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Critical Feminist Insights on Security, Militarism, and the Inclusion of Women in the Military

Citation: Wibben, A. T. R. (2018). Why we need to study (US) militarism: A critical feminist lens. Security Dialogue, 49(1-2), 136-148.

The question of women’s full integration into the military has long brought to the surface tensions between different variants of feminism. On the one hand, greater equality between women and men in any sphere is to be celebrated. Especially in a country that values military service so highly, where, for instance, it brings a distinct advantage to candidates running for political office, inclusion in all branches and occupations of the military can be seen as a requirement for full citizenship and therefore is fundamental to gender equality in the political sphere. On the other hand, as the author points out, citing Enloe, women’s full inclusion in the military can be seen as yet another form of militarization—this time the militarization of “women’s liberation.” And by allowing the cooptation of feminist arguments for militarist purposes, we as a society reinforce an institution that relies on the privileging of dominant forms of masculinity to function.

Using this question of women’s inclusion in the military as a starting point, the author is interested in exploring what a critical feminist perspective can contribute to our thinking on this question and on the relationship between security and militarism more broadly. First, she demonstrates that critical feminist security scholars—through their concern for the “everyday” and the way power relations manifest themselves in the lived experiences of people of all genders—have a different “entry point” to the study of security than other security scholars and therefore that their inquiries necessarily challenge and broaden the boundaries of what is normally called the field of “security studies.” This focus makes critical feminist security scholars much more attuned to the way in which “security”—as traditionally practiced by the state and understood by mainstream security scholars—is deeply militarized, as well as to how wider processes of militarization affect the lives of ordinary people (through everything from “toys, fashion, and other consumer goods” to “sporting events, school funding, urban planning, [and] taxation”).

Second, critical feminist security scholars bring a distinct approach to the study of militarism and militarization through their focus on the way in which both depend on gender hierarchies—the privileging of masculinity and its associated traits over femininity and its associated traits—to function. Not only is there a clear overlap between dominant norms of masculinity and norms of war-making, but there is also a clear reliance of the military on “gendered myths and images” that sustain the practice of warfare and the institution of the military. One such gendered myth that has justified many a war is that of the “just warrior” and the “beautiful soul” elaborated by Elshtain: the male protector on the front lines and the female in need of protection on the home front. Gender hierarchies support other forms of military hierarchy and become a resource for maintaining military ideals and practices. For instance, in basic training, soldiers (including, or perhaps especially, men) are often denigrated and disciplined with feminine name-calling, which is clearly meant and experienced as an insult; in other words, gender hierarchies are used not only to distinguish men from women but also to distinguish between different men. Attention to this operation of gender as an unequal system of value and meaning in the military also helps us better understand the implications of women’s integration into the military. In this context (as in many others), where masculinity provides access to power, women can have an especially hard time “negotiat[ing] femininity and masculinity,” as coming across as too “masculine” can be threatening to the institution and coming across as too “feminine,” though less threatening, makes it harder to “claim [ ] authority” in a military setting. In addition, attention to the key function gender hierarchies play in the military makes it easier to notice and understand why the U.S. Marine Corps, especially, so resisted the full integration of women into its ranks—why the perceived watering-down of its intensely masculine credentials could be so threatening to its very core.

In short, a critical feminist perspective is necessary for gaining a fuller, more accurate understanding of central problems in international politics, including war, through its insights into the current inseparability of security and militarism—that “we cannot think of security without thinking about the militarist logics that are deeply embedded in it” and that militarism in everyday life is “justified by reference to security”—and the reliance of both on gender hierarchies and gendered myths/images.

Militarism: “society’s emphasis on martial values” (Lutz 2004).
Militarization: “the contradictory and tense social process in which civil society organizes itself for the production of violence” (Geyer 1989), including both “an intensification of the labor and resources allocated to military purposes” and “a shift in general societal beliefs and values in ways necessary to legitimate the use of force, the organization of large standing armies and their leaders, and the higher taxes or tribute used to pay for them” (Lutz 2004).
The “everyday“: the mundane activities and interactions that make up daily life. Whereas more mainstream security scholars might focus on military strategy or national security interests or high-level interactions between political leaders, feminist scholars are more likely to pay attention to the everyday lived experience of regular people and how security is or is not felt–as well as how life is militarized–on this level.
Geyer, M. (1989). The militarization of Europe, 1914-1945. In J. Gillis (Ed.), The militarization of the western world (pp. 65-102). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Lutz, C. (2004). Militarization. In D. Nugent & J. Vincent (Eds.), A Companion to the Anthropology of Politics. New York: Blackwell. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2323843.

