Women and War

Without the insights of women and other historically neglected voices, our knowledge of conflict is dangerously limited

I have medals for service in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries still riven with conflict. My mother, who volunteered as a case worker for the British Armed Forces charity, supporting those still impacted by previous wars, was not recognized for her work, nor did she expect to be.

The glorious dead, quite rightly, have their names memorialized, but those who are left to pick up the pieces when the fighting stops do not. The histories and stories of war that influence our understanding of conflict are overwhelmingly focused on, and written by, those who do the fighting. Those at the front have provided profound insight into war and the human condition in extremis, but this focus also leads to a belief that the farther away from the fighting you are the less legitimate your perspective on war is. We rarely hear from those behind the lines during the fighting, those who clear up the mess after the fighting ends, and those who are impacted by wars in sometimes less obvious but equally important ways. Listening to these perspectives can deepen our understanding of war, but also give us a better chance to solve the wider societal problems that wars create.

American feminist Cynthia Enloe admits, “It did not cross my mind that women changing wounded soldiers’ bandages within the sound of artillery barrages or carrying soldiers’ bloody limbs down to the home-front hospital’s incinerator were thinking about war.” Enloe points to another bias in the voices heard when thinking about war: most of those writing about war are men. Cross-cultural historical studies find that fewer than 1 percent of warriors in history were female. This extends through to who gets to decide how we reach peace at the end of conflict. One UN study in 2012 found that, in 31 major peace processes, only 2.4 percent of chief mediators and 4 percent of signatories were women.

That 1 percent, though, includes some incredible warriors and iconic leaders: Boadicea; Viking shield maidens; Joan of Arc; Queen Elizabeth I of England; Molly Pitchers in the American War of Independence; Tashenamani, who led the counterattack against Custer at the Battle of the Greasy Grass; Malalai, the Afghan poet and warrior who fought to defeat the British at the Battle of Maiwand; Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and Civil War heroine; Second World War Russian snipers at Stalingrad; and some of the soldiers I served with in more recent conflicts.

Despite this there is a perceived division between life-givers and life-takers. There are pre-existing gender disparities and gendered stereotypes that influence who is allowed to fight, which in turn influences whose perspectives are heard. These same stereotypes and disparities often leave it to women to pick up the pieces and at the same time make it more difficult for them to do so. Take, for example, one of the most persuasive stereotypes: the passive, waiting, dutiful wife.

The archetypical dutiful wife is found in one of the first stories that was written down. Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, follows Odysseus’s decade-long journey home, after the decade-long Trojan War. It focuses on Odysseus’s adventures, although we learn that, as time passes, his wife Penelope, back in Ithaca, must contend with a group of unruly suitors who compete for her hand in marriage. She devises various strategies to delay having to commit. Penelope is portrayed as loyal and patient. We must wait until Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad to hear Penelope’s perspective. As Penelope reviews her life from 21st-century Hades, she rejects the role of the ideal wife. She admits to just trying to survive. Generations of women have been left at home while their men went away to fight for years on end. They have raised children alone, managed estates, and fought the state for the rights that others, mostly men, were determined to deny them.

Arguably the first female professional author, medieval French writer Christine de Pizan, describes in her autobiographical Vision her fights as a widow (by plague not war) against defaulting debtors and the crown who tried to take from her what was rightfully hers. As she fought these injustices, pre-existing gender biases meant she had to contend with gossip, rumor, and humiliations designed to break her resolve. After Agincourt, Pizan dedicated Letters Concerning the Prison of Human Life to the Duchess of Bourbon, whose relatives were being held captive in England. Pizan began writing of her trials to help her deal with her grief, but she speaks to the widows of all wars, telling them they have no choice but to cultivate patience and hope for salvation. Pizan was a religious woman of her time, but by using her learning and painful personal experiences to help others in similar circumstances she was also ahead of her time. Pizan’s most famous work, City of Ladies, was a defense of the positive role women have played in shaping past societies in response to a popular misogynistic poem of the time. Six hundred years later, Iraqi writer, Haifa Zangana wrote City of Widows, which puts the 2003 invasion into the wider historical context, showing how successive wars and occupations have impacted women’s rights and roles in Iraqi society and how they have resisted the regressions the wars have caused.

