• Agency, Power, and the Armed Forces: On the Shifting Role of Women at War

    Cynthia Enloe Considers the Various Feminist Approaches to Women in the Military

    The men had fun making up the list. It was 2022. They called it their “crush depth rape list.” Sharing it among themselves, these British men serving as submariners in the Royal Navy imagined which women—women submariners with whom they were serving as crew-mates—should be raped by them in case there was a catastrophe aboard their submarine.

    Submariners usually think of themselves—and are treated by their male superiors—as a special military breed. They are often hand-picked to handle the peculiar stresses of underwater, close-quartered military operations. For most of the history of submarine warfare those selected to serve as submarine sailors have been male and from their country’s dominant ethnic and racial groups.

    Not surprisingly, submarine corps have been among the last military units to accept women. The Royal Navy lifted its ban on women serving on British submarines in 2011. By 2021, however, women serving on Royal Navy submarines still comprised a mere 1% of the total submarine service; 99% were men. The misogyny exposed among the British submariners testified to the ongoing resistance to compromising that masculinized exclusivist militarized culture.

    A Royal Navy woman sailor agreed to be interviewed on the popular BBC radio program Woman’s Hour. She chose the pseudonym “Catherine.” While serving on a British submarine, she said, sexual harassment by male shipmates was constant. A male supervisor once put his penis on her shoulder while she was typing. Stunned, she recalled wondering, “Do I say anything and make a big scene of it? Do I carry on [typing] and hope it goes away?” She tried to gain weight so that her male fellow submariners wouldn’t find her attractive. The men’s abusive behavior escalated. Then Catherine was raped. She did not report the assault. The culture aboard the ship, she explained, was, “Put up and shut up if you want your career.”


    English reformer Florence Nightingale and Afro-Caribbean humanitarian Mary Seacole are famous for showing the military how crucial women could be to waging war. Both during and after the mid-nineteenth-century Crimean War, Nightingale argued persuasively (over the heads of dismissive male army surgeons) that any military that could not effectively care for its male wounded would not be able to conduct its wars successfully. But these pioneering military nursing women—and those Black and white American women who soon followed in their footsteps during their country’s civil war—were kept on the periphery of the military establishment. The men in charge of the militaries did not issue those women military uniforms and for decades refused to accord them military ranks.

    Our understandings of women as soldiers (and sailors and pilots) remain in flux.

    Taken together, the gendered histories of the exclusivist submarine corps and of the femininized nursing corps reveal the strategic formula adopted by so many male-led militaries: find ways to use women, but only in roles that military men and their legislative male allies deem patriarchally appropriate, while simultaneously pushing even those militarized women to the institutional margins.

    The patriarchal goal has been to exploit women’s contributions to war-waging, while jealously preserving the masculinized privileging of soldiers.

    Waging a total war, such as World War II, motivated male officials to make typically patriarchal gendered divisions of labor more porous—women hired as bus conductors, women recruited as code breakers, women trained to be auto mechanics, women assigned to fly heavy transport planes. Yet those compromises were only conditional: “for the duration.” This was the message of the Rosie the Riveter narrators, and it was a narrative that would be repeated when telling the stories of women in the military.

    Britain’s Royal Mail issued a series of postage stamps in 2022 entitled “Unsung Heroes: Women of World War II.” There were sheets of stamps with matching postcards. One of the first-class stamps is titled “Pilots Meet in Their Ferry Pool Briefing Room.” In the tiny black and white photograph all five women are in RAF uniforms, two wearing leather flying caps, one equipped with goggles. They are sorting out their upcoming wartime flight schedules. We, today’s stamp users, are supposed to be admiring, but not too curious. I wonder, though. Knowing what happened to “Rosie” and her wartime munitions factory workers, one needs to ask what became of these British uniformed women after the men in government no longer needed them. By 1950, what was each of them doing? Were any still in the RAF, any still piloting planes? I would like to know too what each of these women told their children, if they had any, or their nieces about why they were no longer pilots? It is likely that the British government counted on each of these women to shrink their wartime piloting down to a mere “adventure” along their longer feminized journey to marriage and motherhood.


