Tuesday, 18 October 2011


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Recently, the roles of women in war have received increased attention in both scholarship and political debate. U.S. moms went off to battle in the 11 Gulf War, to a global audience. Since then, women have crept slowly closer to combat roles in Western militaries. Meanwhile, women were primary targets of massacres in wars in Rwanda, Burundi, Algeria, Bosnia, southern Mexico, and elsewhere. The systematic use of rape in warfare was defined as a war crime for the first time by the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Despite this growing attention to women in war, however, and a surge of recent scholarship in relevant fields, no comprehensive account has yet emerged on the role of gender in war, a topic that includes both men and women but ultimately revolves around men somewhat more than women.

A single case rarely makes or breaks a hypothesis, but many together often can. Only by assembling large bodies of empirical evidence from multiple disciplines can we assess the meaning of a single event or result in the context of the overall picture. A central challenge to bringing together relevant knowledge about war and gender in this comprehensive way is that the topic spans multiple levels of analysis. That is, relevant processes operate in a range of contexts varying in size, scope, and speed � from physiology to individual behavior, social institutions, states, the international system, and global trends. As a result, understanding war and gender requires operating across such disciplines as biochemistry, anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, and history. One aspect of this challenge is that different research communities use terminology differently.

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Feminist theorists disagree in basic ways about how gender relates to war, but they have long treated the question as important. Many of their male colleagues do not seem to share this interest, however.

In North American political science and history, male war scholars’ interest in the puzzle of gendered war roles has been minimal. The topic has not attracted the funding or publications among male scholars as, for example, the similarly intriguing regularity known as the “democratic peace” (democracies rarely fight each other). Feminist political scientists and historians � nearly all women � pay attention to gender in war, but others relegate gender to the dark margins beyond their (various) theoretical frameworks for studying war. Feminist literatures about war and peace of the last 15 years have made little impact as yet on the discussions and empirical research taking place in the predominantly male mainstream of political science or military history. This omission is measurable by counting the number of headings and subheadings in a book’s index on topics relating to gender. The typical political science and history books about war � the “big” books about war’s origins and history � score zero.56

Doyle’s recent and comprehensive survey of scholarship on war and peace contains six gender�related index entries but devotes only about one�tenth of 1 percent of its space to gender. All the gender references concern women; men still do not have gender. Similarly, when gender occasionally shows up in other mainstream war studies, it does so gratuitously, as a passing note � something that could be interesting, but plays no substantive role in any of the main competing theories about war. (This pattern is less true in recent years than previously, however, and less true in Britain and Australia than in the United States. Men there are more often both subjects and authors in gender studies.)57

Feminist scholarship on war

Given so many men’s low interest level, most political science studies of gender roles in war come from a feminist perspective and most are written by women. In the International Studies Association, women scholars are seven times more likely than men to belong to the gender studies section, and this disparity is greater at the leadership level, even though the section welcomes men and has done organized outreach to them. The authors and editors of 5 international relations books that address war and peace from explicitly feminist perspectives consist of 1 women and one man. Of course, many women scholars are not feminists, and a few male scholars do study gender. Yet, as Ann Tickner puts it, “there is something about this field [international relations] that renders it particularly inhospitable and unattractive to women.” Many recent signs suggest change in the discipline, and gender articles now appear occasionally in mainstream journals, but gender is still segregated conceptually from the subjects that most scholars of war study.61

Feminist scholarship on war, building on a long tradition, has grown rapidly since the late 180s. As in other fields, feminist research often tries to bring out the role of gender, and of women, in social relationships. In doing so, however, feminist theorists follow several schools of thought, with different and sometimes incompatible assumptions and analyses about war. I will try within the limits of this paper to give a sense of how feminist theorists of different schools think about war and peace.

Strands of feminist theory

“The feminist theory” of war does not exist. Rather, a number of feminist arguments provide sometimes contradictory explanations and prescriptions. Feminist political theorist Jean Elshtain describes a “polyphonic chorus of female voices… At the moment [187], feminists are not only at war with war but with one another.” This chorus is not simple to categorize.6

Most feminist approaches share a belief that gender matters in understanding war. They also share a concern with changing “masculinism” in both scholarship and political�military practice, where masculinism is defined as an ideology justifying male domination. They see women as a disadvantaged class, unjustly dominated and exploited by men. (According to 181 data, women worldwide are half the population and a third of the paid labor force. They work two�thirds of the hours, but receive only a tenth of the income and own a hundredth of the property.)6

Beyond these points of agreement, different feminist schools diverge. Various authors describe feminist theories in terms of three perspectives or schools of thought. I sort feminist theories of war into three main strands, though most feminists combine elements of these approaches in various ways. They explain gendered war roles in different ways.64

Liberal feminism sexist discrimination � women can be capable warriors.

