OPINION + WOMEN
Women and the Military: Could pushing female representation do more harm than good?
2nd October 2020
From female CEOs to LGBTQ+ visibility in films, the participation of under-represented groups in powerful institutions has been widely praised as both a reflection of and a catalyst for, social progress. However, to what extent individual representation should be prioritised is a matter of serious contention within social justice movements. In the age of tokenism and performative allyship, many are now asking: how useful is representation in and of itself? If individual members of marginalised groups are in positions of power, will the necessary changes for their community be achieved, or do we need a collective movement of oppressed groups to attack systems of inequality from the outside? These questions have been particularly divisive in feminist discussions on women and the military.
Some women’s rights advocates argue that in countries such as the U.S. and Britain, the army is an instrument of patriarchy and imperialism that cannot be participated in from a feminist perspective. However, the argument generally put forth by liberal feminists is that progress in this area cannot be gained without female representation in the military. For instance, when all U.S. military positions became open to women in 2015, the move was praised by some as a victory for women’s rights; but some left-wing feminists argued that this development widened the reach of the American military, an institution that ultimately perpetuated violence against women of colour in other countries. In Britain, there was a similar discourse about whether the opening of combative roles to women should be interpreted as a feminist milestone. Today, the use of feminist language in British Army PR campaigns has raised scepticism again. When Laura Whitmore defended her appearance on the British Army podcast, she argued that “every industry and body is bettered by… a balance of all sexes”. While this is often true, is possible that the push for female recruits may do more harm than good for women’s rights?
Every industry and body is bettered by equality and a balance of all sexes x
— Laura Whitmore (@thewhitmore) August 4, 2020
There are undeniable benefits to promoting female representation in many contexts. Increasing the number of women in decision-making roles can lead to more gender-sensitive policies being adopted and improve institutions as a whole. For instance, when women are involved in negotiating peace processes, this not only increases the likelihood of gender provisions being included in peace agreements but also increases the sustainability of peace in general. The importance of female representation in influential roles is often discussed in the context of critical mass theory. This theory argues that having a very small percentage of female decision-makers is unlikely to progress gender equality. However, once a critical mass of female representation is achieved, usually estimated at 30%, women’s interests are more likely to be defended. This theory can be applied to boards of directors, political offices and any position involved in policy-making. However, does it apply to army recruits?
In considering this, it’s important to remember that the advancement of women’s rights through representation can only happen when women are actually given decision-making power. Entry-level cadets and lower-ranking members of the military have no say over the rules they follow. Moreover, even the highest-ranking members of the military ultimately do not determine their nation’s foreign policy agenda, and how it may impact female civilians. Therefore, when the army pushes for female recruits, be it through making more positions available to women, or using feminist talking points in their recruitment campaigns, this does not necessarily present an opportunity for women to shape military policy. Of course, it could be argued that a higher level of female participation at entry level will eventually lead to more women in higher ranks. However, gendered barriers and widespread discrimination make it unlikely for a critical mass of women at the top to be achieved through the normal course of promotion. If the British military actually wanted to include a female perspective, they wouldn’t be using media campaigns – they would be adopting targeted internal policies such as quotas for high ranking positions. Given that the army has only recently allowed women to even apply for all roles, it seems unlikely that affirmative action is on its way any time soon.
“If the British military actually wanted to include a female perspective, they wouldn’t be using media campaigns – they would be adopting targeted internal policies such as quotas for high ranking positions.”
However, even if there was a large minority of women in the higher ranks of the military, recent research suggests that this would not actually guarantee the progression of women’s interests. While some studies show that increased female representation will lead to more gender-sensitive policies when over 30% of decision-makers are women, other studies have shown the opposite to be true. Increased representation sometimes hinders women’s interest; while a small number of women may be accepted within an establishment, a large minority can be perceived as a threat to male dominance and thus face a negative response. This kind of backlash could be of particular concern in the military, where there is a long history of male dominance and ongoing issues of discrimination and abuse against women.
A lack of understanding of civilian women in war is another reason why female participation in the army might not be effective in bringing about change. The reason female representation at the top can sometimes advance the position of women more broadly is not that every woman is necessarily committed to feminism – but because female leaders often have shared experiences with their female subordinates, and can understand and empathise with what it means to be a woman in their institution. However, servicewomen in the British Army are unlikely to have experienced the gendered impacts of war or understand the experiences of female civilians in conflict. Furthermore, the disproportionate effects of conflict on women are often indirect and may not be witnessed first-hand by foreign soldiers. Because of this, increased female participation might lead to some advancements in the internal workings of the military, but is unlikely to make war safer for female civilians, the most vulnerable group in this context.
British Army recruitment campaign targeting women (Ministry of Defence, 2020)
Overall, the British military pushing for female recruits could lead to improvements for servicewomen at some undefined point in the future. However, these benefits are ultimately uncertain and indirect. Unfortunately, the harms of this kind of campaigning are more concrete. When the British Army uses feminist rhetoric to sell militarism, it is intended to sanitize their public image and make war seem more palatable to those who value women’s rights. This situation can be described as “woke-washing”, and serves to drown out concerns about the oppressive impact of militarism on female civilians. In practice, this means that the lived experiences of marginalised women are shoved to one side, while images of the military as a driving force for empowerment circulates mainstream media. This situation could make people being less likely to fight for justice because there has been the illusion of progress but no meaningful change. From the army’s perspective, if they can reap the benefits of being perceived as feminist either way, there is no incentive to acknowledge women’s rights abuses in the past or to work towards change in the future. These damages exist even if the military is unsuccessful in recruiting more women because the affiliation of the army with feminist talking-points is powerful in of itself.
“Prioritizing the individual ambitions of white women over the collective needs of women of colour is a defining feature of “white feminism”, and yet another issue with the military co-opting feminist language”
On the other hand, if this kind of campaigning does attract more women, it means that the army can expand its reach and power. If history is anything to go by, this looks like a greater capacity for unnecessary military interventions that disrupt civilian lives and perpetuate gendered violence. It is of course true that some women may find military service empowering and want the chance increase to improving conditions for servicewomen. While everyone should be free to choose their career path, praising these cases as a win for feminism is misguided. An increase in female recruits could someday benefit the predominantly white population of British servicewomen, but these gains would ultimately rely on an institution that oppresses and kills women of colour. This is particularly problematic given that servicewomen choose to be in the army, while civilian women don’t consent to how their lives are impacted by military intervention. Prioritizing the individual ambitions of white women over the collective needs of women of colour is a defining feature of “white feminism”, and yet another issue with the military co-opting feminist language.
For as long as civilians shoulder the cost of imperialism, and empty rhetoric is used in place of real change, the military will continue to be a patriarchal force. As feminists, this is not a system we should strive to participate in or strengthen, but rather something we should refuse to accept. Whether it is in the ballot box, in the streets or in the media, feminist action needs to incorporate an anti-war perspective and raise the voices of civilian women in conflict throughout the world.
Featured photo by Wallpaper Flare