Like Penelope, some have had to do all this while dealing with paralyzing uncertainty. Authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups have long understood the pain and ambiguous loss of not knowing the fate of a loved one, as evidenced by those “disappeared” by the Argentine junta. The war in Iraq saw large numbers of men, women, boys, and girls disappear after being taken by kidnap gangs or military detentions. For those women living in limbo the situation was more complex than for the grieving husbands and fathers. They became single-earners and heads of households in an increasingly insecure environment for women. There was no state safety net and, as common in post-conflict societies, there was an increasingly masculinized job market (state jobs had been seen as culturally respectable for women, but as the state collapsed, there was wide-scale unemployment and intense competition for less respectable private sector jobs). In post-conflict job markets, women, especially single women, must navigate challenges to their “respectability” in their career choices, already limited by gender.

In Iraq and elsewhere women have formed grassroots groups that deal with issues that do not get prioritized or even recognized (e.g., Iraqi unemployment among male ex-soldiers was closely tracked, female unemployment wasn’t) by male dominated governments and foreign aid organizations. They understand the local context in a way that strategic, templated, technocratic, top-down measures don’t. In Iraq, the Iraqi Widows Organization was formed. In Northern Ireland, Women for Peace (which later expanded into the Community of Peace People) orchestrated cross-community marches to bring communities together and created the space for community leaders to then engage in the wider peace process. In Argentina, the most effective campaign group against the military dictatorship was The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. For 30 years the mothers of the missing held their weekly vigil at Plaza de Mayo raising international awareness of the missing. There are countless other examples.

Before the organized military casualty chains, it fell to families to pick up the literal pieces. Sophocles’s Antigone begins at the end of the decisive battle of a civil war. Creon, the new king, decides that Polyneices, leader of the defeated army, will be left as “carrion for the birds and dogs to tear.” Antigone, Polyneices’s sister, is determined to retrieve his body. Creon’s decision and Antigone’s determination set a series of tragic events in motion. When the fighting ended armies of the bereaved, often women, would scour the battlefield to reclaim their loved ones. There are examples in the American Civil War of family members traveling deep into enemy territory to do this. For those who died in naval encounters, there was only the hope that bloated corpses might wash ashore to be found in the days that followed. One of the few vivid descriptions of such a search is recounted in Heinrich Heine’s poem “Battlefield at Hastings.” It describes Edith the Fair, searching for her lover, the defeated Saxon King Harold, in 1066. Edith moved barefooted through the bloody carnage, only pausing to scare off the ravens feasting on the dead. She spent the whole day searching,

Then sudden from her breast there burst

A shrill and awful cry.

For on the battlefield at last

His body she had found.

During the Crusades men could turn-up more than three decades after disappearing. Baldwin II, Count of Hainaut was ambushed en route to Constantinople in 1098. News of the ambush reached his family, but not whether he had survived. After a year it was assumed that he was dead; but Ida of Louvain didn’t give up hope for her husband. Eight years later Ida is mentioned in attendance at a funeral in Jerusalem for a knight who had been ambushed. Ida is described as weeping with “bitterest tears.” We can speculate her tears are also for her missing husband. A history of the family notes, “It is also not to be passed over in silence that Countess Ida heard about the death of her lord and, as she was uncertain if he had been killed or was being held captive … she unhesitatingly went to those regions with great effort and heavy expenses.” Unlike Odysseus, we know little of her journey or thoughts on the conflict-ridden lands she passed through. Many other women’s experiences searching for their loved ones were passed over in complete silence.

In more recent times embedded medics and nurses, from the frontline to far back from the fighting, have been the first to pick up the pieces. Enloe points out that wartime nurses and medics are among those, outside of the frontline soldiers, most intimately familiar with one of the most obvious impacts of war: wounds.

Shattered bones, gas-damaged lungs, sightless eyes, oozing blood and puss—nurses have seen what sabers can do to the human body; what artillery shells, rifles, and machine gun bullets can do; what poison gas and aerial bombing can do; what grenades and landmines can do; what guided missiles and roadside explosives can do.

Enloe connects the lack of perspectives from those in these roles to an official aversion to making visible the actual bodily costs of war. British feminist Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth, which covers her service as a nurse in the First World War, is a notable exception. Brittain lost her fiancé and brother to war. One aim of her memoir was to influence the youth of another generation in the 1930s not to succumb to the “false glamour” of war. It has been a tension in feminist thought whether to condemn all wars outright or extol women’s contributions to war.

It’s important to note that for civilians wounded in war in much of the world it still falls to loved ones, mostly women, to provide initial care. Approximately two-thirds of those killed in the Second World War were civilians. The Iraq Body Count Project estimates 185,000–208,000 civilian deaths up to 2020 compared to below 5,000 coalition troop deaths. The impact of this violence can be gender specific, from the stigma of rape to the impact of injuries on the ability to conceive, to the impact of visible injury on standards for feminine beauty to the de-prioritization of girls when medical resources are scarce. Damages to national infrastructure also disproportionately impact aspects of women’s lives by, for example, making clean water harder to obtain and creating the need for home-schooling. The changing role of women in societies across cultures and time changes the impact that war has on these societies.

