Women, War, and Military in Eastern Europe

By Peto, Andrea | Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, Fall-Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Women, War, and Military in Eastern Europe


Peto, Andrea, Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military


As I was collecting material for my new book about the relationship between women and World War II, I interviewed women who experienced the siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944-45.(1) I discovered that what women were most often reading in the light of candles at the air-raid shelters was the then-latest edition of Gone with the Wind. In that novel we find the famous line: "war is men's business, not women's." The Hungarian women readers would have loved to nod approvingly, had they not been sitting in the cross-fire of Soviet, German, and Hungarian cannons.(2)

Historically, the military is an organization of masculine strength and power, in which men are the fighters, while women are the "angels at home," the representatives of peace and caring.

Our twentieth century is, indeed, no success story, witnessing as it has groups of uniformed men slaughtering one another in an increasingly professional manner. Thus, the feminist reading of international relations is correct: if the history of wars is nothing but the history of the fights of groups of men in uniform, then wars, which cause so much suffering, must be avoided and the biologically determined violent and aggressive tendencies of men have to be controlled. To achieve this aim requires more than laws, norms, treaties, and military conventions; it also requires employing as many women as possible as leaders, soldiers, and politicians. The masculine world order founded on violence can be transformed through women's active participation in world politics. The true revolution of the twentieth century is the revolution in the role of women, and this conference provides us with a good opportunity to re-think what this revolution implies for the relationship between women and war. The long-term trend, women's struggle for a better life, has lasted for more than a hundred years; it began with winning the suffrage and still has many years to go.

Twentieth-century wars in Europe have fundamentally questioned the separation between the fighting man and the woman staying at home. Because of wars' demand for manpower and the perishing of soldiers in heretofore unseen numbers owing to improvements in military technology, women began at least temporarily to replace the men missing from the labor force in factories, and even in the military itself. We must not forget, however, that the places women were taking in the military or at work had belonged to men. We must be aware of the psychological consequences. Today armies no longer consist of unyielding and bloodthirsty male soldiers--women are also members of the military.

But why did women want to take up a military career, which is, above all, so dangerous? Primarily in the hope of receiving professional training of a quality unobtainable elsewhere. A military career also guarantees a steady job, no small thing in our world. A third reason is the wish for a career, or, in other words, self-realization. As Amelia Earhart, the American pilot, wrote in her autobiographical novel The Last Flight:

   And besides these there was my conviction, too, that here and now women
   have to do for themselves what men already have, or what men in some cases
   haven't, ........... to become somebody, thus encouraging other women to
   become more independent in thoughts as well as in deeds.

Fukuyama, who has always had a talent for raising questions that attract the world's attention, asked in his latest book, which has caused such a stir, what would happen if women governed the world?(3) What will a military be like in which women, having transcended the antimilitarism of feminism, attempt to deconstruct men's reign within the military? Is the notion of professionalism indeed suitable for changing both gender disparities and dissimilar attitudes to deploying force? What moral arguments can we have against war, as a means of solving conflicts, within and outside the military? We may find answers to these questions at the conference. …

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