Women are vital to national security

The notion that “women are vital to national security” is an insight I had last week in discussing Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women and Susan Sleeper-Smith’s Indian Women and French Men with my early American women’s history course.  Both books illustrate the importance of women (and women’s work) to the long-term stability and continuity of Indian survival and identity.  In reflecting on the history of early European settlement in the Americas, the settlements that are more stable are the ones that include a higher percentage of women.  All-male settlements tend to be extremely volatile and prone to violence, both intramural and extramural, and as Perdue and Sleeper-Smith illustrate, everyone was dependent on the 70-75% of calories that women’s agricultural work provide to their communities. 


A fradulent image of Mary Rowlandson invented for the 1773 edition of her captivity narrative

We don’t ordinarily think about women as critical to national security, because they rarely or never served as soldiers.  But all-male installations look threatening to other peoples, whereas communities that include women and children are likelier to be trusted as peaceful dwellers or travelers rather than regarded with suspicion as military installations or as invaders.  Juliana Barr’s recent book on the Texas frontier, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman, argues explicitly that Spanish missions and presidios were resented and mistrusted by Indian peoples because they were wary of these all- or overwhelmingly-male institutions. 

Whether in my field and time period we’re talking about Jamestown ca. 1609, Spanish presidios in eighteenth-century Texas, or late eighteenth-century British trading posts on Lake Michigan, they’re all strikingly vulnerable and miserable compared to early American communities (European or Indian) that include a mixture of people of all ages and sexes.  (Think about it:  would you rather make your way in seventeenth-century Cherokee country, or a seventeenth-century English town in Virginia?)  But unlike historians of Native American women, historians of Euro-American women haven’t emphasized the importance of their labor to the creation of peaceful and stable communities.  I wonder if this is because women in Euro-American communities were so thoroughly excluded from any form of political participation or influence–but I have to think that this is also due perhaps to a blindness to the importance of women’s work within Euro-American communities. 

Are historians of Euro-American women effectively collaborating in coverture by overlooking or denying the importance of the labor performed and items produced by colonial Euro-American women?  It seems like a lot of the scholarship on women and work has focused more on second-wave feminist preoccupations like work-as-identity, or work as an arena for displaying talent or competence, rather than the bottom-line value of women’s labor.

I wonder what role those preoccupations may have had in inhibiting our ability to evaluate and write about the labor of enslaved women?  That is, if our modern, middle-class prejudice is that work should be an affirming experience that underscores a woman’s value to her community, if it’s supposed to be something fulfilling–well, how can we possibly evaluate the labor performed by people whose labor was coerced and stolen from them?  (This may intersect with the emphasis on “agency” in women’s history, Native American history, and African American history over the past twenty-five years.  I don’t think historians have been entirely comfortable with the notion that for most of human history, work really sucked, and that there was little glamorous or empowering about it.)

One important caveat here is that the presence of women in Euro-American settler societies–especially Anglo-American settlements–was hardly a permanent fix for borderlands stability.  Women (and men, too) contributed to a longer-term destabilization of national security, because of the relative health and fecundity of the Euro-American population in the English colonies, which were critical to the maintenance of the comparatively large and segregationist agrarian English colonies.  A few generations down the road, and most English colonies were in need of annexing new lands for their daughters and sons–and this accelerated conflicts with the Native peoples, who were using those lands for their own agricultural communities. 

Can any of you historians or cultural-studies types come up with other examples that either support or challenge the proposition that “women are vital to national security?”

0 thoughts on “Women are vital to national security

  1. If you define national security in terms of ability to wage and win wars then women have always been a necessary part of supplying the troops. We tend to think of camp followers as providing sexual services, but many wives followed their husbands in order to cook, launder, clean etc. How many battles were won because of this largely invisible and unacknowledged work? In the 2oth century women didn’t follow their men but they worked in the factories and on the farms that supplied the troops.


