Review: What to learn from women’s experience of war

Cynthia Enloe’s ‘Twelve Feminist Lessons of War’ brilliantly demonstrates the importance of women’s experience of and thinking on conflict, writes Megan MacKenzie.

The World Today
Published 28 July 2023 Updated 22 November 2023 3 minute READ

Megan MacKenzie

Professor and Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia 

Twelve Feminist Lessons of War
Cynthia Enloe, Footnote Press, £14.99 (to be published September 7)

If you see Cynthia Enloe at a conference or workshop you can be sure she will be listening attentively and taking pages of notes. In that sense, Twelve Feminist Lessons of War can be seen as a love letter to the fellow feminist scholars and activists she has been listening to for decades.

In it, the feminist international relations scholar brings together decades of knowledge from numerous war zones to illustrate what women know about war. As such, she is harvesting the seeds she sowed in her early books, including Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women’s Lives and Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Since then, Enloe has inspired entire fields of feminist research on the subject of war by encouraging us to take women’s lives seriously.

A brilliant communicator

As well as being an exceptional listener, Enloe is a brilliant communicator. I have watched her give public lectures where she has united senior members of the military, peace activists and people sceptical about feminism in smiling agreement. She manages to do this by using stories to convey complex information.

For example, Enloe begins the book with insights into the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine gleaned from the lives of several women, including Svitlana, who is fleeing Ukraine with her children after a rushed goodbye to her husband, and Evelyne, a farmer in Kenya worried about drought and food insecurity.

The key claim in Twelve Feminist Lessons of War is that by ignoring women’s knowledge of war and its aftermath we are doomed to fail at efforts to reduce and end wars. Across the dozen lessons there are four important contributions to this sweeping book.

Enloe illustrates that women are not the ‘human interest’ story merely caught up in men’s wars

The first is to support the simple but radical claim that women know war. Enloe illustrates that women are not the ‘human interest’ story merely caught up in men’s wars. From its early rumblings to how to end it, women know every aspect of war. They understand the need to survive the patriarchal violence and that promises of gender equality that come with peace often go unfulfilled.

Second, Enloe points out the myriad ways that women have developed new ways of talking about war. She notes that concepts introduced by feminists include: marital rape, intersectionality, femicide, toxic masculinity, coercive control and survival sex. Enloe highlights how feminists have used these concepts to draw attention to often ignored aspects of war, including sexual and domestic abuse committed by soldiers, the use of rape as a strategy of war and the invisible labour women contribute during war.

‘Women’s complicity’

It was Enloe who began feminist conversations about the ways militarism bleeds into everyday life, and here she writes acutely about that once again. For example, militarism may privilege archetypes of manliness such as the war hero and commander-turned-politician, she writes, but it requires ‘women’s complicity’ and ‘therefore wraps itself in the camouflage of maternalism, wifely loyalty, feminized gratitude, even women’s equality’.

Enloe also highlights how militarized thinking underscores certain ‘common sense’ wisdom, such as ‘the world is a dangerous place’, ‘men are the natural protectors of women and children’ and ‘boys will be boys’. But in an inspiring passage, she shows there is space for alternative axioms, including: ‘the world is a co-operative place’, ‘guns make us vulnerable’ and ‘patriots work at battered women’s shelters’.

Feminist lessons of war do not feature goddesses, grievers or super-heroines

Cynthia Enloe

Enloe is also excellent on how women’s complex experiences of war demand complex responses. Exhorting readers not to resort to female caricatures, she writes: ‘Feminist lessons of war do not feature goddesses, grievers or super-heroines.’ Instead, these lessons require that we embrace what might seem to be contradictions in women’s experiences of war.

For example, Enloe emphazises that women do not have singular motivations or experiences as soldiers. Rather, joining militaries or rebel groups may be a political choice, a way to pursue social justice and liberation or escape domestic violence.

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Finally, Enloe reminds us that feminists are not interested in war because they want to better predict it or outsmart fellow war scholars. Instead, she is clear that the lessons of war she outlines are to ‘sharpen and deepen our feminist understandings of war’ with the ultimate aim of prevention.

Pay attention to the footnotes

The resulting book is a triumph. In her typically generous way, Enloe asks readers to pay attention to the footnotes – and they should, because she credits decades of feminist work. Yet much of the scholarship that informs her 12 lessons can be traced back to her own work, mentorship and encouragement.

This in itself is worthy of acknowledgement, and Twelve Feminist Lessons of War should be treated as a celebration of Enloe’s groundbreaking work.