Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s decision to allow women to assume unrestricted combat defence roles has caused ethics Professor Clive Hamilton to despair that “it is time to sound the Last Post over the rotting corpse of feminism.” Hamilton goes on to argue that the pursuit of equality has brought us to a sorry state of feminist affairs when women, like men, are granted a license to kill. This step signals the “final annihilation of difference,” and the end of women’s role as a “subtle, civilising power that has always worked to restrain the violent tendencies of men.” Without much success, one is obliged to point out.
In order to earn a license to kill, women must prove themselves psychologically, physically and mentally up to the job, a job that is on offer only from that bastion of hegemonic masculinity, the defence forces.
There are many men who would not fulfil the requirements and indeed, would not wish to. I recall my sons singing to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, “Join the army get your balls blown off” whenever a recruitment advertisement appeared on television. Being licensed to kill isn’t for everyone, regardless of genitals.
Instead of throwing in the feminist towel at this strike for equal opportunity, perhaps it’s valid to note that licensing women to kill is recognition that some women are capable of acquiring and practising the violent arts, therefore the capacity for deadly violence is not gender specific. The Defence Department has, perhaps unwittingly, subverted culturally imposed gender roles of the kind espoused by Professor Hamilton that would have women incapable of or unwilling to perpetrate violence. The Department has now acknowledged women as trainable as men, should we choose to embark on that course.
We can’t have it both ways
I’m at a loss to see how debunking that particular gender myth can be anything but positive for everybody. The majority of women will not choose to earn their killing license, just as many men do not choose that path either. At least it is now acknowledged in public policy that women are human beings capable of a wide variety of behaviours including state-sanctioned killing, just like men.
This is in direct contrast to another Gillard Government policy designed to prevent violence against women and their children. This policy defines domestic violence as overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. The policy does not acknowledge that female violence against children and other women is of equal concern, despite increasing international research and anecdotal evidence that this is indeed the case. The designers of this policy seem, like Professor Hamilton, to be labouring under the misapprehension that women are not capable of violence because it isn’t in our nature. It is only in our nature to be victims and/or soothers of male aggression.
You really can’t have it both ways. Women either are or are not capable of learning to use violence, either from the state or from the influences of their environment and their genes, just like men. You really can’t have the Defence Department heralding this as equality, while at the same time the Office for Women portrays us as overwhelmingly victims and rarely perpetrators. You really cannot insist on contextualising women’s violence (when it’s actually admitted) while leaving male violence out there as if men are born bad and it’s their base nature.
If the Defence Department has shown us anything, it’s that they consider the ability to engage in deadly violence to be non-gender specific. If we are to accept that, we must accept women are equally capable of violence in other situations as well. Joining the armed forces isn’t going to cause the sudden emergence of a brand new aggressive characteristic in the human female. It’s going to nurture and nourish what already exists.
The feminist struggle for equality
The mainstream feminist struggle for equality has always been about escaping restrictive gender roles and that escape has been perceived as our liberation. It has always been about ensuring women have equal opportunity and that has been perceived as our liberation. Mainstream feminism has rarely interrogated the type of masculinity that determines the Western capitalist culture within which it has sought equality. Mainstream feminists have not sought to radically change this culture, but rather to find an equal footing with that specific masculinity, within its parameters.
Thus we have our first female Prime Minister who is determined to deny the human rights of women and children in her urgency to pursue entrenched masculinist policies of sovereignty and border protection. Such a goal is far from feminist, yet mainstream feminists were (and some still are) ecstatic that we have a female PM. How long will it take to grasp that ownership of a vagina does not a feminist make?
What’s gone wrong with the feminist debate?
What has gone badly awry in the equality debate is a shocking lack of clarity and truth. For a movement that railed against the destructive consequences of stereotyping women, we’ve certainly done more than our fair share with regard to both sexes, and this has brought us undone.
