There’s Nothing Feminist About Imperialism
Women now shape the American war machine at its highest levels. That’s nothing to celebrate.
Major media outlets are fawning over the fact that women are taking over top positions in the country’s largest weapons companies and in US defense and intelligence agencies.
From MSNBC to Politico to NowThis, a number of prominent publications are framing this ascent as an indicator of overall progress for women — and of increased equity in the organizations they are now leading.
Women are now the CEOs of four out of the country’s five biggest military contractors, writes Politico reporter David Brown, noting that, “across the negotiating table, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer and the chief overseer of the nation’s nuclear stockpile now join other women in some of the most influential national security posts.” Brown hails the developments as a “watershed” moment, citing Kathleen Hicks, senior vice-president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank whose top corporate funders are weapons contractors, as asserting that “the national security community” is more of a meritocracy than other fields.
Throughout the article, the women leading these organizations proclaim that women can make it to the top if they believe in themselves. They call on well-worn gender stereotypes to assert that women have something special to offer because of their unique talent at negotiating, their fierce protectiveness as mothers, and their “different perspective” on problem solving. The article even includes patronizing praise of how women’s leadership in the military can result in innovative solutions like wrapping sensitive equipment in pantyhose to keep out sand.
Yet, feminists should not view this “rise” of women as a win. Feminism, as the most recent wave of imperial-feminist articles shows, is increasingly being co-opted to promote and sell the US military-industrial complex: a profoundly violent institution that will never bring liberation to women — whether they are within its own ranks or in the countries bearing the greatest brunt of its brutality. As Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and assistant professor at George Mason University, put it in an interview with In These Times, women’s inclusion in US military institutions “makes the system subjugating us stronger and more difficult to fight. Our historical exclusion makes it [appear] desirable to achieve [inclusion] but that’s a lack of imagination. Our historical exclusion should push us to imagine a better system and another world that’s possible.”
This pro-military media spin is no accident: Weapons contractors are working hard to sell a progressive, pro-women brand to the public. Raytheon and other firms spend millions on public relations painting themselves as noble empowerers of women and girls in the sciences. Raytheon champions its partnership with Girl Scouts of the USA. “Through a multiyear commitment from Raytheon, Girl Scouts will launch its first national computer science program and Cyber Challenge for middle and high school girls,” states a promotional page. A high-dollar promotional video quotes Rebecca Rhoads, president of Raytheon’s global business services, as stating, “Raytheon’s vision about making the world a safer place and the girl scouts’ vision of making the world a better place couldn’t be more well-suited as partners.” Such a claim is particularly brazen, coming from a company that supplies a steady stream of bombs for the US-Saudi war in Yemen, which has unleashed a famine that has killed an estimated 85,000 Yemeni children under the age of five.
Lockheed Martin, by far the biggest arms producer in the world with $44.9 billion in arms sales in 2017, manufactured the 500-pound laser-guided MK 82 bomb that struck a Yemeni school bus last August, killing fifty-four people (forty-four of them children). But that doesn’t stop the company from presenting itself as a progressive organization that recruits — and supports — women scientists. A page on its website quotes the Langston Hughes poem, “A Dream Deferred,” to make the case that the company helps girls achieve their dreams. “This poem was one of my favorites from my high school English class, but, now, as I consider my Community Service and Engagement with the Lockheed Martin community, I personally know what can happen to a dream deferred, when many say no, but I say, ‘Yes you can,’” the page states. In her speech at the 2015 World Assembly for Women in Tokyo, the company’s chairperson, president and CEO Marillyn A. Hewson said that “it is just as important to support women as they work to lift themselves up and raise up each other. Because taking responsibility for our own careers is empowering in and of itself.”
Faux-feminist PR is not just for private corporations — it is also being used to sell woman-led CIA torture. Gina Haspel, who once oversaw torture at a black site in Thailand, now runs the CIA, and the Trump administration defended her from critics of torture by pointing out the fact that she is a woman. “Any Democrat who claims to support women’s empowerment and our national security but opposes her nomination is a total hypocrite,” said Press Sec. Sarah Sanders on Twitter.