  2. I wonder if one reason white women’s labor hasn’t gotten a lot of attention goes back to the debates of the 1980s about women and imperialism, and whether greater numbers of women improved or worsened relations between colonizer and colonized. Did the arrival of large numbers of white women in places like India “civilize” male frontier violence or harden racial boundaries by raising the specter of the “black/yellow/red peril”? Women’s historians rejected an older line that seemed to blame women for imperial racism, but then didn’t want women to be cast as active agents of empire, either. Foucault solved the problem temporarily by making them all subalterns, but I have the sense the question is coming back around in European colonial/empire studies circles.


  3. Lots of things to think about there. Maybe the ideological assumption that only men can or should fight in wars (and the justification of male privilege that goes with it) partly undermines itself because it necessarily leads to women being required to perform roles which aren’t classed as combat but which are just as important.

    In WWI the British army expanded drastically which meant an unprecedented demand for men and also an unprecedented demand for munitions (increased further by the overwhelming importance of artillery in that war), and that led to women working in munitions factories. In WWII the RAF didn’t allow female combat pilots but benefited from women working as ferry pilots, radio operators etc. (although in this case the idea that the ATA freed experienced pilots for combat is a bit suspect because Amy Johnson was almost certainly a better pilot than some of the men who fought in the Battle of Britain).

    Then there are the roles which are considered too feminine or low status for men, but which are vital for winning wars. Nursing is probably the biggest one from the 20th century, and as Nikki points out above early-modern armies had their camp followers. The assumption that they were just whores had all kinds of dangerous consequences, such as the massacre of women at Naseby by the New Model Army. Despite the misogyny evident there, about 11% of the New Model Army’s saddles were supplied by women in 1645-46, and women also supplied other equipment in large quantities.

    And when it comes to national security, breeder can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be an insult: if you want to fight a total war you need the biggest population you can get.

    By putting women into certain roles and not others patriarchy can still claim that women’s work is worth less than men’s work, but it’s hard to claim that it’s completely worthless. But then patriarchal assumptions don’t necessarily respect logic or evidence.


  4. Because the etymon of ‘nation’ is the Latin root for birth, (cf. natal, nature, etc), women may usually be ideologically aligned with the “national” part of national security rather than with the security part: women’s supposed role is to be made secure, because they are what nations exist to protect?


  5. The most successful “male only” groups in early European colonization were probably conquistadors and missionaries, and they of course relied on the products of women’s labor as well – Native American women rather than European.


  6. Paul–well, you should read Barr’s book, which really challenges that, especially in early encounters and/or in frontier regions of Mexico. But your point is correct in the main–and their reliance on encomienda rights and enslaved Indian labor (male and female) help explain their success.

    One very depressing other realization about the history of religion in the Americas: coercion (as in Mexico, among African and Indian laborers) is MUCH more effective than gentle persuasion (as in New France) and malign neglect (most English colonies/regions) in the spread of Christianity. Mexico, central America, and South America still follow the religion of the conquerors much more uniformly and faithfully than any other nations in the Americas.


  7. Thanks for all of your comments–especially Ellie’s point about women’s historians reluctance to see women as colonizers or agents of empire. (But of course they were! That’s part of the whole invention/reconfiguration of nation that’s going on in the Americas, ca. 1500-1800 or 1900.)

    Gavin–great points too. I like you point about “breeders” and their obvious importance to a nation’s capacity to wage total warfare. (But, of course: warfare isn’t always in the national security interests of a nation, right?)


  8. Let me just throw into the mix some tidbits from the mention of women in Vinland. When you have women, you have a settlement, not just a trading outpost, because you have the possibility of families settling. When you have women, you can have births, creating a “native-born” citizenry of the occupying race. These were both important rhetorical points in the 19th & 20th century treatment of the Norse discovery of America.


  9. “But, of course: warfare isn’t always in the national security interests of a nation, right?”

