#wcw: Is Joining the Military a Feminist Act?

As I work on revisions for a peer-reviewed article that will be incorporated into my Capstone at Fletcher, I keep circling around to the question regarding women who voluntarily join state militaries: “Is joining the military a feminist act?”

Feminist scholars are often uncomfortable with how to treat women in the military. Are they (we) disrupting existing patriarchal structures, or are they (we) complicit in their own oppression? A lot of this confusion is because foundational scholars, like Cynthia Enloe, who are so confident and definitive on other analyses, constantly contradict themselves.

For example, in the foundational “Does Khaki Become You?” (1983) Enloe opens: “If women who seek freedom from traditional sex roles begin to see military decisions to recruit women soldiers as triumphs for women’s liberation, then they too have become open to ideological militarization” (10).

Yet she concludes, “Perhaps more than in any previous era, we are living at a time when women can draw on their own experiences with the military to expose the military for the contradictory and vulnerable patriarchal institution it is and always has been” (220).

These contradictions appear throughout her work and (perhaps as a result) the work of other major scholars in the field. It’s constantly a discussion point at conferences and other fora — and frankly, it feels like few of these scholars have had a genuine conversation with servicewomen themselves. Or they don’t ask the right questions. Or they’re misinterpreting answers to fit with their biases. Or their subjects aren’t being forthcoming because there’s a genuine and valid mistrust of scholars because there’s this spin that keeps happening. (This last point has been raised by women I’ve interviewed for my Capstone) Ironically, women in non-state armed groups are not treated with the same skepticism.

There’s minimal understanding of the simultaneous coexistence of victimization and empowerment that service women experience through wearing a uniform, a dichotomy only amplified by intersections of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and even rank, branch of service, and military occupational specialty.

It’s possible to co-opt a little bit of the power of an organization without becoming an oppressor oneself. That’s a tightrope, but it’s the tightrope one walks to actually affect change.

I argue that to be a woman entering the military IS a feminist act, a point that I will dissect and defend throughout my work. We are all part of patriarchal systems and organizations — academia is also incredibly patriarchal. The accusation of complicity, which drives a wedge between different camps of people who are actively seeking to build gender equality, is itself a product of the internalization of patriarchy.

Change does not happen just because we write accusations of organizations we are personally unwilling to be part of — military service is not for everyone, but where are the actionable recommendations? Writing helps, but organizations actually change because there are people inside those organizations leading within, some through their mere existence , and others maybe going a step further to take an active role as a change agent.

Nobody joins the military to change it. Change happens because we want the institutions we are part of to live up to their own ideals. Many women and men I know in the military have become increasingly vocal about gender equality because, frankly, lives depend on it.

The timing of this discussion is no accident. The need to address hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal systems is increasingly existential.

Feminist security studies scholars and women actively working in national security are not natural allies. I wish we were, and I think there’s an opportunity to build bridges — I’m writing this in part because this conversation is already happening with mentors and peers both in academia and the military. We need each other.