Duhan, Laura, “Masculine and Feminine Roles in War,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1991).
The media’s negative characterization of military women early in the Persian Gulf war (coupled with their almost complete lack of coverage of military women during the war) has provided me with an opportunity to reflect on some ways in which the maintenance of masculine and feminine stereotypes supports the practice of war.
As American soldiers departed for duty in the Persian Gulf, military women were showered with publicity. Over and over again the media highlighted their reluctance to leave their infants. Lively public debate ensued. One side argued that military policies are unreasonable and unhealthful. No child should be abandoned for military duty by both parents, and nursing mothers are not physically stable enough to adapt to stringent conditions in the field. The other side argued that women ought to accept the implications of their demands for equality. A woman’s reluctance to leave an infant shows that she wants equality in theory but not in practice. In practice, she is not ready for active duty.
My response to the debate incorporates both sides. It is possible that the military has come up with unreasonable policies in order to encourage women to conclude that they are not ready for active duty. In order to support this thesis, I would have to show (1) that the military does not want women in active duty roles; (2) that the military believes its policies are unreasonable; and (3) that my words “the military” refer to an identifiable group of persons who are capable of wanting and believing. In this brief piece, however, I will only take steps toward showing why (1) might be the case.
Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792) provides an initial direction when she rejects the ideal, celebrated by some of her contemporary educational theorists, of the coquettish women educated in the arts of fashion for the sole end of pleasing a husband. Such a woman, says Wollstonecraft, is only “half a person.” She has “manners but no morals.” In other words, she knows how to behave but cannot think about her behavior. Curiously, in order to illuminate her analysis of the ideal of the coquettish woman, Wollstonecraft likens the coquettish woman to a military man who, she says, has “manners but no morals” in the same sense.
The two “half-persons” that Wollstonecraft has identified are the exaggerated ideals of masculinity and femininity. These two “half-persons” are exploited in, if not created by and for, the conduct of war. The soldier must act but not think too deeply about the causes or results of his actions. He must confidently assert that his leaders are “right,” but is not encouraged to study history in order to evaluate that assertion. His ability to act without thinking is enhanced by the suppression of some of the human virtues which are grounded in understanding followed by conscious action, such as empathy and compromise. The woman who knows no other goal of thought and action beyond pleasing a husband does not question any of his actions, including his participation in the military. Because she is not encouraged to see her life in a context any larger than her marriage, she does not enter the political sphere nor does she wonder whether her passive acquiescence contributes to that which she would surely abhor if she dared to understand it.
Contemporary attempts to articulate the characteristics associated with masculinity and femininity center around the division of labor. Every family needs a fighter and a caretaker. The ideal woman is the family caretaker while the ideal man is the chief breadwinner in the competitive economic world. Today, politicians gearing up for war exploit this conception of masculinity and femininity. Politicians rely on the existence of a group of women who act without questioning when it falls to them to take care of a community damaged by the departure of military persons. These women are more likely to act spontaneously if they believe that they are seizing an unusual opportunity to actualize their talents fully. Politicians also rely on a group of men who respond unquestioningly when they are called to move out of a secure community into the uncertain world of combat. Imagine the glory felt by men who believe that they, too, are seizing their opportunity to be larger than life “real men.”
I believe that some military policymakers fear that the presence of women in active duty positions may weaken public support for the stereotypes, which may in turn reduce the number of persons who are unquestioningly available for the various tasks required in the conduct of war.