Difference feminism deep�rooted and partly biological gender differences.

Postmodern feminism arbitrary cultural constructions favoring those men in power.

Liberal feminism

Liberal feminists argue that women equal men in ability, and that the gendering of war reflects male discrimination against women (i.e., sexism). Liberal feminism often frames gender inequalities in terms of a classical liberal emphasis on individual rights. Women have the right to participate in all social and political roles (including war roles) without facing discrimination. The exclusion of women from positions of power in international relations both is unfair to women and prevents half the population from making its best contribution to the society. Liberal feminists do not believe women’s inclusion would fundamentally change the international system, nor a given country’s foreign policy, nor war itself. Liberal feminist scholars often include women as subjects of study � women state leaders, women soldiers, and other women operating outside the traditional gender roles in international relations. This strand of work pays homage to women who succeeded in nontraditional positions, despite the obstacles they faced in a sexist society.

Liberal feminism does not treat war very differently from other aspects of social life in which men dominate the high�paying, advantaged roles. Soldiering as a job holds potential for future high�paying political and military leadership positions. Ten US Presidents were generals, and combat experience helped others such as George Bush and John Kennedy to win election. From a liberal feminist perspective, women’s exclusion as soldiers resembles their exclusion through history as doctors, lawyers, politicians, and other high�status professionals. Calls for the inclusion of women and the end of gender discrimination are not radical challenges to the status quo, according to liberal feminists.65

Liberal feminists argue that women have performed well when, under military necessity, they have been allowed to participate in military operations � such as the WACs shown in Figure 1.5 {Figure 1.5 US Army nurses arrive in Britain, 144. [US National Archives, NWDNS�111�SC�1605�S.]� but have faced persistent discrimination, including dismissal from such positions once a war ends. When the US military shifted from conscription to an all�volunteer force, after Vietnam, it became expedient to integrate more women into the military, especially since social pressures for women’s equality were rising and since the military itself was shifting towards more support troops relative to “combat” troops.

Starting in the late 170s, liberal US feminists supported extension of the military draft to include women “Liberal feminists…[argue that] the best way to insure women’s equal treatment with men is to render them equally vulnerable with men to the political will of the state.” Liberal feminists reject the idea that women are any more peaceful than men by nature. Eleanor Smeal, as President of the National Organization for Women, once declared that “Peace is not a feminist issue.”66

US helicopter pilot Rhonda Cornum, who was captured by Iraq in the Gulf War, exemplifies liberal arguments regarding women soldiers. She writes that while housed in a parking garage in Saudi Arabia, “my being female seemed to make no difference to most people,” and she was aghast at the idea of separating the ten women there from their units to live together. The lack of privacy “didn’t seem to bother anyone.” “Being a girl just didn’t matter.”

I think women are just like men; women who are motivated to be in the military have the same range of reasons as men. In terms of performance, there’s also that same range. I think some women will be terrific, some will be brainless, and the vast majority will simply do their job and do it well…[W]omen behave the same when they are captured as men do.67

Feminist critiques of liberal feminism The major criticism of liberal feminism from other feminists has been that it “ask[s] women to exchange major aspects of their gender identity for the masculine version � without prescribing a similar ‘degendering’ project for men.” By integrating into existing power structures including military forces and the war system without changing them, women merely prop up a male�dominated world instead of transforming it.68

Difference feminism

Difference feminists believe that women’s experiences are fundamentally different from men’s. In this view, the problem is not that men and women are different but that sexist cultures devalue “feminine” qualities instead of valuing, celebrating, and promoting them. Regarding war, difference feminists argue that women, because of their greater experience with nurturing and human relations, are generally more effective than men in conflict resolution and group decision�making, and less effective than men in combat. Some difference feminists see such gender differences as biologically based, whereas others see them as entirely cultural, but they agree that gender differences are real, and not all bad.

