Is the Feminine Changing in Relation to War?

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A central preoccupation of international relations discourses is understanding why people engage in lethal violence on a mass scale. The alarming array of violences in today’s world that transgress conventional thinking about war and conflict – ranging from suicide bombers to nerve agents and drone strikes – make this task all the more crucial. Further, as statements of political power, acts of violence are fundamental for understanding how wider political projects are raised and sustained. These violences draw upon and reinforce assumptions about gender, sexuality, class, race, and so on; as such, they require scrutiny so that we can comprehend what committing acts of violence does to us as social actors, and similarly, how engaging in war impacts distributions of power throughout society. In response to this, feminist international relations theory has pioneered valuable critical inquiry on violence, unsettling conventional security discourses that dominate academic and policymaking arenas. Here, the central problem for critical feminist scholars is finding ways to position gender codes in relation to war that scrutinize ‘common-sense’ thinking about violence, amplify marginalized experiences of wartime violences, and, in doing so, create spaces in which new gender identities can emerge that re-evaluate the experiences of war and violence.

To tackle this problem, this essay asks whether the feminine is changing in relation to war, and further, whether the feminine functions solely as a constitutive ‘outside’ to war’s masculine contours. Accordingly, it is divided into two sections. The first critically analyzes gender and war, demonstrating how pervasive insecurity over the meanings of ‘gender’, ‘sex’, ‘war, or ‘the feminine’ mean that relations between them are unstable, incomplete, and open to contestation. Consequently, we must assert that the feminine has always been changing in relation to war, and additionally, that depicting the feminine as external to masculinity and war obscures the complexity of gender codes that are present in, and integral to, acts of violence. Finally, this section concludes that dichotomous of knowledge in gender-war relations must be replaced with more nuanced methodologies to account for this complexity. The second section uses counterinsurgency warfare adopted by the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan to demonstrate the instability of gender and war in conventional security discourses, and indeed, certain feminist approaches. Counterinsurgency doctrine, tactics, and behaviors embody contradictory and confused gender codes that highlight the unstable relations between gender and violence. More importantly, however, they draw attention to the limitations of thinking about gender and war in dichotomous terms, which obscure the emancipatory potential of spaces between male and female, masculinity and femininity, war and peace. Specifically, the co-optation of ‘feminized’ behaviors and characteristics has contradictory effects; it draws upon and reinforces dominant assumptions about how gender codes and sexed bodies function during war, yet simultaneously blurs the ontological boundaries between gender codes and war that are so pivotal to these assumptions. Future feminist inquiry must seek clarity by revisiting central questions about the gendered nature of violence, as well as its conceptualization of spaces, both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in war.

Violent dichotomies and dichotomies of violence in sex, gender, and war

Feminist scholars rightly argue that gender is a valuable tool for unpacking conventional discourses on security, war, and violence. Increasingly, attention is being drawn to the specific and limited assumptions about gender, which simultaneously produce and are produced by these discourses. Instead, we should recognize that gender ‘is not something we add to the study of world politics, but rather is integral to its functioning’ (Shepherd, 2010, pp. 4-5; Blanchard, 2003). Accordingly, we can assert that gender is present in conventional security theories, even when they do not explicitly refer to it. Indeed, failing to identify how gender functions within these theories limits our ability to accurately diagnose the daily insecurities faced by imperiled people around the world. However, as feminists rightly assert, critical inquiry on relations between gender and war requires us to take seriously how gender too often manifests in the ‘fixed, unitary, primarily physiological reality’ of sexed bodies (Bordo, 2003, p. 288; Shepherd, 2010). This is particularly prevalent in feminist inquiry into war, given the corporeal realities of violence on mass scales. As Kovitz (2003, p. 9) accurately states, discussing gender along perceived male/female divides ‘deflects attention from the fault lines along which military masculinity fractures internally’, which perpetuates ‘the military’s attachment to a uniform masculinity (uniformity, strength, etc.) and an opposition to femininity (diversity, weakness, etc.)’. Consequently, we must contest basic (and dangerous) assumptions about how gender functions in relation to sex, specifically, those that portray gender as socially constructed and sex as constituted by scientific knowledge that is objective, complete, and absolute. For example, Valentine and Wilchins (1997, p. 215) point out that although genitalia account for a tiny proportion of the body’s surface area, ‘they constitute nearly 100 percent of what we […] as producers of cultural knowledge, come to understand and assume about the body’s sex and gender.’ Consequently, we can understand that sex and genitalia can be powerful determinants of our knowledge about relations between gender and war. Accordingly, feminists must counter appeals to ‘the natural’ when discussing sex in relation to gender. As Weedon (1997, p. 3) rightly argues,

