un sitio web de recursos para la paz es un sitio de recursos para la paz elaborado para promover el intercambio de conocimientos y experiencias para la construcción de un arte de la paz.
Este sitio web está coordinado por la asociación
Modus Operandi


Ficha de análisis Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

, Grenoble, junio 2002

Care to Fight

Role of gender stereotypes in mobilisation for the ‘War on Terrorism’.

Keywords: Ciencias humanas y paz | Internet y paz | Capitalización de conocimientos prácticos (savoir faire) para la paz | Analizar conflictos desde el punto de vista social | Construcción y utilización de la identidad cultural | Autoridades y Gobiernos locales | Asociación local de Mujeres | Reformar las relaciones sociales para preservar la paz | Estados Unidos


After 11 September 2001, the United States is in a state of war. After the attack of the WTC and the Pentagon, it immediately declared war on terrorism. The country had to be mobilised for war. By analysing four of President George Bush’s speeches over the last half year (11 September 2001, 20 September, 17 October, 8 November 2001 and 8 April 2002, presented to different audiences) I try to show in which way President Bush uses masculine and feminine stereotypes in order to mobilise the American citizens for the war. This question is placed in the framework of feminist theory about the construction of identity, sociological concepts of power and conflict theory. This paper is meant to share some of my observations as opposed to a methodologically sound research.


The war on terrorism can be analysed is a specific form of conflict that is neither inter-state nor intra-state but that takes place between states and a non-state actor at an international level. This paper analyses conflict using gender theory, an angle that offers insight in the distinction of people in male and female and looks at their different roles in society and the different characteristics that form part of their identities. Because of the different roles men and women play in society they develop different realities and different identities. To an extent they are visible in a society division of labour, in distribution of responsibilities in stereotypes as can be seen in movies. To a certain extent though they remain in people’s minds and form part of the psychological make-up of human kind, what their ambition is, their fears and feelings of guilt.

In western society and to a large extent in the world we describe certain characteristics as feminine and others as masculine. We all have a certain representation of what is masculine and what is feminine and people define their own relation to these stereotypes for example a feminine man or a masculine woman that will become part of their identity. Gender stereotypes are defined in opposition to each other; what makes a man is often opposed to what makes a woman. Men are in general pictured as active agents that are physically strong especially in relation to women and children. They are considered tough, they are not scared, they don’t cry, they are responsible (financial care for family), they are able to make decisions and they love sex. Women commonly are seen to be more passive, physically weaker, warm, nurturing, caring, emotional and seductive.

There is a relation between identity and status since stereotypes are integrated in society, so is the value that is attached to them. Therefore people are not free to choose and identify with any characteristic they like. If a chosen characteristic clashes with prescribed gender roles, there is a large chance identity will clash as well.

Since identities and role patterns are built in a society and form part of the make-up of a society, it can be expected that identities will be influenced. Cockburn, a sociologist who has done extensive research in gender and national identities in conflict, claims that states even have a vested interest in the formation of gender and national identities. I quote: ‘Those who govern us use identity processes to do so. Dominant groups maintain hegemony for the most part by discursive means rather than by direct force. Mobilising consent by inclining us towards particular identifications (Cockburn 1998:213) How does the state with Bush in the role of spokesperson uses gender identities in his discourse as a result of the societal changes after the attack on the World Trade Centre?

Relationship between identity and conflict

When a state and therefore a society is being attacked it reaches a heightened state of emergency. It is the government’s obligation to protect its citizens, as Bush literally has said in a speech 8 November 2001: ‘The government has a responsibility to protect our citizens (…)’. (11/08/2001) In a patriarchy, the head of the state is father of the people and has obligation to provide this protection. The state as responsible for the army, has the responsibility to equip society with military resources, mobilise men in the army and mobilise resources. The state initiates a process of militarisation of the society, the process whereby military values, ideologies and patterns of behaviour achieve a dominant influence over the political, social and economic affairs of that society (Byrne, 1995:2). ‘Louis Althusser stressed the ideological power of state apparatuses to summon us to our positions’ (Althusser 1971 in Cockburn 1998: 213). Moore adds that Administrations need us calculable and biddable, so they consign us to formal categories such as ‘head of the household’ or ‘dependent’, homosexual’, ‘disabled’ or ‘refugee’, and use these as a basis for assigning rights and responsibilities. The categories emerge through official discourse as collective identities, inviting certain behaviours (Moore 1994 in Cockburn 1998: 213). Ann Tickner argues that gender identity plays an important role in the process of assigning positions in society. ‘ Gender is a powerful legitimator of war and national security; our acceptance of a “remasculinised” society during times of war and uncertainty rises considerably. And the power of gendered expectations and identifications have real consequences for women and for men.’ (Tickner 2002:6).

