Gender and War

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Gender and War. War is a gendered phenomenon, one with meaning for the relative status of men and women within American society. Times of national emergency create enormous possibilities for change, and often threaten foundational social hierarchies, such as gender, race, and class relations. Yet many of the new opportunities for traditionally marginalized groups have historically been circumscribed by powerful ideological constructions of the meanings of war. These social myths define war itself as a masculine undertaking and delineate the differential duties prescribed for men and women during wartime. White men (and by the late twentieth century, all men) were expected to protect “their” figurative women, homes, and families, especially through military service. Women's ostensibly passive role as protectees during war highlights their efforts to maintain these same homes and families, thereby supporting their men, and waiting for them to return. The actual experience of men and women during American wars belies this easy dichotomy; many men did not serve in the military and many military men never saw combat. Similarly, many women, particularly when wars were fought on American soil, achieved wartime access to political, economic, and social means of power to which they were barred in peacetime. Yet such activities were contained, often through deliberate propaganda, within a cultural framework that allowed for elasticity in gender behavior during wartime, but did not sanction such activities as appropriate in peace.

One of the most frequently employed models for analyzing the topic of gender and war has been the “watershed” approach. This assesses whether the impact of war on gender relations proves a “watershed” that results in long‐term change, or whether traditional gender systems were successfully reinstituted after the war to minimize wartime gains by marginalized groups. The Revolutionary War, for instance, provided a vehicle through which some women challenged their exclusion from the definitions of republican citizenship as the province of free, white, propertied men. During the Revolutionary era, free white women were central to the success of boycotts of imported products, and subsequently to the production of household manufactures, that were so critical to the Revolution's success. Their activities politicized the domestic sphere itself: the daily female tasks of shopping and home production. However, these activities were consistent with white propertied women's prescribed identification with home and family. Caricatured as domineering and masculine by the British in an attempt to shame patriot men, many American white women nevertheless continued their increasingly public political actions. In the same period, moreover, some northern enslaved African women employed the rhetoric of the Revolution in successful attempts to free themselves and their families via the colonial and early state court systems.

The resulting gender system, a product of contestation and negotiation during the Revolution, provided a limited space within which some women might assert themselves as political actors. In particular, the question of how female citizenship would be defined in the new nation was answered by extending the politicization of domestic duties during the Revolution into the postwar republic—in other words, endowing domesticity itself with political meaning. Embodied in the role of the “Republican mother,” such politicization included the presumption that white, propertied women would educate their children at home to be good republican citizens. The increased ideological importance assigned to women as educators—especially of male children—linked white, educated, propertied women to the newly created nation, and gave them some degree of power over its future. Since their duty to the state was to reproduce a virtuous citizenry, elite and educated women had to be able to write as well as to read. They had to be schooled in matters of government in order to develop in themselves the political virtue necessary to reproduce these values in their children. In the years following the Revolution, white, propertied northern women would expand upon this strategy as a means of enlarging their roles as political actors outside the domestic realm.

Like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War is distinguished by the fact that the entire conflict was a domestic one. The Civil War was further marked by the direct impact of military action on civilian populations as targets of military violence. Most of the campaigns that led to violence against civilian populations and their property took place within the American South. As distinctions between “home front” and “battle front” blurred, so too did the asymmetrical relationship between men as “protectors” and women as “protected” that undergirded the southern gender system. The Union army's wartime occupation of many southern towns and cities, for instance, undercut the ability of white southern men to come to the aid of their families, and forced elite and educated white southern women to devise strategies in their own defense. Moreover, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea through Georgia and the Carolinas late in the war not only demonstrated the vulnerability of “unprotected” southern women but attacked the manhood of southern men who failed as “protectors.” In response, southern elite and middle‐class white women directed their anger not just at Yankee soldiers and officers but also at Confederate men and the Confederate government. As many noted in their diaries, their encounter with the enemy ruined forever their trust in men as protectors. Thus, the southern framework of protection was undercut by a more powerful axiom of warfare illustrating the white southerners’ defeat by demonstrating their inability to protect “their” women.

The two world wars of the twentieth century were distinguished from past conflicts by the massive mobilization of all parts of the civilian population to support war efforts, the conscription of huge armies to wage the war, and especially during World War II, the bombing of civilians. U.S. mobilization for both world wars catalyzed popular concerns that mobilizing large portions of the populace might undermine the established gender and sexual order. To offset this potential threat, during World War II federal government and media propaganda created the image of “Rosie the Riveter.” This image depicted a first‐time female worker who enters the labor force, not for the extra income such employment might bring into her home, but rather for solely patriotic reasons to “support the war effort.” Rosie the Riveter was also characterized by wartime propaganda as a temporary worker, completely “feminine,” and perfectly willing to “give up” her job and return to her role as wife and mother as soon as the war concluded. On the one hand, Rosie the Riveter was used by federal and private agencies as a recruiting device to encourage women to enter the paid labor force. On the other hand, by portraying Rosie's service as “for the duration only,” the propaganda highlighted female workforce participation as motivated by wartime necessity, and made invisible the thousands of women who had worked outside their homes prior to the war. Thus, the symbol of Rosie the Riveter contained within it the ideological means to push women out of the labor force, or out of higher‐paying jobs, once the war concluded.