[t]he appeal to the ‘natural’ is one of the most powerful aspects of common-sense thinking, but it is a way of understanding social relations which denies history and the possibility of change for the future.

Following essentialist arguments about sex therefore risks perpetuating dichotomous regimes of knowledge in discourses on gender and war, which has substantial repercussions on how we theorize relations between the two. Specifically, depoliticizing sex and genitalia drastically reduces our ability to shape everyday politics that are entirely based on whether one possesses male or female organs (Shepherd, 2010). Instead, we ought to follow Foucault in asserting that the body is ‘directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs’ (1979, p. 26). Only by understanding sex as socially constructed can we effectively destabilize fundamental assumptions at the heart of discussions about relations between gender and war.

Gender and war

Within a framework that destabilizes fundamental assumptions about sex and gender, we can understand how gender and war give meaning to each other in a mutually constitutive relationship that gives rise to ‘common-sense’ knowledge about the two. As Hunt (2010, p. 116) states, narratives of ‘why we go to war, who our enemies are, what we are fighting for, and how wars will be won’ shape our understandings of gender: engaging in violence is crucial for rationalising how political power is created, distributed, and governed, giving rise to masculine and feminine co-constituents during this process. Conversely, our grasp of masculinity and femininity influence how we understand, conduct, and legitimize violence on a mass scale. Using this approach shows how our knowledge about war, conflict, and violence is determined not only by the experiences of white, heterosexed, and physically robust males, but also by representations of women as mothers and caregivers, nurses and factory-workers, and importantly, as necessarily feminine. Generally, the value placed on combat, exposure to risk, and tales of heroism mean that the former has become central to our ideas about war, which has entrenched a naturalized link between males, masculinity, and violence.

Feminist IR has done much to rework this simplistic approach to war and violence, and has conducted numerous lines of inquiry. For many, the emergence of critical approaches following the collapse of the Cold War signified a ‘broadening’ and ‘deepening’ in critical thinking about security, in which neo-realist emphases on states, militaries, and ‘hard’ power was replaced with a focus on individual insecurities through non-traditional security agendas (Cohn, 2000). Alongside renewed interest in postcolonial, Marxist, and constructivist approaches, gender emerged as a valuable theory for explaining the violences experienced in everyday lives around the world. Subsequently, the recent opening of combat roles in the US and UK militaries has contributed to an ongoing focus on the gendered nature of combat, particularly on the sexed bodies that enact violence in war and conflict (Crane-Seeber, 2016; Mackenzie, 2012). This is amplified by literature that focuses on the complex demands of contemporary conflicts that gives rise to new gender codes (Greenwood, 2016; Khalili, 2011; King, 2016). More recently, the continuing development of sophisticated warfighting technologies pose additional challenges for gender theorists who grapple with the retrenchment of gender along sexed lines (De Volo, 2016; Manjikian, 2014). Finally, militarized masculinities have become a key focus of feminist critique on war, which illustrates the ontological ‘fuzziness’ around common-sense assumptions about gender codes and violence (Sjoberg, 2014a; Henry, 2017; Hutchings, 2008). In sum, our ideas about femininity and masculinity in relation to war appear to be undergoing significant and rapid change. Whilst true, this conclusion does not sufficiently explain why or how such change is taking place. Indeed, if we assert that femininity is changing in relation to war, then we must prove that we possess comprehensive knowledge about what ‘the feminine’ is, and how it functions as an integral part of violence. Failure to do so means that we risk continuing the damaging positioning of masculinity and femininity in relation to war as found in conventional discourses, wherein masculinity remains central to war and the feminine is isolated as ‘outside’ war and violence. Instead, we ought to understand that gender and war occupy a set of mutually constitutive, incomplete, and contestable relations. Doing so allows us to unsettle the dichotomies between male and female, masculine and feminine, violent and peaceful, and more accurately describe relations between gender and war.