Mobilisation for the war

Fragments from President Bush’s speeches illustrate the state effort to shape the identities in order to mobilise American citizens for the war on terrorism. In three steps he justifies the war, he justifies an increased military budget and communicates the message that in order to be a good American people have to identify with clearly defined gender stereotypes. Real men are strong and at the service of the country. Real women take well care of home, family and close community. Examples of the justification of war and an increased defence budget are presented here. Examples of how citizens are mobilised through the use of stereotypes are discussed later.

The process of alienation of the enemy entails the presentation of the enemy as not understandable, inhuman, ruthless and even the embodiment of evil. On the day of the attacks, Bush is quick to alienate the enemy: ‘Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. And we responded with the best of America’ (9/11/2001) Since the enemy is evil, fighting is presented as the only way of communication possible. Fighting becomes the only option and justifies the use of force over other options for conflict resolution. The presentation of the enemy as inhuman is also intended to prevent feelings of guilt in citizens that they would naturally feel in a case of killing another human being. Bush says: “This new enemy seeks to destroy our freedom and impose its views. We value life; the terrorists ruthlessly destroy it. We value education; the terrorists do not believe women should be educated or should have health care, or should leave their homes. We value the right to speak our minds; for the terrorists, free expression can be grounds for execution. We respect people of all faiths and welcome the free practice of religion; our enemy wants to dictate how to think and how to worship even to their fellow Muslims.”(11/08/2001) “[But] the only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows”. (Statement by the President 9/20/2001) .

The increase of the military spending is justified in terms of defending freedom for which no price is too high to pay. ‘We will come together to give law enforcement the additional tools it needs to track down terror here at home.’ (9/20/2001)

‘I have submitted a budget to the United States Congress that reflects the nature of the conflict with which we’re faced. I’ve asked for the largest increase in defence spending in 20 years –(..) we’re interested in defending freedom no matter what the cost.’ (04/08/2002)

In the following fragments Bush explains his plans for the war on terrorism whereby he articulates the militarisation of society. On October 17, President Bush said, « Ours will be a broad campaign, fought on many fronts. (..) It’s a campaign waged by soldiers and sailors, Marines and airmen; and also by FBI agents and law enforcement officials and diplomats and intelligence officers.’ Three days later, Bush prepares the public and military with the following words: ‘I have a message for the military: Be ready.’ (9/20/02). In the same speech he says that many will be involved in this effort, referring to many in the army. Many will be involved in this effort; from FBI agents to intelligence operatives to the reservists we have called to active duty (9/20/2001)

Mobilisation of citizens in war

It is not taken for granted that people are actually willing to sacrifice their lives in order to protect a country. The state has to make a deliberate effort, making a demand on men’s sense of masculinity and therefore their pride and identity. Segal writes that ‘Wars do not occur because men are eager to fight, on the contrary, military aggression always requires carefully controlled and systematic action at the state level, which plays upon public fears, vulnerabilities, prides and prejudices’ (Segal, 1987:178)

Public fears have been mentioned above, the ruthless, evil enemy that has no respect for human rights will take over America resulting in an end of democracy, freedom and living under extreme, fundamentalist Muslim laws. Increasingly a distinction is being created between the protectors and the ones in need for protection.

