The gendered dimensions of war

June 28, 2017

It has been commented upon many times how remarkably gender segregated the sociological issue of war is. Modern states have tried to increase the participation of women in the military, but have had little impact on numbers. Apart from a handful of exceptions, throughout history, war has been waged almost exclusively by men. Attempts to explain this phenomenon has resulted in three main theoretical bases: masculinist, culturalist and feminist views (Malesevic 2010), which are systematically critiqued.

Firstly, there is thought to be an almost innate masculinity to warfare which plays upon essentialist arguments. Here, the biological disposition of men is said to act in such a way as to explain warfare as an extension of individual hostility organised on a large scale, and physical features of men make them more suited to fighting than women who are generally less strong. In addition, men are thought to be more aggressive and thus more predisposed to combat. However, this theory is disputed by Malesevic who points to instances in history where the army was shorter in stature, and even children

[1] have been utilised, and this has had no bearing on the outcome of the conflict. The argument is relative rather than absolute. He says, ‘physical strength and soldiers’ heights do not win wars, for if this was the case then militaries would spend millions on gyms and eugenic projects to enhance physical characteristics rather than on armaments or skills and logistics training’ (2010:279).

Another side to the masculinist argument, one of social masculinist, does recognise that aggression is a learnt behaviour. Military training, to bring out certain behaviours, has been used in different parts of the world to enhance military effectiveness. Taken to its ultimate degree, extreme military training has been used as a means to break down men’s humanity to ensure the ability to kill in cold blood (Cock 1991). Also, the use of misogynist language acts to bind men together and ensures the negation of any male/female sentiment. Here, any inclusion of women to the military unit is deemed to interfere with the efficiency of the all-male fighting force. This particular point has been a sticking point in the debates around the inclusion of more women into the military. In December 2014, the UK Ministry of Defence published a review into women in close-combat roles, and finally dismissed the idea that mixed sex units could not cohere and perform as a team. Another stumbling block for women in the military is the thought that women’s long term health is more affected than men’s in combat and that they need more protection. Currently, a review within the UK Ministry of Defence, due to report mid-2016, is being carried out into training practices and the impact of fighting on women.

Malesevic (2010:279) concedes there are some gender-specific cognitive differences between men and women, yet these, he says, are too subtle and too small to have any significant impact on participation in warfare. Even if the differences were more than just small, the nature of military activity would easily incorporate the participation of women since a successful defence force requires a range of competences, aptitudes and skills. Hormonal differences between the sexes are likewise dismissed by Malesevic as having little bearing on performance in combat, whether high testosterone levels on behalf of men, or high estrogen levels in women. Examples in history of female warriors, such as Dahomey women, show them capable of ruthlessness, courage and drive just as fierce as male warriors[2]. Aggression as essentially a male characteristic is an incorrect assumption, and following on from this, to quote Malesevic, ‘the psychological process of aggression can never be a synonym for the sociological phenomenon that is warfare but, in most instances successful military conduct is premised on the restraint and institutional control of aggressive impulses…… War ….is a co-ordinated large-scale process that involves violent confrontation between two social organisations.’ (2010:283).

Culturalist arguments regarding warfare focus on the socialisation of men and women to predispose them to fight. Their arguments are functional in nature in highlighting what is seen as the natural sexual division of labour. Gender differences are enhanced through childhood socialisation: boys are encouraged to display behaviour appropriate to their sex, for example, not to cry when hurt, and to play with toy guns, bows and arrows and video war games. Converse to this, girls are socialised to enhance their feminine characteristics, for example, play with dolls and the wearing of pink princess outfits.

More contemporary culturalist views have focused on the structural nature of the division between the sexes. Holmes (1985:101-4) is quoted as arguing that strong opposition to women partaking in combat roles is a product of ‘cultural conditioning’ as most societies ‘are structured upon sex stereotyping which has immense force’ (Malesevic 2010:285). Through this gendered process of socialisation, men in the military find a source of self-identification and feelings of masculinity. What is proposed here, is that warfare is built upon the cultural construction of gender roles. Goldstein (2001:283), a culturalist, is quoted as having the following arguments: ‘The omnipresent potential for war causes cultures to transform males, deliberately and systematically, by damaging their emotional capabilities…. Thus manhood, an artificial status that must be won individually, is typically constructed around a culture’s need for brave and disciplined soldiers’ (Malesevic 2010:286). However, this explanation for the gendered segregation of warfare does not go far enough.

