Beyond Women and War: The Lens of Feminist Military History
My first understandings of feminist military history developed when I was an officer in the US Air Force in the 1990s. I had long been interested in “women and war” as a compelling topic. I even taught a course on the subject in the 1990s as a faculty member at the US Air Force Academy. But lacking a formal background in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, I had no ability to place the course within a wider critical frame of feminist inquiry. It wasn’t until I left the Air Force and embarked on a doctoral program in African history that I began to cultivate a “feminist curiosity” about my research on African colonial soldiers in German East Africa (today, Tanzania).1 The historiography and methods of doing feminist military history became part of my practice late in my academic life.
Teaching the history of women and war was in itself a form of feminist military history, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. After all, many feminist historians first had to demonstrate that the categories “women” and “war” were inseparable. Examples of women in war have occurred across wider geographies, and deeper in time, than people may realize. In popular culture, there is no shortage of seemingly exceptional women combatants, including “Amazons” (ancient and nineteenth-century Dahomean), Boudica, Joan of Arc, Molly Pitcher, Cathay Williams, or the Battalion of Death. Beyond battlefields, the Women’s Army Corps (WACs), Rosie the Riveter, and other iconic figures show that women have in fact always been part of war. Their centrality to war – as workers, caregivers, family members, and yes, also as soldiers – is quite obvious in some ways. Images of Rosie the Riveter are widely used staples of feminist popular culture, for example. Women’s wider integration into military historiographies – not as exceptions, but as key actors – continues apace, opening new ways of thinking about the gendered labor involved in the conduct of warfare.2
Early versions of feminist military history revealed only a sliver of all there is to know about women and war. Successive generations of mostly women historians have researched how societal structures and historical contingency shaped when and where “women” and “war” intersected, and in what capacities. For example, it is now widely understood that women entered industrial and other workplaces during the two world wars because men were off fighting. And when the men returned, women often returned to domestic spheres, or to other forms of labor that men did not occupy.3
Bringing a feminist curiosity to the study of militaries and wars reveals how much still remains to be done. I became a feminist military historian at the same time I became a historian of Africa. My research has centered on African soldiers (askari) in the German colonial army in East Africa from the 1890s until the end of World War I.4 My curiosity about their origins and experiences led me to analyze their gendered self-understandings as men who sought respectability through building large households, which often included multiple wives. Their martial masculinity rested on their soldierly abilities of course, but also their roles as “big men,” heads of households, and colonial agents within their localities. Women who lived in askari households – wives, companions, servants, daughters, and other female dependents – also often accompanied the soldiers on expeditions, providing the domestic labor that allowed the army to operate cheaply. Women made camp, gathered and prepared food for cooking, repaired clothing, nursed sick or wounded men, and carried supplies. They operated small businesses that supplemented household income. And as mothers, they also provided the reproductive labor that undergirded askaris’ claims to respectability. The askaris’ martial masculinity depended on the presence of women for its very definition. Women performed much of the logistical labor required for small colonial armies to function in the field. They also provided the “comforts of home” that framed men’s experiences of military duty.5 These socio-economic arrangements, not unique to Africa, encompassed sex work as well as temporary domestic arrangements in which soldiers paid for companionship, meals, or other goods and services provided by women.
Doing feminist military history requires challenging simplistic ideas about warfare as a predominantly masculine endeavor. Indeed, historians who use feminist analysis recognize that different kinds of soldierly work reflect a range of masculinities, only some of which rank as martial based on their proximity to the potential act of killing. Just as militaries and societies often sideline women’s military roles after the fighting ends, men who serve in noncombat positions occupy other categories of masculinity. These positions are essential to military operations, but military leaders do not reward them in the same ways as combat troops. Since the 1970s, the remarkable expansion of women’s participation in US military specialties previously closed to them tells a story of women serving in the military as part of the quest for full citizenship promised them after 1920 when, in theory, women became eligible to vote. Yet this story also reveals how military establishments cling firmly to an ever-shrinking, but still powerful, sphere of military professional roles that remain the province of martial men. And this story also conceals the patterned ways that Black women, Latinas, and other marginalized women have had to navigate the military as an institution that reveres White men. The same holds for LGBTQ+ troops who have had to hide their sexuality or gender identity in order to continue wearing the uniform, living with harassment and the constant threat of exposure and removal from the ranks.
