The Echo Chamber of Security Studies and Muting the Feminine Voice

In 2011, the disproportionately harmful impact of atomic radiation on women, over the impact on men was confirmed for the first time by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. These findings were striking not only for uncovering a direct link between gender and nuclear weapons, but by their juxtaposition with the recognition that the consideration of gender continues to be side-lined and women underrepresented in the nuclear strategy space. From the tension this has created between scientific knowledge and the formulation of strategy, the application of a gender lens seems timely in order to understand how nuclear strategy has evolved at odds with the feminine experience.

This article, will explore the absence of the feminine from traditional strategic thought, touching on the contributions of the feminist scholarship and illuminating their value. It is essential to situate the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on women’s security within the broader strategic context, if not only to explain the resilience of the status-quo, and give credence to the size of the challenge that awaits both the movement of feminism, and the lobby for nuclear abolitionism.

So what is the relationship between gender and nuclear strategic thought? Surely if it were that pertinent more would be jumping on the band-wagon? For those of us embarking on a voyage of feminist inquiry into the status quo of the current world order, these questions do not sound unfamiliar.

Indeed, since the 1970’s the experience of feminist scholarship has continuously been characterised by the dynamic of fighting for a place at the table, the right to voice a counter-narrative to what has come before. This couldn’t be less true when we hone this down to the field of Security Studies; wherein practical explanations for the absence of the feminine along with the absence of women, have masked a harsher reality.

Whether your knowledge of the Modern era of History comes from Hollywood films, Renaissance art, historical fiction or the study of International Relations, there’s one question that merits asking…’Where are the women’? [1]

So what determines absence? What motivates erasure from the past? And ultimately who and what system does it serve? These questions have long formed the basis of my investigation into the feminine experience as portrayed from a security perspective, and they continue to underpin the collective responsibility of all to consider the basic notion that when someone tells of one thing, they are always not telling us another.

Modern warfare and the strategies employed therein, until now has relied on the notion that we don’t challenge the status quo. And indeed, what I would like to show is that when we do challenge the narrative, and deconstruct the orthodoxy, what we have known until now takes on a sinister edge. That edge, is the predecessor to our battle-cry for a better world.

The absence of women within security discourses can be situated historically in the evolution of international politics as a masculine sphere wherein the feminine voice has become unwarranted and out-of-place. The traditional exclusion of women from military and political power has impacted on the place of the ‘feminine’ within those realms, particularly when in many states, military experience has been taken as a prerequisite to enter the security domain in the political area.

Think of your films, art and books; in the culture stemming from warfare, who runs the show?

For Blanchard, the exclusion of female experiences is owed to the analytical side-lining of certain acts on the basis of false dichotomies. Indeed, female experiences have suffered as a result of public-private divisions, for example in the case of wartime sexual violence or sex as an act of service. By privatising the female sexual experience, it becomes something unspoken of, and thus absent. Yet we know, and continue to uncover in Gender Studies departments worldwide the extent to which sex, sexual violence and exploitation has been politically motivated, in war and peace. From this perspective, it seems intimacy has been mistaken for privacy, masking the female experience and omitting sexual tactics of warfare as a topic for investigation all the while.

Cynthia Enloe taps into the ‘public’ or political nature of acts like sex and the means by which the ‘private’ realm serves to ignore the political role of women’s private experiences, be it in the case of sex-workers providing services to military officials or the act of rape in warfare. Significantly, both represent instances where the act and its consequences are political, but the experience has been side-lined on the basis of its ‘private’ nature, and in doing so the experience, contribution and impact of war on women has been deemed irrelevant. As we will see, the public-private delineation is particularly interesting when it comes to the absence of women in nuclear strategic thought — not least given the contradiction between the use of sexual imagery within the depiction of nuclear weapon proliferation, at odds with the traditional side-lining of the sexual — explicable perhaps by the hegemonic masculine narrative that carries it.

