Women and nuclear weapons policy

In nuclear war, women would suffer at least as much as men. But women tend to be underrepresented in fields—such as high-level politics, diplomacy, military affairs, and science and technology—that bear on nuclear policy. How might women gain greater influence on nuclear weapons policy? And how might their empowerment affect disarmament and nonproliferation efforts?

Round 1

Tradition, the enemy of disarmament

Nuclear war and nuclear terrorism threaten women just as much as men. Indeed, women may be more susceptible than men to certain nuclear dangers, such as cancers associated with radiation. But women's influence over nuclear policy is dismally low. This holds true at both the national and international levels, and holds true in the realms of politics, military affairs, and science and technology.

In countries where women lack equal opportunity—where they are expected to remain submissive to men in all matters—it comes as no surprise that women lack political influence on nuclear questions. In India, women gained full suffrage in 1950. But women's representation in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, stands at only 11 percent, and legislation that would guarantee women 33 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha and in state legislatures has been stalled since 1996. In Pakistan, women gained the vote upon national independence in 1947, but women’s voting rights can face stiff opposition even today. Particularly in rural areas, it is often considered "un-Islamic" for women to vote.

Not all societies are quite so male-dominated, but it's hard to think of a country where women influence nuclear policy, or strategic and military decision making, in proportion to their numbers. Why? Well, one can argue with some validity that relatively few women possess the scientific background, military education, or experience in politics and diplomacy that are necessary to participate in nuclear weapons policy making. That is, one can argue that women aren't entitled to representation in nuclear decision making simply on the basis of being women.

But such reasoning only goes so far. In many countries, women's low influence in the political and security arena is based on gender stereotypes as much as on legitimate questions of women's experience. In the traditional households of many nations, the man has always been perceived as the chief. He has defined social and economic roles for other family members. He has projected strength, reason, prudence, and protection. Such stereotyping has carried over into modern political settings, where a (usually male) leader controls his followers and delegates roles for them. Women, meanwhile, are portrayed as weak, emotional, irrational, and requiring protection—incapable of making decisions for themselves or others.

This sort of “natural” differentiation between the sexes has permeated all aspects of nuclear policy making. For example, the Indian and Pakistani delegations to the 2013 Oslo conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear detonations contained no women. More broadly, if a man describes nuclear death and destruction with a clinical, abstract term such as “collateral damage,” his words convey a strong, confident, masculine message. If a woman uses a term such as "mass murder" to describe the same events, her words can convey an emotional, feminine message. The woman's words therefore become less worthwhile—even if they are more realistic.

Stereotypes aside, some research indicates that women are indeed less aggressive than men. A 2012 study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society concludes that “men are biologically programmed to be warriors.” In 2007, researchers from Brown University and elsewhere published the results of their research into people's responses to simulated war games. The research indicated that "high-testosterone individuals are more likely to engage in unprovoked attacks against their opponents." But if in fact it's true that women are more peace-loving than men—less conflict-prone, more humane and diplomatic—the rational response is to accelerate the disarmament process by ensuring women's participation in nuclear policy making.

Women have already played key roles in developing international instruments such as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Women could play at least as crucial a role in nuclear disarmament. But it's hard for them to do so as long as diplomacy, dialogue, and a sense of interdependence among nations—the very things on which disarmament depends—are assigned low value due to their association with femininity. What's needed, ultimately, is for traditional concepts of power and strength to recede in policy making. Instead, the good of human beings should take center stage. Achieving sustainable peace depends on redressing inequalities of all kinds, including those between women and men.

On a more immediate level, how can women's influence on nuclear decision making be increased? I propose two sets of actions, one to be carried out by governments and another by women themselves.