In all nations much of the long-term care for physically and mentally wounded veterans is provided by mothers, wives, and girlfriends. In 1915 Brittain was inspired by a “remarkable” notice in The Times: “Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise.” History books provide specific dates for when our wars end. For soldiers wars aren’t bookmarked by neat palindromes, the chiming of church bells, or a general’s ink on a treaty, their fight can continue after the fighting ends. Throughout history women have had to pick up the psychological pieces after men have fought. They re-integrate into family and peacetime those who have lost themselves in war. They bring together what’s left of families—a particularly challenging task after civil wars, exemplified by the wife of the Earl of Denbigh in the English Civil War whose husband and son fought on opposing sides. They are there in the middle of the night to reassure after the nightmares. They help manage the drug and alcohol abuse that results from psychological trauma. Pre-existing biases in institutions and gender stereotypes mean that many feel they cannot object to the violent abuse they receive when doing so.

The psychological damage of war impacts generations, and so can the shame. It’s often women that shoulder that burden. I met Stephanie, the daughter of a Second World War deserter. His actions and society’s response to them impacted her life as much as her mother’s. Working with her to uncover his story of undiagnosed psychological injury, I could see the lifting of a burden that had been passed down from father to daughter. In such circumstances, daughters, denied a role in the fighting, may not have the same opportunities as sons to regain martial honor for the family. Stephanie volunteered with veterans suffering from PTSD and wanted to tell her father’s story to help others and raise awareness.

Even as they have tried to pick up the pieces of wars throughout history women’s behavior has been closely watched. During the First World War some women had their pensions withdrawn if they were judged to be behaving in the wrong way, which included being drunk or living out of wedlock with another man. When I was serving on operations, there were rumors that the nurses on certain bases were offering sexual services for money. Penelope was, in different tales, both loyal wife and unfaithful wife who slept with the suitors before Atwood recast her as survivor.

Some women are forced into collaboration with occupying forces to avoid violence and provide for their families. Especially telling were the speed and vindictiveness with which public humiliations, such as head shavings, were exacted against the women accused of collaboration horizontale with the Nazis during the liberation of Europe. Even more so when compared to the treatment of high-profile male collaborators, like Maurice Papon, who became Police Prefect of Paris. Many of the head-shavers had been petty collaborators and were seeking to divert attention from themselves. Sexual collaboration has often been punished more severely than acts of rape carried out by invading soldiers.

In Afghanistan, a perceived lack of “respectability” can lead to death. In Taliban controlled areas a misogynistic honor-based culture and strict interpretation of Islamic law is enforced. The Pashtun people, long before the Taliban existed, have revered poetry and taken great pride in an oral tradition of couplets known as landays. One landay keeps alive the memory of Malalai of Maiwand, an Afghan folk hero often compared to Joan of Arc. Throughout the war, secret female poetry groups have met at great risk to recite landays. One group called Mirman Baheerrun in Kabul encouraged women from all over Afghanistan to call in. In 2010, a poet using the name Rahila Muska phoned from a hospital in Kandahar. Her brothers, after discovering her poems, had beaten her for bringing dishonor to their family. She burned herself in protest and, soon after, died. The women who risk accusations of dishonoring their families are keeping alive a key part of their culture and recording a history of the Afghan war that will not be found in the memoirs of soldiers and Western state builders.

Those doing the fighting often don’t see the impact of what they do on wider society. As such they are not necessarily best placed to solve the problems that wars create. Wars don’t happen in a vacuum. Understanding how conflict shapes pre-existing gender and other disparities is key to a holistic understanding of the impact of war.

The history of war should include the stories of the proactive agents who have gone about picking up the pieces on and off the battlefield. For many of these individuals from the past we, like Atwood, can only now imagine their stories. More voices, especially more female voices, from inside and outside militaries, are being heard. Journalists and academics are capturing wider perspectives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere, but these are often billed as “feminist” or siloed away in “minority studies,” rather than presented as perspectives integral to understanding the nature and history of conflicts. There is an urgent need for philosophical thinkers to examine the issues that these neglected voices throw into relief. Their narratives and insights should influence the design and implementation of foreign policy as well as contribute to our wider cultural understanding of conflict. Without their contributions, our understanding of conflict and its fallout—and thus the range of solutions we’re capable of imagining—will remain limited, perhaps dangerously so.