The Geopolitics of Women

America, coming out of World War II less scathed than most, was able to drag its feet on changing gender roles.

Philippine foreign minister Albert Ferreros del Rosario greets American secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 11, 2012
Philippine foreign minister Albert Ferreros del Rosario greets American secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 11, 2012 (State Department/William Ng)

Mired though she is in e-mail scandal and all the trouble that comes with her last name, Hillary Clinton stands a good shot at becoming the next president of the United States. The nuclear football representing the ultimate glass ceiling, the US is nevertheless rather behind many other advanced countries when it comes to women rulers. Some of Europe’s most important rulers have been queens and empresses; think Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Isabella of Castile, among more modern examples.

And yet the relationship between women and geopolitics is rarely delved into, despite women making up roughly half of humanity throughout recorded history. Here now is the tale of geopolitics, women and how both change the other.

First, a framing: women, like men, are components of political bodies and therefore only get used in ways that strengthen those bodies

It isn’t that states have always been anti-women; it’s that states have always had an incentive to get the most power bang for their people buck. States always seek to get people to increase their own power using whatever cultural, legal, military or other means to get there.

But how they do so varies depending on when you set the Wayback Machine.

For much of recorded history in large swathes of the planet (notable exceptions highlighting the rule), women played second fiddle in just about every social setting: in the family they were often denied control of wealth or major decisions, in the economy most jobs were deemed outside their bounds, in politics they could rarely be soldiers or stateswomen.

But why? Why did most societies, most of the time, decide to halve their available military and economic talent?

Much of that has to do with a combination of three things: reproduction, technology and culture

States long saw women as breeders first and whatever got in the way of that was shunted aside, hidden away or kept beyond the city walls. Since only women can have babies, and since it takes the better part of a year to do so, much state energy went into the task of keeping them safe so they could continue to have babies.

Moreover, pregnancy could be and often was a lethal affair: the amount of women who died during or right after giving birth meant families had a strong incentive to build whatever protections they could for would-be mothers. Children, too, died appallingly often: replacing them was a high risk affair, reinforcing the feeling that society had to do something to keep women safe from the further, and relatively unnecessary, dangers of work, war and politics.

That something wasn’t always efficient or even rational, but at least it was action.

That does explain why women were so carefully sheltered during pregnancy. But it doesn’t explain why it continued long after birth. After all, couldn’t have stay-at-home Roman dads do the same kind of work as moms?

In theory, yes. But another major practical problem emerged: transport.

Much business, both state-led and private, involved an element of travel, whether traveling to and fro across a farm, meandering to provincial capitals for trade or government or leading an army into enemy lands. Considering that life spans were short, and that pregnancy took up a great deal of time and energy for young women, the juggle between giving birth and then running off to conduct business was just a bridge too far for many. It could be lethal; these were the days where travel involved a lot more energy than merely being uncomfortable on a coach jet. Since priority was already given to preserving the stock of child-bearing women by most states, and since there were always enough men able to do the essential functions of economy and government, the transport portion of the equation encouraged most women to simply stay home.

Both of these factors — biological and technological — created and empowered cultures that simply reinforced what came to be seen as common sense. That all people died young — and that women spent much of their short lives struggling to survive childbirth and rearing — gave rise to the notion that women were frailer than their male counterparts and therefore unsuitable for “tough” jobs like factories and combat. Such supposed frailty meant increasingly elaborate cultural edifices were erected to “protect” women — first from nature by sealing them away in the home, then from other people once the toughest edges of nature were worn away by the Industrial Age.

Victorian puritanism, after all, arose not because women were dying left and right in the nineteenth century but because of precisely the opposite: as women started to live longer, society’s view of what threatened women shifted away from the obvious, natural dangers like disease and bleeding out during birth and toward social ones: criminals and others of ill-repute. A vast stranger danger arose as populations grew, cities expanded and advancing technology meant the old biological rationale behind building restrictive cultural restrictions to women began to vanish.

Enter the twentieth century, when biological threats to women almost wholly die out

By the early twentieth century, much of what used to kill women had been conquered: infant mortality rates and complications from birth were no longer prominent in the industrialized world. Sex could be used for pleasure as birth control methods like condoms became available off the factory lines. Increasingly efficient police forces controlled social ills as doctors culled bacteria and viruses from the city streets. Life spans soared.

