Gender Roles

[Excerpt below is from Chapter 5 of War and Gender]

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War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

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

Poster, Get a War Job
Recruiting US women for war work, WWII

Gender as boundary Gender comes to center stage in another psychological defense used widely by male soldiers – the construction of a feminine “normal” sphere of experience, from which war is separated psychologically. Gender readily structures this division of war and normalcy. Not just the soldier, but the whole society participates in constructing a feminine sphere to be preserved from war, just as Hegel’s “beautiful soul” (mentioned on p. 48) protects “the appearance of purity by cultivating innocence” about the harsh world. Women collectively, then, serve as a kind of metaphysical sanctuary for traumatized soldiers, a counterweight to hellish war. In itself this gendering of psychological spheres does not seem sufficient to account for gendered war roles, but it would reinforce other tendencies in that direction, helping force nature’s overlapping bell-curves into culture’s categorical divisions.137

Thinking about home or life after the war appears to be a strong motivator for many soldiers: “all soldiers mention the importance of letters from home … Most soldiers depend on their girlfriends, wives, parents, children, and friends. Keeping in touch with them … is a second life-line” after the all-important bond to the primary group in combat. The moral support of family and friends, and most importantly a connection with (often idealized) wives and girlfriends, helps keep soldiers going. A soldier who has just received a “Dear John” letter (from a girlfriend who has dumped him in his absence) is considered a danger to himself and his group. An English postcard from World War I shows a feminine face as “The Star that Shines above the Trenches at Night.” Many men keep pictures of their wives or girlfriends with them in combat. Some keep symbolic objects like the artificial rose, given by his wife, that one US sergeant in Vietnam put on his helmet. “I love you so much,” writes a US soldier in Vietnam to his wife. “This has been a nasty 3 day operation … but your wonderful letters have cheered me so that all is well.”138

Some soldiers find motivation to fight in the need to protect women (abstractly if not tangibly). As Vietnam veteran and author Philip Caputo puts it, “war and armies even in peacetime vulgarize and brutalize people. In this century, perhaps the bloodiest in all history, I’d like to think something would not be touched by this brutality and vulgarity. Up to now, it’s been women.” The UN Protection Force troops pictured in Figure 5.8 embody the division between armed protector man and civilian protected woman. The Geneva Conventions extend specific protections in wartime to women, mothers with small children, and children themselves. Polynesian women were protected by especially strong norms. They could pass freely through enemy lines to take food to their husbands, and even “assisted their husbands in the battle line by parrying spear thrusts,” with impunity.139

Figure 5.8 Sarajevo woman and UN peacekeeper, 1994. [AP/Wide World Photos.]

Women’s protected status in wartime, however, is not universal, and is often tenuous (see pp. 362–73). Melanesian warriors killed and ate captive women “as gleefully as if they had been men,” even though women there did not participate in fighting. The Mundurucú of Brazil killed all adult men and women alike, upon capturing a village (eventually turning their heads into trophies with magical powers to enhance hunting productivity back home). Children of both genders were captured and raised at home. In Fiji’s wars, “[w]omen and children were killed ruthlessly and indiscriminately.” The “Cauca Valley tribes [of Colombia] also killed women, no matter how young or attractive they might be, and slaughtered children as well.” Shaka Zulu sometimes exterminated his enemies – men, women, and children – although in other cases he took women as booty and even incorporated conquered boys to become Zulu warriors.140

Because of the feminization of noncombat, the presence of women in combat might upset the male soldiers. When Israeli women took part in combat in 1948, according to some scholars (but disputed by others), “[m]en who might have found the wounding of a male comrade comparatively tolerable were shocked by the injury of a woman, and the mission tended to get forgotten in a general scramble to ensure that she received medical aid.” Perhaps, though, men can simply distinguish, as male cadets at West Point do, between their female comrades and “regular” women – the latter category being reserved for “their girlfriends pictured in frilly dresses or bathing suits.”141

Women’s nurturing of men warriors

Women often participate actively as codependants, so to speak, facilitating men’s militarized masculinity. Mark Gerzon describes riding a bus decades ago from an Israeli hospital where a minor operation – resulting from a traffic accident in Asia earlier in his trip – had left a bandage on his head. “The women on the bus all stare at me. Whether grandmothers or teenagers, they smile warmly … the sensual, affirming, nurturant beam of old friends, old lovers. ‘Why are they looking at me like that?’ I ask my friend. ‘They think you are a wounded soldier,’ she replies.”142