    I used to collect military recruitment flyers. They were routinely on display in every US post office branch. The post office became a feminist field site. In the 1980s, after Congress, under pressure from American voters fed up with the Vietnam War, ended the all-male military draft, the recruitment flyers became especially interesting. While America’s post-draft military recruiters needed more volunteers than ever, they had to make clear that only a few women need apply. My all-time favorite post office find was a four-page glossy flyer that listed all those military jobs from which women volunteers would be excluded: fighter pilot, tank corps, submarine corps, of course. But also carpenter and electrician. No woman should have gotten her hopes up that by enlisting in the US army she might acquire economically useful carpenters’ or electricians’ skills.

    I tried to picture the meeting at the Pentagon during which people around the table decided that military carpenter and electrician should be kept as male preserves. Were those jobs imagined to be carried out too close to “combat”?

    “Combat.” Feminist activists, legislators and investigators who have spent years tracking sexism inside militaries have learned that “combat” should always be accompanied by quotation marks. That is, “combat” should never be treated as if it were an obvious job category. In reality, they have found, “combat” is contested and fluid. What is officially defined as “combat” expands and shrinks.

    Winston Churchill, desperate for “manpower” late in World War II, managed to smuggle women into British long-range artillery units as targeters, assuming that if these women weren’t actually firing the heavy weapons, they weren’t “combat” personnel. By 2000, the US Defense Department had revised their recruiting brochure. Carpenter and electrician were no longer considered “combat” jobs and thus were opened to women. Warfare hadn’t changed. The gender politics had.

    During the 1980s to 2000s, as women equality activists challenged their governments to dismantle the masculinized institutional fortresses of their state militaries, “combat” took on increased saliency. If women were going to be recruited in larger numbers, the defenders of militarized patriarchy schemed, then at least they should be kept out of “combat” posts. Alarmed, they saw preserve of true manliness shrinking. It used to include kitchen staff, supply managers and airplane mechanics. Now, genuine manliness could be proved only in an all-male infantry-forward position—inside a tank, in a fighter plane cockpit or under water in a submarine. Military decision makers turned themselves into pretzels in the name of preserving masculinized “combat.”

    By the 1990s, American campaigners who were pushing to open up this bastion of male privilege had several points on their side. Among their allies were women military officers who explained to members of legislatures that they were serious careerists, being stymied in their promotion to senior ranks because those senior posts were traditionally given only to officers who had had “combat” command experience. That excluded the most talented, committed career-women officers. On top of that, the advocates argued, modern warfare no longer had clear spatial distinctions between “front” and “rear.” The spatial purity of “combat” was an outdated myth. This was driven home when thirteen US women soldiers—all assigned to allegedly “non-combat” posts—were killed in an attack during the 1991 Gulf War.

    By the early 2000s, many militaries, including most in NATO (the Dutch were the first), had done away with the male-only “combat” rule. This did not mean, however, that the contest over the masculinization of combat was over. Today, the newest arena for this ongoing tussle is militaries’ special forces. Those units of a military—the US Navy Seals, the British SAS and their exclusivist counterparts—work the hardest to maintain their narrow, masculinized gateway.

    Still, since the 1970s, scores of state militaries have opened their doors, at least a crack, to women—though most have accepted women only as volunteers. Among the few governments that now conscript women as well as men are Eritrea, Israel, Norway and Sweden.

    Our understandings of women as soldiers (and sailors and pilots) remain in flux.


