Last week I finally got round to reading Joshua Goldstein’s War and Gender. Goldstein argues that gender shapes war, and that war shapes gender. The evidence for the first is very strong. War would be different if its conduct wasn’t dominated by gender ideology. War has occurred in nearly all cultures, but nearly all cultures in nearly all periods have excluded women from active combat roles. The argument that this is because women are biologically unsuited to combat does not stand up. Goldstein shows that although women are smaller and weaker than men on average individuals are distributed along bell curves which overlap. The top 10 to 15% of women are bigger and stronger than then bottom 10 to 15% of men. Therefore under some historical circumstances armies could have had more and better soldiers if they recruited women as well as men.
The second argument, that war shapes gender, isn’t so strong. It’s true that gender is at least as universal as war, but Goldstein acknowledges that gender roles vary widely across cultures in almost every respect other than combat roles and hunting. It seems hard to explain how all of this diversity could be directed towards the same purpose: to produce warriors or potential warriors. Goldstein is very much the voice of rational liberal 20th century America. Although he makes good use of anthropology and recognises the huge diversity of gathering-hunting cultures I think he underestimates the strangeness of medieval and early-modern European cultures.
As an alternative to the warrior, Goldstein suggests the provider as a new ideal of masculinity which American men might aspire to in future. The big problem here is that this model is suspiciously similar to the ideals of early-modern English patriarchy studied by Anthony Fletcher and Alexandra Shepard. There was more to the early-modern patriarch than just providing, but he was certainly more of a provider than a warrior. To be a man was to be the head of a household. Boys were toughened up, but this was mainly so that they could control their own bodies, their wives, their children, and their servants. The ordered household was seen as the basis of an ordered society. In contrast, the warrior was not much of a normative ideal. Grievances over billeting suggest that even before the civil wars English civilians saw English soldiers as dangerous outsiders. Stereotypes of professional soldiers had more in common with the disobedient anti-patriarchal forms of masculinity which Shepard identified among students and apprentices. War was disorder: the very thing that early-modern patriarchy most feared.
I’m still in awe of Goldstein’s ambitious scholarship, and I think we need more historians (particularly military historians) to show this kind of imagination. But I also think his work shows some of the weaknesses of broad comparative studies: they risk abstracting and generalising to such an extent that a lot of important differences can be lost.
- Anthony J Fletcher, Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800 (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1995).
- Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender (CUP: Cambridge, 2003).
- Alexandra Shepard, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2006).