Women have rightly observed that armament policies and the use of armed force have often been influenced by misguided ideas about masculinity and strength. An understanding of and emancipation from this traditional perspective might help to remove some of the hurdles on the road to disarmament and nonproliferation. – Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission

Gender is often referred to as “the ascribed, social nature of distinctions between women and men – the excess cultural baggage associated with biological sex”.

Gender is also an analytical concept used to visualize ideas about femininity and masculinity and what it means to be female or male. Gender is not just about the identity of an individual or what society teaches us how a woman or a man, girl or boy should be like. It is also a way of structuring relations of power, within the family where the men often are considered to be the head of the household and in society at large where men tend to possess the political, economic, religious and cultural power.

Gender also functions as a symbolic system in which our perceptions of gender shapes our ideas about many other aspects of society far beyond the relationship between women and men. The perceptions of sex and gender are strongly interwoven with the policies that shape how war and weapons of mass destruction are addressed.

Nuclear weapons are central in a militarist world order, and they embody the essential characteristics of realist assumptions about the international system. However, these characteristics are by no means objective. On the contrary, they are based upon gendered stereotypes of men/masculinity and women/femininity.

On a global scale gender shapes perceptions of politics and the use of weapons in warfare. At the same time, perceptions of gender also influence who gets to participate at negotiation tables.  In this section a brief introduction to some aspects of the connection between gender and nuclear weapons will be addressed.

Nuclear weapons in international politics

Nuclear weapons exist within a broader militarist understanding of security, and the principle of deterrence is a founding principle determining the role of nuclear weapons in contemporary militarist security doctrines; the more advanced and destructive weapons a state possesses, the less likely is a hostile attack. This is the logic of mutual assured destruction – no country will want to attack another nuclear weapon state with these cards at hand. This military approach to security has been challenged on various grounds.

A basic critique is that the traditional concept of security as synonymous with state security is limited in its scope and unable to include the security of individuals. Human security has been put forward as an alternative to state-centric security concepts and became part of international policy through the UNDP Human Development Report in 1994, urging for a shift from state security to the security of individuals, and to a larger toolbox than the one provided by the military.

Most states want to be seen as strong and with power to act in the world. Cohn, Hill and Ruddick expose the relation between strenght, masculinity and militarism and how it creates a connection between war and heroic masculinity. There is often an awareness to represent political candidates as masculine. In this context, it is dangerous to be perceived as “soft” and “weak.” Political masculinity is often associated with the ability to use weapons and military actions.

Therefore, we have often seen U.S. presidents posed in front of combat aircraft. This picture of war associated with a heroic masculinity is dependent on feminizing peace and devaluing it as unrealistic and, in some cases, not even desirable.

The possession of nuclear weapons creates a hierarchy of power in the world; those who have the capacity to destroy the world the most also have the greatest power. That the U.S. already has one of the world’s largest economies and largest military but argues that the state needs nuclear weapons to preserve national security sends strong signals about the power of nuclear weapons to other states. Acquiring nuclear weapons is a way for other countries to demonstrate that they have the same strength and the same power and possess the same masculine traits.

War, peace and diplomacy

Cynthia Enloe illustrates how war and weapons are associated with activity and masculinity, while diplomacy is associated with passivity and femininity. She describes the consequences of this phenomenon by observing the struggle between the Bush administration and the UN Weapons Inspectors regarding Iraq’s possible possession of weapons of mass destruction in 2002. She declares that one reason for the Bush Administration to be suspicious towards the UN weapons inspections was that that the U.S. considered the UN less credible after they started with “softer,” more ”feminized” actions such as in negotiations after 9/11 2001.

These actions may be perceived as feminine as they are considered more passive compared with active warfare. It would explain America’s mistrust to the UN inspectors and diplomats since Enloe argues that the American political culture does not value these actions as highly as masculine actions based on physical strength. This argument exhibits the relation between masculinity and militarism.

Nuclear weapon states that are members of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) can be viewed as having taken on a father role in which they consider themselves as having to control, defend and limit other “uncivilized states”—which are viewed as possessing feminine traits such as being emotional, uncontrolled and too immature—from possessing nuclear weapons.

In this way nuclear weapon states within the NPT feminize other states as they prevent them from having nuclear weapons. This may explain the statement of the Hindu Nationalist leader Balasaheb Thackeray who after India’s nuclear weapons test explosions  in 1998 said: “we had to prove that we are note eunuchs.”  India might have been tired of feeling feminized? Nuclear weapons are not only a weapon but a political symbol, a proof of manhood, independence and sovereignty in a world characterized by realpolitik.

Representation in disarmament negotiations

The expectations we have of what kind of traits women and men should have, what they consider adequate to work with, what their roles should be in the family, what is considered a “real” woman or a “real” man – are the cultural meanings ascribed to biological differences. This is usually manifested by the fact that women often are schooled into passive roles while men are trained to take active roles in society.

It is through this cultural sense we create relations of power. Characteristics that are culturally associated with masculinity, such as strength, rationality, action and thought, are more highly valued and put in contrast to what generally is considered as the feminine characteristics such as weakness, irrationality, passivity and emotions. It is the cultural association to masculinity that makes it “natural” for men to possess power. As masculinity means strength, men are therefore expected to fight and defend the ”weak, feminine” women.

In this way the international system maintains structures that excludes women from security policies. In this context it comes as no surprise that in the negotiations of the NPT 2008, 88 percent of those who represented the states were male. This shows that the proportion of women in decision-making bodies is still limited, particularly concerning security policies.