    In the 1990s and early 2000s, governments—under civil-society pressure and usually begrudgingly—lifted their bans on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the militaries. For decades, lesbians in militaries had experienced militarized homophobia more intensely than had even gay men. Lesbians in uniform not only violated society’s conventional norms of femininity, they joined the military precisely in order to play roles that were designed to be the preserve of manly men, and they were uninterested in straight male soldiers’ sexual advances. One reflection of the special pressures on lesbians was that, during the 1980s and 1990s, although women in the US military were less than one fifth of all active-duty personnel, they were dishonorably dismissed at higher levels than men for violating the US ban on gays and lesbians in the armed forces.

    Today, in the post-ban era, some militaries seem to be deliberately pursuing LGBTQ+ youth as volunteer enlistees. Where once these young people were imagined to be threats to military effectiveness, they now appear to be the ticket to recruiters filling their monthly quotas. For some young lesbians, LGBTQ-welcoming militaries provide opportunities that their own civilian hometowns and workplaces still do not afford.


    In its simplest form, the feminist puzzle is this: are the increasing numbers of women joining state militaries evidence of male- dominated governments’ clever co-optation of women into their militarized schemes? Alternatively, should we see the rising numbers of women joining militaries as one more feminist advance in dismantling patriarchy?

    Feminists in scores of countries ask whether a woman soldier represents women’s increasing militarization or a pathway to women’s liberation.

    In the early 1980s, a small transnational feminist workshop was held in Amsterdam to tease out this very puzzle. Most of the dozen or so women around the table had to be persuaded to attend. Traveling to the Netherlands—from Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands itself, the US and Britain—to spend three days discussing women in militaries did not seem to these busy women’s advocates a good use of their time. Women in militaries was way down their lists of issues, precisely because they assumed that opening doors to women in the military was just another step towards militarization. Even paying attention to women in militaries might compromise their own feminism.

    One of the highlights of our gathering was going together to see the then-new Hollywood film Private Benjamin, starring Goldie Hawn. It had just opened in Amsterdam. The Europeans among us came out the theater stunned. Did American women really believe that the way for a woman to put her life back together after a divorce was to join the military?

    By the end of our three days together, the table was cluttered with coffee mugs, breadcrumbs and orange peels. Still, we had found, much to our surprise, that, even as feminists wary of militarization, we shared questions to pursue, common developments to track. For instance, we realized that militaries in our several countries had quite different approaches—and motivations—for enlisting women: to compensate for lost male conscripts, to look “modern,” to fill gaps in special job categories.

    Listening to each other, we also began wondering why young women voluntarily enlisted. Were they delaying marriage, escaping a stifling small town, finding community with other women? Or were they trying to earn the respect of their militarized fathers, to have an adventure, to pursue opportunities not available for them in a racially discriminatory civilian labor market?

    We could see that our own societies’ particular histories of war generated quite dissimilar popular attitudes toward women as soldiers. Americans, despite having just come out of an alienating war in Vietnam, could still collectively indulge in a kind of militarized nostalgia derived from their experience of World War II, “the Good War.” It was a nostalgia to which most Germans were collectively allergic. Furthermore, we became more sensitive to the differences between our own women’s movements: British feminists in the 1980s were far closer to their class-based labor movement than were the Americans, for whom equality held such a strong appeal.

    Some of the differences that we discovered in those early conversations remain important today.


    Currently, women make up 30% or more of the Israeli and Eritrean militaries, both of which subject women, as well as men, to conscription. At the same time, women are 19% of the Australian military, 16% of the US military, and 11% of the UK military, all of which have ended male conscription and instead recruit men and women as contract volunteers. In wartime Ukraine, women have climbed to 23% of soldiers; men are conscripted, women join as volunteers.

    Looking at the current proportions of women in various militaries should motivate us to ask sharper questions—about militaries, wars, diverse women, distinct women’s movements.

