Not too long ago I attended an event hosted by a women’s association advocating for women’s equality in the workplace. They had invited an army general as a speaker to elaborate on the military’s investment in ensuring women’s equal representation. The irony of this situation did not escape me.
The business of war – is it feminism’s final frontier? After all, we are fighting for equality in all other aspects of society – politics, media, academia, family, religion – so promoting women’s equal role in the army seems like a logical step. But for what purpose?
In fact, the “logical” step is not so logical after all. Historically, the feminist movement has been strongly aligned with pacifism, as evidenced by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, for example. That is not to say that there haven’t also been feminists actively supporting military conflicts, but in general feminist thought has identified violence and war as patriarchal concepts. Such theories, however, often take us – once again – into the murky territory of essentialism, which considers women to be more peaceful by nature of their “function” as “life-givers” and carers.
However, this argument can easily be debunked by looking at the amount of women who have not only supported war, but actively participated in it – at home, in the sickbays, and at the frontlines – for centuries. But there is something to say for the fact that women – not by nature, but through their social and political position- have had a different perspective on wars than men, and yes, being the primary carers for most of history may have something to do with that. Apart from anti-war activism, women have also been strongly engaged in the abolitionist (anti-slavery) and environmental movement; both causes that upheld the inviolability and preservation of life and dignity and revoke domination in some way. Some came to see the “ethics of care” as a fundamental “feminine” value that needed to permeate all of society in order to prevent violent responses to conflict.
But society’s attitudes towards war have changed over time, and so have womens’. Just a couple of months ago the US military officially allowed/acknowledged women in combat roles, and it was celebrated as a success by military women and feminists alike.
Still, that my fellow activists would rejoice over equal access to something as horrifying and corrupting as warfare just didn’t sit well with me. History has shown that opening up this “privilege” to other demographics, i.e. minorities, has not necessarily led to equal treatment nor to a re-thinking of the meaning of war and violence.
The early French feminist Olympe de Gouges is known to have said: “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.” It seems the opposite is true today: Now that a woman has the right to declare wars, she must also have the right to kill and be killed in these wars.
Allowing women in the military and allowing them in combat roles may the just thing to do. Is it a feminist success to celebrate? Not in my book.