Governments must recognize that women are important stakeholders in peace, conflict resolution, and nuclear disarmament. More specifically, governments should encourage women's direct involvement, at the international level, in nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. Also, when governments perform cost-benefit analysis for military expenditures, they should take into account the gender dimensions of these expenditures—for example, many perceive as irresponsible the Pakistani government’s decision to invest in research, development, and deployment strategies for tactical nuclear weapons. (With Pakistan suffering from poverty, poor public health, high unemployment, and low education levels, it makes little sense for Islamabad to incur huge defense expenditures for “small” nuclear weapons.) Additionally, governments should integrate into their nuclear policy deliberations the views of nongovernmental organizations such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Reaching Critical Will, and Hibakusha Stories. Doing so would introduce into nuclear deliberations the humanitarian impact that a nuclear conflict would have on women and other sectors of the population.

Meanwhile, if women are to gain greater influence on nuclear policy, more female students must enter fields such as military planning, physics, arms control, and security. Women involved in medical research should study topics such as radiation's effect on human health—and then work to spread awareness of their findings. Women must also become more gender-conscious in their politics, and throw their support to women candidates who share their views on issues such as disarmament.

Due to geopolitical complexities, disarmament appears a distant dream today. But realizing the dream will become less far-fetched if women can exert their rightful influence over nuclear weapons policy.

The soul of women in nuclear politics

Many feminists view the nuclear state as a gendered phenomenon. Men, they say, associate nuclear technology with sexual potency—and indeed, when India detonated five nuclear devices in May 1998, Hindu nationalist politician Bal Thackeray said, "We have to prove that we are not eunuchs." This sentiment calls to mind a question posed in 1987 by the gender and security scholar Carol Cohn, who asked, "If disarmament is emasculation, how could any real man even consider it?" Feminists also point out that men associate nuclear weapons with their perceived roles as defenders of (female) populations—and in the world of nuclear policy, men see their own supposed rationality as more appropriate than women's supposed sensitivity.

What if the gendering of the nuclear state were to break down? According to feminist theory, the logic of nuclear weapons possession would be undermined. The idea that power equates with total capacity to destroy would be shaken. But while it's certainly true that masculinity has long been synonymous with aggression or protection, and femininity with appeasement or a preference for stability—in other words, masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness—practice shows that women can be just as tough as men. Female politicians and diplomats including Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, and Condoleezza Rice have been associated with hard policy measures and quite forceful military actions, making it clear that stereotypes of women as sensitive or pacifist are by no means always accurate.

But gender, as it is understood by feminists such as Cohn and her co-author Sara Ruddick, is a symbolic system (in addition to an individual characteristic). Gender provides metaphors and values that help structure people's thinking about war and security, among other aspects of the world. These metaphors and values constitute ideologies. The ideologies might be described as either feminine or masculine—but a "masculine" ideology can be adopted by a woman, or vice versa. Leaders such as Thatcher, Albright, and Rice, who carried out their careers in a world constructed by men and based on masculine ideals, succeeded in becoming more "masculine" than many men.

All this makes it rather complicated to discuss how women can gain greater influence on nuclear weapons policy, but two approaches stand out. The first approach is to encourage women's representation in state bodies and international organizations in the hope that women, as they gain influence, will gradually alter politics itself, bringing about an evolution in sociopolitical conscience. If the environment surrounding nuclear politics were more feminine, then politics might become less aggressive and the eventual result might be general disarmament. Then again, this reasoning might be faulty. Thatcher, Albright, and Rice—were they "masculine" by nature or did they become so in order to succeed in politics, which tends to be a men’s domain? If the latter is true, how can one be sure that nuclear politics won't change the "feminine" nature of many women who enter it? How can one be sure that women would change nuclear politics, instead of the other way around?

The second approach—the more complicated of the two, but perhaps the more rewarding in the long run—demands that societies make radical changes in their attitudes toward masculinity. In today's world, masculinity prevails. The business of real men is war, aggression, and domination. Among the tools of domination, nuclear weapons are foremost—the highest symbol of masculinity. But if war and aggression were devalued throughout society, beginning at the level of basic childhood education and entertainment (for example, if computer games no longer glorified war), it might be possible over time to establish less male-oriented societies.