What is ‘the feminine’? And what is ‘war’?

Asking ostensibly simple questions is an effective way of challenging ‘common sense’ assumptions that are pivotal to everyday social relations (Gramsci, 1971). Accordingly, such questions are useful tools for critical security scholars who seek to disturb conventional thinking about war and violence. Laura Sjoberg (2014b) effectively demonstrates this by asking ‘where are the women?’ in mainstream representations of war, conflict, and violence. In doing so, she highlights the omnipresence of gendered assumptions, images, and actions in conventional narratives about war, which have significant ramifications for how men and women are subsequently treated. Accordingly, we too can ask: what is ‘the feminine’, and equally, what is ‘war’?

These questions require us to take seriously claims to objective, universal, and absolute knowledge in the social sciences. Laculau and Mouffe’s discourse theory (1985) contends that ‘social phenomena are never finished or total… this opens up the way for constant social struggles about definitions of society and identity’ (Jorgensen & Philips, 2002, p. 24). Likewise, feminist critique convincingly explains how claims to objective knowledge about gender inevitably fail, not because competing definitions of the term are insufficient, but because such knowledge about gender does not exist (Enloe, 2004; Hutchings, 2008). Instead, as relational concepts, gender and war only possess meaning in relation to a mutually constitutive Other. Within this relationality, competing and contradictory visions of gender and war mean that our understandings of the two are incomplete, and therefore open to contestation. Pin-Fat and Stern (2005, 29) demonstrate this by describing gender-war relations as an ‘(im)possible constitutive dynamic’, in which

representations of […] “masculinity” or “femininity” can never be complete. Full representation is never possible because the inside/possible must always rely on the outside/impossible for its constitution, and vice versa. This means that what “masculinity” or “femininity” means will always include, by exclusion, its opposite and therefore, a clear demarcation between “masculinity” and “femininity” cannot be successfully maintained.

The contestation embodied by incomplete relations between gender and war is evident in feminist critique on militarized masculinities, which highlights the multiple, overlapping, and contradictory representations of masculinity in conventional discourses on war. Masculinities manifest in physically robust corporeal bodies (particularly those of male sexed combat soldiers) (Mackenzie, 2012), but contrastingly, in the intellectual prowess of ‘techno-geek warrior[s]’ who operate sophisticated warfighting technologies (Manjikian, 2014; Daggett, 2015); as ‘protectors’ of some women (and importantly, of less masculine men), but also as perpetrators of sexual violence and rape (Cohen, 2013); through sophisticated forms of statesmanship and diplomacy, but also a willingness to enact lethal and potentially savage violence where necessary (Sjoberg, 2014a); in heterosexual relations with women, but equally in intense homoeroticism for other masculine, male sexed bodies (Richter-Montpetit, 2007; Crane-Seeber, 2016), or, as will be discussed later in this essay, as ‘imperial grunts’ and ‘warrior-kings’ but also as ‘soldier-scholars’ and ‘empathetic’ killers (Khalili, 2011: p. 1471; Welland, 2015: p. 116). Within these representations, there is sufficient confusion for us to assert that speaking of ‘the masculine’ is not simply inadequate, but also limiting. Similarly, we ought to possess comprehensive knowledge about what the terms ‘war’ and ‘warfare’ represent, given the frequency with which they are used to describe the violences in contemporary global politics. However, these terms are routinely disrupted by myriad forms of conflict that do not conform to neat categorizations of the terms, and we should be skeptical of approaches that obscure the gendered differences between Cold, New, civil, insurgent, ethnic, race, religious, gender, class, nuclear, psychological, drone, and cyber. As with masculinity, therefore, we must be critical of the processes in which representations of war come to have meaning.