However, men are not only disproportionally represented in disarmament fora, but expectations based on perceptions of femininity and masculinity also limit conversations and content. In their study, Cohn, Hill and Ruddick refer to when a physicist describes a situation that exemplifies how the concept of gender limits the political discourse on nuclear weapons and maintains masculine ideals:

Several colleagues and I were working on modeling counterforce nuclear attacks, trying to get realistic estimates of the number of immediate fatalities that would result from different deployments. At one point, we re-modeled a particular attack, using slightly different assumptions, and found that instead of there being 36 million immediate fatalities, there would be only 30 million. And everyone was sitting around nodding, saying ´Oh, yes, that’s great, only 30 million´ when all of a sudden, I heard what we were saying.  And I blurted out, ´Wait, I’ve just heard how we´re talking – Only 30 million! Only 30 million human beings killed instantly?´ Silence fell upon the room. Nobody said a word. They didn’t even look at me. It was awful. I felt like a woman.

The physicist became and felt feminized. First, he cared about people and emphasized the consequences of nuclear weapons in terms of suffering and death. Second, he burst out in an uncontrolled manner, which showed that he was emotional and upset to harm other human beings. As the character traits associated with femininity are valued less, the physicist obtained a lower status in the eyes of his colleagues when he acted in a feminine and “soft” way. As women often are ignored when it comes to security policies, he was ignored by his colleagues.

The cultural meaning we give to the biological sex may have made that the physicists perceive woman’s inferior status as “natural.” The physicist said that he felt like a woman and that it was terrible which shows that he was aware of women’s lower status and limited influence without questioning the existing power relations between the sexes.

A gendered discourse

Several studies have shown that nuclear weapons experts use a language that reduces the issue of nuclear weapons to be a question of weapons capacity, without including considerations about human suffering in the analysis5. In a report published by the WMDC, Carol Cohn, Felicity Hill and Sarah Ruddick call this language the strategic expert discourse and they argue that this discourse focused on weapon capacity is deeply connected to a masculine identity in terms of strength, protection and rationality. The opposite, to talk about nuclear weapons in terms that are classified as ”impulsive, uncontrolled, emotional, concrete, upset and attentive to fragile human bodies”  is according to them associated with a feminine identity.

Carol Cohn also focuses on the importance of language in legitimizing nuclear weapons. She argues that the language reflects and shapes the U.S. nuclear strategic project. In her studies of professionals within the nuclear strategic project, she examines phrases such as “Patting the missiles,” which not only can to be an allusion to sexual intimacy, but often is also used in terms of patting small children and animals.

Cohn argues that using these words that otherwise are used in relation to small, cute and harmless creatures is a way to distance themselves from the appalling mass destruction of the missiles. In this way the language makes the mortality disappear. Cohn suggests that the imagery conjured by such language confirms the relationship between masculine sexuality and rearmament because the language can be seen as a tool to minimize the seriousness of the military efforts and a way to deny the fatal consequences.

Through the power of language Cohn means that language reduces this dangerous contest of masculinity to become perceived as innocuous. This culture of language is considered to be intentionally conceived and necessary for teaching men how to control their fear, which commonly associated with feminine characteristics.

The language used within the strategic discourse is abstract and never gives associative images to war. Cohn describes how the language provides a sense of control, that one can rule the technology that ultimately is out of control and out of perception. The language only includes the user’s perspective of nuclear weapons and consequently excludes that there would be any victims.

By using the language of the experts oneself escapes from the conception of being a victim of a nuclear war. Cohn describes how she felt that the better she became in using the language of the strategic nuclear thinking, the worse she became at expressing her own values and thoughts. While the language made her able to express thoughts she was not able to before, it excluded other ways of expressing herself. Peace is one example of words that do not occur in this context.

The language also made it possible to talk about nuclear weapons without thinking of the people who fall victim to them. Cohn argues that this way of thinking would change if one used words such as “mass murder” instead of “collateral damage.” Cohn emphasizes that the problem with the language is that there is no reality behind the words. The world that they are talking about within the nuclear strategic thinking is a world of abstractions.

The power of language maintains the current system where nuclear weapons are perceived as a natural part of the world order. The symbolic value of nuclear weapons as a mark of independence and power legitimizes that states spend money on nuclear weapons. Cohn suggests that there are no ways to talk about human death or human society with a language that is designed to talk about weapons. To change the prevailing attitude towards nuclear weapons, the structures and the language have to change.

The Women, Peace and Security Agenda

In recent decades, gender issues have been given greater influence on the international agenda, one result of which is Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, adopted by theSecurity Council of the United Nations in October 31, 2000. This resolution was followed by several other resolutions on the same theme, and together they constitute the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.

In resolution 1325, which can be summed up as about prevention, participation and protection, the UN Secretary-General, the UN Security Council, UN Member States and other non-state actors are urged to:

  • increase women’s participation in conflict prevention and peacekeeping and support women’s peace initiatives in conflict areas,
  • ensure women’s participation in the institutions and decision-making in post-conflict and transition processes from conflict to peace,
  • strengthen the protection of and respect for human rights of women and girls,
  • integrate a gender perspective in peace keeping operations and field operations.

Resolution on Women, disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation

In 2010, Resolution A/65/410 on Women, disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation was adopted by the First Committee in General Assembly of the UN which deals with disarmament and security issues. The resolution urges states to emphasize the importance of involving both women and men in disarmament, nonproliferation and arms control. As a result of the adoption of the resolution Egypt declared that it gave full support for Resolution 1325 but viewed the resolution as pertaining to human rights rather than disarmament.

Egypt declared that it considered the new resolution to belong in the third committee of the General Assembly dealing with human rights while India expressed its full support for the new resolution. The mixed reactions regarding the perception of the resolution on women, disarmament, arms control and nonproliferation demonstrates the different perceptions of the implementation of Resolution 1325 and the difficulties of applying a common perception of a gender perspective of disarmament in the General Assembly of the UN.


Last update: February 4, 2015