Variants and related approaches to difference feminism include “standpoint feminism” (women’s experiences provide a shared perspective or standpoint on the world), and “essentialist feminism,” meaning that gender has a core essence (used as an accusation these days). “Radical feminism” sees women’s oppression worldwide as rooted in patriarchy � male dominance of social life from the family to the economy, the state, and international relations � and sees reforms and integration into men’s spaces as inadequate. Some difference feminists favor gender separatism, in order to create a space for women that is not dominated by men.6

Difference feminists advance two theoretical claims relevant to war first, men are relatively violent and women relatively peaceable. Second, men are more autonomous and women more connected in their social relationships.70

Violent men, peaceful women In this view, women’s caregiving roles and potential for motherhood best suit them to give life, not take it. Women are more likely than men to oppose war, and more likely to find alternatives to violence in resolving conflicts. (Hillary Clinton in 16, for example, told a radio audience that her husband finds “action” movies “relaxing” but she does not like them, explaining that “I think that’s kind of a male thing.”) Thus, according to difference feminism, women have unique abilities as peacemakers. Even Secretary of State Madeleine Albright � an exemplary case for liberal feminism by virtue of her success as a “hawk” in the male�dominated establishment � holds some difference�feminist views. She argues that correcting the gender imbalance in foreign affairs is “not simply about fairness. Today’s world needs the unique set of skills and experiences that women bring to diplomacy. I am convinced, for example, that greater numbers of women both as ambassadors and as managers at the UN would lead to a greater emphasis on practical solutions.” She told refugee girls from Afghanistan that women around the world “are all the same, and we have the same feelings.” The idea of integrating women into mainstream politics in order to change war has male advocates as well, dating back to World War I.71

Some feminist scholars see an unprecedented political empowerment of women now underway, which could soon reach a “critical mass” that would transform world politics as countries adopted less warlike policies and reduced their military spending. Of women presidents or prime ministers in the twentieth century, 4 held power in the 10s.

The data on women in politics worldwide, however, make me wonder how close we are to a critical mass. In the 180s, women made up about 5 percent of heads of state, cabinet ministers, and senior policy makers worldwide, and about 10 percent of members of national legislatures and senior officials in intergovernmental organizations. In the United States, fewer than 10 percent of legislators were women. Norway had the highest percentage of women legislators in the world, but over 8 percent of chairpersons of the powerful municipal councils were men, as were nearly 0 percent of Norwegian judges. (The ten countries with most women in legislatures were all either communist or Nordic countries, where legislatures held little real power.) In Sweden, men made up 0 percent of senior government officials. In China, 67 ministries were headed by men and the other five were vacant. Among the top 4,000 executives of Fortune 500 companies, fewer than half of one percent were women. From the early 180s to the late 10s, these data changed only incrementally. By 17, women still held only 15 percent of seats in national legislatures in developed countries and about 10 percent in developing countries. As of 000, women’s seats in legislatures worldwide stand at 14 percent (and only in six small Northern European countries do they exceed percent). In 15, the world’s UN delegation heads were 7 percent male.7

Many difference feminists have long believed that women cannot change masculine institutions by joining them, and are better off remaining apart from them (thus preserving valued feminine qualities). In 17, Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women deserved equal rights with men, but should not participate in war. Wollstonecraft did not see women’s maternal experience as making them opposed to war, but rather saw gender equality as compatible with a division of labor in which men served in the military and women served as mothers.7

Virginia Woolf’s 18 Three Guineas answers a male friend who has asked what feminists might contribute to preventing war (as fascist aggression escalated in Europe and Japan). Woolf links the participation of men in war to the male�dominated power structures within Britain, notably the military, the university, government, and business. Woolf argues that “the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected,” and teases liberal Englishmen, who benefited from the oppression of women, for their fear of being oppressed by fascism (which she finds similar to patriarchy). Woolf tells men “Obviously there is for you some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting which we [women] have never felt or enjoyed.” She rejects men’s patriotism “[A]s a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” The international bonds among women create a transnational community not tied to the state system. Woolf’s approach � strategic disengagement of women from the war system � contrasts with the suffragists’ move to integrate women into the war system (via the vote) in order to change it.74

Women’s peace activism has a long history (see pp. �1). Peace was an important plank of the suffrage program, and pacifist women during World War I organized the Women’s Peace Party. Women’s peace groups helped win the test ban treaty in the early 160s and US disengagement from the Vietnam War in the 170s. During the 180s, women played a leading role in the movement against nuclear war, and several peace actions or organizations (notably the Greenham Common protests in Britain) developed specifically feminine modes of politics to work for peace (see Figure 1.6).Figure 1.6 Women peace activists circle the Pentagon joined by scarves, 180. [Photo � by Dorothy Marder.]