Femininity and problematics of masculine (in)security

Turning to femininity, it should be little surprise that we cannot convincingly speak about ‘the feminine’. Instead, femininity is variously expressed in relation to masculinity and war depending on context, which often gives rise to conflicting representations of the feminine. Nonetheless, explicit and widespread references to ‘the feminine’ in academic and policymaking security discourses point to specific and powerful knowledge about the nature and role of femininity in war and violence. However, as critical scholars we ought to be wary of how we position gender codes in relation to war, and specifically, that we do not reinforce knowledge that positions the feminine as ‘outside’ to masculinity and war. For example, crises of militarized masculinities often locate their insecurities in transgressive readings of femininity, such as King’s slut/bitch binary (2016), or Sjoberg and Gentry’s mother/monster/whore complex (2007). Such an arrangement is too simplistic, I think, to adequately disrupt the naturalized links between masculinity and war. First, discussing femininity solely as the source of insecurity for masculinity/war complexes retains the centrality of masculinity, male combat soldiers, and close-quarter fighting as the referent objects of studies on war. Second, relying on an external source of insecurity deflects attention away from how masculinity can be considered as intensely conflicted in its own right. If we are to sever the links between masculinity and violence, then surely we must find ways of critiquing masculinity in isolation from its feminine counterpart. I would argue that our primary preoccupation as critical scholars should be dismantling these dichotomies and re-evaluating gender in discourse. Accordingly, when we speak about ‘the feminine’, even in critical analysis, we must be careful not to support hegemonic frameworks that locate the feminine ‘outside’ war and masculinity, and instead pay closer attention to how acts of violence can be perpetrated by gender codes other than strict masculinity, or indeed, femininity. To tackle this problem, we should re-evaluate the utility of exploring war using only a theory of gender that discusses only masculinity and femininity, and advocate approaches that use sexuality to explore the gender codes that exist between the two.

In conclusion, claims to objective truths about gender and war limit our ability to unsettle key assumptions about relations between gender and war. Instead, we ought to recognize that competing visions of masculinity and femininity create spaces for the contestation of conventional masculine and feminine gender codes. Moreover, if femininity and masculinity occupy perpetual states of contestation, then we ought to conclude that the feminine, along with its male co-constituent, has always been changing in relation to war. Similarly, if we acknowledge the problems that arise from associating masculinity with violence, then it becomes difficult to see how – or indeed why – we should position the feminine solely as a constitutive ‘outside’ to masculine and war. Ostensibly, these conclusions are more limiting than liberating. Nonetheless, rejecting universal representations of gender and war does not render us incapable of describing how femininity and masculinity can, and do exist in the contexts of war and violence. Rather, it requires us to be critically aware when positioning gender codes in relation to war, and to work to identify the intersectionality of gender codes that function in relation to, and as constituent subjects of war.

Counterinsurgency warfare: feminized violence or masculinized femininity?

As the previous section discussed, our ideas about the positioning of gender in relation to and during war appear to be changing alongside new material and theoretical perspectives on the manner in which wars should be fought. One example of this relation is evident in counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare adopted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from 2006 onwards. The specific and intentional exploitation of gender and sex by ISAF forces illustrates the complex ways in which gender codes function in relation to violence. Notably, it discredits the idea that the feminine functions solely as a constitutive ‘outside’ to masculinity and war through a contradictory process of co-optation, which poses challenging questions for critical feminists occupied with war and violence. Within this process of co-optation, counterinsurgency practitioners draw upon feminized behaviours and emotions to achieve their goal, and whilst this co-optation draws upon and reinforces the idea that there are clear distinctions between masculine and feminine entities, it requires us to ask how we should discuss these behaviours once they become integrated into masculinist warfare. In other words, when the ‘outside’ becomes the ‘inside’, then does violence become feminized, or does femininity become militarized?

