascism, at home and abroad? Throughout the twentieth century, women and their stories have not had a great deal of success in influencing the events that lead to war or terror, but thankfully they have continued to voice their opinions and document their experiences just the same. For some, it is a matter of survival; writing is sometimes the only thing that continues to give life meaning and make suffering bearable. Especially when a homeland has been lost or destroyed, oftentimes a memoir or other written text is all that remains with which to salvage and structure identity. For others, writing is a conscious act of resistance. Women write to challenge dominant discourses that rationalize irrational violence, to prove that they have not been broken, to show others the way to survive, to bear witness so that such suffering cannot be forgotten.

This course will examine women as victims and critics of war and terror, primarily through their autobiographical writings. We will examine women’s autobiographical writings in the context of three different 20th century tragedies: Stalin’s Terror in the Soviet Union (1930s), the Holocaust (1940s) and the war(s) in the Former Yugoslavia (1990s). Students will consider, in online discussions and written assignments, the different motivations behind this literature, as well as the relative effectiveness or appropriateness of the different forms and genres used by the authors. What role, if any, does gender (or one’s ‘outsider’ status) play in these creative decisions? We will explore and compare the specific political, historical and cultural contexts in which these works were written along with broader questions about women’s place in history and the dynamics of language, power and resistance.


  • Ginzburg, Evgenia. Journey into the Whirlwind. (any edition)
  • Isaacson, Judith. Seed of Sarah. (any edition)
  • Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. (any edition)
  • Recommended: Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State. (PBS documentary: DVD)