Witnesses In various societies, from Germanic tribes of Roman times to American Indians, women have been “the sacred witnesses to male bravery.” In medieval Europe, the warrior class devoted itself “full-time to fighting sanctified, in part, through the feminization of chivalric discourse. Women were witnesses to male bravery and prowess.” British women munitions workers in World War I often enclosed personal notes in items they produced, to give emotional support to the “Tommy” who used them. A woman US canteen worker in World War I received a parcel with a German’s buttons, spurs, and insignia and a note from a US soldier recalling that the woman had “said, ‘get me a German.’ Here is all I can mail of him. I’m in hospital myself.”143

Virginia Woolf wrote that women become “magnifying mirrors” for men. Whatever a culture expects of women, by conforming to these norms a woman reflects well on her warrior husband. In South Africa in the 1980s, for example, the Defence Force Ladies Association instructed soldiers’ wives to reflect well on their men through appearance and behavior. In the Roman army of the sixth century BC, a group of young officers argued about whose wife was the best. They rode back home to discover the wives’ characters, and the winner was the man whose wife was found working with her wool (women’s traditional occupation) by lamplight surrounded by her handmaidens, while the others were enjoying a fancy dinner party. But women in ancient Sparta were supposed to be warriors’ mothers and wives, physically fit and competitive, and to shun feminine decorations (jewelry, cosmetics, colored clothes) and women’s work (wool).144

The World Wars shook up gender relations, but only temporarily. Individual British women in the World Wars found new freedoms and opportunities in wartime – “like being let out of a cage,” in one woman’s words. However, gender changes were short-lived. “[A]ttitudes towards [women’s] roles at home and at work remained remarkably consistent over nearly fifty years. Both wars put conventional views about gender roles under strain,” but no permanent change occurred in hostility to women in male-dominated jobs, the devaluation of female labor, and the female-only responsibility for home life.175

The “reconstruction of gender” in Britain after World War I constrained women’s roles and reinvigorated the ideology of motherhood. The feminist movement never regained after the war the status as a mass movement it had held before the war. Where prewar feminists had fought against separate male and female spheres and different constructions of masculinity and femininity, feminists in the interwar period gradually “accepted theories of sexual difference that helped to advance notions of separate spheres.” After the “horrific events” of World War I, British society “sought above all to reestablish a sense of peace and security” and this precluded the egalitarian feminism of the prewar years, mandating instead a feminism of separate spheres to avoid “provok[ing] the men to anger.”176

Several major differences distinguish the two World Wars’ effects on women. The first war had more concentrated action, on the Western front and in static trench warfare, leaving civilians relatively safe, whereas the second war was more “total” (drawing in civilians) and more mobile. In Britain, World War I soldiers were “invisible” whereas in World War II the US and British forces were a highly visible presence, the blitz targeted London, and fighter pilots could battle the enemy by day and drink at pubs near air bases by night. The first war was more of a surprise to Britons. Although both wars led to shortages of essential goods, the second war made it much harder for homemakers to compensate. Most importantly, in terms of gender roles, women in the military in the first war were “largely confined to very mundane work like cleaning, cooking, clerical work, waitressing, and some driving … But in 1939–45 in addition … women handled anti-aircraft guns, ran the communications network, mended aeroplanes and even flew them from base to base.” Nonetheless, gender relations quickly reverted to tradition after World War II as after World War I.177

137 Elshtain 1987, Hegel 4.

138 Dinter 1985, letters 49, 50; Theweleit 1987, star 128; Goldman and Fuller 1983, rose 134, nasty 145, 57.

139 Caputo, in Astrachan 1986, 53; de Preux 1985, Geneva 292. Turney-High 1971, thrusts 163.

140 Turney-High 1971, gleefully 163; Brazil: Murphy 1957, 1023; Fiji–Cauca: Carneiro 1990, 199; Zulu: Adam Jones, personal communication 2000.

141 Holmes 1985, shocked 104; Francke 1997, frilly 209, 211.

142 Gerzon 1982, 47.

143 Elshtain 1987, sacred–prowess 181; Schneider and Schneider 1991, mail 272–73.

144 Cock 1991, mirrors 120, ladies 119; Sparta: Lefkowitz and Fant 1977, 51–55; Roman: Evans 1991, 50; wives: Enloe 1983, 46–91.

175 Braybon and Summerfield 1987, cage ii, strain 2, 6; Tylee 1990, 7; Enloe 1989, 22.

176 Kent 1993, 4–6.

177 Braybon and Summerfield 1987, 2–7, mundane 5; WWII: Bruce 1985; Pierson 1986; Damousi and Lake eds. 1995; Edmond and Milward eds. 1986; Ayers 1988; Fishman 1991; Ås 1982; Shukert and Scibetta 1988; Winfield 1984.

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

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