In a sense, such a process is already under way. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, money has begun to displace weaponry as the primary symbol of state power. This transition toward soft power is a fundamental transformation, and arguably represents an evolution away from a traditional, masculine-centered world toward a more nuanced and feminine-influenced world. If this transformation continues, women may gain a greater voice in nuclear politics, not only through direct participation, but also indirectly, by helping society develop a more "feminine" character. Adlai Stevenson once said, "There is no evil in the atom; only in men’s souls." So bring the soul of women into nuclear politics, making it less aggressive and more oriented toward stability, and let the atom follow.

Women: From opinion makers to policy makers

It's often suggested that women bring a distinct perspective to policy questions and decision-making processes—but in truth, there is often nothing "feminine" about the perspectives that women bring.

A few years ago, Rose Gottemoeller—now the US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security—appreciatively used the term "women of mass destruction" at an informal meeting with a group of Pakistani women who work in security studies. The group she referred to was young and energetic. These women knew their subject matter and understood the politics that surrounded it. But despite what Gottemoeller's term might have implied, none of them produced work with a gendered bent.

Fast forward to this year when, at a congress of women leaders, this author asked Sujatha Singh, India's foreign secretary, a very loaded question: what legacy she would leave as a female foreign secretary, especially regarding the India-Pakistan conflict. Singh answered, very pragmatically, that her legacy would be no different from what a male counterpart's legacy might have been.

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Also this year, at a launch event for a report on regional security that I had co-written, a (female) social activist pointedly asked me why the report had failed to be gender-sensitive. I had to concede that the questioner's point was legitimate.

This experience helped me realize that many women, perhaps most, approach issues such as disarmament, policy making, and science and technology from established, male-dominated perspectives, rather than trying to develop alternate perspectives. Women in the policy world not only must demonstrate their competence but also struggle to rise above stereotypes. They must prove that they are equal to their male counterparts—or, at the least, they must strive to sound gender-neutral. Consequently, women often take on personas that are stern, hawkish, and "masculine."

Security studies and policy making are cut-throat worlds. Women are disadvantaged in these already difficult environments by being fewer in number. Thus they are always struggling to create space for themselves, to make themselves heard, to be taken seriously, to be man enough to receive respect. And though women are very scarce in policy circles, especially at the highest levels, the situation may be even worse than it appears—it's doubtful that women exert influence even to the extent that their low representation suggests they should.

Hard and soft. Certain research areas are considered hard—nuclear policy making, missile proliferation, arms races, and now cyber warfare. These issue areas are generally dominated by men. Other issues, such as gender and security, women's rights, post-conflict reconstruction, and activism are stereotyped as softer, more feminine. Women are not well represented in the "hard" issues; when they do work on these issues, they tend to produce work that is not gendered, that largely reinforces the dominant (male) narrative. Women are better represented when it comes to "soft" issues, but the issues themselves are considered less important. Moreover, research in "soft" areas often brings in elements of anthropology or sociology, and interdisciplinary approaches are generally frowned on for "hard" issues.

In Pakistan and India, women working on "hard" issues tend to be, if anything, more hawkish and more supportive of established narratives than their male counterparts are. Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, women working on nuclear issues are reluctant to pursue fields such as disarmament, the dangers of accidental nuclear releases, and nuclear waste and its negative effects on civilian populations (women and children above all). Some female journalists focus on these issues, and some activists, but women produce next to nothing on these issues in the context of academic journals or formal policy debate.

Why? It may be because nuclear issues in Pakistan and India are very much wedded to a nation-building narrative. These countries have moved well beyond the initial stages of their nuclear development, but the discourse on nuclear issues remains, in effect, state-owned and state-directed. For any opinion maker, man or woman, gaining credibility and acceptability depends on creating a niche for oneself that reinforces the nationalist discourse.

In Pakistan, the number of female students who seek degrees in security or defense studies is increasing over time. And quite a few female students are concentrating on nuclear issues. But again, these students seem not to focus on disarmament—or, in general, on the alternative perspectives on nuclear issues that might cause established points of view to be seriously challenged. This may be because faculty members steer young women away from such focuses. Or because young entrants to the job market can expect an easier time of it if they stay to an established path than if they bravely experiment. (As an aside, if you ask young women in security studies who their mentors are, hardly any will name another woman.)