    Right from a rational point of view – looked at in terms of costs and benefits war is rarely a good idea. But I suspect that things like patriarchy, nationalism, empire etc encourage (and maybe depend on) a belief that war is more useful than it actually is. The “necessity” of war, combined with the “impossibility” of women fighting probably benefits male privilege and patriarchal equilibrium a lot. I really like Tom’s point about women being seen as protected rather than protectors.

    I’m just going on about war because it’s what I know most about, but I can see from your original post that that isn’t necessarily the most interesting (and certainly not the only) way of looking at the relationship between women and national security. Securing the national interest without having to fight is better. Maybe the assumption that women are “naturally” peaceful can help with that, as your colonial examples suggest.


  10. That bit about women-centered settlements being less violent and destructive than all-male groups reminded me of the ultra-violent novel _Blood Meridiam_ by Cormac McCarthy, which is basically the story of a rogue group of cowboys and former soldiers killing and destroying as many beings as possible, basically because they can.


  11. Back in Britain in the 17th century, women’s work at home allowed men to go out and colonise, wage war, etc. Elite families relied on women to head houses, raise funds and troops, and direct the war effort while their husbands led the troops. This was very much a partnership (if an unequal one). If we look at events like the Darien Scheme (a Scottish attempt at establishing a colony in Panama in the 1690s), women were at the front of funding the effort. The first three subscribers (and one of them was the biggest) to the Darien scheme were all women who headed their families, either by birth (in default of heir male) or as dowager widow with minor sons. Other elite women put together supplies and sent them to aid the effort. The fact that these efforts were funded by large estates managed by wives, is all about women’s role in national security. And, this is before we get onto the fact that a large number of women went on the ships to Darien to be ‘colonisers’.

    Then there is the role women played in passing along messages to husbands, especially when men were frequently moving about and they were static at home. They often became the hub of communication networks.


  12. What a lovely coincidence. I’m going to be teaching sections of your Abraham in Arms alongside sections of Barr’s book in a couple of weeks. Until I do the prep, I don’t have anything much to add on the topic of women and national security, but it will add to my thinking as I do the reading. Thanks.


  13. Gavin–you’ve given this topic a great deal of thought. This is spot on: “I suspect that things like patriarchy, nationalism, empire etc encourage (and maybe depend on) a belief that war is more useful than it actually is. The “necessity” of war, combined with the “impossibility” of women fighting probably benefits male privilege and patriarchal equilibrium a lot. I really like Tom’s point about women being seen as protected rather than protectors.” Perhaps I should have asked you to write a guest post on this topic. (Or I should have just written “women are vital to national security,” a la Mike Myers’s “Linda Richman” character from Saturday Night Live in the 1990s, with the instruction to “DISCUSS!”

    Just to be clear, though: I don’t think women are “naturally” peaceful–the literature in my field suggests that the division of labor and the social roles that women played excluded them from warfare usually, but gave them access to resources and other tools that were effective in keeping armed conflict at bay.

    But as Janice suggests and you hinted at above: women contain within their wombs the seeds for the destruction of peace. Native American women in the early Americas were able to preserve peaceful relations between different groups because either the Indians had a clear demographic advantage, or there wasn’t yet a clear Euro-American demographic advantage. But once the white population increases dramatically in a region, then Indian women’s techniques for incorporating strangers into their community and using food, sex, and family life to entice potentially hostile outsiders–they don’t work so well in the face of a demographic tsunami.

    Sisyphus: early America is just one long Cormac McCarthy novel that never ends. (Well, it never ends well for the people I care about, anyway!)

    I like the turns this thread has taken so far: my post started out as a much more limited comment, but many of you have brought to bear important points about the ideological suppression of the recognition and remembrance of women’s labor–whether directly for the benefit of the military or national security–or not.


  14. And, p.s. to Ruthibell–thanks! I think Barr’s book and my book pair well, although they cover significantly different regions and peoples. (There is a depressing verisimilitude when it comes to the gendered rhetoric of war as well as gender as an operating category in the study of warfare.)


