The founders of WILPF
Cynthia Enloe spoke to Marion Bowman this week at WILPF's Centenary Conference in the Hague on 'Women's Power to Stop War'.
The 1915 Women’s Congress at which the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom was founded had a backdrop of social segregation
between women and men with women excluded from public life. Is the
backdrop different now?
I think when we look at those fabulous photographs of those women in
1915, they look as though they do live in another age. They seem to
be dressed in an almost Victorian way, not even Edwardian, and it
seems as though it’s ‘back then’.
we appear different, we seem to move more freely, but in fact in a
lot of public life, the segregation has continued, based on the
notion that only certain kinds of men and virtually no women, unless
those women can pass as men in the way they present themselves and
talk, can really understand the complexities of public life. It’s
the masculinisation of complexity.
in fact women in all walks of life deal with, cope with, challenge
complexities all the time but it’s so narrowly defined as to what
kind of person you have to be to handle questions of the arms trade
or questions of financial reform that I think the segregation has
been modernised. It’s changed its public appearance but it still
exists in that mindset about who can handle the complexity of modern
life. It’s a myth but a very important myth.
Throughout history binaries have been important – women/men,
us/them, soldier/civilian – why? And have they broken down at all?
They are important because they are a way to tell a story that seems
as though it’s got a more driven plot. I think about this all the
time. I’m not a story teller but I find that the way that stories
get told that get passed on are the stories that have powerful ‘us
story-telling is much more engaging and interesting because it takes
on board that there are not just grey areas in between, there are
overlaps and contradictions and fluidities. Those are the stories
that are much more gripping than these cartoon stories made up of
these simplistic binaries. You never can solve a difficult problem by
resorting to a narrative of binaries. It doesn’t work.
Is the concept of equality helpful in the context of war and peace?
I’m thinking of women soldiers.
It depends on who sets the bar as to what you are trying to be equal
to. The question of women’s equality in state militaries or women
in insurgent militaries are rather different questions.
take state militaries. Most state militaries around the world have
been deeply masculinised and male-run, both, for centuries. So there
was a lot of resistance to women doing anything in those militaries
because there was a real protection around the masculinised privilege
of the state’s militaries. It was part of what gave it its status.
Then when women started pushing to have some role in the national
security apparatus a lot of military professionals as well as
civilian overseers began to realise ‘Oh, we can make good use of
women, maybe we should let down our resistance a bit, 10%, if pushed
maybe 14%, but we will use them the way that our masculinised
military system finds women useful.’
I’ve spoken to a lot of women who are former soldiers or currently
soldiers or young women aspiring to be soldiers and a lot of them are
motivated because they want to break down walls that privileged their
brothers. But a lot also see joining the military as the only way to
prove they are real patriots. I think that’s very worrisome.
speak very respectfully to women in militaries because I need to
learn from them – what are they doing? – why did they think it
was appealing to join? – but I need to respect the fact that a lot of
these women are fighting sexism inside a very sexist institution and
women who fight sexism inside any powerful institution need to be
listened to. So I am quite willing to admit I am on a see-saw
between, on the one hand, being very wary of the notion that women
joining their state’s militaries are advancing genuine equality
and, on the other hand, listening to women in militaries rather than
just dismissing them as somebody’s puppet. That I don’t think
gets us anywhere.
What does the incorporation of women into militaries do for concepts
of femininity in civilian life? Is the distinction between civilian
and military life blurred by it?
I think conventions of femininity are different from place to place
and age to age but the idea of femininity is alive and well. It’s
pushed by the fashion industry and the general media. The idea of
what’s feminine and what’s not has been challenged but it’s
very powerful. So you can see military recruiters and commanders
trying to play with that. On the one hand they have to convince
parents of girls and friends of girls and boyfriends and husbands of
young women that joining the military will not make them unfeminine.
