Cynthia Enloe: War and Feminism

I am what I call a practising feminist. I identify as one and try to act as one. I have never taken a class in feminist theory, or for that matter, more than two social studies classes post secondary school (No, I am not proud of this, ignorance is never good, have the rest of my life to change that). Much of everything I know about feminism, I owe to my intelligent and incisive partner. So when I go to lectures by feminist theory giants like Cynthia Enloe, I never know what to expect, or what I will learn. I am glad I went to the University of Victoria last night for their Landsdowne lecture because Prof. Enloe’s talk  – “How Can You Tell if We Are Living in a ‘Post-war’ Era? Some Feminist Warnings” gave me quite a bit to think about. Her books, especially Bananas, Peaches and Bases, and The Curious Feminist are widely read and quoted, and the reverence and respect the audience had for her was apparent. The idea that gender roles are very distinct in war time is not revolutionary. Enloe was very particular to emphasise that a government’s successful conduct of a war depends very heavily on all the unpaid work done by the mothers and wives of the “warriors” (my word). Women’s patriotism is invoked in this endeavour to keep the war going. In that sense, the two most common genders remember war very differently.

Enloe had some interesting things to say about how wars never end in people’s minds, how “post-war” is a gross simplification, and that this memory is sometimes a problem. Enloe talked extensively about what happens when women push past their assigned war gender roles and start to organise and advocate. Cindy Sheehan came up frequently. Widowhood, a powerful war symbol which is supposed to be suffered in silence, can be a powerful unifying influence for collective organizing. Enloe talked about how ‘war widows’ in Iraq had organised to try and make conditions better for them after huge income and job losses in addition to partner loss (link is her book about it). Enloe talked quite a bit about how army systems actively discourage this kind of organising and public advocacy by the women of war, even using the spouses of army superiors and the army’s natural hierarchy to keep women in place. Enloe also, in the middle of telling the audience how army “spouses” are now discouraged from writing break-up letters to their active army mates, broke into an impromptu rendition of Dear John, gotta love that!

I had an issue that was half forming in my head during questions, so I did not ask it, and chatting with my lecture-mate on our walk back clarified my thoughts a little better. It is clear that war’s effects on people vary widely by nation, gender and class (three big ones, I’m sure there are many). So, it would have been interesting to hear a bit more about why gender identity and class identity rarely cross national boundaries to affect the conduct of wars, let alone end them quickly. Yes, people routinely bring up the suffering of fellow identity groups, whether they be women, or poor, or professor, or journalist, but gender is a really big deal as far as raw numbers go. Wars could not be waged successfully without the participation of many parts of a population that may have more in common with their identity groups across the “border” than with their fellow citizens. It is really important to think about the primacy of nationalism, and nation-state identity in actively subsuming other identities in a war’s cause. This is part, and design of the patriarchy of a war-based nation state. Few words are more incendiary than “traitor”. Of course, I am sure whole books have been written about this (side effect of knowing no theory, the tendency to assume that your thoughts are original and unique), that I might have to hunt down.

While Enloe exhorted the audience to think beyond borders at the beginning of her talk, describing the “Vietnam” war as the US-Vietnam war and how war casualties of the other war participants are rarely mentioned, she still could not shake her nationhood and American centricity off during the talk as successfully as she may have done in her books and theory. She had this interesting and useful device of writing some numbers on the board at the beginning of the talk and repeatedly referred to them through the talk. Most of these numbers were North American war casualties, which I found to be a bit limiting, considering her talk was delivering the opposite message on casualties. She exhorted us to refer to war titles by more location-neutral descriptors, like the US-Vietnam war instead of the Vietnam war, but she did not take the next step of habituating her audience to do that, repeatedly referring to the Iraq War (which one?), or the Gulf War (Which gulf, which war?). As she said, war titling is political, I would not be happy to go to a lecture and have to listen constantly to “the Indian mutiny” (or worse, the Sepoy Mutiny).

Prof. Enloe’s take away message on war was “Ask feminist questions, be realistic”. Yes I will, and not just for war.

3 comments for “Cynthia Enloe: War and Feminism

  1. Nathaniel
    February 23, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Wish I had been there, but talk about your proverbial can of worms. I’m sure countless thesis have been written on the role of militarism and battle ideology in human affairs, past and present. I was going to talk about a few but it’s such a huge topic – like gender itself -and where could you possibly begin? Suffice it to say that I’ve read estimates that up to 30% of pre-agrarian deaths were caused by homicide, and that warfare was likely the greatest single force in human evolution. Add that genetic condition to the almost-infinite complexities of modern societies and you have enough to keep countless minds musing for a very long time. Like all big questions, I wonder if knowledge is even possible, and to what ends? Speaking truth to power is a nice catchphrase but does it bring change?