The vulnerables in society that need protection form the strong in the war on terrorism are women, children in the US and Afghanistan and American values like freedom and liberty. Bush voices the duty to offer protection and defend freedom as following:

“The American people know what I know: that we have been called into action; that history has given us a chance to lead; that history understands that we now understand that history’s call is to lead our vast coalition against terrorists and to defend freedom, no matter what the cost.” (04/08/2002)

“We will take defensive measures against terrorism to protect Americans.” (9/20/2001) “We’re going to defend America and defend the values that we all hold dear.” (04/08/2002) “Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened.” (9/11/2001)

What Segal calls prides and prejudices, I would like to call identity and stereotypes. The use of polarisation of gender stereotypes of strong versus weak is an important tool in order to mobilise the country for war. In the face of danger new heroes are created. Men will participate in the militarisation of society because their masculinity is called upon. In order to be able to identify as a good American and a ‘real’ man, they will have to be able to identify with masculine characteristics. ‘Real’ men are the fire fighters, the policemen, and the military, all whom have been stressed earlier to lead the war on terrorism. ‘Real’ women can also be heroes, but in a different domain, the caring for children, families and communities that is opposed to the male domain. The traditionally male domain is the public arena while women operate in the private arena.

“We have gained new heroes: Those who ran into burning buildings to save others, our police and our fire fighters. Those who battled their own fears to keep children calm and safe – America’s teachers (feminine). Those who voluntarily placed themselves in harm’s way to defend our freedom – the men and women of the Armed Forces.” (11/08/2001) Carol Gilligan notes that men’s rising star all but eclipsed that of the many heroic women who rose to the occasion, be they firefighters or police officers . (Tickner 2002:5)


In conflict situations men are forced (and in some cases fail) to live up to expectations set by Dominant norms of masculinity which are held by women and men in society (Aprodev report 2001:32) Bush calls upon these stereotypical masculine identities in the following ways.: “People [read men] have to be strong, courageous, in control and are made of steel.”

“ Now, it’s important for us to remain strong, and it’s important for us to do what we say we’re going to do in the world.” (04/08/2002). “We have seen the state of our Union in the endurance of rescuers, working past exhaustion.” (9/20/2001)

“We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” (9/20/2001)

“These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.” (9/11/2001)

These masculine stereotypes defined as opposed to feminine values. The protectors and the ones in need for protection, the angry and the grieving, the daring and the caring. These are all examples of the juxtaposition of the active versus the passive, one of the basic, traditional stereotypes of masculinity versus femininity. In the following fragment President Bush acknowledges the suffering and the response to it by grief or anger “We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment.” (9/20/2001). (…) “And we responded with the best of America – with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbours who came to give blood and help in any way they could.” (9/11/2001)]

Notions of masculinity are bound up in the military, which is almost always defined as male: in order to make men feel that in order to be good human beings they fight in the military. If you won’t fight in the military or are not supporting the military activity you are no longer allowed to identify with masculine stereotypes and that implies a decrease in status and possible identity crisis. An extreme example of this is the character Rambo, a human fight machine, physically strong, unemotional, driven and will do whatever it takes to kill the enemy. The most common insult therefore suggest that a soldier is homosexual or feminine, implying that he is not able to protect women and children and therefore not a real man. Men’s masculinity is called on to encourage them to take up arms in defence of their country, ethnic group or political cause and in defence of their women (Byrne 1995). Women who take more active roles in the military are de-sexed and no longer regarded as feminine women.


