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The Feminist Objection to Women in Combat

By Noah Berlatsky

One of the male patriarchal values that has been consistently criticized by feminists is war.

This week the Pentagon altered its policy prohibiting women from serving in combat roles in the
US military. This has generally been seen as a win for feminism by feminists themselves. It's also
been seen as a feminist victory by conservative folks like Heather Mac Donald at National
Review, who declares with hyperbolic outrage that "the only reason to pursue [the policy of
women in combat] is to placate feminism's insatiable and narcissistic drive for absolute official
equality between the sexes."

I'm a feminist myself, and I certainly think that women should have equal access to jobs and
career advancement inside the military as well as outside it. And, as the Jezebel article I linked
above points out, women are already often in combat situations. Acknowledging this formally
just means that they're able to get the same credit for risking their lives that men do.

Still, while the change is certainly, and deservedly, a win for feminism, it is just as certainly a
mixed one. On the one hand, the achievement of equality for women in the military highlights
just how successful feminism in the United States has been in one of its primary goals—
achieving equality. As Jean Bethke Elshtain argued in Women and War, military combat is, in
some sense, the defining male role. Exclusion from combat, has, in turn, been one of the defining
traits of femininity. A military policy that recognizes women's participation in, and capacity for,
combat, is, then, an important assertion that people are not their gender roles. It shows that
women really can, and should be allowed to, do everything and anything that men can.

The problem is, feminism has never just been about equality. Many feminists
have written about the need for women to have the same opportunities as
men. But many have also written about the need to criticize male patriarchal
values and ideals. And one of the male patriarchal values and ideals that has
been consistently criticized and questioned by feminists is war.

One famous works of pacifist feminism is Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas. In that book, she
argues that:

though many instincts are held more or less in common by both sexes, to fight has always been
the man's habit, not the woman's. Law and practice have developed that difference, whether
innate or accidental. Scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman's
rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us; and it is difficult to
judge what we do not share.

How then are we to understand your problem, and if we cannot, how can we answer your
question, how to prevent war? The answer based upon our experience and our psychology—Why
fight?—is not an answer of any value. Obviously there is for you some glory, some necessity,
some satisfaction in fighting which we have never felt or enjoyed. Complete understanding could
only be achieved by blood transfusion and memory transfusion—a miracle still beyond the reach
of science.

Woolf is, of course, mistaken. As many women soldiers, not to mention women politicians,
have shown, women can be every bit as attracted to war as men. The glory, necessity, and
satisfaction of fighting is not by any means restricted to one gender.

But Woolf is also right. The history of combat may not be entirely male, but it is
overwhelmingly male. And that fact is not merely an inequality; it is a resource. Yes, you
can look at the exclusion of women from combat and say, "This is unfair; women should be
allowed to fight." But you can also look at that exclusion and say, "You know, half of
humanity has been excluded from going to war. If that many people weren't fighting,
maybe that means that fighting is an aberration rather than a necessity."

Woolf is also correct, I think, to suggest that the glory and necessity of war is often linked
to masculinity—to the need to prove one's moral worth as a man. From one perspective,
that is also the reason why it's so important that women be allowed in the military and in
combat. War is in many ways our standard for moral action. America's status as an ethical nation
is linked to its people's willingness to fight and die in righteous wars, as Stanley Hauerwas has
argued recently in War and the American Difference.

If that's the case, if morality is tied to battle, then women too must fight if they are to be
valued and honored as moral actors. When war is so central to our moral experience, those
who are not warriors cannot be equal. This is why feminist cultural icons like Buffy
Summers or Katniss Everdeen are so often warriors.

And it's also why equality in the military has been such a vital goal for so many
marginalized groups. Black units fighting in the Civil War were a tremendous boost for
anti-racism and equality. Similarly, it will be increasingly difficult to justify discrimination
against gay people now that they are openly fighting and dying for our country.

Feminism, then, can draw moral force from the military. But that moral force comes at a
price. That price is the moral force itself—or, more precisely, the acquiescence to war as a
moral force and a moral standard. For Virginia Woolf, war was to be judged by women's
experience—and found wanting. American feminism, on the other hand, seems much more
comfortable judging women's experiences in relation to traditionally male standards of
empowerment—of which military combat is a particularly iconic example. In popular
discussions, feminist criticism of militarism and war has largely been lost. As a result, we have
one fewer way to protest when our sons, and our daughters too, are sacrificed on the moral altar
of war.

This article available online at:

Copyright © 2014 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.