Yet, Erakat asks, “How are you going to celebrate women in high military ranks as an achievement when all they do is fulfill an agenda that was never created through a feminist framework? Haspel was an architect of our torture regime. Why would I celebrate her?”
Meanwhile, the war criminals of yesteryear are being rehabilitated by this “girl-power” coverage. Last April, the Washington Post ran a story with the eyebrow-raising headline, “‘The kids, they love Madeleine Albright’: How a veteran diplomat got turned into a girl-power icon.” In 1996, Albright, the then-US ambassador to the United Nations, told 60 Minutes that the half-million Iraqi children killed by the US sanctions regime were “worth” it.
“It’s a very white, imperialist, liberal understanding of feminism to think that the promotion of women at the top of militarization and militarism is advancing women,” says Kara Ellerby, author of No Shortcut to Change, who derides what she calls the “add-women-and-stir” approach. “Sure, it’s great that you have a woman at the head of Raytheon, but what about the women who those bombs are being dropped on?” Ellerby emphasizes to In These Times. “From a global perspective, putting women in charge of US military dominance is not remotely feminist: It’s imperialist.”
Feminist scholar and author Cynthia Enloe echoes this concern, suggesting that women’s leadership in these organizations does not change what the organizations do to the rest of the world. “There is no evidence that I’ve seen — of the CIA, defense department, or other institutions where only a few women are rising to the top — that they challenge the mission of the company or the organization,” she tells In These Times.
The Military-Industrial Complex Is Not Good for Women
US military intervention is particularly bad for women: It remains deeply interconnected to sexual and gender violence, for people in the military, for military spouses, and for people living in or near the estimated 1,000 US military bases around the world or where US military actions occur. From Japan to the Philippines, local populations have long protested the presence of the US military — and the environmental destruction and sexual violence it brings.
The impacts of war — such as reduction in basic services, electricity, and access to food and water, loss of family members, and increased rates of illness and disability — all increase women’s vulnerability to assault and worsen the conditions of women’s labor. Women are predominantly responsible for caring for sick and disabled people, children, and elders — and the conditions for doing that work worsen severely in war conditions. The US military is also the largest polluter in the world. It is difficult to argue that its activities are “good for women” when it contributes to climate change and the poisoning of air, water, and land that endangers all people.
The US military is also profoundly violent towards women within its own ranks. According to Veterans Affairs records, 1,307,781outpatient visits took place at the VA for Military Sexual Trauma (MST)-related care in 2015. Approximately 38 percent of female and 4 percent of male military personnel and veterans have experienced Military Sexual Trauma — a euphemism for rape or sexual assault. Research reveals that 40 percent of women homeless veterans have experienced sexual assault in the military. (Far less is known or publicly reported about the US military’s sexual violence against occupied peoples.)
Service members are punished for speaking out. A report from the Department of Defense finds 58 percent of women and 60 percent of men who report sexual assault face retaliation. And 77 percent of retaliation reports alleged that retaliators were in the reporter’s chain of command. A third of victims are discharged after reporting, typically within seven months of making a report. A report from Harvard Law School’s Veterans’ clinic finds sexual assault victims receive harsher discharges from the military, with 24 percent separated under less than fully honorable conditions, compared to 15 percent of all service members.
Women who drop out of the military because they have been sexually assaulted cannot rise through the ranks. The media portrayal of the women who have climbed to the top of the military and intelligence apparatuses, however, relies on bootstrap tough-it-up narratives that implicitly victim-shame women, often framing failure to achieve what they did in terms of women’s lack of confidence that creates obstacles to their success. Lynn Dugle, CEO of Englity and former CEO of Raytheon, tells Politico, “One of my biggest challenges has been resisting the temptation to tell myself I couldn’t do something. I didn’t think I was ready to be president of a multibillion-dollar business at Raytheon when I was offered the role. I continually remind myself to have courage and confidence.”
