The Duck of Minerva

“Manning Up” and Making (the Libyan) War

23 March 2011

Women are supposed to be those innocent of war, protected by chivalric warriors. The Trojan War was made over Helen. G. W. Bush justified the invasion of Iraq with the platitude that “violence against women is always and everywhere wrong.” Yet Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times Op-Ed Section, notes that the story of the Libyan no-fly zone is one of “a group of strong women swooping down to shake the president out of his delicate sensibilities and show him the way to war.” A number of others have been framing this in terms of gender as well.

Dowd notes that “we have come a long way from the feminist international relations theory two decades ago that indulged in stereotypes about aggression being ‘male’ and conciliation being ‘female.’” This is a misreading of feminist international relations theory, and the misreading leads to a misinterpretation of the events surrounding the decision to go to war in Libya.

Rather than indulging in gender stereotypes, feminist international relations theory has always pushed back against gender essentialism. The argument that Dowd misreads is actually that aggression is often associated with masculinity (and thus expected of men) and conciliation is often associated with femininity (and thus expected of women), despite neither sex holding those characteristics naturally or essentially. It is the expectation of masculinity (rather than the presence of men, or their inherent manliness) that shapes (especially security) politics.

In fact, feminist international relations theorists have written extensively about women who “break the mold” of gender stereotypes – women leaders, women soldiers, and women terrorists – and how socially held gender stereotypes create double standards for, push back against, and punish them. They have argued that, so long as masculinity remains a standard in politics, both men and women will be constrained by that standard.

So what does this mean for Dowd (and others) who tell the story of women pressuring the President to “man up” and make the war in Libya? That is really a story of masculinity being required not only of Barack Obama but also of his (male and female) advisors. Masculinity (strength, decisiveness, aggression, dominance) is something we assume men possess when they enter the public sphere – but a characteristic women must prove. Women leaders are actually often overrepresented in “masculine” parts of government – defense, intelligence, and war – not because women are more aggressive than men, but because women must prove their masculinity while men’s is assumed.

But men’s masculinity is only assumed until it is questioned – and Barack Obama’s was questioned over an initially “soft” reaction to the situation in Libya. Proponents of intervention (including but not limited to Obama’s senior women aides) realized that they could challenge Obama’s masculinity as a way to get him to “man up” and “harden” his stance on Libya. The missiles flying over Libya were a victory for masculinity as a standard in U. S. political leadership as much as they were for the “Valkyries” that pressured the President into doing it. Any success will likely be credited to that masculinity, though any failure will likely be credited to women’s emotional and/or impulsive whims.

Instead of telling stories about “the men” and “the women” in politics, feminist international relations theorists have spent the last twenty years telling stories about the power of gender-based expectations on political interactions, from the interpersonal to the interstate. These stories remain relevant (and perhaps become more so) as Barack Obama defends his masculinity (and perhaps innocent, feminized Libyan civilians) in Libya in the coming months.