Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation

By Helen M. Cooper; Adrienne Auslander Munich et al. | Go to book overview

Helen Cooper
Adrienne Munich
Susan Squier


Arms and the Woman:
The Con[tra]ception of the War Text

"Arms and the Woman" echoes Virgil's heroic phrase not only to assert that women play a part in war but to affirm that in our culture "arms" when juxtaposed to "woman" evokes sexual and maternal love, eclipsing Virgil's masculine military reference. Since, as Mary Ellmann points out, "all human activities have been suspectible to the sexual analogy,"1 it is not surprising that war has been linked with sex, as in "make love not war." That slogan brings into the twentieth century the cry of the Athenian women in Lysistrata; the opposition between love and war in both slogan and play joins a traditionally private affair with a conventionally political one. In what follows we develop the conjunction between the military and the amorous, according to some implications for the war narrative of the sexual trope, in which love figures as both sexual congress and sexual reproductivity. From the beginning of the Western tradition in the epic, the war narrative has been written in terms of that trope, making what is in fact a cultural event seem an essential one.

The epic tradition figures arms as being engendered through the mother by linking making babies and making arms. The pattern of associating a story of arms making with human birth begins in the Iliad with the story of Thetis approaching Hephaistos to make weapons for her son, Achilles. The epic presents her as Hephaistos's "good mother," the one who has nurtured him for nine years in a cave since his rejection as a cripple by Hera, his bad mother. In that womblike environment Hephaistos makes peaceable, domestic objects until Thetis's mortal son requires implements of war. The epic initially assigns passivity and pacifism, traits usually associated with women, to the male god of the forge. This compliant "son" takes orders from the militant mother. Thetis emphasizes to Achilles that the weapons are her maternal gifts: "Accept rather from me the glorious arms of Hephaistos, so splendid, and such as no man has ever worn on his shoulders."2

In the Aeneid Virgil expands upon Homer's suggestive birth im

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