There is no such animal as “men” and there is no such animal as “women.” Such erroneous concepts are the foundational lie on which much equality rhetoric rests. It’s a lie feminists railed against on behalf of women, yet enthusiastically embraced when it came to men. It’s a lie Stephen Smith confronted and faced down, whether he meant to or not. This lie is what is bringing feminism to its knees, not, as Clive Hamilton would have it, women being licensed to kill, or vomiting drunk on a Saturday night just like the boys.
We are rightly outraged when all Muslims are cast as terrorists. We are outraged when all Indigenous people are cast as drunken child abusers. Or we should be. Yet we don’t bat an eyelash at the use of “men” and “women” by just about everybody who has something to say on the subject. “Women’s morality differs from men’s,” writes Professor Hamilton, for example. Both sexes ought to be outraged at this stereotyping. It is an untruth, as all generalizations are untruths. I am not Woman. I’m a woman. My “morality” is the product of all of my experiences and what I have made of them. Here’s a male ethicist prescribing my female moral life, while claiming to have feminism’s best interests at heart. What is wrong with this picture?
A common enemy
It’s rarely acknowledged that many women and men share the common enemy of hegemonic masculinity. Recognising that there are infinite ways in which we are all undone, devalued and dehumanized by this dominant form of the masculine would allow us to co-operate in its demise. Instead, hegemonic masculinity pits us against one another, and we co-operate by couching our grievances in terms of gender warfare. The debate ought to be couched in terms of the dominant masculinist principles to which some women are as bound as some men, and that disadvantage whole subcultures regardless of sex, though sex may determine the manner in which the disadvantage is enacted.
Mainstream feminists have embraced these principles, with the result that some women have successfully adapted to the institutions, and the institutions themselves remain intact and largely unchallenged. The goals and aspirations of the majority of people demand a capitulation to masculinist forces that govern every aspect of our Western lives from cradle to grave, forces that remain largely unchallenged by feminism.
Who’s going to take away their license to kill?
Issuing women with a license to kill is a formal recognition of women’s equal capacity for sanctioned violence. Equality within the status quo was the intention of mainstream feminism, not radical structural change. This move by Defence is entirely in keeping with feminist goals.
We were never going to be much more than tokens in the patriarchy, and we aren’t. This isn’t going to change until we stop being victims. We will never stop being victims until we acknowledge our full capabilities, including those for violence and harm. This is what finally liberates us from victim-hood: owning our capacity for behaviours that are collectively denied in women because our culture doesn’t want women to have them, and because when the chips are down neither do we. How much nicer to be romantically imagined as “those who pacify the beast” than as those who are complicit in the beast’s violent projects.
The Defence decision acknowledges that women are first human beings, capable of feeling and acting in ways that have long been regarded as exclusively male by the orthodoxy. While in the short-term this may result in what can seem undesirable female behaviour, in the long-term it will allow us a fullness of humanity we’ve been denied for far too long. Human beings can be violent, destructive and murderous. Human beings have to learn to deal with these impulses in ways that do not bring about devastation. This can’t happen if we continue to deny that the female half of the human race has these capabilities, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.
Women who feel liberated enough to publicly express violence will initially do so in destructive and copycat ways, and they will call it equality because male acting-out is all they have to measure themselves against. They’re quite right. Equality is exactly what it is. The right to be equally human, for better and for worse, is what any feminist worth her salt should work towards. We can’t cherry pick equality.
As long as violence sanctioned or not is perceived as gender determined, no society can adequately address its causes, its effects, and what can be done about it. Rather than gnashing and wailing that women are becoming as awful as men, we should be questioning the limited means of expression both sexes have within a hegemonic masculinity that depends for survival on strict gender roles. We should be recognizing that these expressions are determined and controlled not by “men,” but by a specific manifestation of masculinity that disadvantages and dishonours both sexes. Then we can really examine violence and war, not as fought by men or women, but as perpetrated and fought by human beings on and against other human beings.