Gender FAQs

[Excerpt below is from Chapter 7 of War and Gender]

For information about this book, and a discussion forum, click below:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)

Graph, Occupations by gender
Occupations in US military (enlisted), 1998

This chapter summarizes the empirical evidence from Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, and Chapter 6 regarding the gendering of war, and then briefly speculates on the implications for understanding both war and gender. Several overarching themes emerge from the interdisciplinary evidence. (1) Gender is about men as much as women, especially when it comes to war. (2) War is an extremely complex system in which state’level interactions depend on dynamics at lower levels of analysis, including gender. (3) War is a pervasive potential in the human experience that casts a shadow on everyday life – especially on gender roles – in profound ways. To think into the future beyond the war system requires breaking out of psychological denial regarding the traumatic effects of war on human society. Confronting war in this way may, in turn, reshape gendered relationships.

Sifting the explanations of gendered war roles

Table 7.1 shows the overall level of support for each hypothesis in light of the array of empirical materials reviewed in the preceding chapters. For starters, any explanation of gendered war roles that rests on women’s categorical lack of ability to perform in combat must be discarded, given the historical record in chapter 2. Women can make good soldiers individually and in both mixed and all-female groups. They can also make excellent commanders of soldiers, and men can follow their leadership in war. These are very strong “possibility proofs,” which rule out a whole set of potential explanations based on supposedly insuperable or constitutional barriers to women’s effectiveness in combat.

Table 7.1 Status of hypotheses in light of evidence

The consistency of gender roles in war is explained by:
Hypothesis Supported? Comments

1. Gender roles not consistentNoNo cases of gender-neutral armed forces; extremely few women fighters overall.
2A–D. Not women’s performanceYesThose women who have fought under various circumstances performed well.
3A. GeneticsNoSame genetic code, though some parts expressed differentially by testosterone.
3B. Testosterone levelsSlightlyTestosterone does not cause aggression but responds to changes in social status (4B).
3C. Size and strengthMostlyGenders differ on average but a sizable minority of women should qualify for war.
3D. Brains and cognitionSlightlyGenders differ on spatial and verbal cognitive scores, but genders’ curves mostly overlap.
3E. Female sex hormonesNoMaternal behaviors limited to nursing period and include maternal aggression.
4A. Male bondingNoSocial bonding varies among primates; human bonding not inherently gendered.
4B. Ability to work in hierarchiesSlightlyFemale hierarchies common but some gender differences; testosterone may play role (3B).
4C. In-/out-group psychologyNoFew gender differences regarding in-group loyalty and out-group hostility.
4D. Childhood gender segregationMostlySegregation common but genders mix as children and adults in many non-war settings.
5A. Test of manhoodYesMales toughened for war in most cultures, emotionally shut down to endure trauma.
5B. Feminine reinforcementMostlyWomen support wars psychologically, including by affirming soldiers’ masculinity.
5C. Women’s peace activismNoOnly some women oppose wars; would not stop other women from fighting.
6A. Male sexuality and aggressionSlightlyWartime sex explained by social disruption; combat not sexual for most men.
6B. Feminization of enemiesMostlyVery common construction cross-culturally; expressed in gendered insults and war rape.
6C. Exploitation of women’s laborSlightlyWar intensifies exploitation but this need not stop some women from fighting.

Of the hypotheses engaging biology most directly, two or three find relatively strong empirical support. First (3C), real gender differences exist in average size and strength (after puberty, driven by testosterone), although the overlap of bell curves leaves quite a few large, strong women. Second (4D), a tendency towards childhood gender segregation – marked by boys’ rougher group play – works against the later integration of capable women into warfighting groups. This segregation is found widely across cultures and perhaps has a biological component, but is far from absolute and may be an effect as much as a cause of gendered war roles. Third (3D), but more weakly and subtly, spatial skills and hierarchical social relations show average gender differences – the differences in hierarchies perhaps connected with the effects of changing social rank on men’s testosterone levels (3B). Overall, the main innate average gender differences seem to be in roughness of play before adolescence and size thereafter. The genders overlap somewhat even in these areas. These tendencies are too weak to explain women’s nearly universal exclusion from combat.

Of the hypotheses engaging mainly cultural explanations, three receive most support. First, and most strongly (5A), the toughening up of boys is found robustly across cultures, and by linking bravery and discipline in war to manhood – with shame as enforcement – many cultures use gender to motivate participation in combat. Second (5B), women actively reinforce – in various feminine war roles such as mothers, lovers, and nurses – men’s tough, brave masculinity. Third (6B), male soldiers use gender to encode domination, feminizing enemies. Connected with this coding, but more elusive empirically, are the possible heightened (or just shaken up) sexuality of male soldiers, and the more intense exploitation of women’s labor in wartime. These explanations from chapter 5 and chapter 6 seem to contribute, in a mutually reinforcing way, to the process of turning biological tendencies into historical imperatives – transforming overlapping distributions into non-overlapping gender categories in war.

I would, then, summarize the best explanations of gendered war roles thus:

-small, innate biological gender differences in average size, strength, and roughness of play;
-cultural molding of tough, brave men, who feminize their enemies to encode domination.

Together these solve the puzzle of near-universally gendered war roles, although neither alone would do so.

To book website:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)