An Introduction to Gender and Peacebuilding (2)

Violence is one of the most gendered of social activities, but this goes beyond the fact that the perpetrators of violence are overwhelming male, keeping in mind that far more men are victims of other men’s violence than perpetrators themselves. Violence is also gendered in terms of how we think about violence, and specifically how we think about men’s violence and women’s violence.

Indeed, women are quite capable of violence. Women have generally stood on the sidelines of war, but have encouraged their sons – and other mother’s sons – to go to war, and often been militant supporters of atrocities being committed against their enemies. Women are increasingly crossing one of the most rigid of gender barriers by going into combat. What is significant is not that women can engage in violence, but that their violence has generally been seen to be fundamentally different than men’s violence, and that it needs to be explained in a way that men’s violence needs not. It is a very telling statement with significant implications for the creation of a more peaceful world that men’s violence typically requires no explanation: it just is.

Historically, the women who committed murder, deemed a male crime, generally received a much tougher sentence than a man.  A wife who murdered her husband was guilty of petit treason, while up into the 20th century in Canada, a man who killed his wife was often tried not for the crime of murder, but under the lesser offense of passion killing (Frigon 2010). His actions were emotional, yes, yet still somehow reasonable, but the women’s was unthinkable, a crime against the social order. If a woman’s murder could not be explained in terms of the maternal instinct to protect her children, she was either mad or bad. The narratives surrounding the first typically explained her insanity in terms of her inability to find a husband, have a child, or accept her natural role, while the bad woman was a monstrous, usually sexually deviant woman. Even the women who engages in political violence today is typically understood as being motivated by very personal drives, such as the loss of a loved one or the need to redress the shame of a rape at the hands of the enemy, in contrast to the man’s assumed more political goals (Sjoberg and Gentry 2007).

In contrast, male violence is normal, rational, and capable of creating and sustaining order. The mythical Amazons posed a threat to the status quo, needing to be either killed off in battle or captured and married off to assuage the Greek audiences that this aberration was eliminated (Kirk 1987). The male warrior in contrast has been glorified through history, and man’s assumed capacity for violence has made him fit for leadership, thereby providing a much needed justification for patriarchal societies. In western democracies, the white male citizen-soldier received first-class citizenship, while minority men struggled to gain the right to serve and access combat units to prove their value; today, the feminists, who support the recruitment of women in their country’s armed forces, present a similar argument.

Even when male violence disturbs, women’s violence shocks far more. Most Americans were relatively unbothered when photos emerged in 2005 that depicted US soldiers engaging in torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison. What was found troubling, though, was that three of those involved were female soldiers;   conservatives responded by saying that this depravity is what happens when women take on warring, while numerous feminists expressed their disbelief that women could participate in torture (Ehrenreich 2004). Indeed, many feminists are uncomfortable with attention being given to the violent women, and given the epidemic rates of violence inflicted on women by men this is understandable. Yet, it is problematic since recognizing that violence is a human problem, albeit a very gendered human problem, rather than a male problem, is essential for creating a less violent world.

The distinction between male violence and female violence, and the corresponding normality of masculine violence and feminine nonviolence provides a cultural foundation for our acceptance of violence. Male violence becomes connected to the traditional masculine traits – rationality, strength, dominance, power, and independence; equally problematic, peace and nonviolence can be all too easily feminized as emotional, naïve, and weak, likely resulting in submission and dependence. As a result, disarmament initiatives – both domestic ones aiming to reduce the number of weapons in the hands of private citizens and international ones to reduce the expenditures and reliance on military force – are all too often viewed as emasculating. As Madeleine Rees describes in “This is What a Feminist Foreign Policy Looks Like,” when Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström decided to cancel her country’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia, citing its terrible human rights record, she was immediately denounced as  “naïve, emotional and lacking political judgment” – in other words lacking the manly qualities needed for leadership.