Similar problems pertain in the technical arena. In Pakistan, a number of outstanding women have gained top-flight educations and become brilliant scientists or technicians, doing high-caliber work at top research organizations. But even then, they rarely manage to rise to the highest levels in the scientific community or gain a voice in nuclear policy and decision making. So again, women might not exert influence even to the extent that their meager numbers suggest they should.

Exploding the myth. The state-centric, male-dominated perspective on security issues that holds sway in Pakistan can no longer be considered adequate to meet the large and complex set of security challenges that the country faces. For example, alternative security concerns such as post-conflict rehabilitation strategies must be brought to bear on strategic decision making. Today's challenges can only be met by applying an interdisciplinary approach, one that pairs security studies with gender studies, sociology, anthropology, history, social work, or other disciplines.

Meanwhile, if gender stereotyping in security studies continues as it is—in Pakistan, in any case—women working in the field will create very little in the way of a feminist legacy. They will engage in hawkish opinion making but will not participate meaningfully as policy makers. For things to change, more women must make a concerted effort to focus on women's security issues. Women must lobby for greater representation in all aspects of policy. They must seek to involve women legislators, academics, activists, and opinion makers in building a serious alternative to the dominant male nuclear narrative—a narrative with a genuine chance of producing disarmament. As long as women involved in policy are just isolated voices, they can never explode the myth that nuclear policy is rightfully a boys-only club.

Round 2

Toward the platform of authority

My roundtable colleague Salma Malik wrote in Round Two that "women won’t contribute much to their own empowerment if they try to fit themselves into feminist straitjackets—if they attempt to create an exclusive community of nuclear experts who think and perform differently from men." Fortunately, fitting oneself into a straitjacket isn’t necessary. Rather, women can empower themselves, while also contributing meaningfully to nuclear decision making, by fulfilling their roles—traditional in many societies—as guardians of morals and ethics. That is, by highlighting the unconscionable possibility of nuclear war, women can help their nations avoid grave strategic errors while also advancing gender equality.

That said, and as I argued in Round One, women cannot expect to gain greater representation in nuclear decision making simply on the basis of their gender, or by displaying qualities traditionally associated with their gender. If women favor disarmament, for example, they must be in position to create the changes that they wish to see enacted. To an extent, this means gaining expertise in fields such as physics, nuclear technology, and nonproliferation studies, but it also means casting aside the inhibitions that many women feel about acting ambitiously and asserting themselves. It means dispensing with any sense of burden that women may experience on account of their sex.

Permission to marry. Malik wrote in Round Two that Pakistani women have made great strides over the decades toward equality in nuclear affairs—and the same is true in India. In 1949, Chonira Belliappa Muthamma became the first woman to join the Indian Foreign Service. At first she faced institutional barriers that are hard to imagine today, including a stipulation that any woman employed in the service must receive written permission before marrying. If the government decided that her family responsibilities were interfering with her work, she could be forced out. Muthamma eventually ascended to the foreign service’s most elite levels, knocking down many barriers along the way. Her perseverance cleared a path for women who would enter the service later. By March 2014, almost one-fifth of the officers in the foreign service were female. Sixteen ambassadors were women. And in 2010, when India’s foreign secretary explained to the international community India’s commitment to disarmament—as well as to agreements banning first use of nuclear weapons and use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states—it was Nirupama Rao, a woman, who laid out the nation’s views.

A woman such as Rao must exhibit great competence to attain her position. But it sometimes seems that women who do reach the highest levels, far from being dismissed as "weak" or ignored on account of their gender, are listened to more attentively than their male counterparts, at both the national and international levels. One might argue that these women are accorded respect only because they speak from very authoritative platforms, and that women without so much power are still ignored too often—but isn’t this the very reason that women must seek greater representation in positions of authority?

Masculine and feminine—in balance

In a seminar that I recently led on the current political situation in Ukraine, a male and a female student became engaged in heated debate. The male student argued that Ukraine should respond to Russia’s aggression in Crimea and elsewhere by seeking to join NATO. The female student argued that Moscow’s aggression could easily have been deterred in the first place—if only Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons.