The prototypical figure of a woman peacemaker is, ironically, the product of a man’s imagination. The Athenian playwright Aristophanes wrote a political comedy, Lysistrata, critical of the costly and unpopular Peloponnesian War. In the play, a young woman named Lysistrata organizes the Athenian and Spartan women to withhold sex from the men until the men stop the war. The women also raid the Acropolis to make off with the treasury that is financing the war. The men soon come to their senses and make peace. Spartans and Athenians become friends at a banquet and everyone lives happily ever after.75

Some feminists link men’s violent nature with male sexuality (see pp. �56). Observers have noted the phallic quality of many weapons, from spears to guns to missiles. Other writers see in war not so much an extension of men’s sexuality but an attempt to compensate for men’s innate inability to bear children (and, hence, the meaninglessness of their lives). Militaristic discourses play on men’s fears of meaninglessness, as when Mussolini said, “War is to man what maternity is to women.” Male insecurity is a source of male violence, according to some difference feminists.76

Autonomous men, connected women A second difference�feminist argument holds that men and women think differently about their separateness or connection with other people. A large literature in this area grows out of “object relations theory” in psychology (an offshoot of psychoanalytic theory). The argument in a nutshell is that boys differentiate themselves from their female caregivers whereas girls identify with their female caregivers. Therefore boys construct social relationships in terms of autonomous individuals, interacting according to formal rules, whereas girls construct social relationships as networks of connection. This gender difference might adapt men to kill in war. Although somewhat grounded in biology (via mothers’ nursing), the outcome is driven by childcare arrangements, which cultures can change.77

Carol Gilligan’s 18In a Different Voice popularized the separation�versus�connection theme, and stimulated much research on girls (and, recently, on boys). Gilligan argues that girls and boys develop different moral systems � based on individual rights and group responsibilities respectively � although empirical evidence has tended not to support this idea. Gilligan also connects separation�versus�connection to different patterns of play among boys and among girls, including girls’ more stable friendships (see pp. 4�5). She argues that men tend to fear connection and women tend to fear competition, and she sees aggression and violence as responses to these fears. She proposes images of hierarchy and web as alternative models of social relationships for men and women respectively. Men seek to be alone at the top of a hierarchy, fearing that others will come too close. Women seek to be at the center of a web, fearing the isolation of the periphery. Others applied these ideas directly to war, arguing that women have a distinctive perspective on war based on “maternal thinking” (a perspective rooted more in culture than biology, but still shared by women only).78

One problem with Gilligan’s work and the genre it epitomizes, say critics, is that it universalizes the experience of white American women at a particular time and place in history. All women are not the same. Gilligan herself is careful on this point. She does not think the “ethic of care” is necessarily a feminine one, although it has been associated with females in “the advantaged populations that have been studied.” Anti�feminist critics also find Gilligan’s work empirically flawed.7

An important aspect of men’s disconnectedness, according to some difference feminists, is men’s and women’s different views of social relationships within groups. In this view, men tend to see their position relative to others in the group � especially other males � in terms of a competitive hierarchy. Women tend to see their position within a group in terms of mutual support. Hierarchical organization is widespread � and generally male dominated � in the military, business, religion, and other spheres of social life. In this situation, men are especially attuned to how they look in the eyes of their fellow men. Avoiding humiliation and maintaining face become especially important. By contrast, women are seen as more practical, less concerned with rank or honor, and thus better able to cooperate within a group without letting intragroup tensions undermine the group’s work. Difference feminists would rather value women’s cooperative abilities than encourage women to become more competitive, as liberal feminism sometimes does.80


I place ecofeminism with difference feminism because it begins from radical connectedness. Ecofeminism fuses various practices and theories of feminism, environmentalism, and movements for social justice and equality. Ecofeminists argue that all forms of oppression are deeply connected, with the two most fundamental forms being gender oppression and “man’s” exploitation of nature. War is an extension of the aggressive and exploitative relationships embodied in sexism, racism, and the “rape” of the environment. This whole package should be addressed in a holistic way in order to get at the problem of war. Ecofeminism influenced the character of women’s peace movements in the 180s and 10s, and of the Greens political parties in Europe. For instance, the women pictured in Figure 1.6 above said, “We understand all is connectedness. The earth nourishes us…”81

One line of ecofeminist thinking focuses on the supposed overthrow of peaceful goddess�worshiping nature�based religions around 4500 BC. Rianne Eisler claims that a “partnership model” was prevalent in ancient times (notably in Crete) but was displaced by the now�prevalent “dominator model.” In the partnership model, which Eisler seeks to resurrect, gender differences are not “equated with inferiority or superiority.” Eisler’s account of peaceful prehistory, however, is empirically wrong (see p. 1).8

Ecofeminist Susan Griffin sees the separation of war from women’s daily lives as a form of denial (which cannot work because the mind knows everything on a deep level). She connects combat trauma with family traumas through the concept of secrets. Secrets have an “erotic edge,” she writes, because they move us “closer to a sequestered sexual body at the core of being.” Although war occurs in public, and child abuse in private, they lead to similar forms of denial.8

