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Why the War is Sexist (And Why We Can’t Ignore Gender Anymore)

“Our sons made the ultimate sacrifice, and we want answers” – Cindy Sheehan on truthout.org

“Nice puss – bad foot” – Caption under the photo of an Iraqi woman whose leg was destroyed by a landmine, on a website allowing soldiers to swap pictures of dead Iraqis for free access to pornography

Refusing to be silenced as a military parent, Cindy Sheehan’s courageous voice has lent new urgency to stopping the war in Iraq. “Mother Cindy” has been likened to a Rosa Parks of the anti-war movement. Both widely recognized women served as symbolic figures to help bring the weight of a larger base of organizing to bear on the public.

Yet today we have an anti-war movement which largely fails to point out connections between war, and U.S. patriarchy or gendered domestic inequalities. To galvanize organizing against militarism to its full potential, we must question its gender-blind approach. In fact, Sheehan came as a surprise to segments of the movement which prioritized looking to the troops and potential recruits as the centers of resistance. Sheehan and Hurricane Katrina remind us that as the war’s effects are much broader, we can expect and should look to support rebellion from a variety of mutually reinforcing fronts.

What would it mean to put not just Cindy’s son at the center of outrage, but women like Sheehan herself, as military mothers, wives, and partners? How have these women themselves, not just the troops, been militarized, manipulated, and exploited? What would it mean for the anti-war movement to interpret women like Sheehan as activists and agents fighting against exploitation which directly affects them in their own right – not just as stand-ins for others’ struggles, defined by a male-dominated left?

Below is a numbered list of suggestions for how to apply a gender analysis to the war – how to understand its links with U.S. patriarchy. Like lists enumerating “Why the War is Racist” which have circulated in the U.S., the below reasons get at why the war must be understood as sexist. This list is a start, by no means meant to be exhaustive, at offering a wider understanding of who is hurt by imperialism.

  • Soldiers are not the only – or main – casualties of war.

The ideology of militarism glorifies soldiers, focusing our attention on their heroism and sacrifice. The U.S. anti-war movement has largely not escaped this soldier-centered paradigm – causing a gender bias in who it recognizes as ultimately suffering from war.

In the 20 th century, 90 percent of all war deaths have been of unarmed women, children, and men. As the occupation wears on, more and more Iraqi women and girls are killed – reported as “collateral damage.” Bombs and modern war weapons murder and maim noncombatant women in approximately equal numbers to noncombatant men – even if from the U.S. perspective, men make up the vast majority of our war dead. Soldiers are not those primarily losing their lives in this occupation. At the same time, note that U.S. imperialism benefits from certain strategies that maximize “collateral damage” (such as using long-distance, high tech weapons rather than infantry), because these also minimize our own soldiers’ deaths and the potential public relations blowup. The tendency to devalue the enemies’ lives is reinforced by not only racist but also sexist ideologies – history is made by “our boys,” and enemy females’ deaths are not even acknowledged.

Putting U.S. soldiers’ deaths abroad in the context of other wartime deaths occurring at home causes another shift in perspective. For example, during World War II, U.S. industrial workers were more likely than U.S. soldiers to die or be injured. Historian Catherine Lutz observes, “The female civilians who worked on bases or in war industries can be seen as no less guardians or risk-takers than people in uniform.”1 This is not to downplay the amount of suffering and exploitation soldiers are forced to endure, but to widen our scope of who we recognize as affected in war.

  • The economic harms of war are exacerbated by patriarchy for women – both within the U.S. and in Iraq.

With the destruction of Iraq’s economy, women and girls have suffered especially from deprivations. In the article, “Occupation is Not (Women’s) Liberation: Confronting ‘Imperial Feminism’ and Building a Feminist Anti-War Movement,” I discuss in detail some gendered ways Iraqi women and girls disproportionately bear certain effects of the country’s economic collapse – from unemployment to the dramatic drop in female literacy.

In the U.S., poor women bear the brunt of public service cuts. In Massachusetts, for example, most Medicaid recipients, graduates of state and community colleges, welfare and subsidized childcare recipients, are women – and all these programs have faced budget slashes. Most families living in poverty are headed by single mothers.

