Renowned scholar-activist Cynthia Enloe’s new book Twelve Feminist Lessons of War lays out the lessons that women activists have drawn from their immediate experiences of war.
Enloe draws on firsthand experiences of war from women in places as diverse as Ukraine, Myanmar, Somalia, Vietnam, Rwanda, Algeria, Syria, and Northern Ireland to show how women’s wars are not men’s wars. With her engaging trademark style, Cynthia Enloe demonstrates how patriarchy and militarism have embedded themselves in our institutions and our personal lives. Twelve Feminist Lessons of War is the gritty and grounded book we need to understand what is happening to our world.
Cynthia Enloe is Research Professor at Clark University and author of fifteen books, including Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. In 2018, Enloe’s name was installed on the Gender Justice Legacy Wall at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Your previous works have delved into the intersections of feminism and global politics. How does your latest book build upon this foundation to shed light on the ways in which feminism can inform our understanding of war and its implications? Which book do you consider the most significant in terms of your legacy?
Probably the book most people mention when we meet is Bananas, Beaches and Bases. And what they often say – well, actually, they exclaim – is: “I never knew that researching that could be counted as doing international politics!” The “thats” they mention have ranged from their starting to wonder how a nearby military base had shaped their own hometown, to for the first time taking seriously their own mother’s life as the wife of a diplomat, to seeing the labels on their blue jeans as clues to international politics.
I remember vividly my own visceral excitement when I began asking new questions about politics. That sense of energized engagement, of becoming intellectually curious about sites and actors I’d never been curious about before, of starting to take seriously people – specially women – conventionally dismissed as irrelevant to understanding politics… That’s the sense I hope I’ve helped to galvanize among students, activists, teachers and researchers, all sorts of readers.
Throughout your career, you’ve been a leading voice in analyzing the intricate relationship between gender and militarism. How do you believe your work has contributed to our understanding of how militarism perpetuates gender inequalities in both domestic and international contexts?
It took me awhile to pay attention to gender and to look beyond militaries to explore militarism. When I first started investigating militaries, it was in order to track the politics of racism and ethnocentrism – I delved into Scots and Nepalese in the British military, Kikuyu in the Kenyan military, African Americans in the US military, Quebecois in the Canadian military. I wanted to know how national security elites, who mostly came from a country’s dominant racial or ethnic group, attempted to wield racialized and ethnicized narratives in order to build and deploy their soldiers in pursuit of their own power agendas – and I wanted to know when they failed. I still think about all this.
Since those early days, though I’ve stayed attentive to militaries, I’ve also tried to understand how all sorts of civilians can become militarized – and how occasionally they have reversed such militarized thinking in their own lives. I’ve learned so much from talking about militarism – the whole multi-part package of ideas – with vastly different people. Among the people I’ve learned from have been teachers in Sarajevo, mid-career women and men from Congo, Uganda and Sri Lanka, grad students in Rio, undergrads in Idaho, activists in Tokyo.
What they’ve taught me is that becoming militarized is different for girls than it is for boys, different for women than it is for men precisely because the transformative process we call “militarization” relies on myths, presumptions, aspirations and fears laced with ideas about manliness and about femininity.
Ignore the devious workings of gender, I’ve learned, and it’s really hard to explain when militarization takes root and when it can be uprooted. The current blockbuster film “Barbie” has a lot to say about this!
Can you share an anecdote or two, about how someone’s life has been positively impacted by your work, and what it means to you to have touched lives in such meaningful ways?
It’s always a surprise and a treat when someone tells you what it is from a class or book of yours that has stuck with them. I remember a tall 30-something young man running across a supermarket parking lot, calling, “Professor Enloe! Professor Enloe!” When he’d caught up to me, he asked, “You know what I remember from your class?” I held my breath…. “Tacos are political!”
One of the most satisfying experiences is meeting people who have read one of your books in translation, that is, in their own first language. I was in the southeast Turkey several years ago meeting with local women who were reading the Turkish language version of Maneuvers for their own small discussion circle. There being a Turkish edition meant that a much wider group of women could join in this collective teasing out of ideas. They began sharing their own experiences, wondering aloud how their lives were becoming militarized. One woman told others in the group (I had a friend sitting with me who was translating the conversation) that she realized now that the salary her husband earned from driving a truck for the Turkish military might be militarizing their marriage.