Contemporary Relevance:

Although “gender” is often treated as a side issue to the presumably more central concerns of security and warfare, this article demonstrates how our understanding of these is fundamentally lacking if we fail to incorporate a gender perspective in our analysis. War-making has long depended on dominant gender norms and unequal power relations between both men and women and masculinities and femininities to operate; these are deeply embedded cultural resources that militaries draw on to recruit soldiers, to break them down and then build them back up in training, to motivate them to fight and kill, and so on. Without the availability of these cultural resources for such purposes, we can legitimately ask, would it be more difficult to wage war?

A related question that remains, then, is: how will the full inclusion of women in the military (the U.S. military, in particular) change this operation of gender norms and hierarchies in a military context, if at all? Will an institution fundamentally dependent on dominant strains of masculinity change—or even unravel—with the integration of women in all its ranks, or will it simply adapt and force them into proving their own masculine credentials? On the one hand, as Cohn has argued, just adding women to a context defined by its privileging of “masculine” forms of thinking, talking, and acting—and its exclusion or denigration of “feminine” forms of thinking, talking, and acting—will not necessarily change its culture, if women (and men) still feel like they need to censor what they say and do (in a more “masculine” direction) to have access to power in that institution. On the other hand, if male recruits suddenly find virulently masculine military institutions—like the U.S. Marines—less appealing now that they include women and are therefore seen not to be the tests of manhood that they were once thought to be, those military institutions could develop a real problem, risking their ability to fill their ranks and thus fight the wars political leaders expect them to fight. Although the effects of this move to fully include women in the U.S. military are as yet unclear, what is clear is that gender plays a central role in the maintenance of military institutions.

Talking Points:

  • Critical feminist security scholars have a different “entry point” to the study of security than other scholars, largely due to their attention to everyday lived experience and power relations, making them more attuned to the way in which “security”—and society more broadly—is deeply militarized.
  • Militarism, militarized security, warfare, and the military itself all depend on gender hierarchies—the privileging of masculinity and its associated traits over femininity and its associated traits—and “gendered myths and images” to function.
  • Gender hierarchies support other forms of military hierarchy and therefore are used not only to distinguish men from women but also to distinguish between different men (through, for instance, being denigrated and disciplined with feminine name-calling).

Practical Implications:

As noted above, there is a deep ambivalence in the feminist community with regards to the integration of women in the military, as any position one takes on the issue reinforces gender hierarchies and inequality on some level—either by maintaining the exclusion of women from a male-dominated arena or by being coopted by, and reinforcing, an institution that is profoundly patriarchal. It is therefore difficult to know what action to take on this issue from a feminist perspective. One approach—critical of both patriarchy and militarism—would be to support women’s inclusion in the military but then to use this inclusion to resist militarism. For instance, with greater numbers of women returning from war zones, these female veterans are now in a privileged position from which to comment on and critique U.S. military activities. No more can men claim the privileged and exclusive status of being the only ones to know what war combat is “really like” and therefore to control policy discussions on that basis. Furthermore, by bringing a feminist standpoint into the military itself—whether through publicizing images of breastfeeding soldiers in uniform or by challenging an unresponsive chain of command when it comes to sexual assault within the military or by pushing back against misogynistic language in basic training—women might begin to weaken the hold of dominant forms of masculinity on the institution, indirectly causing the military to lose a key cultural resource it employs to maintain itself, as well as its exclusive masculine mystique and therefore attraction to potential recruits.

The drawbacks of this approach are twofold, however. First, this final step—making the military lose its draw for male soldiers due to the watering-down of its “masculinity”—itself depends on and reinforces gender hierarchies that see what is marked as “feminine” as devalued compared to what is marked as “masculine.” But at least it undermines the broader project of militarized security in the process. Second, this approach risks “feminizing” the military in a way that makes the military and its practices more palatable to the general public—giving the military a friendly, human face that may draw attention away from its primary function of violence. Given the fact that we must always make change within the world as it is—working within and even employing the very frameworks of meaning and value that we wish to challenge in order to gain any traction at all—this approach still seems like the most promising way forward, however, as long as we are alert to the dangers of cooptation and continuously work to subvert these hierarchical frameworks even as we engage with them.

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