Yet even this analytical account does not explain why the female experience hasn’t been mobilized within the strategy space, rather it provides an insight into how that has been achieved. Tickner, with her analysis of the depiction of the ‘feminine’ through the evolution of Modern Western Political Thought offers valuable and convincing insights here. Indeed, by tracing the depiction of women from Greek mythology to the conception of Political Science as a discipline, from Machiavelli to Hobbes, Tickner highlights how the female has “consistently threatened the Western militarized conception of the state and its political order”. [2]

As such, the interaction of the ‘feminine’ with politics has been imbued with connotations of threat and danger; this in turn has led to the development of a narrative that places power with the one who can neutralise that threat.

The outcome of these embryonic theories of international politics extends itself wide in international relations as Tickner suggests the domain “draws on experiences more typical of man than women under the guise of objectivity”. [3]This then, begins to build a more analytically satisfactory landscape to explain why security discourses do not sufficiently account for the security of women, because at the most basic level, the female is side-lined out of both irrelevance and fear. In addition, that this has been given the guise of the organic in ‘laws of nature’ feeds conveniently into the problematic narrative that strategy is both natural and rational.

Since the female has been side-lined throughout the evolution of broader strategic thought, it is perhaps unsurprising that present security discourses have traditionally neglected the feminine. However, it is significant to recognise how deeply the bias against women has permeated security considerations at the public policy level, most visible when discussing the issue of nuclear radiation regulation and the data points used to create nuclear radiation policy.

Olson analyses the gender factor of atomic harm, showing that whilst “there is no safe radiation-exposure level above zero”, the gender disaggregation of data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attack victims shows that “ionizing radiation is more likely to cause harm to females” [4]. And whilst this certainly raises an ethical dimension when it comes to considering nuclear weapons strategy in an equitable way across genders, it is more shocking to note that radiation regulation does not take into consideration this disproportionate impact, as a result of its basis on the ‘Reference Man’. This shows neatly how public policy even broader than security studies is imbued with a gendered bias that disadvantages the female.

The concept of the ‘Reference Man’ emerged with the conception of nuclear weapons in the 20th Century and specifically from the idea that “radiation was historically regulated for the people engaging with it — adult male” [5]. In other words, the adult male was considered appropriate as reflecting the common biological traits of the general population, which stands starkly at odds with the proven disproportionate impact of radiation on women. The point here, is that even in light of this paradox, women have continued to be side-lined in the discussion around nuclear weapons and their impacts, with significant costs in terms of their own security. Olson suitably states “traditional analytical methods [i.e the reference man] for assessing radiological harm result in a serious underestimation of real suffering and societal cost”. [6]

Put differently, the incumbent analytical method reproduces insecurity for women.

The impact of side-lining women’s involvement in war-making, the practical exclusion of them in military and political domains and their depiction as either threatening or irrelevant in traditional political theory has culminated in an image of femininity as unreflectively linked to peace, irrationality and unpredictability.

Simultaneously, the ‘masculine’ in hegemonic form, has become analogous to strength, rationality, power and a disposition for aggression. That is not to say that masculine norms ignore emotion, but rather the emotions explored include competition, pride and prestige.

These connotations associated with masculine and feminine elements are vital in understanding the interaction of masculinity with nuclear weapons, as upcoming blog posts will explore. We will see how the absence of women more broadly has permeated the nuclear space through discursive practices that have emerged in opposition to the purportedly ‘feminine’ value system.

For now, the absence of the feminine experience in the broader progression of strategic thought and modern warfare serves as a strong reminder. A reminder to question the narrative, to challenge the orthodoxy and ultimately to consistently ask ourselves, who is telling the story.


[1] Cynthia, Enloe. Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) quoted in Blanchard, “Gender, International Relations”

[2] Ann J Tickner, “Searching for The Princess?”, Harvard International Review 21, no. 4 (1999): 44.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Mary Olson, “Human Consequences of Radiation: A Gender Factor In Atomic Harm”, in Civil Society Engagement In Disarmament Processes — The Case For A Nuclear Weapons Ban (New York: UN, 2017), 31.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

A recent Master’s graduate of International Security — Sciences Po Paris. Writing about strategy, power and the value of the gender lens.

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