This represents a sort of gender inversion that is not unusual in Ukraine. Indeed, one can argue that a "feminine" style dominates Ukrainian politics and decision making, even if the majority of decision makers are actually men. The Russian political analyst Andrei Okara has argued that Ukraine lacks the "father cult" that characterizes most societies—that, due to strong matriarchal influence received from the Cuman (or Polovtsian) people who once populated eastern Ukraine and from the Scythians who populated the southern part of the country, Ukrainian folklore and traditions have tended to glorify women more than men. As a result, the policies pursued by Ukraine since its independence have tended to be passive and reactive. One has seen little evidence of traditionally "male" qualities such as decisiveness, a clear sense of identity, and the ability to defend one’s interests.

Some good has come of this—after the breakup of the Soviet Union, under pressure from great powers, Ukraine quickly rid itself of its inherited nuclear weapons. But at the same time, Ukraine has exhibited conspicuous national weakness, an inability to stake out clear policy positions, and a high level of dependence on external actors. Thus Russia has managed with little trouble to annex Crimea, create an atmosphere of violence in eastern Ukraine, and transform the country into a source of instability in Europe.

Can one reasonably argue that women, in general terms, are more inclined than men toward nuclear disarmament, and that women, if they exerted greater political influence, would promote peace and contribute to security? Yes. Can one argue with confidence that the masculine style of politics makes states more aggressive, as vividly demonstrated by Russia’s actions today? The answer, quite likely, is yes. But excessive pursuit of either a "masculine" or a "feminine" style can lead to problems—weakness on the one hand and excessive aggression on the other. Both approaches are dangerous for international security. So a reasonable prescription for any state is to combine the two styles in a balanced way—to practice peace and pursue disarmament while also maintaining a vigorous ability to defend state security and interests.

Rejecting the feminist straitjacket

A famous photograph taken at the 1927 Solvay Conference on Electrons and Photons shows 29 pioneering scientists whose work later formed the basis for the Manhattan Project. One person pictured is Marie Curie. The other 28 are men.

Today in Pakistan, I would estimate that women's representation in the nuclear community—scientists, technicians, and security analysts—stands at 20 to 25 percent. These numbers are lower than they should be, but they represent progress in gender equality since 1927, and they are fairly comparable with gender ratios in the West.

But as Polina Sinovets and I both discussed in Round One, women policy makers can be just as hawkish, cut-throat, and trigger-happy as their male counterparts. A case in point is that Barack Obama reportedly decided to launch airstrikes against the Qaddafi regime in Libya because he had been persuaded to do so by Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice. So is there really any reason to think that a gendered approach to disarmament would result in quicker abolition of nuclear weapons?

Even if the answer is no—even if women's empowerment would do little to change nuclear policy—their empowerment remains important because it would benefit women themselves and help establish more equitable societies. But women won't contribute much to their own empowerment if they try to fit themselves into feminist straitjackets—if they attempt to create an exclusive community of nuclear experts who think and perform differently from men. Rather, the quest for equality can best be advanced if women simply work to increase their representation, their credibility, and their visibility.

But women can't achieve these goals alone. In many countries, governments must pass and enforce legislation requiring equal-opportunity and female-friendly workplaces. Quotas or special allocations might sometimes be required to ensure that qualified women get the opportunities they deserve. Over time, these steps would deepen the pool of women policy makers and experts and enhance women's credibility. Even so, women would likely continue to bump up against the glass ceiling, which they would have to break through somehow. Doing so would not be easy—but for women, things have never been easy.

In closing, Reshmi Kazi argued in Round One that when "governments perform cost-benefit analysis for military expenditures, they should take into account the gender dimensions of these expenditures." But social issues such as poverty and health have never had much bearing on nations' decision making about weaponry. Will New Delhi dispense with its nuclear arsenal out of concern over the slums of Mumbai, the Muslim ghettoes of Delhi, or the widow villages of Kashmir? Not likely. Nations won't begin making their strategic decisions on moral and ethical grounds until the world becomes a very different place—one where men and women alike demonstrate sanity and reason. In such a world, priority would be given to human security, sustainable development, and pacifism—but not to gender stereotyping.