Irene Diamond traces war to an “ideology of control” that gives rise to various forms of oppression (and is even reflected in liberal feminism’s demand for birth control so that women can control their bodies). She suggests that seekers of control should instead open themselves to the possibilities of mystery, wonder, and spirituality. Thus, ecofeminism sees the problem of war in very broad terms, connecting peace to a deep restructuring of society.84

Feminist critiques of difference feminism Liberal and postmodern feminists question both women’s peace movements and linkages among gender, ecology, and social oppressions. Some contest the idea that women in the military can change the military (making it reflect feminine values). Others criticize theories about women’s peaceful nature, for adopting a strict male�female dualism that reinforces patriarchy, and for supposedly validating caretaking while obscuring the role of caretakers in supporting war and warriors. Elshtain seeks to “disenthrall” difference feminists of the opposite images of “just warrior” and “beautiful soul.” Contrary to the notion of “men’s wars,” she finds women complicit in the construction of gendered war identities. Other critics argue that “the traditional women’s peace movement is based on constricting stereotypes and rigid sex roles.” However, difference feminists respond that the ideals of femininity and motherhood can be rehabilitated to serve peace, and that women’s peace movements today do so better than in the past.85

The positions of difference and liberal feminists regarding war can be somewhat reconciled by acknowledging their different levels of analysis � the individual for liberal feminism and the gender group for difference feminism. The abilities of an individual are not determined by her or his group, so liberal and difference feminisms are not incompatible. The two genders may show different propensities on average, yet individuals in both genders may span roughly the same range of abilities. (Chapter shows how this concept maps onto men’s and women’s bell�curve distributions for various measures.)

Postmodern feminism

A third strand, postmodern feminism, questions the assumptions about gender made by both liberal and difference feminists. Rather than take gender as two categories of people that really exist (whether they are very different or hardly different), postmodern feminists see gender itself, and gender roles in war, as fairly fluid, contextual, and arbitrary. Gender shapes how both men and women understand their experiences and actions in regard to war. Therefore gender is everywhere, and some scholars reveal and deconstruct the implicitly gender�laden conceptual frameworks of both theorists and practitioners of war. Some postmodern feminists analyze the uses of binary oppositions, which readily map onto gender, to structure models or theories86

Masculine/subject Feminine/object

Knower/self/autonomy/agency Known/other/dependence/passivity

Objective/rational/fact/logical/hard Subjective/emotional/value/illogical/soft

Order/certainty/predictability Anarchy/uncertainty/unpredictability

Mind/abstract Body/concrete

Culture/civilized/production/public Nature/primitive/reproduction/private

Postmodernism generally rejects the idea of a single, objective reality. This makes postmodernism itself difficult to describe. Various writers describe themselves as poststructuralist, postpositivist, postbehavioral, or sometimes “constructivist.” All share a general skepticism about established categories and methods of knowledge, and all emphasize the role of culture in shaping experience. The idea of a coherent category, “postmodern feminism,” may not be viable, although I use it to simplify this brief overview.

For postmodern feminists interested in war and peace, women play many roles in war, some of them even seemingly contradictory, and masculinity too differs from place to place. For example, the World War I male artillery crew in Figure 1.7 Figure 1.7 Gunners in dresses, World War I. [� Topham/The Image Works.] was rehearsing a Christmas play when the alert sounded. Their ability to fight war in drag symbolizes the great flexibility and diversity with which war participants enact gender roles. Because they see this diversity as important, postmodern feminists also delve into the connections among gender, race, ethnicity, nation, class, and other aspects of identity. Postmodern feminism embodies a tension, however, between the postmodern emphasis on the diversity of women’s experience and the feminist assumption that women constitute a meaningful category.87

Some postmodern feminists have analyzed the place of gender � not just women � in literary representations of war from both contemporary and historical times, and from a variety of non�European locales. Other feminists (using postmodern and more traditional methods) analyze the gendered construction of states and wars in various times and places.88

A strong version of postmodern feminist analysis � claiming that all gender roles are arbitrary and pliable � runs into some trouble with war. In such a view, “[w]hat is considered masculine in some societies is considered feminine or gender�neutral in others and vice versa; the only constant appears to be the importance of the dichotomy.” Yet this chapter has identified another cross�cultural constant � primary gender roles in war.8


War is deeply rooted in the human experience, and that gendered war roles are permanent � a part of a society’s readiness for the possibility of war. Males occupy the ongoing role of potential fighters, even in relatively peaceful societies.

Although most male scholars of war bypass questions of gender, feminist theorists have elaborated a number of ways that gender affects war. In some areas, such as paying attention to gender and to women, the various feminist approaches overlap. In other areas, such as whether men are innately violent, the approaches often diverge or contradict each other.

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