  15. Re: Feminist Avatar’s comments. In Virginia Woolf’s _Three Guineas_, she spends the first guinea making a related argument. Women make war possible by supporting men in war, celebrating them as heroes, and enforcing a male/female divide through a belief that war turns boys into men.


  16. I think Woolf is right for the 19th century, but I also think that before the rise of the cult of domesticity, women’s role in society was not conceptualised as private/ not war, at least in Britain. Women had gendered roles (which tended to exclude them from fighting although not exclusively, depending on cultural norms and the cross-dressing female as male warrior phenomenon), but this gendering did not exclude them from involvement in public affairs (with perhaps a line drawn at civic affairs). War was seen as a family affair (sometimes quite literally) and all families members got involved. I think an individualistic model of men and women’s roles in the family obscures the centrality of the concept of family to people’s sense of self in the early modern period, and that all a family’s members were seen as working towards furthering its aims. If the family strategy had been to partake in war, the whole family went to war, not just men, but how individuals waged war was gendered. Women were not seen as being separate from war because they were not (always) on the frontline, as they were part of a family at war.


  17. A great post followed by a great thread of comments. Though I suspect everyone who has posted thus far recognizes this implicitly, no one has yet pointed out the contingency of “the nation” as a concept and a construct. Zunis in the Southwest, Jesuits in New France, Anglican planters in the Chesapeake, and Cherokee women in the Southeast were not equally committed to a framework of “the nation” or “national security.” I think a satisfying answer to Historiann’s opening question as to whether or not (or maybe better yet, how) women are vital to national security would require as much attention to varying ideas about the conception and interests of a nation as it would to the gendered negotiations through which specific formulations of military service took shape.


  18. Wow, I’ve been following this fascinating thread all day, unable to even keep up with it much less post into it. So belatedly, just a few fragmentary offerings or annotations.

    Re Irwin: what if we try the admittedly arid and technocratic “polity,” as in “security of the polity,” however defined, rather than *national* security? It’s surely conceptually anachronistic, but maybe not as chronologically or historiographically anachronistic as “nation,” and so maybe neutrally-usable herein?

    Women certainly were critical to the security of the Iroquoian Five (later Six) Nations. They could dispatch into battle, and to some degree attempt to recall, young male warriors. The elder male peace chiefs were more of a counterweight–and thus effectively a rival–to the warriors, but the women, as mothers, had a largely different form access to authority.

    “….all-male installations look threatening to other peoples, whereas communities that include women and children are likelier to be trusted as peaceful dwellers or travelers rather than regarded with suspicion as military installations or as invaders.” My citation here is probably somewhat out of the intended context of the post, above, but something went horribly wrong in 1637 with this formulation for the women and children in the “Mystic Fort” in the Pequot War. NB: this is Historiann’s bailiwick, not mine, and I’ve been parsing the relevant passages of my well-thumbed copy of _Abraham in Arms_ trying to think this one through.

    Lastly, by coincidence, I’m using the now venerable but once exciting and new _The Cattle Towns_ (1968) in my early U.S. survey this semester. It’s set in post Civil War Kansas and the arrival, from the East, of women (especially wives) does a lot more to “clean up” and effectively to pacify places like Dodge City and Abilene than any tinhorn sheriff ever did. Interestingly, the author, Robert R. Dykstra, has considerable and sophisticated demographic data and analysis on gender ratios and their cultural consequences, but the term “women” doesn’t even appear in the index! But this trope of “sending in the wimmin'” has been so hijacked by popular culture as to be in danger of becoming a distorting cliche. How to separate out its useful dimensions?


  19. I didn’t mean “nation” in its post-1800 rarified and highly elaborated incarnation. Indyanna gets my use of the term, which was meant to point more to “polity” than “nation” in its modern usage. (I just like the modern phrase “national security,” which was meant to suggest a frisson of dissonance since my subject is the colonial Americas.)


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