These narratives about “progress” through inclusion of underrepresented groups in dominant institutions (in this case women), actually follow a well-worn pattern in US politics. Whether it is police departments championing “diversity” while perpetuating targeted harm against marginalized populations, or oil companies portraying themselves as “green,” the drive to be associated with a (watered-down) progressivism or inclusivity is one of the most common PR strategies at work for the world’s most harmful institutions.
Wars to Save Women?
The idea that the US military-industrial complex can be pro-women is not just an internal rebranding exercise: It is used to justify disastrous US military interventions around the world. In his book Ideal Illusions, historian James Peck shows how this is part of a larger trend that developed during the Cold War when, as an anticommunist strategy, the United States revamped its image as the human rights protector of the world to justify its military empire. The US claim that it uniquely protects women’s rights was part of this larger picture.
The George W. Bush administration famously justified the war in Afghanistan by arguing that it would rescue women from the Taliban. On Nov. 17, 2001, Laura Bush gave the president’s weekly radio address, proclaiming, “Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists.” Media outlets dutifully followed suit: In 2010, Time ran a cover showing “Bibi Aisha” with her nose cut off, with the headline, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” Of course, the protracted US occupation has only further entrenched the Taliban, which now controls more territory than at any point in the past seventeen years. Meanwhile, civilian deaths are climbing. Yet none of the politicians or pundits who popularized the rhetoric of “saving women” are forced to answer to how this war has actually harmed — and killed — women in Afghanistan.
The 2011 bombing of Libya was cheered as the first US war led by women, as noted by the Daily Beast, which reported that “[t]he Libyan airstrikes mark the first time in U.S. history that a female-dominated diplomatic team has urged military action.” The fact that command of the Libya air strategy was given to a woman officer was also celebrated in the Guardian as “a boost to women in the US military who complain daily about discrimination.” Are these celebrated woman architects of war required to answer to today’s nightmarish conditions in Libya where black people are now bought and sold in open-air slave markets? Do cheerleaders of the intervention actually examine whether US military intervention in Libya, or anywhere, leads to improved conditions for women?
Narratives about saving women are also prevalent in the US war on ISIS. While there is no doubt that women face horrific treatment at the hands of ISIS, rape, enslavement, and abuse has been used to justify a brutal US bombing campaign that has caused 2,780 civilian casualty incidents in Syria and Iraq and relaxed standards for killing civilians in both countries — opening the door to more civilian deaths. Meanwhile, atrocities against women perpetrated by US ally Saudi Arabia go unpunished, revealing that the need to protect women is contingent on US geopolitical interests.
These tropes are not new. They come from the playbook of US and Western European colonization, in which colonizers argue that their presence helps women, and their exit would do them grave harm. In just one example, Lord Cromer, who was the British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, cited the veil — and women’s well-being — to argue Egyptians should be forcibly civilized. “The position of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan countries generally, is, therefore a fatal obstacle to the attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation,” he once declared. Yet, as feminist scholar Leila Ahmed has pointed out, at the same time Cromer was railing against the veil, he was agitating in favor of the subordination of women in England, as a leader of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.
In her work, “A vocabulary for feminist praxis: on war and radical critique,” feminist, activist, writer, and scholar Angela Davis articulates a bold vision for feminism. “This more radical feminism is a feminism that does not capitulate to possessive individualism,” she writes, “a feminism that does not assume that democracy requires capitalism, a feminism that is bold and willing to take risks, a feminism that fights for women’s rights while simultaneously recognizing the pitfalls of the formal ‘rights’ structure of capitalist democracy.”
According to Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, a global network of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, “Celebrating the rise of women in these institutions of domination, whether Pentagon contractors like Lockheed Martin or the CIA (which has been responsible for secret torture programs and covert overthrows of democratic regimes worldwide), distracts from the point at hand, which is that we need to be minimizing the power and reach of these institutions.”