Furthermore, imperialism helps to intensify and increase unpaid labor that is performed by women in their traditional gender roles. Childcare, healthcare, homemaking all become heavier without public sector aid – whether due to economic collapse in occupied lands, or imperialist austerity in the aggressor nation. For instance, as hospitals are destroyed or become unavailable, women in both Iraq and the U.S. disproportionately shoulder responsibility for their families’ healthcare. As schools close or childcare becomes unaffordable, women are strained with extra work watching children. Alarmingly, industrialized nations plan to impose IMF Structural Adjustment Programs on Iraq because of its sovereign debt. Feminist scholars have documented how SAPs have disproportionately harmed Third Worldwomen across the globe in terms of health, education, and overwork.

U.S. women from military families, and wives of government contractors, are saddled with the unpaid task of holding the family together until their spouse returns. As the heads of single-parent households, these women take increased responsibility for homemaking and childcare, on top of their jobs. One brother of a serviceman put it: “Soldiers may enlist, but their families are drafted.”

That the military depends on such women to figuratively “oil its machinery” by maintaining troop morale is evidenced by its creation of “support groups” for military wives, even while it simultaneously lengthens troop deployments to cope with overstretch. Rather than being dismissed as a mere service for needy women, these support groups should be seen as an attempt to strategically harness and propel women’s labor – including their performance of correct, sexually loyal roles – that the troops’ emotional functioning and lack of rebellion partly relies upon.2 Bluntly, the Pentagon is responding to its post-invasion recruitment shortage by drawing on reserves, increasing deployments – and laying the economic, emotional strain on women of military families. These ‘support groups’ are a cheap alleviation for structural oppression and exploitation, in the larger context of imperialism’s priorities.

At the same time, our government’s distorted agenda, sharpened in this period of outright military aggression, harnesses and compounds economic sexism that pre-dates the Iraq war. Given U.S. history, patriarchy’s operation cannot be disentangled from pre-existing structural racism either. Racist incarceration which disproportionately targets black communities intensifies black women’s unpaid labor heading single households – even as women on workfare-welfare are kept out of decent jobs. Arab, South Asian, Muslim, and immigrant women are similarly strained by the detention of their partners and family members under the War on Terror.

  • Militarization intensifies the sexual commodification of women.

Feminist anthropologists such as Cynthia Enloe have documented how the U.S. military perpetuates the sexual commodification of women around military bases both in the U.S. and abroad, to manage and motivate its largely male workforce.3 Additionally, we must analyze collusion between foreign and indigenous patriarchies under imperialism in exacerbating women’s oppression. 

Following a pattern observed across different conflict regions by feminist scholars, Iraqi women face increasing pressures to earn their subsistence from men by bartering their sexuality. This is due to a lack of other economic options under both military attack and oppressive gender relations. In Baghdad, prostitution reportedly became widespread between the fall of the Hussein administration in April 2003 and November 2003, as women disproportionately suffered growing poverty.4 Today, reports have surfaced of young Iraqi teens working in Syrian brothels, after being displaced from Fallujah where U.S. forces launched brutal offensives and chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Sexual violence, as well as the trafficking of Iraqi women and girls, showed horrific rises almost immediately after the invasion and continue. While initially perpetrated largely by Iraqi men,5 these rapes and abductions were exacerbated by the occupation force’s negligence and inability to establish security – its priorities, afterall, have been to secure the oil.

The U.S. anti-war left was in general embarrassingly unsure how to address such violence, inconveniently at the hands of Iraqis rather than U.S. forces – let alone suggest an adequate remedy which might have direct effects on the problem, besides calls for a (male-led) resistance to replace the occupiers. But an understanding of the gender dynamics typical of wartime economies would press the need to provide solidarity for Iraqi anti-occupation movements for women’s rights. The U.S. anti-war movement largely has not treated freedom from sexual violence as a human right equal to Iraqi struggles for food, water, shelter, or healthcare. Meanwhile, as the occupation persists, with growing contact between military forces and Iraqi civilians, sexual brutality by both U.S. troops and Iraqi police under occupation authority has increased.