Malesevic (2010:287) points out the following…. ‘The experience of the Vietnam War clearly illustrates that despite the fact that many American soldiers were a product of similar socialisation processes, their behaviour on the battlefield and their attitude to Vietnamese women (soldiers and civilians) were highly diverse: some had no problem raping and murdering women while others were firmly opposed to these practices (Baker 1982; Ruane 2000). Similarly, many of those involved in the insurgency in Iraq have undergone strict gendered socialisation processes that emphasise the religiously underpinned principle that women (and especially Muslim women) should never be involved or killed in warfare. Nevertheless, not only were women targeted by insurgents as much as men, but women were also trained and used as suicide bombers. Clearly ‘cultural conditioning’ and ‘cultural needs’ cannot explain the obvious diversity in social action.’

One could argue that culturalism overplays the significance of social norms, since cultures are particular to certain societies, and yet the gendering of militarisation is almost universal. The strength of human resistance is under-emphasised – cultures are not made up of individuals simply following normative stances. But following on from that, the spread of women into the workforce of the military has not happened to the same extent as other spheres of employment and culturalism does not fully explain why this is so.

The last theoretical base to be explored is feminism, in three distinct approaches: rights-based, differential and post-essentialist feminism. The stance taken is that gender inequality has existed throughout history in a largely patriarchal world.

Although, the exclusion of women in the military is seen as discrimination, it does not always follow that rights-based feminists who advocate gender integration, support militarist values. As Enloe (2000:287) argues, more women in the military may provide a platform for women to question ‘the legitimacy of state-sanctioned masculine privilege’. But as we know, patriarchy is not sanctioned by men alone, and women are also responsible for upholding such stances (See Enloe 2000:248 ‘the militarisation of mothers’).

Differential feminists share with biological and social masculinists the view that warfare is men’s domain, but whereas masculinists see this as normal and inevitable, differential feminists see it as the result of a patriarchal world. However, they do not regard the reason as important since they believe women should not be involved in warfare since they are naturally life givers and mothers, not life takers.

Post-essentialist feminists recognise the complexity of the social construction of gender and are likely to point to examples of the plasticity of gender roles such as women terrorists versus male conscientious objectors. However, as Malesevic (2010:292) states, ‘the simple fact is that the greater equality of women, the weakening of the patriarchal ethos and the reduction in sexist practices have not dramatically (or in many cases at all) altered the patterns of female participation on the battlefield. For example, in the social orders generally recognised as the least patriarchal, such as Canada, Denmark, Netherlands or Norway, where women have achieved greater levels of parity with men in many aspects of social, economic and political life, the number of female soldiers in combat roles still remains miniscule’. Malesevic’s reasoning as a response to this universal gendering of warfare is stated as ‘two inter-related processes – the cumulative bureaucratisation of violence and the centrifugal ideologisation of gender roles’ (2010:295).

Malesevic (2010:298) points to research which has compared nomadic and semi-nomadic groups and organisationally advanced societies and concluded that the absence of organised violence is linked to greater gender equality (Fry 2007). He hastens to add that this does not mean that gender inequality stems from warfare, but rather that the social organisation of militarism institutionalises gender difference. Malesevic’s argument is that ‘the gender specific division of labour is deeply rooted in social organisation and can only be transformed when the organisation itself is transformed’ (2010:300). He believes that ‘if both genders were fully included in the war enterprise this would profoundly undermine the nature of the enterprise’ (ibid).

To conclude, ‘…the exclusion of women from combat roles is not grounded in biology, culture or patriarchy, although all three of these have contributed to this process; it is a product of bureaucratisation and ideologisation. Keeping the two genders apart is an organisational device that keeps war going and….coercively induced gender division regularly creates aggressive genderisation of social roles’ (Malesevic 2010:306)



Baker, M. (1982). Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women who fought there. New York, Morrow.

Cock, J. (1991). Colonels and Cadres: War and Gender in South Africa, Oxford University Press.

Enloe, C. (2000). Maneouvres: the international politics of militarising women’s lives, Univ of California Press.

Fry, D. S. (2007). Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, Oxford University Press.

Goldstein, J. S. (2001). War and gender: how gender shapes the war system and vice versa, Cambridge University Press.

Holmes, R. (1985). Acts of War. New York, Free Press.

Malesevic, S. (2010). The Sociology of War and Violence, Cambridge University Press.

Ruane, K. (2000). The Vietnam Wars, Manchester University Press.


[1] 80 percent of the children in Sierra Leone’s civil war in rebel military forces were aged 7 to 14.

[2] See Alpern, S.B. (2011) ‘Amazons of Black Sparta: the Women Warriors of Dahomey’, C. Hurst and Co. Ltd.

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