Feminist Military History
Rethinking Women, Gender, and War: A Feminist Approach

Rethinking Women, Gender, and War: A Feminist Approach

Jane L. Parpart

These four pathbreaking essays provide new insights into the role of women and war in military history. They pay particular attention to the impact of gendered assumptions on military practices and institutions in various sites and times around the world. Natalie Shibley highlights the difficulties women have fitting into the military, whether dealing with inappropriate masculine clothing, training procedures, or combat assignments. Joseph Beilein explores the roles of women and men fighting a war to defend the institution of slavery in Missouri. Michelle Moyd argues that while feminist military history challenges simplistic assumptions about the masculine nature of warfare, efforts to retain and strengthen the masculine “norms” associated with the military continue to dominate most military discourse and institutional practices. Kate Imy’s PhD thesis on the British Indian Army raises concerns about the scarcity of women in this army, and the often very negative impact on women. These short essays reflect a growing concern with the need for truly gendered analyses of war and conflict around the world.

Natalie Shibley highlights the difficulties facing women in US military institutions that have been built on the assumption that military officers are generally male and military training should fit a male model. She points out that the US Congress only allowed women to enter service academies in 1976. Yet, the few women admitted to the academies were barred from the more rigorous and physically damaging training required for male students. Indeed, women only started boxing at West Point in 2016. Shibley expands her argument to examine the legal disputes over women’s opportunities and the frequently biased regulations that favored male military over female military officers, even of the same rank. While recent improvements have led to improved body armor, training, and compensation for women, gender-based differences continue to affect the lives of women (and men) in the military. Shibley’s research highlights the resistance to change in the military, the continuing power of long-held assumptions about women’s inherent limitations in military institutions and the difficulties facing women seeking greater respect and power in the military.

Joseph Beilein explores the involvement of women in Missouri during the American Civil War. Many of the women married to soldiers in Missouri were active participants, taking on both domestic work and shooting at the “enemy.” The women described by Beilein were clearly as married to the Confederate cause and the institution of slavery as their men. Yet, as Beilein points out, the established literature on the Civil War has largely ignored the fact that many women played crucial roles in the army as cooks, laundresses, and nurses, as well as combatants, when under fire. These revelations of women’s many roles during the Civil War in Missouri highlight the importance of bringing whole communities into military historiography. He reveals the fluid nature of guerilla warfare and reminds us that war is not simply the purview of men. It involves all persons caught up in conflicts, including women, children, and the elderly.

Moyd brings gender into discussions of war in the US and Africa. An officer in the US Air Force, Moyd became interested in women and war. A Ph.D. program in African history provided space for exploring the roles of African soldiers (askari) in the German colonial army. Adopting a feminist perspective, Moyd has revealed the many crucial contributions to war and everyday life made by Tanzanian women living in military households. Indeed, she demonstrates women’s ability to provide the comforts of home even in difficult situations. Moyd has continued to explore feminist military history, arguing that women have advanced in military institutions, while reminding us that military establishments continue to protect male dominance in professional roles defined as the province of martial men, particularly white men. She argues that, like many women in the military, nonconforming males, such as transgender and LGBQ+ persons, face challenges establishing successful careers in the military. Thus feminist military history both highlights the devastating impact of martial masculinity on many military persons and the need for more gender equality both within and outside the military.

Expanding the discussion of women in wars, Kate Imy’s dissertation on the British Indian Army came face to face with criticisms of the tendency for war stories to be solely about men. Men were the heroes because war is/was about men. Taking on this assumption, Imy concludes that feminist military history requires not just finding women to write about, but bringing a gendered understanding of men/masculinities as well as women/femininities to military history. Focusing on Malaysia, Imy examines the role of white women’s medical work and white men’s involvement in fighting in Malaysia. She highlights the central role of forces from places as far away as East Africa, Nepal, and Fiji, as well as India, Malaysia, and China. Most interestingly, Imy reminds us that people in war zones often form alliances that serve their need for safety, food, and medical care. She argues that feminist military histories cast light on the complexities of women’s experiences and actions during wartime. They reveal the complicated decisions and actions required for survival in dangerous times. Moreover, Imy points out that military history needs to pay attention to who is in the room, not just historical actors, but also historians. She launches a powerful argument for a more feminist, grounded analysis of conflict wherever it occurs.

In conclusion, all four of these short pieces reveal the importance of bringing a feminist lens, and women’s actions, into military history. They highlight the weakness of simply focusing on military (male) troops and leaders. These essays are short versions of longer historical analyses, reminding us that military institutions and practices need to be placed in broader contexts. When we place military history in the political, cultural, and historical contexts of war, including the role of gender, class, culture, and other cross-cutting factors, we begin to see the importance of multi-leveled, gender-sensitive analyses of conflict around the world. Whether discussing open conflicts or pre and post-conflict periods, a feminist lens is particularly important as it often falls outside discussions of war, seen as a male undertaking. These essays provide ample proof that a more gendered, feminist approach to military history, during and after conflict periods, is much needed. Wars are not just the business of men. They are experienced by people of many different backgrounds, genders, sexual identities, classes, races, and ethnic identities. These four essays highlight the importance of a more thorough analysis of war (and post-war periods), one that pays attention to the role of gender and gender relations in conflicts around the world.

Featured image caption: Netherland Women’s Auxiliary Corps. (Courtesy National Archive of the Netherlands/Wikimedia Commons)

Jane L. Parpart is faculty fellow in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts Boston.