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Reviewed by:
  • War and Gender
  • Thembisa Waetjen (bio)
Joshua S Goldstein (2001) War and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Although the phenomenon of human aggression has always been offered in support of claims made by socio-biology, it is odd that the current, deeply disturbing scale of superpower belligerence appears to have invigorated biological explanations for warfare. According to one report, 'a growing number of anthropologists and biologists [have concluded] that war is not a product of civilisation - of nations and economies and boundary lines - but has somehow been hardwired into the brain, humanity's most potent weapon for good and evil' (Sunday Independent March 3, 2003). Such discussions reflect enduring 17th century philosophical uncertainties regarding human nature, epitomised in the rival positions of Hobbes and Rousseau, and it appears that these debates are alive and well in mainstream political science in the United States. More recently, a compounding issue - the problem of gender - has come under scrutiny. Why is war a visibly masculinist enterprise?

The gender division of labour that organises warfare - ie, that relegates direct combat and killing overwhelmingly to the agency of men and that mobilises women to an array of 'supportive' and 'civilian' roles - appears to be cross cultural and transhistorical. How can the consistency of this gender pattern be explained? As the wide-ranging volume War and Gender demonstrates, answers to these questions are forthcoming from disciplines in the biological and social sciences. Joshua Goldstein sets out to evaluate the evidence articulated by several schools of thought 'in the context of the overall [multi-disciplinary] picture' (2001:1). While this useful endeavour produces an engaging and clearly written review of some diverse literatures, the book is ultimately weighed down by the author's ambition definitively to test all possible hypotheses and to derive conclusive answers from the sum of the various disciplinary parts. Along the way, it almost entirely [End Page 92] avoids engagement with critical theory and research, choosing instead to treat both war and gender as human universals that are subject to the influence of positivistic variables. Critical readers will likely find its conclusions somewhat arbitrary, even trivial.

War and Gender is organised to examine six prominent explanations for the consistency of gender roles in war. These include the influences of biological differences in anatomy and physiology (including genetics, testosterone levels, cognition and sex hormones), behavioural sex differences (in group dynamics, hierarchy, and bonding) and cultural influences such as gender socialisation, the feminisation of enemies, and men's sexual and economic social dominance. Goldstein chooses to consider these variables as formal hypotheses, each addressed in a separate, robust chapter that discusses aspects of the major claims and research findings.

Chapter One tests the core assertion of the book to determine whether, indeed, gender roles in war are cross-culturally and historically consistent. He demonstrates convincingly that despite a minute number of cases that tend to be inflated and overused as anecdotal evidence to argue the contrary, gender norms in war are astonishingly invariable. His assessment of the data indicates that accounts of societies in which women have constituted the military majority (eg Amazon matriarchies) are, in fact, well-circulated myths or cases that have become greatly exaggerated. Substantiated instances in which women were organised for combat in all-women units, such as the Dahomey in 18th and 19th century, present-day Benin, or the bomber squadrons of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, stand out as exceptional cases - and, indeed, serve to demonstrate the general rules of gender normativity, since such units never composed more than about eight to 12 per cent of a state's total combat forces.

Still, as Goldstein is quick to point out, women have engaged as combatants in all-women units, in mixed units, and as individuals (both openly and disguised as men) in all-male units, in hundreds of documented circumstances. The rich and numerous cases he highlights make for a fascinating second chapter. Goldstein investigates the historical record to determine whether women perhaps have simply unequivocally failed to make good soldiers - a possibility that would preclude the need for further explanation of why men dominate soldiering. Yet he discovers, on the...


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pp. 92-97
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