Cynthia Enloe, feminist scholar and author of several books and articles about women and the military, suggests that when a country mobilizes for war, it is useful to ask, “Where are the women?”
When we ask, where are the women in the United States, we can learn something about the role of women in U.S. institutions, and what is expected of them during times of war.
We see they are being told that shopping is their patriotic duty, that their unpaid caring labor is now part of the war effort, that they must obsess about the minutia of daily routines and not focus on the larger issues, and that they should stand united with the rest of the country as if it were one big family and the women are the loyal moms and daughters. Women of color and working-class women, having never really been part of the great big American family, must continue as the invisible servants — bearing the brunt of economic downturn, continuing to function with less of a social safety net, being targeted by heightened racism, and losing a disproportionate share of their family members to the military.
In his October 7, 2001 war announcement, Bush shamefully showcased the ideal feminine gesture during this tragic time — literally to be willing to sacrifice our men. He said, “I recently received a touching letter that says a lot about the state of America in these difficult times, a letter from a fourth grade girl with a father in the military. ‘As much as I don’t want my dad to fight,’” she wrote, “‘I’m willing to give him to you.’”
Laura Bush role-modeled the necessity of giving up our men as they do the brave public deeds required of them during the crisis. During a recent interview with Larry King, the First Lady lamented that “she may have lost a little of him because he gave more of himself to the country,” according to a UPI report.
“It’s unbelievably stressful,” she continued. “I thought today he looked a little tired.”
A moment’s lament is acceptable, but only if it quickly morphs into cheerleading. “But he’s doing great,” the First Lady added. “He’s very resolved. He’s doing very well.”
“The fact is,” she said at one point, “is that most of us are safe. Nearly all of us are safe. Our children are safe in their schools. We need to reassure them, of that.
“We’re safe in our homes. We’re safe. … I know that people are getting back on planes and flying again, which I’m glad about,” she said.
She ended the interview with an encouraging note: “I want to get across the message that that I think people need to go about their daily lives and start feeling secure again, and certainly help make their children feel secure as they go about their daily lives.”
The wifely and motherly role during a time of crisis is to admire our men, bravely suffer their understandable preoccupations, reassure the children, and breathe a sigh of relief for the return of our daily routines. We can celebrate the little things, like “getting back on planes and flying again,” and not concern ourselves with the bigger issues like whether our country’s policies will lead to genocide in Afghanistan.
An important aspect of women’s domestic work is to shop, and now it is her patriotic duty as well. “Go shopping,” commands Rudolph Giuliani. “Buy that car,” says Tom Daschle. “Take that trip,” pleads John Kerry. The New York Times dedicated a whole page to high-end accessories in red, white and blue, noting that “the recovery effort must include shopping.” Whether you choose a $42 flag-themed leash for your dog or a stars-and-stripes belt ($198) and matching handbag ($297) for yourself, the message is “the civic-minded can now buy a little guilt-free pleasure, in style.”
For those with less disposable income, “here’s how you can help,” says a link on WalMart’s top page. “Go to your local Wal-Mart store,” is what they suggest, “and donate to the national relief effort.” Playing off your sympathy, compassion and desire to help, WalMart just wants to get you in the store.
Capturing women’s designated role during patriotic times, The Onion magazine headlined one of their satirical pieces, “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake.” Having already “donated blood, mailed a check to the Red Cross, and sent a letter of thanks to the New York Fire Department,” she settled on the red, white, and blue creation as her next response to the terror.
Never mind that stockholders are divesting, airlines are laying off people by the tens of thousands, and the rich are scaling back, protecting their wealth and flying private charter planes to avoid the hassles of tightened airport security. Never mind that millions of Americans don’t have disposable incomes and millions more get along every day without the benefit of health or life insurance (though they can now live secure in the knowledge that if a skyscraper collapses on them, they and their families will at least be eligible for basic social services). Never mind that Bush is using the current crisis to ask for more tax breaks for the wealthy and that the military build-up will line the pockets of weapons’ manufacturers while public schools founder, welfare is gutted, and full-time minimum wage workers can’t afford to feed themselves.
Never mind all this. It’s our patriotic duty not to notice.
Feminism should help us identify how the war cry is partly dependent on particular definitions of masculinity and femininity. Feminism can help us see how gender politics reinforces isolation and asks us to bypass thoughtful responses in the name of unity, which translates into mostly corporate-appointed, white, male decisions about how the country will go forward.
There are exceptions to the war cry, and we should note them. Representative Barbara Lee said in her September 14th, 2001 speech to the House, “There must be some of us who say, let’s step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today — let us more fully understand their consequences.”
Peace groups and ad hoc coalitions have sprung up all over the United States and the world — responding rapidly and incisively to U.S. rhetoric and activity. “We strongly believe the urge to vengeance must be resisted,” says the activist group Women in Black. “A war waged by the US and its allies will cause the death of many innocent people, will de-stabilize many governments and societies, and its long-term effects on relations between countries and regions of the world will be disastrous.”
And U.S. peace activists are asking, Where are the Afghan women? It’s an important question that illuminates the current crisis. More on that in my next commentary.