Jennifer Fasulo is co-founder of Solidarity with Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (SOWFI), a U.S.-based group providing political support to an anti-occupation, feminist women’s group in Iraq. She reminds us of the specific historical and geopolitical context of the occupation, pointing out that the conflict has intensified the growing religious fundamentalist movement in Iraq – opposed by Iraqi feminists and socialists – including segments that systematically perpetrate violence against and harassment of women. The rise of Islamist fundamentalism throughout the Middle East is not merely indigenous, but has its roots in U.S. support, which recruited and imported Islamist militias as opposition to secular, democratic and socialist movements throughout earlier decades.

  • Militarization helps perpetuate sexual violence, domestic violence, and violence against women – both in the U.S. and Iraq.

Even though women serve as soldiers, the U.S. military is a misogynist, homophobic institution that relies on patriarchal ideologies and relations to function – with effects on larger society, as well as the countries we occupy or station bases. While the racist ideologies behind the war are regularly paid lip service by activists, we less frequently raise how this war depends on sexism. But the military and its public support are based on deeply embedded patriarchal values and practices.

The U.S. military trains men to devalue, objectify and demean traits traditionally associated with women. It molds men into a gender role of violent masculinity defined in opposition to femininity. By ‘violent masculinity’ I mean a mode of operating that glorifies violence as a solution to tension – and that is unaccountable to the feminine/civilian ‘protected’ in that the masculine/soldier ‘protectors’ are encouraged not to view these people as their equals. Feminist historian Catherine Lutz observes militarism teaches us, “we prove and regenerate ourselves through violence.”6

One soldier reported his training in boot camp:

“Who are you?” “Killers!”

“What do you do?” “We kill! We kill! We kill!”

Furthermore, soldiers are purposefully trained to eroticize violence – from a heterosexual, male-aggressor perspective, even if some soldiers are gay and some are women. For example, during the first Gulf War, Air Force pilots watched pornographic movies before bombing missions to psyche themselves up.7 Until 1999, hardcore pornography was available at military base commissaries, which were one of its largest purchasers.8

The military teaches soldiers to internalize the misogynistic role of violent masculinity, so they can function psychologically. At the 2003 Air Force Academy Prom, men were given fliers – using tax-payer dollars – which read, “You Shut the Fuck Up! We’ll Protect America. Get out of our way, you liberal pussies!” They were then treated to a play which provided instructions on how to stimulate a female’s clitoris and nipples to get her vaginal juice flowing (in case she was otherwise unwilling?).9

 Alarmingly but not so surprisingly, according to the Veterans Association itself, over 80 percent of recent women veterans report experiencing sexual harassment, and 30 percent rape or attempted rape, by other military personnel.10 Crimes of sexual violence by military personnel are shocking – and institutionally ignored. Over the course of several years, a two-year-old girl was repeatedly raped by her Air Force father, who also invited his fellow servicemen to gang rape her. Eventually, he was simply allowed to retire; today, a decade later, he receives a pension and is fighting to claim his daughter’s custody.11 Lawyer Dorothy Mackey of Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAMP) reports that of the 4,300 sexual assault and abuse cases she is handling which were brought up to military and government officials, only 3 were actually prosecuted. In Mackey’s own experience as a survivor of repeated sexual assault by military personnel, her attempt to press charges was opposed by the Department of Justice as a threat to national security.12

The U.S. Inspector General reported that military service is more conducive to domestic violence than any other occupation, citing the military’s authoritarianism, use of physical force in training, as well as the stress of frequent moves and separations as factors.13 The military’s institutional sexism and indifference to violence against women could be added! A checklist used by the military to determine if rape reports are valid lists a women’s financial problems with her partner, and “demanding” medical treatment, as factors indicating she’s lying.14 The Army recently offered the perk of free breast implants for servicewomen, so its surgeons could “get practice.” Meanwhile, it has a drastic shortage of rape kits in combat regions and refuses to pay for servicewomen’s abortions even in the case of rape.

A therapist who practices near a large Army Base and treats soldiers returning from Iraq reported escalating domestic violence ever since troops began coming back, and wife-killings in bases at an all-time high – covered up by the Army.15 She also discussed soldiers’ addictions to pornography, cultivated over their service, as a source of sexual selfishness and abuse towards their partners. Pornography trained the soldiers to use women’s bodies as masturbatory devices.

