Female Combatants, Feminism and 'Just' War

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This chapter argues that this familiar story of what happens to women in wars – that they are its victims, helpless and in need of masculine protection – simultaneously constitutes both gender roles in society writ large and the war-justificatory logic of ‘just war’ theory. These (gendered) inherited narratives serve a number of functions: to justify wars, to persuade men to fight in them, to contribute to nationalist discourses and to construct the parameters of the celebration of victories. I argue, however, that this gendered narrative has always been more symbolic than real: women have been participants in wars throughout history as protesters; as support staff and personnel; as biological and cultural reproducers of state, nation and military; as soldiers; and as terrorists or other insurgents. Stories of war that talk about ‘just warriors’ and ‘beautiful souls’ (in those exact terms or not) perpetuate unreality and abstraction about war, as well as gender-subordinating ideas about men and women. A feminist analysis of just war theorizing shows the gendered logic underlying the justification of wars and the ways that war and gender subordination reinforce and replicate each other. Paying attention to female combatants and the gendered significations of just war that make their existence discursively impossible, this chapter critiques just war theory and practice through a feminist lense.
It does so first by using the time-tested feminist method of asking where the women are, both in the story of the Trojan War and in inherited gendered just war narratives more generally (Enloe, 1993). Identifying where women are included and where they are excluded gives a picture of the discrepancy between inherited notions of what women are and their lived experiences. After presenting this information, it reviews feminist work that argues that gender stereotypes about women in their told roles in war not only subordinate women (and men) on the basis of gender but also serve a legitimating function for actors making wars. The chapter then addresses the role of female combatants in order to deconstruct just war’s women-as-victims trope, and argues that gender analysis points out not just surface-level but fundamental flaws in both theories of just war and the performative employment of just war discourses by actors in the international arena who make war(s). It then discusses some of the empirically and theoretically problematic implications of this gendered paradox and suggests alternative ways to think both about war and justice in war that escape the traps of these traditional gender tropes.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe SAGE Handbook of Feminist Theory
EditorsMary Evans, Clare Hemmings, Marsha Henry, Hazel Johnstone, Sumi Madhok, Ania Plomien, Sadie Wearing
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9781446252413
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2014


  • gender
  • feminism
  • just war
  • feminist IR
  • women
  • women soldiers

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