What’s left for the feminine identity? The caring, the nurturing, the need for protection and the support for the ones who risk their lives. Identity is constructed around the message that honourable women don’t fight but take care of the community conform to the traditional labour division where women were responsible for the home and the family and the domain that was considered private while men were the dominant actors in the public arena. Byrne comments that as result of conflict women’s lack of access to political power may be accentuated: powers become more centralised [under militarisation ed.] and shift to the almost entirely male preserve of the military (Byrne, 1995:8). The importance of the private domain, that is considered feminine is therefore increasingly stressed. The following fragments show in which way Bush stresses the importance of the private domain. ‘I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children’ (04/08/2002). And ‘ (..)It is so important for citizens in this country to put a face on America for the world to see the true face. And that’s by loving somebody. And that’s by caring for somebody who needs a hand.(..) It certainly means mentoring a child; putting your arm around a child, and say, you know, America is meant for you, and I love you. (…)’ (04/08/2002). Women are not allowed the same aggression as men. Where men are stimulated to join the military, women’s role is to ‘do something good’ says President Bush because ‘the only way to fight evil at home [traditionally female domain ed.] is to do something good’ (Bush 04/08/2002). It is therefore women’s role to transform evil into something good at home, while men are encouraged to fight abroad. On 8 April 2002 the President said: “(..) the best way to fight evil at home is to do some good The best way to fight them abroad is to unleash the military (speech Bush 04/08/2002) Women therefore become the bearers of morality and what is seen as good, beautiful and that offers hope, symbolised in the statue of liberty. They become the bearers of the cultural heritage of a nation that the men are fighting for. (Moser 2001) In the following fragment President Bush refers in a speech to a woman, a mother who ‘carries the memory and a voice gone forever’ as opposed to the ‘other’ whom will remember an image of fire or a story of rescue and therefore probably will be male. We’ll remember the moment the news came – where we were and what we were doing. Some will remember an image of a fire, or a story of rescue. Some will carry memories of a face and a voice gone forever. He continues: ‘And I will carry this: It is the police shield of a man named George Howard, who died at the World Trade Centre trying to save others). It was given to me by his mom, Arlene, as a proud memorial to her son. (9/20/2001) As a result of women as bearers of culture, the modes of behaviour acceptable to them may decrease. (Byrne 1995:13) Bush says: ‘We have seen it as Americans have reassessed priorities – parents spending more time with their children’. (11/08/2001) Women may gain status from encouraging the perception that they are the guardians of cultural identity for their society and may find that, in times of war they may gain some power over men, to the extent that they are able to accuse them of not being ‘manly’ enough to defend their nation or community. (Byrne 1995:16)


In President Bush’s speeches masculinity and masculine values are being stressed as opposed to feminine values. The discourse Bush relies on in his speeches stimulates men to identify with masculine values to be strong and pick up arms while women are presented feminine values that are concerned with care for their families and communities. There is evidence that as a result of the war on terrorism people are presented less options to identify with a wide spectrum of characteristics. The impact this has on women and men that are homosexual needs further research. Apart from masculine and feminine characteristics, other forms of identity that should be looked at are ethnic, class or sexual identity.


  • Bibliography :

  • Bush, G. Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation 11 September 2001.

  • Bush, G. Address to a joint session of Congress and the American people 20, September 2001,

  • Bush, G. 17 October Www.whitehouse. /response/faq-what.html

  • Bush, G. 8 November 2001

  • Bush, G. President Promotes Citizen’s Corps for Safer Communities 8 April 2002, presented to different audiences)

  • Byrne, B.Gender, Conflict and Development, Report no. 34, 1995

  • Cockburn, C. ‘The space between us: Negotiating gender and national identities in conflict’ (1998) London: Zedbooks

  • Dijkema, C. ‘hufters and hofdames, relatie tussen identiteit en macht onder Nederlandse jongeren” (2000) Amsterdam:M.A. thesis

  • El Bushra, J. and Piza Lopez, E. ‘Development in conflict: the gender dimension’. Report of an Oxfam AGRA

  • East workshop held in Pattaga Thailand, 1-4th February 1993, Oxfam UK/1-ACORD.

  • Enloe, Cynthia (1993) The morning after, sexual politics at the end of the Cold War Berkeley:

University of California Press.

  • Etienne, M. (1995) ‘Addressing Gender-based Violence in an International Context’ Harvard

Women’s Law Journal, Vol.18, pp.139-70

  • Moore, H. ‘A Passion for difference’ (1994) Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Segal, L. Is the future female? Women’s press, 1987

  • Sharoni, Simona (1995) Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Syracuse: Syracuse

University Press.

  • Skelsbaek, Inger and Smith, Dan (2001) Gender, Peace and Conflict, PRIO. London: Sage


  • Tickner, A. Prepared for a roundtable discussion on U.S. and E.U. foreign policies at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, March 8,2002.