During both world wars, moreover, the fact that the vast majority of the conflict was not fought on American soil maintained the distinctions between home front and battle front and thus between male “protectors” fighting and the women they “protected.” The lack of tangible evidence of the need for immediate protection, however, necessitated propagandistic representations of the potential dangers an enemy victory would pose to American women and the potential rewards protectors might expect to reap for their role as guardians of the American home front. Scholars have argued, for instance, that during World War II, “pinups” visible in soldiers/officers’ footlockers, bunks, and barracks, as well as bombers and tanks named after female movie stars, models, and sweethearts, functioned as symbols of the private obligations for which men were fighting and as surrogate objects of sexual desire—the potential “bounty” servicemen and officers might claim if they successfully defended the home front. A counterpoint to the “‘good woman’ as spoils” image was the threat throughout the war of American women being raped. During World War II, for instance, the U.S. government Who Is the Enemy? series of films presented the “enemy” as a soldier (Japanese or German) or male leader (often Hitler), who would rape and murder “our” women if the enemy were not defeated. Both “pinups” and representations of posited dangers for American women maintained and reinforced the gender system and the unequal distribution of power contained within it.

What these propagandistic attempts to contain any threats to the gender order concealed, however, were the many ways in which women's activities in support of both wars did represent new possibilities and roles for women and result in challenges to prevailing notions of the proper identities of women and men. While American women's participation in the World War I war effort was far less than that of their European counterparts, for instance, American feminists and suffrage leaders nonetheless argued that women's war work demanded that they be accepted fully as citizens. In fact, the Nineteenth Amendment, giving American women the right to vote, was finally supported by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918, before the end of the war, and was adopted as law in 1920. Moreover, the escalation of women's participation in the paid labor force during World War II resulted in what some historians have termed a “change in consciousness” that set the stage for the modern women's movement twenty years later. Although World War II was followed by the reinstitution of fairly rigid gender norms and a reemphasis on conformity, some scholars have contended that the abrupt withdrawal of wartime options for some women was one of the major catalysts to the feminist movement of the 1960s.

Another prominent gender legacy of World War II was what some scholars have characterized as a new politicization of nuclear families. As in the Revolution, women were deemed during the Cold War to be essential to the “family's” and the nation's survival and stability. The significance of the nuclear family was particularly emphasized in the 1950s as women's prescriptive roles as wives and mothers were ideologically joined to the stability of the nation, national defense, and the superiority of the American over the Soviet model of government and society. Epitomized in the “kitchen debates” between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 in Moscow, the American system was symbolized by the contrast between the U.S. housewife who was allegedly “free” not to work (at least outside her home) and the Soviet woman who was “forced” to work outside her home. Thus, Soviet women were depicted as unprotected within a coercive system that provided endless drudgery, while the protected American housewife was a consumer, with both “choices” and access to “labor‐saving” household devices.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights, antiwar, student, and feminist movements coinciding with U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War made the period paradoxically one of the most violent and hopeful in American history. Questions of racial justice, class disparities, gender equity, and the meanings of “manhood” and “womanhood” were actively debated amid the backdrop of nightly news coverage of American military involvement in Vietnam. As for women during World War I, the franchise as a right of citizens was again raised—this time by young men, drafted or volunteering for military service in Vietnam, whose age (below twenty‐one) made them eligible to fight and die for their country but not to vote. The voting age was reduced to 18. Many young men during the 1960s engaged in serious debate about definitions of “manhood” and constructions of the duties and rights of male citizens. Those involved in the Vietnam antiwar movement protested what they believed was an illegitimate war, and in so doing disrupted the historic link between male citizenship, American manhood, and military service.

Conscientious objection to conscription, draft card burnings, draft evasion, and participation in massive antiwar demonstrations, which marked a new definition of “manhood” for some American men, were met by accusations of cowardice, characterized as Communist sympathy, and decried by many in both Congress and the broader civilian population. This contestation over the meaning of American “manhood” and the obligations of male citizens was heightened by male veterans’ creation of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Some veterans decorated for valor literally threw away their medals to symbolize their rejection of those symbols conflating courage, manhood, and obligatory military service. A popular antiwar slogan, “Women say Yes to Men who say No,” however, reinforced the conventional system of gender relations by placing women once again in the position of “bounty”—this time not for those who served but for those who did not.

The legacy of the Vietnam War was also gendered, as the first U.S. military “loss,” and the first war in which a significant minority of American sons resisted the rite of passage to manhood that military service during wartime had historically provided to their fathers and grandfathers. It was also the first American war in which some veterans’ return was an occasion for shaming—by both civilians and male veterans of “successful” American wars. This legacy would not be erased until the 1980s, first through Hollywood films portraying the “remasculinization” of America, such as the Rambo films in which a hypermasculine John Rambo “returned” to Vietnam, this time to “win” and, at least symbolically, restore the masculinity of those who had fought and lost. The most significant erasure of the Vietnam legacy, however, came in the shape of new conflicts (Grenada and Panama) and finally a new war that the United States could and did convincingly win: the Persian Gulf War of 1991. The Gulf War, in all its glory, put to rest the memory of resistant sons and the broader antiwar discourse highlighted during the Vietnam conflict. Yet the Gulf War also made explicit new questions about the gendered nature of warfare, including renewed scrutiny of the “proper” roles of men and women during times of war in the context of the gender‐integrated military.
[See also Disciplinary Views of War: Feminist and Gender Studies; Gender; Propaganda and Public Relations; Race Relations and War; Veterans; Vietnam War; Women in the Military.]


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Leisa D. Meyer

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Gender and War

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Gender and War