Militarism’s patriarchal roles extend into larger culture, not just ideologically in terms of how little boys broadly are taught to be soldiers – but institutionally, as well. Phoebe Jones of Global Women’s Strike and Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAAAMP) places the Abu Ghraib scandal in the context of a prison-military complex of abuse:

It’s all connected… You have prison guards here, like Charles Grainer [implicated in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal], who go to Iraq and abuse people there. Then you have soldiers come back from Iraq or Afghanistan getting jobs as prison guards, and they rape and abuse people. The military could stop it if they want to, but they don’t want to. They’re socializing men into doing this.16

Prison torture was outsourced to U.S. companies using personnel from domestic prisons. Beyond this the prison-military complex, the impact of rape culture nurtured by the military can be traced through U.S. society further. In 1997, the number one reason for veterans to be in prison at the state, federal, or local level was for sexual assault.17 An exploration of the effects of militarism on socialization, and institutions from school to family, are outside the scope of this brief essay – but must be considered.

The impact of violence against women cannot be separated from racial and economic hierarchy, even though these pieces are often analyzed without reference to each other. One result of Hurricane Katrina – little responded to by the left – was the devastation of domestic violence shelters and sexual assault services. The Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence describes poor women forced to live in homeless shelters, experiencing rape and physical abuse from partners they have been unable to escape, on top of the storm’s destruction.18 Of course FEMA did not provide alleviation. Yet rather than critiquing the government’s patriarchal failings, the left allowed right-wing reports of abounding chaos (laced with racist undertones) to fill the gap of explaining sexual abuse. Needless to say, poor and non-white women disproportionately face a lack of recourses to gendered violence. For instance, although violence against women cuts across class, women on welfare suffer especially high rates of domestic and sexual violence – a direct result of having less freedom to leave their abusers.19 And again, government policy is involved; welfare law, purportedly to encourage ‘strong’ families, denies funds to poor women who leave their partners, requiring their economic dependency and endurance of abuse.  

  • Militarization and war decrease women’s control over their reproduction.

Just months after the invasion, increased back alley abortions were reported in Baghdad as women lost access to healthcare and contraception. In the U.S., budget stringency means that policies like universal healthcare and free contraception on demand will appear to remain a distant realities. Since women, not men, get pregnant, the lack of reproductive healthcare is an issue of women’s equality – affecting women’s control of their labor, bodies, and futures.

Furthermore, a Christian right-wing takeover of the U.S. political scene has reframed debates over “morality” in terms of issues like abortion and gay rights – diverting outrage away from, say, the economic exploitation of this administration and its war policy, to the treatment of a clump of cells and who one loves. The Christian conservative movement focuses its political intervention more on directly controlling individuals’ personal behavior, than on altering the structures of society to alleviate inequality and meet human needs. In our historical context, the ideology and agenda of limiting women’s control over their reproduction is connected to U.S. imperialism – and thus has much broader implications than strictly women’s reproductive health. For one, imperialism relies on a gendered reproductive division of labor, that trains poor men to be soldiers while valorizing motherhood for women, the better to exploit their women’s paid and unpaid labor. I am unable to do a full exploration of these connections in this essay – but they demand thought and examination!  

  • Militarization and conflict situations result in a restriction of public space for women – impacting their political expression.

Feminist scholars have observed the physical barriers to women’s public access in conflict situations time and again. In Iraq, due to insecurity, women are restricted from seeking healthcare, attending school and work. Such limitations have shaped the trajectory and form of women’s organizing, as well. When the political actors are men, women’s bodies and behavior risk becoming a battleground to be fought over by others – they risk marginalization in the political sphere unless they are able to actively organize around an agenda that takes into account their gendered position.

Within the U.S., the anti-war movement’s troop-centered analysis has also shaped women’s space politically, if not necessarily physically. Military mothers like Cindy Sheehan are publicly recognized for their connection to the troops – and specifically, their stance of support for rather than conflict with individual troops. An analysis of gender which problematizes the effects of violent masculinity is less welcome.

  • Occupation will not bring women’s liberation.

As an occupier with little accountability to the Iraqi people (or the U.S. public), the U.S. government is not capable of – or interested in – bringing democracy and liberation to Iraqis. At the very best, U.S. officials have merely “played two sides of the fence” with regard to women’s rights – bartering them away when convenient in order to maintain power. But at worst, three long years later, events have made it tragically clear in all its horrific consequences that the continued occupation’s primary goals have been the economic, political, and military interests of a U.S. elite – with as much non-transparency as possible for the sake of public relations. A lengthier discussion of the specific historical and geopolitical forces at work in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, bearing on Iraqi women’s positions, was the subject ofa previous essay, “Occupation is Not (Women’s) Liberation: Confronting Imperial Feminism and Building a Feminist Anti-War Movement.”