On the other hand, they have to convince them that joining will be
progress, that they will do something that usually only their
brothers were allowed to do. So you can watch a lot of confusion on
the parts of militaries, and I’m always very interested in watching
patriarchal confusion. Oftentimes you will see photographs of women
in recruiting posters – they may be in full uniform but in the next
picture they will be putting on makeup in their off hours – which
really says to the worried parent or the young girl thinking about
joining ‘Don’t worry, dear mother, don’t worry, dear young
school girl, you can be a real soldier and still keep your
When women first started demanding equality and a share of power,
like the 1915 women, they were told it was ‘unnatural’, that it
was abandoning their function as mothers, even that their
reproductive organs would stop working. Has that gone?
I don’t think it ever really goes, the threat has been updated,
modernised, but there is a still worry in the general public that
soldiering is really mainly a man’s job.
first thing militaries realised they could do was recruit women into
military nursing. I became very interested in the history of nursing
because I could follow the history of debates about femininity. As
more women have moved into classically masculinised roles, the
politics of femininity is still vital to explore because you can also
shed light on militarists’ confusion and that is very useful.
don’t think the politics of femininity has gone away. You can see a
lot of women in women’s movements really trying to make sure that
people who are coming in don’t imagine that their own femininity is
going to be jeopardised by being part of a strong feminist movement,
because the media and anti-feminists portray feminists as somehow not
Why is the issue of women in combat roles, on the frontline, killing
people such a potent question?
The first thing is that it is the last bastion of masculine privilege
in most militaries and one of the things I’ve been told by a lot of
women in militaries challenging the sexism in their institutions is
it is also the kind of experience you have to have if you are going
to rise to a senior officer’s position. We don’t think of that
oftentimes, but a military is just like a business, it’s is a
career system. It’s not just a fighting force, it’s a ladder for
promotions. One of the reasons why women officers battled to break
down the men-only combat rule is not because they wanted to be in
combat. Most said they were not interested in carrying big packs and
slogging through the mud, rather they didn’t want the area of
military jobs that was most the masculinised to also be the one that
is most likely to earn you promotions. It was really a promotion
discrimination system they were challenging as much as it was wanting
to fire a gun.
I think a lot of patriarchal men and women who see combat as
something that only real men can do, they did feel very challenged by
it. They really felt it was going to dismantle the kind of
masculinity they think is the core valued masculinity. They did feel
Where are the men’s peace movements?
There are men’s peace movements. We can see them in some of the new
men’s anti-violence movement, we can see them in a lot of the
conscientious objector movements that were very powerful in apartheid
South Africa and that still exist in Germany, South Korean and
what has often been found by women peace activists, especially as
they become feminists, is that even in a peace movement that doesn’t
have a feminist consciousness, men still think they know the most
about wars so they are the best leaders of a peace movement. They
think they know the most about public speaking, they know the most
about the technicalities of weaponry so they think they are the peace
experts in a very narrow masculinised way unfortunately. You would
think a peace movement would be the least patriarchal of all social
movements but you can masculinise anything. Groups like WILPF with a
feminist attitude and feminist understanding of what it takes to make
peace have really challenged what it takes to make peace.
Is there a crisis for men in the post-industrial western world that
is having an impact on war and peace?
I’m very interested in recruiters – they have to meet quotas,
especially for governments that have done away with male
conscription. They have to find some way to persuade 17, 18, 19 year
old men that joining the state’s military will make their lives
more satisfying, give them a sense of being real men, give them
skills (which is often a myth), give them status in their
communities. Recruiters often have a hard time. Every recruiter I’ve
ever listened to says unemployment is really good for them. When the
economy is tanking, with fewer jobs, specifically male jobs, when
construction has gone down, then military recruiters can fill their
quotas. They still have to do persuasion, they still have to play the
masculinity card but they can also play on young men’s worry about
not having a job.
economies revive especially when they revive across racial and ethnic
communities, because most economies are divided amongst men in racial
and ethnic terms, the military recruiter’s job becomes much harder.
So healthy economies and economies that are not racialised are
helpful in building alternative notions of how a young man can gain a
sense of self esteem and even social security in ways other than
wielding the government’s gun.
Cynthia Enloe was speaking to Marion Bowman at WILPF's Centenary Conference in the Hague on 'Women's Power to Stop War'. Read more interviews and articles from the conference in 50.50's series Women's Power to Stop War.