Cynthia Enloe: ‘Be sceptical of militarization’

The political scientist tells Daniel Conway about the ‘hidden labour’ of women in international politics and why feminism trumps fairness in foreign policy.

The World Today
Published 3 February 2023 Updated 22 November 2023 3 minute READ

Cynthia Enloe

Research Professor, Department of International Development, Community and Environment, Clark University

Daniel Conway

Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster

In Cynthia Enloe’s book ‘Bananas, Beaches and Bases’ the political scientist and feminist theorist asked a simple question that changed the study of international relations: ‘Where are the women?’ Focusing on gender, militarism and feminist geopolitics, Enloe has published more than a dozen books, won prizes including the International Studies Association’s Susan Strange Award, and has seen three awards established in honour of her contributions to the field. Here she tells Daniel Conway why she remains sceptical of militarization.

In your work, you argue that if we ask ‘where are the women?’, we will uncover the real dynamics of conflict. What do you think asking this question reveals about current conflicts?

The gender condition of a society at the outbreak of a war will determine a lot of what happens to women and to men in war. In Ukraine, 50 per cent of households were headed by women. Women-headed households are much more likely to be in poverty. This means that at the start of the invasion, many women were economically precarious, and that makes it hard to cope with war.

Paying attention to women makes us much more realistic about what happens in war

Another question to ask about any conflict is what percentage of women have paid employment? All women work, but what percentage get paid for it? In Ukraine, 60 per cent of women had paid jobs. 
At the beginning of the 2014 Afghanistan War, only 14 per cent of Afghan women had paid jobs.

If you don’t have any income of your own, and you depend on your father’s or your husband’s income, which he can cut off at any point or not share fairly, you are much less able to cope with the stresses, the price rises etc. Paying attention to women makes us much more realistic about what happens in war.

One of the great advantages of asking, ‘where are the women?’ is that you notice men as men. That is, when you ask ‘where are the women?’, you look at diplomats as men, not just diplomats. You look at generals as men. What happens when you notice they are men is that you begin to be curious about how nervous they are about their manliness. 

What should the feminist response be to the war in Ukraine?

Feminists are very sceptical of militarization because it almost always empowers men. It doesn’t empower all men, but militarization does empower certain kinds of men. Militarization also diverts scarce public resources to military operations and manufacturing, and it comes out of the very things that women depend on – which are education, environment and social security.

Feminists have good reason to be sceptical of the rush to militarization after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

There are very good reasons for feminists, me included, to be highly sceptical of the rush to militarization as a response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, feminists have their feet firmly on the ground. At the beginning of the war, the German feminist magazine Emma made a statement that made Ukrainian feminists furious, arguing that we should not support the military defence of Ukraine.

What I found in my discussions with, not just Ukrainian feminists, but also other European feminists, is that what we want is for Ukrainians to have adequate self-defence against this outrageous military aggression by the Russian regime. But we must be really careful that this doesn’t bankrupt or deprive health and welfare budgets. 

You have long been interested in the ‘hidden labour’ of women in international politics, from diplomatic and military wives to secretaries in foreign ministries. What has been the impact of women assuming more visible roles in international politics? 

It doesn’t make me less interested in secretaries. It doesn’t make me less interested in the spouses of diplomats and military personnel. The husbands of diplomats are never expected to just be the trailing spouse and give up their careers. The husband of a female diplomat is not under pressure to pour tea and do unpaid social work in the way the wife of a male diplomat or a male military officer is.

Women married to male diplomats and women married to military officers have now organized. There’s been more organizing by women who felt that their unpaid labour and their being deprived of the chance to have a career made them very vulnerable economically, especially if the marriage comes apart.

Women who divorced generals had no housing, no healthcare and no chance of a career

The first women I interviewed, who were organizing around these inequalities, were women who had been divorced from generals, and not only did they have no chance to have a career because they expected to spend all their time doing unpaid work so that their husbands could get promoted, but they had no housing and no health care, because that all was based on their husband’s job. 

It has been argued that Feminist Foreign Policy should be renamed as Fair Foreign Policy in order to make it more inclusive. Do you agree?

If you drop ‘feminism’, you drop interest in power. Feminist analysis always asks about power: What are the implications for power, which kinds of power and power for what? If you drop feminism, you are less likely to have a gender curiosity. It is much more likely that the power implications of gender differences will also fall by the wayside.

Dropping ‘feminism’ from ‘foreign policy’ means attention will stop being paid to gender

A continued feminist curiosity includes sex-desegregated data collection, for example, about everything related to climate change: deforestation, flooding and climate refugees. Focusing just on fairness does not put enough pressure on governments to do that analysis and it is expensive to do gender-disaggregated data collection.

Dropping ‘feminist’ really will be just the kind of incentive that a lot of foreign ministries would like to stop paying attention to gender. ‘Fairness’ will make it more palatable, but palatable is not what we are after here.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m in touch with a lot of people worried about militarization in their own countries: those who are in the midst of war, like the Ukrainian feminists and the Colombians who are trying to end their war. Many people ask me to take part in conversations, and I learn a lot.

Content ctd

My next book is called Twelve Feminist Lessons of War and it is essentially what I have learnt from everybody, and it is not about where to place the tanks; it is not how to use your artillery to destroy the public utilities of another country; it is not strategizing to win wars. That is not a feminist lesson.

If all men wanted to go to war, we wouldn’t need drill sergeants and conscription penalties

The chapter I’m writing right now is called ‘Getting men to fight is not so easy’. That is a feminist-informed lesson of war and pro-war governments.

People like to make it sound as though all men want to rush into uniform and rush to the front. That is actually not true, and you can tell because if they did, militaries wouldn’t need either recruiters, conscription penalties or drill sergeants. Lots of people will get their voices heard in this book.