Round 3

Mothers, wives, decision makers

Anandiben Patel, chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, recently announced that her government would renew its efforts to increase women’s representation in the state’s police force to 33 percent. This announcement may seem—even if Gujarat reaches its goal of employing nearly 20,000 policewomen instead of today’s roughly 2,500—tenuously connected to this roundtable’s theme of increasing women’s influence over nuclear policy making. But the initiative is relevant because of Patel’s declaration that “When a mother has prepared herself to serve … society, state, and the country, we have to provide them special training and special space.”

This is a crucial point. Achieving gender balance in the political and administrative affairs of a nation requires recognizing the varied tasks that women perform. In most societies, women have greater family responsibilities than do men. These responsibilities, and the moral expectations that surround them, tend to restrict women’s freedom. But such constraints can be no excuse for institutional discrimination. Women who fulfill traditional roles as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and so on must not be presumed incapacitated—they must not be excluded from fulfilling important public functions (functions that may range from enforcing the law to making critical decisions about nuclear weapons).

Institutions must place their faith in qualified women, regardless of their family situations. In India, institutions would do well to remember that women such as Sujatha Singh and Chokila Iyer (two foreign secretaries) and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not allow family responsibilities to prevent them from serving the Indian government.

If governmental institutions fail to ensure adequate representation for women, they will fail in their mandates to advance development, stability, security, and human rights. And policy makers will struggle to achieve sustainable peace if women are excluded from decision making processes. I argued in Round One that women may be "more peace-loving than men—less conflict-prone, more humane and diplomatic." Thus their participation in nuclear decision making has to be encouraged—and this will often mean that states must make accommodations for working women with families.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that achieving gender equity may depend less on the absolute numbers of women in institutions than on providing opportunities for visionary, pragmatic women to occupy positions of real power. Once women occupy crucial institutional positions, a better work environment for other women is often guaranteed. In Round Two, I discussed the doors that Chonira Belliappa Muthamma opened for women who followed her in the Indian Foreign Service. It is women such as Muthamma who shatter glass ceilings—even as they do critical work in policy formulation.

Often, women work twice as hard as men to achieve positions of influence. Once in those positions, they frequently must work harder than men to stay there. Relying on the perseverance that their gender requires them to demonstrate, women may well alter the discourse on nuclear weapons so that global disarmament is finally achieved.

Deterrence coexisting with disarmament

In her third roundtable essay, my colleague Salma Malik expressed her hope that "as more women gain influence over nuclear weapons policy, the world will learn to 'forget' nuclear weapons entirely." For Malik, "forgetting" nuclear weapons means achieving complete disarmament. But there is another sense in which "forgetting" nuclear weapons is exactly the wrong thing to do.

When I was seven years old, my teacher told my class about nuclear weapons. She said that the United States had created a very efficient nuclear bomb and planned to use it the next day—against the Soviet Union and therefore against my classmates and me. "But don't worry," the teacher said. "The Soviet Union has the same kind of weapon, and will use it at the same moment the Americans do. So the whole world will be destroyed."

Thus my first encounter with the concept of nuclear weapons led me to believe that the world would die the next day. Even now, thinking of nuclear weapons provokes the same fear that I felt then. My teacher may have been wrong to frighten a group of impressionable children so badly, but I nonetheless believe that the correct response to nuclear weapons is deep-seated fear.

I also believe that nuclear weapons—to the extent that they prevent warfare by inspiring profound terror—make a great contribution to mankind.

In 1988, Margaret Thatcher and Gennady Gerasimov, a spokesman for the Soviet foreign ministry, engaged in a televised exchange of views regarding nuclear weapons. Gerasimov said, in reference to Thatcher’s skepticism about disarmament in Europe, ''You do not believe in a nuclear-free world. So our task is to convert you to our faith.'' Thatcher, speaking a few hours later on a different program, replied, “I want a war-free Europe. A nuclear-free Europe, I do not believe, would be a war-free Europe. … The nuclear weapon has kept the peace in Western Europe for 40 years.''