In other words, there were few reasons for states to enforce the old gender norms much. But many did anyway.

That’s because cultural norms continued to carry on long after their original purpose had disappeared. Cultural shifts are incredibly hard to pull off; they require people to ditch habit and comfort, which very few people are willing to do unless they are under dire need.

Dire need came, however, as two world wars shook apart much of global culture’s assumptions about women. Firstly, the murderous toll of battle meant that no combatant could afford to leave women on the sidelines: Rosie the Riveter and her like appeared in various forms behind the frontlines. The Soviets, under the greatest military emergency in World War II, began using women as pilots and soldiers before anyone else.

The wars — and especially the Second World War — proved that women were vital to a thriving nation state. But while elites were convinced, old cultural habits remained. How fast they were abandoned depending very much on the place.

Which often boiled down to how much a place was affected by World War II

Europe a whole was far more devastated by the war than North America; so too was East Asia. In the process of reorganizing battered states, women could not be left behind. Soviet communism had already built the ideological bulwark necessary to ensure that newly-communist countries in Eastern Europe and Asia readily accessed their female populations. Democratic states took more time but were under the same pressure to rebuild; women surged into formerly male-dominated fields.

Left out were neutral states and European colonies. While some European colonies did see major battles, few were mobilized for total war; only British India sent considerable quantities of troops. As Europe decolonized, few elites had experienced the war itself; fewer still of their subjects. Those who had learned the very human lessons of World War II were rare while backwards states often believed they were immune to the same kind of violent behavior simply because they weren’t European.

The one exception was the United States, which had been very much in the war but had been far enough removed from it that once the distant military emergency passed, many could convince themselves that the old ways were, after all, still best. This caused a lag in the US; while Europeans were busy replacing wartime losses in the state and economy with women, the US dragged its feet. After all, no one had bombed New York City or occupied California and so it was quite possible in the postwar period for many Americans to pretend the whole thing never happened.

But the memory of Rosie the Riveter was not forgotten by the American government, which, in its increasingly fierce competition with the Soviet Union, needed to gather as much strength as possible. As a democracy, elites in the US could not override cultural norms as readily as their Soviet peers, but they could — and did — guide the populace in the direction of power.

Newer tech helped: the pill freed women sexually more than ever before and faster transport combined with longer life spans undermined what remained of the old arguments about a woman’s place being in the home. As the culture wars began in the 1960s, the state typically tried to avoid direct conflict, preferring to subtly encourage social progressivism in ways that ensured more women were available for the needs of the state. Regardless, social conservatives were on the wrong end of state power: despite winning presidential victories in 1968, 1980 and 2000, more women than ever broke into the halls of government and business. It has come so far now that few American conservatives embrace the once-popular positions of Nancy Reagan, who once said, “My life really began when I met my husband.”

Thus the need of states to bring to bear the power of their women is greater than ever

It may seem as if some places like Saudi Arabia continue to hold women back, but even there geopolitical need is forcing change. Women worldwide are needed more than ever in the modern era: the practical reasons behind keeping women securely at home are rapidly being eliminated even in the highlands of Afghanistan and the roadless terrain of West Africa. Culture could stagnate if need wasn’t overcoming such objections.

Every state on Earth is faced with similar problems: rising populations demanding better jobs, better services and better lifestyles. This cannot be achieved unless women are utilized. Some states face military threats, whether conventional or insurgent; women are growing to become an important component of military forces. There is no rational reason to deny women the ability to carry a gun so long as she can carry it as well as any other soldier.

That the United States have taken so long to seriously consider a female president has everything to do with its geopolitical luxuries: it can drag its feet because it’s so secure. Few other places can do that.

While the rise of decidedly anti-women terror organizations like Boko Haram and the Islamic State may make it seem like women are on the back foot, the reality is that these proto-states are weak reactionaries to the changes that must inevitably come. They say more about the incompetence of their local governments than the geopolitical shifts that will continue to favor women. Hillary or not in November, those trends will carry on.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, June 1, 2016.

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