Response to #ReadingWomen

Published in
5 min readMar 15, 2017


Eric M. Murphy

We are very pleased to bring you this piece from Eric M. Murphy on his interaction with the #ReadingWomen blogs from Miranda Summers-Lowe and myself. Refreshingly honest, it is a both thoughtful and thought-provoking narrative of his experience. We are grateful he offered to share this with us as it is clearly an important response that should resonate more widely through the community. Read and enjoy, and like Eric, do please feel free to offer your written responses on #ReadingWomen. — JSR

I’m always excited to see a new reading list, so I approached the first two contributions to the #ReadingWomen series on CCL KOW by Jill Sargent Russell and Miranda Summers-Lowe with great interest. The authors and works they recommend are fantastic, but as I got into both posts I’ll admit I felt some reluctance to entertain — even some overt hostility toward — the notion that a list should target voices in any demographic category, female or otherwise, and I initially dismissed Russell’s assertion that “no thoughtful assessment of the many fields contained within the national security umbrella…could overlook the critical absence of women’s voices.” And I came very close to an outright rejection of the suggestion that men (or women) should deliberately seek out female leaders, colleagues, and subordinates to learn from and mentor. I may have even let words like “ridiculous” and “nonsense” slide into my subconscious evaluation of these notions. After all, of my three most important academic mentors, one was a brilliant mathematician and teacher who happened to be female; of the two professional mentors who have meant the most to me, one happened to be female etc. I’m surrounded by smart women (and men) from whom I learn and for whom I try hard to act as a mentor every day, but I also don’t see gender as an important factor in those relationships. Is there really a need to make a conscious effort at singling out women in this regard? “Surely not!” has been my answer, but if you’ve stayed with me through the words above, let me now say this:

I was wrong.

How was I led to this little epiphany? Having been called out, in a sense, by their suggestions, I conducted a little survey. I went to my shelves and contemplated my books — something I rather enjoy doing anyway. There must be more than many, I thought, authored or edited by women, but I was wrong. Of the approximately 350 nonfiction books I packed up and brought with me to Air War College, I counted just fourteen written or edited by women. I did the same for the stack of 115 books issued to me by the Air War College this year, and I found just four edited or written by women. In the pile of some 262 articles I’ve accumulated through this year, I found thirty by female authors. The beauty of data — even the unscientific collection of data described here — is it doesn’t much care what you think, and a figure like ~7% should shock us all. I know it shocked me. And the slightly upsetting thing about this finding is that these lists are curated lists, titles in some sense consciously chosen for educational purposes (by me and by university faculty). And while I don’t necessarily think there was some malicious or exclusionary intent in that selection, an opportunity was clearly missed. So, let me say it again:

I was wrong.

I’m not here to talk about how this situation came to pass, and I’m not certain I’m qualified to talk about the utility of diverse voices and perspectives in the academic material we choose to consume. I am concerned, though, about what happens — what talent might be lost — when a young woman looks around and sees no place for her in my chosen fields of mathematics, national security, military history, and so on. There are many women of extraordinary ability who have worked, are working, or will work in these fields, and all things being equal, they don’t appear to be as visible as men. And I’m concerned that it is in the nature of such path dependence and stable equilibria that they are self-reinforcing, so this is a state that will not change unless enough shoulders are put to the wheel to cause it to turn. But I’m heartened to see individual acts that might accumulate to create systemic shifts in the stable equilibrium are not difficult to contemplate. As Russell suggests, “…find a woman in the field — a mentor to learn from, a colleague to share with; a subordinate to lead.” When building a syllabus, organizing a panel or conference, hiring faculty, etc., ask how homogenous the voices are and what that might mean. And don’t dismiss the possibility that #ReadingWomen and efforts like it are a necessary and potentially powerful curative for the ills of exclusion in the circus tent of national security scholarship. I was wrong, and I’m grateful to Russell, Summers-Lowe, and CCL KOW for helping me to see that.

Finally, since this is a series about reading lists, I’d be remiss if I didn’t commend to everyone within earshot the work of Olivia Garard, Pauline Shanks Kaurin, and Diane Maye, three writers in the national security arena from whom I have learned and continue to learn a great deal. And, for the record, the books authored or edited by women that I found on my own shelves, all excellent, include:

· Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism

· Vanya Eftimova Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War

· Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914–1945

· Audrey Kurth Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns

· Chris C. Demchak, Wars of Disruption and Resilience: Cybered Conflict, Power, and National Security

· Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet

· Joan Johnson-Freese, Space as a Strategic Asset

· Suzanne C. Nielsen and Don M. Snider (eds), American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era

· R.A. Ratcliff, Delusions of Intelligence: Enigma, Ultra, and the End of Secure Ciphers

· Elizabeth D. Samet, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

· Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

· Susan L. Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower

· Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

Eric M. Murphy is an officer in the U.S. Air Force whose military career has focused on mathematics, operations research, and strategic planning. He began life as a student of English Literature, but he also has a Doctorate in Mathematics and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Eric has spent time as a strategic force structure analyst for the Joint Staff, Air Staff, Air Force Space Command, and the International Assistance Force in Kabul. He has research and writing interests in mathematics, statistics, history, military theory and strategy, and especially the interactions between these areas. He has publications in poetry, risk and force structure analysis, mathematics, and strategy; is an associate member of the Military Writer’s Guild; and works as an editor for The Strategy Bridge. Follow Eric on Twitter @Eric_M_Murphy.




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