    Women as percentage of state active-duty military forces in other selected countries, 2016 – 2020:

    Canada – 16%

    China – 7.5%

    Fiji – 20%

    France – 16%

    Germany – 12 %

    Hungary – 20%

    India – 0.7%

    Israel – 33 %

    Japan – 8%

    Poland – 7%

    Russia – 10%

    Sweden – 15%

    South Africa – 24%

    Taiwan – 15%

    Turkey – 0.3%

    Numbers can be numbing. Yet, if one looks at the proportions of women in the military of each country as a reflection of gender politics, the figures can be intriguing.

    For instance, two of the militaries with the highest proportions of women in uniform are serving dismayingly autocratic regimes: Hungary and Eritrea. Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian regime is no friend of women’s rights. He has aggressively pushed back against the very notion of gender equity and pressed women to forego their reproductive rights and to prioritize their domestic unpaid roles. Do the hundreds of women joining the Hungarian military, though seemingly going against this patriarchal vision of womanhood, nonetheless see themselves as defenders of that vision?

    Eritrea’s autocratic ruler, President Isaias Afwerki, imposed compulsory military service on both women and men, motivating many Eritreans to flee the country. Furthermore, his military has been accused of committing sexual abuses against ethnic Tigray women in neighboring Ethiopia, as it has joined the Ethiopian administration of President Abiy Ahmed in its brutal war against Tigray insurgents. What roles are Eritrean conscripted women assigned to in Isaias’ military? We know far too little about what these uniformed Eritrean women think about their military service, about their government, or about their sexually abusive male soldier colleagues.

    The Turkish military stands out in this list as well. It has remained one of the world’s most masculinized militaries, with 99.7% male soldiers. This is despite Turkey being a member of NATO, which, since the 1990s, has heralded itself as promoter of gender equality, urging member states to increase the recruitment of women into their ranks. Perhaps the Turkish government still having access to male conscripts has meant its defense officials haven’t seen enlisting women to be necessary, even given their waging an extended war against Kurdish insurgents in its south-east. Then too, there is Turkey’s increasingly autocratic rule under political leader President Erdoğan. His regime has become increasingly dependent upon a gender-conservative popular civilian voting base. Furthermore, it is rare to hear any Turkish feminist needing to prioritize other urgent issues, to raise women’s equality within the military as a major issue.

    Anything can be militarized, feminists warn each other, even gender equality.

    Or consider Fiji. While apparently a minor player in global politics, Fiji’s military politics has caused waves in the regional affairs of the South Pacific. On the eve of independence in 1970, Fiji was a starkly divided society, with 56% of its citizens ethnic Fijians and 35% ethnic Indo-Fijians. Fiji’s military was created by Britain, when it was its colonial ruler, to be a source of employment and communal pride for ethnic Fijian men. Locally, an ethnicized, masculinized military was imagined by a patriarchal alliance of ethnic Fijian male chiefs and ethnic Fijian Methodist male clergy to be a pillar of the newly independent state.

    When some Fijian women began to push for membership in this military, they were facing both an ethnicized and masculinized institution. Moreover, it was a military whose senior officers saw themselves as superior to the country’s elected Fijian and Indian civilian officials. Between 1987 and 2006, the ethnic Fijian men at the top of the country’s military performed four coups d’etat. This is the military some Fijian women sought to join, in the name of equal opportunity.

    The late Teresia Teaiwa was the feminist researcher and activist who taught so many of us to take seriously women in Fiji’s military. Teresia was a critic of the militarizing trends she saw throughout the South Pacific. She wisely warned us, however, not to overlook these women simply because Fiji is not a great power or because Fiji’s military has been so ethnically polarizing and anti-democratic. Rather, she said, her years of interviewing Fijian women from three distinct generations—a majority of them ethnic Fijians—revealed to her how these down-to-earth women calculated that becoming a soldier would secure their families’ incomes and enhance their own personal social mobility. She described them as “pragmatic.”