Imperialism requires particular gender relations to function. Little boys are taught that soldiering is a rite of passage – a vehicle to manly respect. The public learns that soldiering – and now serving as security or emergency personnel – entitles a special claim to citizenship, to this country and its offerings, even if in actuality such promises do not really materialize. But that is P.R. to boost recruitment. And by valorizing the violent, masculine protector at the expense of the feminine, at the expense of women, the state and society extract women’s labor at undervalued rates, preserving a gendered division of labor at women’s expense, and reinforce male sexual entitlement. Part of the military’s appeal to (heterosexual) men, the boost to troop morale it relies on, is the male privilege it promises to offer over economically dependent, sexually available women.

The military uses the work of women, sectored into patriarchal and exploitative economic relations, to function – whether as marginalized soldiers, military wives, sex workers, or civilians.

A gender analysis – a recognition of the connections between imperialism and U.S. patriarchy – drastically widens the spectrum of people we must consider the ‘casualties’ of war, and deepens our understanding of imperialism. Not only does the war perpetuate sexist inequality and patriarchy, but also it enlists patriarchal relations – economic, sexual, and ideological – to carry out its operations. I have outlined ways women are affected by the war – both as distinct from men, and disproportionately compared to men, due to gendered workings. Righting these injustices requires special attention to gender, and is not guaranteed by merely opposing the war.

We must recognize the connections between the war in Iraq and patriarchy at home – and resist.

“Americans have thousands of media outlets to choose from. But they still have to visit a porn site to see what this war has done to the bodies of the dead and the souls of the living. One of the pictures... depicts a woman whose right leg has been torn off by a land mine... a medical worker is holding the mangled stump up to the camera. The woman’s vagina is visible.. The caption for this picture reads: ‘Nice puss - bad foot.’”– About website allowing soldiers to swap pictures of dead Iraqis for free access to pornography

“There are plenty of women in Fallujah who have testified they were raped by American soldiers... They are nearby the secondary school for girls inside Fallujah. When people came back.. they found so many girls.. totally naked and.. killed.” -- Website (Click here.)

1 Homefront: A Military City and the American 20 th Century, by Catherine Lutz, p.46

2 This analysis presented by Cynthia Enloe during a talk in MIT in 2003. Enloe would count sex workers around military bases, and female military personnel, as other women enlisted, both formally and informally, by the military, to facilitate its operation.

3 In the current Iraq war, girls and teens displaced from U.S.-destroyed cities like Fallujah have been traced to the sex trade in Syria.

4 UNIFEM; http://www.womenwarpeace.org/iraq/iraq.htm

5 More recently, with greater contact between U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians compared to early on in the occupation, sexual violence against Iraqis perpetuated by occupying forces has increased.

6 in Homefront, by Catherine Lutz

7 Michael Rogin in “‘Make My Day!’ Spectacle as Amnesia in Imperial Politics.” Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. See also Robert Jenson in “Blow Bangs and Cluster Bombs: The Cruelty of Men and Americans,” Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography.

8 http://www.feministpeacenetwork.org/MVAW.htm

9 Dorothy Mackey of Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel, 2004 Boston Social Forum.

10 http://www.womenagainstrape.net/Latest%20News/MackeyPaper.htm

11 Dorothy Mackey, private communication, Aug. 9, 2005.

12 in “Rape Nation,” http://www.alternet.org/rights/19134/

13 http://www.feministpeacenetwork.org/MVAW.htm

14 in “Rape Nation,” http://www.alternet.org/rights/19134/

15 http://www.quakerhouse.org/costs-of-war-01.htm

16 in “Rape Nation,” http://www.alternet.org/rights/19134/

17 http://www.womenagainstrape.net/Latest%20News/MackeyPaper.htm

18 http://www.lcadv.org/

19 http://www.mincava.umn.edu/library/articles/#506, for instance, see “Poverty, Welfare, and Battered Women: What Does the Research Tell Us?” by Eleanor Lyon