In her path-breaking participant observation of the community of North American nuclear defense intellectuals and security affairs analysts in the 1980s, Carol Cohn was surprised to find out how much gender mattered in discussions about US national security: “in their informal conversations, it was not their rational analyses that dominated their response, but the fact that for them, the decision for war, the willingness to use force, is cast as a questions of masculinity – not prudence, thoughtfulness, efficacy, “rational” cost-benefit calculation, or morality, but masculinity” (1993: 236-7) And, in their conversations, anything deemed feminine – “the emotional, the concrete, the particular, the human bodies and their vulnerability, human lives and their subjectivity” (232), along with nonviolent actions, such as seeking negotiations, going to the United Nations, or urging caution, were silenced or, if they somehow made it into the room, not taken seriously. In the 21st century, this view still holds strong as revealed by the numerous criticisms of how Obama’s foreign policy has been outmatched by Russian moves, orchestrated by the more macho Vladimir Putin.

As Cohn argues, this perspective “degrades our ability to think well and fully” about the issues of violence, war and peace (232). Political psychologist Steven Kull tells of an insightful anecdote from a conversation with a renowned Cold War strategist. When Kull challenged him with the logical contradictions inherent in nuclear deterrence theory, the strategist admitted that it was unnecessary to match the Soviet Union, missile for missile, but then added: “‘I don’t know. I just feel better that way…I just do” (Kull 1988: 224).

How is it that we can find it so easy to ignore the absurdity of yearly worldwide military spending regularly exceeding more than 1.6 trillion dollars, or $3 million/per minute, particularly in the context of a world where the unmet needs of millions continue to create the conditions for violence and terrorism to spread? Why do we seem to be so blind to the repeated examples of the inability of military interventions to bring the security we seek? Or, as Cynthia Cockburn puts it in her article, why is war culture “the prevailing common-sense?”

To transform this tendency, violence must be recognized as a human problem. We do need to recognize women’s capacity for violence, as this opens the door to viewing violence as a human choice, not something natural or normal. But, this will do little to revalue peace and de-link it from its frequent connection to weakness, naivety, and submission. This requires a far more radical change, compelling us to rethink our ideas about masculinity and femininity, and emphasize women’s and men’s capacity for nonviolence.

This latest collection of articles offers much to provoke a rethinking of gender. A few address masculinity directly. Jennifer Allsopp examines how the Syrian men seeking refuge in Europe remind us that many men refuse to take up arms, Melanie Cura Daball’s article on UN peacekeepers identifies one of the most silenced consequences of a gender identity that is militarized and entitled, and Michael Kaufman, founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, discusses why transforming ideas about gender is so difficult. In her article espousing a feminist foreign policy, Madeleine Rees calls on us all to pressure our governments to put “principles and human decency above ‘business as usual,’” while Cynthia Cockburn’s offers a deeper reflection on why gender must be confronted in peace work.  We also offer an interview with eminent feminist academic Cynthia Enloe on the complexities of gender, touching on female soldiers, military recruiters and peace movements, a short video on what gender equality means, and personal stories from two Dawson students on how their lives have been affected by violence. Once again, the collection offers insight in what is needed for peace to flourish.

  Pat Romano

Humanities, Dawson College


Cohn, Carol. “‘War, Wimps and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War.” Gendering War Talk. Eds.  Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1993. 227-246.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Foreward: Feminism’s Assumptions Upended.” One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers. Ed. Tara McKelvey. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007. 1-5.

Frigon, Sylvie. “Mapping Scripts and Narratives of Women Who Kill Their Husbands in Canada, 1866-1954: Inscribing the Everyday.” Killing Women: The Visual Culture of Gender and Violence. Eds. Annette Burfoot and Susan Lord. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006. 3-20.

Kirk, Ilse. “Images of Amazons: Marriage and Matriarchy.” Images of Women in Peace and War: Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives. Eds. Shirley MacDonald and Shirly Ardener. London: MacMillan, 1987. 22-39.

Kull, Steven. Minds at War: Nuclear Reality and the Inner Conflicts of Defense Policymakers. New York: Basic Books. 1988.

Sjoberg, Laura and Caron E. Gentry Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics. London: Zed Books. 2007.

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One Response to An Introduction to Gender and Peacebuilding (2)

  1. Elsa Wauters November 28, 2016 at 11:49 pm #

    I really like your conclusion, especially when you say that we should consider violence as a human behaviour, not only as a male behaviour. I strongly agree that women are capable of violence. However, I think that women are expected certain things that makes it less likely for them to submit to a violent behaviour.

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