Doing feminist military history means reckoning with military violence that otherwise might receive short shrift in military history. It reminds us that women in the military are commonly cast either as vixens or prudes, as sexually available or “one of the guys,” as disabled by their menstruating or potentially pregnant bodies, or exerting outsized sexual influence on hapless men incapable of controlling their sexual urges. It reminds us that women in the ranks often face warfare’s inherent dangers even as they also face potential sexual assault by their male comrades who view them not as equals, but as targets. It reminds us that sex work always accompany militaries, though the extent to which sex workers can control their labor conditions differs according to how actively military officials choose to intervene in regulating the sex lives of its (male) troops. It reminds us that families’ abilities to accompany soldiers to domestic or overseas military assignments are part of a larger incentive structure that communicates to soldiers an investment in their well-being, their upward mobility, their success.
Feminist military history reveals how normative modes of gender and sexuality function to police the boundaries of martial masculinities and gender conformity, including the policing of what constitutes acceptable military femininities. The “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s and 1960s, in which the government purged queer men and women from government positions, including the military, is one example. Since then, the US has become more accepting of romantic and familial relationships and formations outside of cis-heteronormative ones. But as the Trump administration’s ongoing ban on transgender people’s military service indicates, struggles within the military and society over what kinds of people and bodies should be in the ranks continue to prevent LGBTQ+ folks from having military careers.
A feminist military history unsettles accepted notions that the military is an uncomplicated space of opportunity and upward mobility for marginalized people. Women, queer people, Black people, and others still strive to become full-fledged political actors through military service. But feminists ask why military service is one of the few ways for poor people to overcome their socio-economic circumstances, to push their way into the middle class, to avail themselves of educational and health care opportunities that should belong to everyone. It asks who continues to be excluded or denied promised benefits. At the same time, it questions why the military, as a purveyor of devastating violence at home and abroad, is a desirable profession.
Feminist military history also asks questions that undermine accepted truths about what the US military does in the world. It points to how US military action, undertaken to perpetuate US hegemony, causes lasting harm to distant peoples and communities. Feminist curiosity does important work across different registers of historical inquiry. It recognizes women doing work within and on the margins of the military. It names military violence within its ranks, as well as that carried out against other armies and civilian populations perceived as enemies. Feminist military history is always navigating the tension between the ubiquity of warfare throughout history, and the desire for less of it. Even as feminist military history proves that women have been part of war throughout history, it also proffers an urgent critique of martial masculinity as the source of devastating violence directed, usually with impunity, against women and men, within and outside of the military.
- Alicia C. Decker, “What Does a Feminist Curiosity Bring to African Military History? An Analysis and an Intervention,” Journal of African Military History 1, no. 1–2 (2017): 93–111. Like Decker, I owe a tremendous debt to Cynthia Enloe’s extensive body of work on feminism and militarism. See Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? The Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (Boston: South End Press, 1983). Return to text.
- For a recent exemplary feminist military history, see Kara Dixon Vuic, The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019). Return to text.
- See for example Susan Grayzel, Women and the First World War (London: Routledge, 2002); Maurine Weiner Greenwald, Women, War and Work. The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990); Angela Woolacott, On Her Their Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994) Return to text.
- Michelle Moyd, Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014). Return to text.
- Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). See also Sarah J. Zimmerman, Militarizing Marriage: West African Soldiers’ Conjugal Traditions in Modern French Empire (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2020). Return to text.
Michelle Moyd is Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author of Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism, published in 2014 by Ohio University Press.