Whilst counterinsurgency warfare has recently come to prominence in security fields following its re-implementation in Afghanistan, it was a prominent feature both of colonial warfare throughout the 19th century, and also American westward expansion against Native Americans (Blaufarb, 1977; Galula, 1964). Termed by John F Kennedy in 1960, COIN is best understood as ‘asymmetrical warfare by a powerful military against irregular combatants supported by a civilian population’ (Khalili, 2011, p. 1471). Counterinsurgency is unique from anti-terrorist or anti-guerrilla warfare in its emphasis on winning over local populations in warzones. As indicated in FM-324, the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, kinetic warfighting becomes complemented – and in certain instances, replaced entirely – by a multi-faceted approach that envisages security as ‘a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope’ (US Department of the Army, 2007, p. 49). This is achieved by the integration of civilian projects on infrastructure, education, and healthcare into military operations, to persuade local populations to defect to counterinsurgency forces (Easterly, 2008). Patrick Hennessey, a former British Army Officer, identifies this as the move away from fighting wars that sought to ‘DESTROY and NEUTRALIZE’ to one that wins wars by winning ‘hearts and minds’ (2012, p. 2). The adoption of COIN by ISAF forces in Afghanistan in 2006 therefore conforms to the idea that our understandings of war are undergoing comprehensive change as we re-evaluate how to conduct warfare, what contemporary battlefields look like, and consequently, the balance between war and peace.

Accordingly, COIN has significant ramifications for how we theorize gender and violence, and indeed, demonstrates the need for more nuanced frameworks that more accurately capture the complexity of gendered relations in war. For example, as a doctrine, it embodies explicit assumptions wherein women are often targeted as mothers and caregivers to counterbalance the violent actions of hyper-masculinity, male insurgent forces  (Khalili, 2011, p. 1476). Importantly, however, COIN places new demands on soldiers, which makes them insightful sources of knowledge about gender positioning in contemporary warfighting. For example, Welland states that as ‘a strategic and tactical shift that no longer views military destruction of the enemy as a goal in its own right’, counterinsurgency requires soldiers ‘to engage in empathetic and […] compassionate relations with those they have been sent to protect’ (2015, pp. 115-6). Similarly, Duncanson highlights the emergence of ‘peacebuilding masculinity’ in British troops operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, constituted by ‘relations of equality, empathy, care, respect and recognition of similarities and shared experiences’, which extends not only to comrades and the (feminized) civilian population, but also to enemy combatants (Duncanson, 2013, pp. 148-49). Alternatively, Khalili (2011, p. 1475) argues that the demands of population-centric warfare have given rise to a ‘humanitarian soldier-scholar’, who is categorically ‘white, literate, articulate, and doctorate-festooned’, highlighting the intersectionality of classed and racialized hierarchies that are essential to the construction of gender identities (Richter-Montpetit, 2007). Finally, Greenwood (2016, p. 85) has usefully coined the term ‘chameleon masculinity’ to identify how counterinsurgent troops ‘switch heads’ depending on whether situations were ‘pink and fluffy’ or ‘difficult and dangerous’. Consequently, we can assert that COIN embodies gendered knowledge that is important for our understandings of masculinities and femininities in war, and vice versa.

