Women and War; How 'Power-Over' Politics Silenced US Congresswomen in the Persian Gulf War

By Christiansen, Adrienne Elizabeth | The Humanist, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

Women and War; How 'Power-Over' Politics Silenced US Congresswomen in the Persian Gulf War


Christiansen, Adrienne Elizabeth, The Humanist


Recent tensions between the United Mates and Iraq over U.N. weapons inspections recall a period seven years this January when the U.S. Congress spent three days intensely debating several resolutions that would have either authorized the use military force in Iraq.

Ultimately, Congress did authorize military force, and the Persian Gulf War ensued. One noteworthy aspect of the congressional debate is that there were almost no expressions of concern about women as a class, either as soldiers, civilians, or war casualties. This near silence on the "women and war" question is remarkable given that the presence of 32,000 female soldiers in the Persian Gulf prompted several reporters to dub the conflict a "mommy's war." In addition, the 102nd Congress had more female members (thirty) than at any other time in U.S. history. Nearly half of these members had identified themselves as feminists or as strong supporters of women's interests.

The eight female legislators who were active environmentalists were similarly silent on how a Middle East war would affect the ecosystem. Of the more than fifty speeches, given by women during the debate, only Representative Nancy Pelosi of California raised the subject of the Persian Gulf War's possible effect on the environment. The scenarios she outlined seem eerily prescient given the catastrophe that ensued. Even though she merely described some of the devastation that would occur if Saddam Hussein fulfilled his public threat to blow up Kuwaiti oil fields, her speech prompted ridicule from her colleagues.

I believe that this situation demonstrates the difficulty of raising feminist and environmental issues during times of heightened military activity, even when the consequences for women and the environment are enormous. The three-day televised debate in Congress provides a fascinating case study in the variety of communication barriers with which female legislators contend--barriers that are even more onerous when women must deal with the topics of war and peace. It also provides an opportunity to make a case for the important yet often overlooked relationship between rape and other forms of sexual assault, militarism, and environmental degradation.

The Gulf War Debates

If there ever is a time when the free and open exchange of argument and persuasion contribute to the health of a democracy, it is in deciding whether to wage war. Unfortunately, U.S. history is riddled with wars that were never declared (for example, the Vietnam War and the Panamanian War); this made the 1991 congressional debate a rare and extraordinary opportunity to deliberate over the reasons for war or peace. For three days, Americans heard and watched their elected representatives somberly claim never to have voted on a more important resolution. The importance of their decision, it was repeated, necessitated an exploration of all the possible ramifications of a vote to go to war. There was much talk about "saving face," "having egg on our faces," the crisis being a "defining moment in history," "sending a message" to Saddam Hussein, the need to "stand firm with resolve and unity," and the upcoming war as the "last, best hope for peace." Many members of the House spoke briefly about the potential deaths of U.S. soldiers, but in general the debate was more a discussion of the economic, political, and geostrategic ramifications of a war with Iraq.

In contrast to the lengthy speeches on how a Persian Gulf War might affect Middle Eastern stability, U.S. military might, the world economy, and the new world order, Representative Barbara Boxer of California was the only female legislator to discuss any aspect of women and war. Her comments on this topic were limited to two very brief statements, one in which she noted that female soldiers in Saudi Arabia were treated differently than their male comrades and one in which she decried the military's practice of sending single parents or both parents to the Gulf. …

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