Studying War and Gender

I recently began reading Joshua Goldstein’s 2001 book, War and Gender. I’m only on the second chapter, but his book is rich with insight so I’ll try to blog as I go.

Goldstein, a political scientist and self-identified feminist, has written what appears to be the most comprehensive survey on the masculinization of war. He culls data from across social and natural scientific disciplines to test a full 20 hypotheses on why war has been conducted almost exclusively by males for as far back as the archaeological record can peer.

In War and Gender’s early pages, Goldstein suggests that the cultural institution of war may be the sole exception to the variability of gender norms across cultures (including the most peaceful and egalitarian cultures known to history). By his count, fewer than 1% of all organized warriors in history have been female. War’s universal masculinity even contrasts with the observable diversity in warfighting methods used by warriors across space and time. Extrapolating from this universal masculinity, Goldstein contends that war is inherent to humanity’s cultural definition of masculinity. If masculinity is rooted in war, then we can ask whether women can be integrated into combat forces without modifying the foundations of human culture.

For this reason, Goldstein opens the first chapter of War and Gender with a survey of the three major strands of feminist theory, which I appreciated since I’d not previously seen the strands laid out. The distinctions between the three strands are critical to determining what, if anything, we should do about war’s masculinity.

Liberal feminism is probably the dominant of the three main feminist strands. In Goldstein’s summary, liberal feminism contends that all genders should enjoy the right to equality in combat forces as anywhere else. If we agree with anthropologists (as I do) that culture is malleable then, in theory, masculinity and femininity can be redefined to make war gender-blind. The only question is at what cost.

Even US military boot camps, which are famously designed to strip recruits of identity and rebuild them in the military’s image, can only strip away so much. To remove cultural barriers to gender-integrated combat forces, culture may have to be changed at a much more fundamental level. It’s tough to imagine broad political support for a resocialization project that redefines both traditional genders and strips war of masculinity.

If you think that resocializing society to view war as gender-blind sounds too easy, rest assured that there is another strain of feminism that agrees with you. Contra liberal feminism, which avoids getting bogged down in the origins of culture, postmodern feminism argues that gender is a cultural construction, both fluid and arbitrary. By this logic, it makes little sense to retain masculinity’s most destructive component if we are undergoing a resocialization of the magnitude required to make war gender-blind.

The logic of postmodernism seems to suggest that the cultural concept of gender should be eliminated or modified for social optimization rather than merely modified to reduce barriers to organized armed violence. Philosophically I agree with this but the trouble is getting there. Even if we get close enough to social consensus to sign off on such a project, we’ll still face the collective action problem.

The disagreement here leaves me wondering about the feasibility of devising cultural replacements for war as Margaret Mead once suggested. Certainly no reasonable reader of Mead’s 1940 essay, Warfare is Only an Invention—Not a Biological Necessity believes that inventing a cultural replacement for war will be an effort of anything but species-historic magnitude.

Or perhaps, as I’ve often been guilty of doing, I’m thinking on too short and discrete a timeline. Perhaps current efforts at integration of women into the US infantry are a tiny portion of a gradual resocialization that will take place over centuries. Anyway, that’s how I prefer to imagine it.


  1. […] September, I wrote a piece about Joshua Goldstein’s academic survey of the relationship between war and gender. I […]

  2. […] fully thought out my ideas on this topic. In fact, looking through previous posts, I realize I once argued that military boot camps “can only strip away so […]

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