How Does War Shape Gender Roles?

Feminist sociologist Kathleen Barry writes that, “Male expendability is a corollary to the sexual objectification of girls and women.”

It’s a striking statement, though the concept isn’t new. Warren Farrell originated the idea of male disposability almost a quarter century ago in The Myth of Male Power. In my opinion expendability is a better word because it implies a willingness to throw something away, but that doesn’t mean it actually will be disposed of. Disposability, however, implies that something will be thrown away sooner or later. But maybe I’m splitting semantic hairs.

In Unmaking War, Remaking Men Barry notes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assures the right to live, but the Geneva Conventions provides an exception: it’s not murder to kill a soldier in combat. And throughout history men have been cannon fodder just as women have been chattel.

Barry points to war as the reason. Socialization into the male role, which values physical power, dominance, bravery, and stoicism, prepares men for war should one arise. And women have always been the spoils of war.

Recent events put this into focus. The world reacted with moral revulsion in 2014 when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls. But the world was silent when Boko Haram killed boys by burning them alive.

In traditional societies, the tradeoff for making himself expendable is the almost exclusive male potential to become one of the elite and thus superior to women. But the risk is being cast onto the dung heap of society. A man who cannot protect himself cannot protect women and children, so he’s on his own. Failure is merciless.

Likewise, women’s lives being more valued than men’s comes with the tradeoff that in traditional societies every woman must have a male with authority over her to protect her.

Both warfare and male expendability are found in almost every human culture. Why?

Cathance River Preserve, Topsham, Maine 3/2016
Cathance River Preserve, Topsham, Maine 3/2016

Here’s my pet theory: Even hunter gatherers, once thought to be peaceful noble savages, were quite violent. After all, human beings have a strong ingroup preference. The outgroup is seen as a threat to survival when resources are limited. As the hunter gatherer population increased they infringed on each other’s territories. Violence resulted because there was no established law governing inter-tribal disputes. And men did the fighting because the average man has greater upper body strength compared to the average woman (who was frequently pregnant or nursing small children).

As settled agricultural villages developed and the population increased even more, groups that were successful in battle acquired more territory, eventually resulting in the first empires. The leaders of these warriors – all men – became the first kings and emperors. Patriarchy is the result of physical, not psychological, differences between men and women. That is, misogyny is not the cause of patriarchy, though it can be a result.

It’s also notable that women are more important than men for population growth. A man can impregnate several women in one year, but a woman can only become pregnant once a year. So killing half the men won’t affect the size of the next generation, but killing half the women could result in a population collapse. That’s why Boko Haram kills boys and kidnaps girls.

It’s fascinating that scientists studying the human genome found that male, but not female, genetic diversity decreased enormously about 4,000 to 8,000 years ago when the agricultural revolution happened. In other words, the agricultural revolution left many men without wives while a smaller number of men had many wives.

A popular interpretation is that the male elite dominated the entire female population, but this reflects the view that men are actors and women are acted upon. Another possible interpretation is that women actively selected for or against certain men based on which men were winning or losing the expendability gamble (which doesn’t necessarily mean dying and can include the failure to achieve a social status worthy of any woman). Likely it was a bit of both.

How do males come to terms psychologically with their expendability? Barry notes that the primary way of accepting your expendability is to suppress your humanity. But that makes it difficult to recognize the humanity of others.

The carrot at the end of the stick is becoming a hero, and this proven ability to protect women and children gives a man control over them. But that control has a dark side – men’s violence against women. And this is Barry’s ultimate concern. Addressing male expendability will benefit women.

Though Barry’s focus is almost entirely on war, Warren Farrell gives a much broader description of male disposability. Farrell notes that men are 92% of workplace deaths, more than three-quarters of all suicides are male, and most homeless people are male.

In the 1970s Farrell was on the board of the National Organization for Women in New York. But his falling out with NOW, and subsequent association with the men’s rights movement, stemmed in part from Farrell’s view that NOW devalues the important role of fathers, including NOW’s opposition to shared parenting after divorce (even though it provides for exceptions when there’s abuse). Male disposability doesn’t have to literally mean loss of life.

Feminists have mostly dismissed the notion of male disposability, so it’s refreshing to see Barry putting male expendability forward in a feminist context. Barry’s articulation of how male expendability negatively impacts women shows clearly why dismissing Farrell’s notion of male disposability is a mistake. But while sparking women’s concern by showing how male expendability affects women and girls is a positive step, the issue cannot be fully addressed unless our primary focus is why it matters to men and boys.

There is a different way, and that’s a key focus of Barry’s book. We don’t need war, and we don’t need authoritarian rulers. We can replace expendability with empathy. We are capable of settling our differences through negotiation and compromise rather than violence.

How would the male gender role, and therefore the female gender role, be different if war were unknown?

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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