Feminism and the Current Debates on

Women in Combat
Saskia Stachowitsch, Feb 19 2013

The US Department of Defense is lifting its ban on women in direct ground-combat positions, as
recently announced by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The armed services are thus
preparing to open the remaining jobs still off-limits to the female workforce. In this context,
gender scholars working on military and security issues can expect to be confronted with the
question – usually posed by journalists – whether this is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing in terms of
feminist and pacifist commitments. This article aims to provide a more comprehensive
perspective on the interrelations between the military and gender; one that more accurately
reflects the state of gender scholarship on the military and feminist IR. These fields have moved
beyond the strict dualism between radical anti-militarist positions which oppose women’s
military participation out of pacifist reasons, and ‘integrationist’ positions which unambiguously
favour it, sometimes with patriotic overtones.


The 214,098 US military women serving in the armed forces today make up 14.6 percent of all
military personnel. As frequently forgotten in current debates, they and their predecessors have
had access to combat positions for decades, for example as pilots and on combat ships. Bans on
these occupations were lifted, along with the ‘risk rule’, which had kept women out of ground
combat support units, in the early 1990s by the Clinton administration. Besides, the conditions of
modern warfare have ensured that military women regularly participate in situations which
anyone not too concerned with legalistic interpretations would consider to be ‘combat’. The
blurring of frontlines in the age of counterinsurgency warfare has often been referenced as an
important background, even though it is unclear whether the gendered separation between front
and rear was ever as fixed, as military strategists and historians would have us believe.

Nevertheless, remaining barriers on participation in ground-combat units below the brigade level
have until now excluded women from combatant status largely in Infantry, Armor, and Special
Forces units and thereby limited their career prospects. Exclusions have also been linked to the
high levels of sexual abuse and harassment of women within the ranks because they contribute to
women not being perceived as equals.

Military Gender Integration and Gender Ideologies

The driving forces behind women’s military integration are complex and manifold, and vary
according to social, political, and economic contexts. However, some patterns can be observed
cross-culturally and historically (Segal 1995; Iskra et al. 2002): Women’s integration has been
promoted by changing military personnel needs in the course of professionalization,
diversification, and, ultimately, ‘civilization’ of military work fields. In the United States
and many other Western nations, this led to the abolishment of conscription and the
establishment of all-volunteer forces. These modernized militaries featured a greater need
for qualified specialists which could not be filled by the male workforce alone. On the
supply side, women’s integration was aided by transformations of the civilian economy
which led to their increased labour market participation. In short, in the second half of the
20th century women were increasingly needed to support large, standing, professional forces
and they became better qualified for military jobs with a growing civilian component
because of their participation in the workforce and rising levels of education.

However, in the US context, the strong connection between personnel needs and equality in the
services meant that integration policies remained selective. Upheld exclusions functioned to
limit women to those jobs for which not enough qualified personnel were available, namely
support jobs on middle and lower ranks. Jobs in high demand, particularly in ground
combat, but also in leadership, were protected from female competition. These patterns of
inclusion and exclusion were sustained by a diversifying spectrum of military gender ideologies:
Images of military women as gender-neutral professionals promoted inclusion into specialized
work fields, while images of women as weak, mentally unfit, ‘beautiful souls’ in need of
protection, or sexualized intruders into the male domain justified exclusion from others
(Stachowitsch 2012a, 2012b).

A purely functional approach to military gender integration in terms of personnel needs is

however problematic for various reasons:

1) The exact timing and specific contents of integration measures can only be explained out of
political contexts: Congressional power relations, the relationship between political and military
leaderships, as well as broader socio-political environments define when and how integration is
promoted and with what effects.

2) Military personnel demands might be a basic condition, but it was the relentless lobbying of
women’s rights groups and activists which ensured that integration was not only advanced for the
military’s benefit, but also that it served the interests of military women and improved their
position within the institution.

3) International contexts are influential as well (Stachowitsch 2012c): In the post-Cold War
era, foreign policy doctrines began to prominently feature women’s rights as an objective
and the protection of women from violence as a rationale for military interventions.
Militarized international institutions, such as NATO or the UN Security Council, have
constructed a link between gender violence and international security. A prominent example
is UNSC Resolution 1325 which calls for mainstreaming gender into every aspect of UN
missions in order to avoid human rights abuses and sexualized violence in peacekeeping and
post-conflict reconstruction.
It is this third level of context that has raised particularly tricky questions for feminists
about the adaptations of feminist knowledge for the purposes of powerful military
institutions. These foreign policy contexts have to be addressed when evaluating recent
developments in the US military:

US Foreign Policy and Gender

The United States’ new geopolitical position after the Cold War fostered self-representations as a
role model for emancipation and women’s rights (Niva 1998). While this narrative was already
relevant during the Persian Gulf War, arguments for women’s integration in the 1990s still
mainly focused on performance, gender-neutral standards, and professionalism. It was the Bush
administration which put the narrative of ‘liberating oppressed women’ in Muslim-
majority societies (Sjoberg and Gentry 2008) centre stage to legitimize the pre-emptive
military interventions of the ‘war on terror’. In this context, women’s rights abroad were
linked to women’s roles in the US military and both to success/failure in the war. Pro-
integration arguments began to differ greatly from those of the 1990s, as they claimed that
traditional concepts of femininity could be utilized for strategic gains, e.g. by showcasing
female soldiers as non-threatening and peaceful to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the civilian
population. The conceptual elements of Bush’s strategic vision were underscored by
portraying military women as proof of US superiority over the backwards, misogynist

The Obama administration’s foreign policy concepts reformed the context in which military
gender integration is taking place. Increased practical difficulties with upholding combat
exclusions were finally acknowledged. The repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy gave an
early indication that inner-military gender relations were to be transformed as well. While the
most problematic gender ideologies associated with the ‘war on terror’ have been removed from
military doctrines, feminist optimism has remained cautious. The systematic inclusion of
women into efforts to improve contact with the civilian population and gather intelligence
on the ground, e.g. in so-called Female Engagement Teams, builds on gender stereotypes
which are not all that different from pervious approaches. ‘Population-centric’
counterinsurgency theory still views women as advantageous and uses them instrumentally
for strategic purposes (Dyvik 2012). Military gender integration is also still implicated with
representations of women as peace-makers and proof of US ‘cultural sensitivity’. Thus, gender
equality and the empowerment of women remain causally linked to American national security

Feminist Critiques of Discourses on Gender and Security

Feminist analysis has shown that such framings can in fact be detrimental to broader equality
issues. Feminist scholars have found that linking gender and security in a simplified way is
productive of a particular gender order which essentializes women’s status as weak victims and
claims that they have universally shared peaceful interests (Shepherd 2008). Furthermore, these
discourses follow a post-colonial script which depends on constructions of the ‘violent other’ and
associates women’s equality with Western civilization, thus ‘obscuring “Western” agency in both
male privilege and violence against women’ (Harrington 2011, 567).
These critiques have also been applied to gender mainstreaming mechanisms in international
institutions. Critical research in this area has shown that the gains women make in these
institutions always produce both empowerment and new constraints (Prügl 2011, 73).
Additionally, some women, particularly white, educated women have benefitted more from the
growing institutional attention to gender issues than others. Expectations that women’s
integration would make militarized institutions more peaceful and geared towards the
needs of marginalized groups have thus become increasingly dubious. Hence, uncritically
participating in celebrations of women’s new opportunities in the military could have
unintended consequences.[i]

Challenges Remain

These findings have made feminist positioning on military gender integration ever more
complex. The times when standpoints could easily be separated along the lines of equality
ethicists (Stiehm 1989) and peace ethicists (Ruddick 1982) are definitely over. But this is not
all bad news. Acknowledging these complexities takes the pressure off to exclusively
identify with either side. Feminist theory and practice, as a pluralist project, certainly has
room for both and feminists will continue to do both, critically engage with military
institutions and support equality for women within them.

Feminist disagreements over these issues will go on and likely never be settled. Meanwhile, a
rights-based approach might still be the safest bet for those wishing to make a non-militaristic
point for military gender integration. While some may not perceive the ‘right’ to fight, kill, and
die as a desirable objective, focusing on equal access to important state institutions is preferable
to arguments that women can fulfil placatory functions in the military or provide the social skills
that men lack. Women should not be required to prove that they can do anything ‘better’ than
men or bring any specific qualities to military and other institutions to be allowed to participate.

In conclusion, there is no easy, straightforward answer to journalists’ questions about the

normative evaluation of women’s integration into ground-combat. In the light of feminist
research in the areas of military, war, security, foreign policy, and international institutions, we
can only conclude that full integration does not need to be ‘good’ for it to be right.

Saskia Stachowitsch is a post-doctoral research fellow and lecturer at the Department of

Political Science at the University of Vienna. Her areas of research are gender and the military,
private security, and feminist international relations. Recent publications include “Military
Privatization and the Remasculinization of the State: Making the Link between the Outsourcing
of Military Security and Gendered State Transformations”, in International Relations 27(1),
2013 (forthcoming).
[i] It is against this backdrop, that Cynthia Enloe (2013) has criticized public debate on lifted
combat exclusions as a ‘militarization of women’s liberation’.


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in Afghanistan”, in International Feminist Journal of Politics (forthcoming).

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– (2012b) Professional Soldier, Weak Victim, Patriotic Heroine, in International Feminist

Journal of Politics. Epub ahead of print 24 July 2012. DOI: 10.1080/14616742.2012.699785,

– (2012c) “Military Gender Integration and Foreign Policy in the United States: A Feminist
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