Whilst there is nothing surprising in representations of masculinity as empathetic or compassionate, there is something both curious and problematic in the co-optation of feminized characteristics by militarized masculinities, whose ultimate aims remain to kill enemy combatants, win wars, and establish peace. First, these representations obscure the visceral, graphic, and extreme violence that is inherent in war and conflict. Derek Gregory (2010, p. 165) points out that the idea of ‘armed social work’ softens soldiering and transforms it into a ‘caring’ profession. Similarly, soldiers who simultaneously claim compassion yet continue to kill and maim work to ‘rearticulate a soldier as innocent [and] as a caring, ethical and compassionate actor’ (Welland, 2015, p. 119). Accordingly, it becomes less about what soldiers do, and more about what they intend to do, which depoliticizes acts of violence carried under the auspices of what is necessary in war. Second, and more importantly, discussing warfighting in dichotomous terms strengthens the idea that outside of masculinity and war sits an objective, absolute feminine. Further, this feminine is at the mercy of its masculine counterpart, and can be manipulated to assist in finding and destroying enemy combatants. However, this is problematic if we consider how to address gendered behaviours and emotions when they cross from one gendered space to another. If the feminine can so easily be integral to warfighting, then how can we speak convincingly of it as an ‘outside’ to war? Continued appeals to ‘hearts and minds’ obscure how intelligence gathered in meetings with local populations, for example, will ‘later be used to launch strikes and plan attacks’ (Welland, 2015, p. 119). Similarly, Greenwood (2016, p. 97) showed that empathy, coded as a feminine quality by British troops, was

appropriated, masculinized, and rationalized and [consequently] a space was created that allowed the expression of masculine performance […] empathy became masculinized only because it was considered necessary to perform effectively ‘in theatre’, and ‘win the war’ – not a means to ‘do nice stuff for people’, but as a means to ‘make the mission work’.

There are therefore substantial difficulties with defining masculinity as central to war and in opposition to femininity when the latter can be easily co-opted into masculinist warfighting functions. This process of co-optation simultaneously reinforces and erases dichotomies in gender and violence, as feminized emotions and behaviours are ‘appropriated, masculinized, and rationalized’ to become essential weapons of contemporary warfighting. Consequently, we must ask profound questions that deeply unsettle our grasp of the ontological boundaries between various gender codes and war. What is left when the ‘outside’ itself has become integral to delivering violence? Do masculinity and violence fill this space? Or do acts of violence that kill enemy combatants and win wars remain essentially masculine? And if so, then how are we to proceed with feminist inquiry of violence? These questions require substantial efforts in order to provide clarity, and this essay lacks both the scope and the depth for such a task. Nonetheless, it highlights the need to revisit key assumptions about gender positioning in relation to violence, and re-evaluate the utility of creating conceptual spaces in which gender functions both ‘inside’ and outside’ war.


This essay has used feminist critiques to discuss the positioning of gender codes in relation to war and violence. Specifically, it sought to answer whether the feminine is changing in relation to war, and additionally, whether the feminine functioned solely as a constitutive ‘outside’ to war’s masculine contours. In doing so, it highlighted how gender and war are constituted by unstable, incomplete, and contestable relations. Accordingly, we ought to conclude that the feminine has always been changing in relation to war, and further, that portraying the feminine as an external constitutive part conceals the complex ways in which gender codes function through acts of violence. Finally, it highlighted the insufficiencies of theorizing gender solely through masculinity and femininity, and consequently, the need for more nuanced methodologies to account for gender codes in-between. Applying this framework to the counterinsurgency warfare of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the latter section demonstrated the instability of how gender and war in a practical setting, and the conflicting relations between the masculine and feminine. Further, this section demonstrated the limitations of discussing gender along dichotomous terms, which could not sufficiently describe the co-optation of feminized behaviors and emotions into masculinist warfighting functions. Providing clarity within this framework will require revisiting basic assumptions about how gender is positioned in relation to violence, as well as how we create conceptual spaces for war that can be occupied by gender.


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Written by: Jonathan Cooper
Written at: The University of Manchester
Written for: Dr. Cristina Masters
Date written: January 2018

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