More than 25 years have passed since this exchange, but I believe now, as Thatcher did then, that nuclear weapons prevent mankind from destroying itself in world war. That said, nuclear deterrence is a very delicate thing—and it is destined to collapse, with deadly consequences, if responsibility for its maintenance is left solely to the men whom Carol Cohn described in "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals." Indeed, deterrence must be approached with an appreciation for, in Cohn's words, the "emotional fallout" of nuclear war. It must take into account the "feminine" approach of women such as the Acronym Institute's Rebecca Johnson, who continually reminds the world of the fatal consequences that nuclear detonations would entail. She puts nuclear war in human terms—reporting, for example, that if the warheads in just one of Britain's Trident submarines were fired on Moscow, 5.4 million people could be expected to die within a few months. Johnson works to ensure that nuclear weapons produce terror in the public—the same terror that I felt as a girl. As for "white men in ties discussing missile size," as Cohn described them? They must feel this terror too and share in responsibility for it.

The function of nuclear deterrence is preventing big wars. That function can be fulfilled indefinitely if deterrence is approached with a feminine sensitivity to nuclear war's costs—and if, at the same time, nuclear arsenals are significantly reduced. Fear must never be forgotten.

The sexes, the state, and nuclear arms

When I sought reactions from colleagues to my first essay in this roundtable, I was struck by one variety of response: that nuclear weapons are non-negotiable national assets and therefore should not be viewed from a gendered perspective. If people are patriotic, the reasoning seemed to run, their views on national issues should be the same no matter whether they are women or men. Taken further, the implication seemed to be that a low appetite for war, or a preference for peace constituencies over war machinery, calls into question one’s patriotic fervor.

Perhaps this point of view is particularly prevalent in South Asia, where nuclear weapons symbolize national pride and are presented as a sort of magic potion that can cure all the ills that beset the nation. But patriotism has displayed gendered characteristics in many places and times. The Brazilian political scientist José Eisenberg has analyzed the relationship between gender and political entities from Aristotle to the present day. He writes that, according the mainstream democracy theories of the twentieth century, "[L]oyalty to the republic is presented as a paternal relationship, made up of civic duties and loyalty to the sovereign; … loyalty to the nation is represented as a maternal relationship, constituted of the right to reap the fruits of the nation-state’s riches and culture." From this point of view, it is easy to see why some (male) patriots perceive their support for nuclear weapons as a virtuous exercise of duty—and perceive skepticism about nuclear weapons as an impulse less worthy of respect.

Meanwhile, the gender and security scholar Carol Cohn, in her famous essay "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals," has described her experience among "white men in ties discussing missile size" who used "clean language" to discuss "clean" nuclear bombs—while avoiding consideration of civilian deaths and what Cohn calls the "emotional fallout" of nuclear war. The intellectuals whom Cohn described would certainly have considered themselves patriots, and they thought nothing of discussing nuclear weapons and war in (sometimes comically) sexist language.

Of course, sexist language and imagery are not exclusive to the nuclear domain. They have probably been an element of warfare since warfare began. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that sexist, patriarchal imagery—and a gender-based sense of patriotism—often turn disarmament and nonproliferation into something "soft," feminized, or downright emasculated. This not only hinders disarmament but also makes it very, very difficult to establish a credible feminist approach to hard-core strategic studies and policy making.

All this is rather depressing, but I’d like to close on an optimistic note by recalling an incident from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, believing that his nation was facing an existential threat, advocated carrying out a demonstration of Israel’s nuclear capability—but, according to the nonproliferation expert Avner Cohen, Prime Minister Golda Meir (known as the "Iron Lady" long before the term became associated with Margaret Thatcher) told Dayan to "forget it." Apparently her notion of patriotism did not include a nuclear detonation that could have had the direst consequences for the Middle East. And perhaps, as more women gain influence over nuclear weapons policy, the world will learn to "forget" nuclear weapons entirely.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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