The last decade has witnessed a remarkable rise of interest in the study of humanitarianism in the humanities and social sciences. Historians in particular have delved deeply into its origins, its normative idealism, and its expression in different temporal, regional, or religious contexts. While questions of gender and sexuality have certainly informed much of this research and have frequently found peripheral mention, the present volume, edited by Esther Möller (Munich), Johannes Paulmann (Mainz), and Katharina Stornig (Giessen), presents the first comprehensive overview of the intricate relationship between gender and humanitarian practice.
As the editors rightly argue, the introduction of gender into the study of humanitarianism is pivotal for two reasons. Not only does it add previously unwritten histories to the canon, but it makes those dynamics and actors visible that a masculinist humanitarian culture has ignored, taken for granted, or actively silenced (p. 289). Divided into three thematic categories with different analytical foci, and framed by the editors’ introduction and conclusion, the nine contributions investigate how gender roles and gendered behavior have shaped the global humanitarian sector since the late nineteenth century just as much as they were shaped by it.
Part one investigates the gendered discourses and practices inherent to the humanitarian sector. It reveals how decisively gender perceptions and expectations of humanitarian actors towards themselves and the objects of their aid informed their relief work. The three contributions by Bertrand Taithe, Inger Marie Okkenhaug, and Francesca Piana point to the patriarchal and hypermasculine hierarchies inherent to humanitarian work, the role and self-perception of western women within the aid sector, and the ensuing agency, or lack thereof, they enjoyed while working in the field.
The second part sheds light on the political implications of gendered humanitarian work, looking at how perceptions of sexual difference impacted on such political dynamics as nation-building and decolonization. Nazam Maksudyan’s work on Armenian refugee children in Istanbul, Maria Framke’s analysis of aid for women during the partition of British India, and Nora Derbal’s investigation of Saudi Arabian women’s charities all point to the biopolitics of aid. They show how closely aid institutions connected gender norms, the (mostly female) body, and its protection to ideas of national or religious honor and stability.
Part three discusses gendered representations, ideas, and assumptions that informed the ways humanitarian actors talked about and conceptualized their work differently towards the individuals and groups they aided. The contributions by Beth Baron, Katharina Stornig and Katharina Wolf, and Stacey Hynd all show how western or international humanitarian actors based their relief work less on the structural reasons for distress or the actual needs of their recipients, but rather adjusted their efforts according to their recipients’ perceived gender identity. In doing so, all three contributors argue, aid work reinforced normative gender ideals and ignored or overlooked underlying root causes for distress that would have demanded attention.
Taken together, the contributions skillfully look beyond exclusively western discourses and practices and instead embed western actors in larger transnational and transcultural contexts. They show how different understandings of humanitarianism and gender relations clashed, where they found common ground, or triggered mutual redevelopment. In doing so, the contributions approach gender as part of an intersectional dynamic to reveal that the concept only fully unfolds in conjunction with notions of nationality, race, class, and age.
Piana’s contribution on U.S. women doctors in interwar Greece, for example, finds that these doctors were often discriminated against at home on account of their sex. In the field, however, they found common ground with their male co-workers as they drew on the same racialized discourse on civilization towards the presumably inferior populations of the Eastern Mediterranean. Similarly, Hynd points out that African girl soldiers were thrice overlooked in humanitarian context on account of their race, gender, and age. Rather than treating them as traumatized contributors to armed conflict, humanitarian actors perceived them solely as feminized victims of abduction and rape. This gendered assumption excluded former girl soldiers from the rehabilitating programs they would have needed and instead enforced traditional gender roles of the obedient daughter and nurturing mother. Who received which kind of aid, the volume thus convincingly shows, depended not only on the need, the nationality, gender, or religion of the recipient, but just as much on the ideological setup and gendered understandings of the respective humanitarian actors.
At certain points, the volume would have benefitted from a more differentiated discussion on the effects of humanitarianism on constructions of femininity. Apart from the contribution by Stornig and Wolf, which points out that female aid workers at SOS Children’s Villages were subordinated in a patriarchal hierarchy, most contributions emphasize the emancipatory qualities of humanitarianism as a field that granted women agency in societies that tried to render them powerless. This argument, while certainly valid in many contexts, disregards the fact that humanitarianism often situated women’s engagement within the discourse on a supposedly natural feminine inclination to charity and nurture. On account of their sex, humanitarianism thus confined women to an unpaid, or at least heavily underpaid, working sector that lay outside the male-dominated domain of wage labor.
What is more, neither the editors nor contributors elaborate on their definition of gender more clearly. The concept is, arguably, highly complex and subject to constant change. However, it might have been useful to consider the recommendation given by Joan Scott in a reevaluation of her classic 1986 article Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis: „The focus [when using gender as a category of analysis] ought to be not on the roles assigned to women and men, but on the construction of sexual difference itself.“ Seen from this vantage point, it would have been advisable to more clearly distinguish between cases in which humanitarianism simply adopted or enforced pre-existing gender norms, and those in which humanitarian actors, intentionally or unintentionally, contributed to constructions of sexual difference.
Despite these minor shortcomings, the volume presents a long overdue contribution to the growing corpus of literature on the history of humanitarianism. It successfully extends investigation beyond the physical and ideological borders of the West, granting agency to actors in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, to adults as well as to children. In doing so, the contributions make a strong case for the inherent intersectionality of gender and, with it, point to the fact that also global humanitarianism cannot be understood without taking issues of sexual difference, race, class, age, religion, and region into account.
 Joan W. Scott, Gender. A useful category of historical analysis, in: The American Historical Review 91 (1986), pp 1053–1075.
 Joan W. Scott, Gender. Still a useful category of analysis?, in: Diogenes 57 (2010), pp 7–14, here p. 10.