    After all, Fiji has become a major contributor to UN peacekeeping operations—in Lebanon, Syria, South Sudan, Timor-Leste. And international peacekeeping duty pays well. Fijian young women today look out on the world pragmatically. Should they enlist in Fiji’s state military, where they can earn extra pay as a peacekeeper? Or are their prospects improved if they sign up with one of the proliferating globalized private security companies that come to Suva in search of male and female recruits?

    Women in the US military attract the most international attention because the US is a major player in world politics and women in the US garner disproportionate attention of globalized news and entertainment media. It was Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin—not a Turkish or Fijian woman soldier—who was on that cinema screen in 1980s Amsterdam.

    Looking at the long (though incomplete) list of numbers, one can see that the US military is not among those with the highest proportions of women in their current military ranks. The militaries of Eritrea, Israel, South Africa, Hungary and Australia have out-paced the US. Yet, looking at any military, one must move beyond the numbers to ask racial and ethnic questions.

    A small meeting was held in the early 1990s in Washington to discuss race relations in the US military. These were the years when civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, monitored the federal government; when the US military was trying to put its Vietnam war disasters behind it; when the military had to fill its ranks without the aid of male draft. Around the table were civil rights campaigners, Black sociologists, members of Congress, mid-level Defense Department officials, several uniformed active-duty personnel and a smattering of civilian researchers.

    The discussion initially focused almost entirely on Black men in the US military—their promotion rates, their re-enlistment rates, their proportions of dishonorable discharges, their charges of discrimination—not because this was a meeting explicitly about men (and certainly not about masculinities), but because, for most of the participants, talking about “Blacks in the military” meant talking about Black men.

    There was a lull in the flow of conversation. Ed Dorn, an African American civil rights advocate and policy specialist, piped up: “You know, Black women are 48% of all enlisted women in the US Army.” There was a stunned silence. Then the Congressman at the table—who would soon be named Secretary of Defense—looked at Ed and said something to the effect of, “That’s not possible.”

    It didn’t seem possible because almost no one at the table had given any thought to Black women joining the military. It was Black men who were the issue. No one had bothered to notice that Black women admired their aunts and mothers who had enlisted in earlier generations and had made their own calculations about their chances in a racialized civilian workplace.

    Today, Black women comprise 29% of all active-duty military women, yet make up only 12% of all women in American society. That active-duty percentage is down a bit from African American women’s all-time high in the 1990s, but still more than twice what one might expect if there were no racialized gendered dynamics in American society or the military.

    Simultaneously, over the past twenty years, Latinas, who comprise about 18% of all American women, have risen to 21% of all active-duty women in the US military.

    Clearly two things are going on in any gendered, ethnicized, racialized military today. First, male-dominated policy elites are continuing to think of women in their militaries in terms of their own strategic needs: to compensate for losing male soldiers when male conscription ends; to look “modern” in the eyes of other international actors by enlisting at least a few women; to make compromises with their own local women’s equality advocates; to worry less about women enlistees’ racial or ethnic affiliations than about comparable male soldiers’ identities.

    Yet, second and simultaneously, women in societies as dissimilar as Fiji and the US are making their own assessments. Soldiering is not only an activity designed to strengthen the government’s capacity for violence, it is, in the eyes of many young women, a job: a job with benefits, a job with social status.

    Feminists have had to understand that women, especially young women of diverse communities and sexualities, have their own aspirations and make their own calculations. Women’s advocates have had to couple that understanding with their political goal of not letting the military as an institution carry on in its masculinized, patriarchal ways. At the same time—here’s the hard part—feminists have had to remain wary of treating the military as merely another job site, thus staying alert to the co-opting allures of militarism.

    Anything can be militarized, feminists warn each other, even gender equality.


    Excerpted from Twelve Feminist Lessons of War by Cynthia Enloe. Copyright © 2023. Published by the University of California Press.

    Cynthia Enloe
    Cynthia Enloe
    Cynthia Enloe is Research Professor at Clark University and author of fifteen books, including Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. In 2018, Enloe's name was installed on the Gender Justice Legacy Wall at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

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