In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender Issues

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Military History Gender Issues
Victoria Basham
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0211


Militaries and warfare have always been profoundly gendered sites of human activity. Excluding, marginalizing, or obscuring women’s participation in combat and other military roles has proved remarkably salient throughout history and across cultures. This has assured the association of men with, as well as their predominance in, commanding, fighting, technologically advancing, and even analyzing, warfare, with one effect of this being to normalize that relationship in practice and scholarship. Another has been to limit the range of issues that military history has traditionally explored, with gendered consequences. Until the 1960s, military history was rather preoccupied with narrow concerns such as military campaigns, their leaders, strategy and tactics and developments in weaponry, and logistics. As heavily masculinized sites, it follows that military history has, therefore, focused primarily on the actions and experiences of men until relatively recently. As a result, not only have the practices and experiences of women in warfare and military settings received scant attention, the focus on men, warfare, and military power has meant that the power relations embedded within this relationship have been overlooked by many scholars, and for some considerable time. More specifically, the narrow focus on “men” and the absence of women in earlier accounts left important questions unanswered as to how shifting social constructions of masculinities and femininities have shaped militaries and warfare over time. From the 1960s onward, gender issues—including, but not only pertaining to, questions of why men predominate military history and why women have been marginalized in it—became more widely studied and debated marking the rise of so-called “new military history.” In critiquing earlier approaches to militaries and war for limiting their concerns—to the detriment of closer examination of military culture and organization—“new” military historians, and scholars from cognate disciplines, have paid more attention to the military and warfare both as gendered institutions shaped by accepted ideas of femininity and masculinity, and as gendering institutions, through which the creation of gendered identities takes place. This bibliography aims to alert readers to scholarship that more fully explores gendered experiences of war and the military across the globe.

General Overviews

From the defamiliarization of typical assumptions about the masculine experience of warfare highlighted by Bourke 1999 to probing interdisciplinary analyses of the relationship between war and gender such as that offered by Goldstein 2001, scholars have increasingly come to draw on a rich range of historical sources to examine how gender has shaped militaries and war, and how war and militaries have in turn shaped gendered identities, roles, and expectations. Dudink, et al. 2004 does so by examining the dynamics of gender, war, and politics across several continents. Others have sought to recover details about women’s roles and experiences and other overlooked gender issues to enrich analysis in military history. Fabre-Serris and Keith 2015 rejects the notion that warfare has ever been an entirely masculine domain; its authors instead investigate the multiple roles women have played in warfare across time and the stakes involved in how such roles were represented. Scholars have also shown why centering women’s experiences can offer a very different set of insights into the experience of war and what we risk overlooking without including and centering women’s voices and experiences. See for example, Alexievich 2017. Other works, such as Cooke 1997, have fundamentally questioned the associations between war, violence, and men by using men’s and women’s stories of their lives to undo it. Some have taken more intersectional approaches in analyzing how gender, race, and sexuality have worked in through each other in the domestic and foreign policies of states during wartime, Muehlenbeck 2017 being an excellent example of this approach. These titles, through their varied approaches, all introduce readers to some of the key ways that the gendering of the practice and study of war and military activity has made them quintessentially masculine pursuits. Bourke 2006, Brugh 2019, and Cohn 1987 all provide detail on how this association can be questioned, explained, and, in many cases undone, through seeking out alternative historical accounts.

  • Alexievich, Svetlana. The Unwomanly Face of War. London: Penguin, 2017.

    In the late 1970s and early 1980s Alexievich interviewed hundreds of Russian women who were pilots, doctors, partisans, snipers, anti-aircraft gunners, laundresses, cooks, telephone operators, and engine drivers during the Second World War. Through oral histories detailing women’s sensual and emotional experiences Alexievich offers different insights into the experience of war.

  • Bourke, J. An Intimate History of Killing. London: Granta, 1999.

    Bourke’s in-depth analysis of the letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports of male veterans from the First and Second World Wars and the Vietnam War challenges widely held assumptions about war as a traumatic experience. In analyzing how emotions such as love, empathy, and pleasure can be more significant motivations to engage in killing, Bourke demonstrates the complex ways in which men prepare for war and carry out military violence.

  • Bourke, Joanna. “New Military History.” In Palgrave Advances in Modern Military History. Edited by M. Hughes and W. J. Philpott, 258–280. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230625372_14

    This important chapter, part of a broader edited collection examining some of the core development in modern military history, details the ways in which social, political, and cultural upheavals in the 1960s engendered different approaches to the study of military history. One of the key effects of this was to create more space for the consideration of gender issues and their relative marginality in the field to that point.

  • Brugh, Patrick. Gunpowder, Masculinity, and Warfare in German Texts, 1400–1700. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781787446083

    This analysis explores the longstanding connections between guns and masculinity. Through early modern German texts, including military manuals, poems, theological treatises, novels, and broadsheets, it outlines the gendered cultural and literary history of gunpowder in German-speaking lands from the Hussite Wars to the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War. In so doing, Brugh highlights the ongoing importance of gendered gun violence in this period and the contemporary era.

  • Cohn, Carol. “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12 (1987): 687–718.

    DOI: 10.1086/494362

    Cohn’s highly influential article is based on ethnographic research with defense intellectuals in the 1980s. Cohn examines the significance of gendered symbolism to technostrategic discourse and practice arguing that gendered discourse plays a central role in allowing defense intellectuals to think and act as they do. This includes their ability to not only normalize but to prioritize nuclear weapons as a rational masculinized approach to global security.

  • Cooke, Miriam. Women and the War Story. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

    Focusing on contemporary Arab literature, Cooke explores how women write themselves and their experiences into a story of war dominated by men, violence, sexuality, and glorification. Cooke shows how women’s stories contest the ways we commonly think about warfare and how they break down the binaries of home/the front, civilians/combatants, war/peace, and victory/defeat that have allowed us to make sense of, and ultimately uphold, war.

  • Dudink, Stefan, Karen Hagemann, and Josh Tosh, eds. Masculinities in Politics and War: Gendering Modern History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.

    This comprehensive edited volume examines the role of masculinity in the making of modern war and politics. Ranging from the American Revolution to the Second World War and examining the dynamics of gender, war, and politics across several continents, the essays in this collection provide insights into the multitude of masculinities that have made revolutions, wars, nations, and welfare states possible.

  • Fabre-Serris, Jaqueline, and Alison Keith, eds. Women & War in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

    The outcome of a symposium on women, war, and antiquity, this edited volume explores the effects of war on women’s roles, status, position, and representation in ancient Mediterranean cultures and the implications of this for the modern world.

  • Goldstein, Joshua. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Goldstein’s interdisciplinary analysis directly addresses the question of how war came to be a quintessentially masculine domain. Drawing on insights from historical evidence, psychology, genetics, physiology, and other disciplines besides, Goldstein demonstrates that there is nothing natural about men killing in war. Instead, it is gender norms that have created the war system and gender norms that continue to determine the war roles that men, women, and children play.

  • Muehlenbeck, Philip E., ed. Gender, Sexuality, and the Cold War: A Global Perspective. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2017.

    This edited collection considers how gender and sexuality shaped the varied experiences of men and women in fifteen countries across five continents during the Cold War era. From the gendered policies of occupying powers and the policing of sexuality in civil-military relations to the activism of Indian peasant women and the celebration of masculinity in communist and liberal regimes, this volume highlights the centrality of sexuality and gender to war.

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