On Warriors, Men and Gender Studies

The word ‘warrior’ isn’t one that has rolled off my tongue very many times, but in recent months, it seems to be appearing more and more in daily discourse.  I’ve heard about ‘Wounded Warriors’ (people who used to be called wounded soldiers).  Karl Marlantes writes of warriors in his two books on men coping with the experience of war (one fiction, one memoir).  I just picked up a book (not a new one, admittedly) at my cousin’s house called The Woman Warrior.*    We even have a yoga pose called ‘warrior’: taking that pose fills me with confidence and purpose, as I start my day.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the term as I consider the neglected male side of gender studies.  The existing material on men and gender is surprisingly negative;  specifically, it emphasizes men’s roles in HIV-AIDS transmission, domestic violence, and warfare.  This seems….not exactly a fair representation of men’s lives.  So what are the things we value about men?  No doubt they vary culturally, but for my own gender system, I’d include a whole range of traits, from physical strength, responsibility,  to a deep voice, an aesthetically appealing [ideal] physique, even a tendency for cleverness at fixing things.  Qualities we tend to value in men include protectiveness, capability, authority, an ability to lead (though these are surely valuable traits regardless of gender).  Some would also include teamwork—thinking of men’s fascination with and commitment to team sports, for instance—which implies both cooperation and competition.  In the 1970s, I studied sports in rural America; I found that the men of ‘Bushler Bay’ saw the school sports program as crucial in preparing young men for their future roles as providers, which in turn depended on their ability to compete in what these men saw as a dog-eat-dog economic context.

In 1974, Peggy Sanday wrote an article in which she divided human effort into production, reproduction and defense.  Academicians have written a lot about production in gender studies, somewhat less about reproduction (in the sense of reproduction of society, not just having babies), and almost nothing about defense.  I’m beginning to suspect that ‘defense is [or is seen to be] to males as reproduction is [or is seen to be] to females’.  Are young men raised specifically in ways that ensure society has the capacity to defend itself, just as women have been raised in ways that ensure the reproduction of society?  Are sexual violence and warfare simply defense ‘gone terribly wrong’?  The capacity to defend implies strength, which in turn allows a person to dominate physically.  Nor are men’s larger average size and women’s unique ability to bear children facts without relevance.

Thinking in terms of solutions, it seems unlikely that we’d want men (or women, for that matter) not to be strong.  Strength definitely has its good side:  from opening jars and rescuing cats in trees, to plowing, carrying harvests and offspring, even protecting women and children from violent men and other dangers.  Similarly, we’d not want to discourage a sense of responsibility, though I have long thought that we should abandon the idea that men should be solely responsible for a family’s well being (not a pan-human inclination anyway).  We have established clearly enough that both men and women tend to have responsibilities in production; and when men are busy with warfare (or away earning money), women take on the responsibility for production even where they are not normally so involved.

How do we create a planet in which the need for defense is minimized and men can focus their valued traits only on socially constructive activities?  We work toward allowing women to reduce their reproductive responsibilities so that they can either contribute more productively or self actualize (fewer children, better labor saving devices, higher education, etc.).  What are we doing to diminish the need for men to be able and willing to kill other people?  What are we doing to reduce our need for defense? 

And how do we integrate attention to men and their needs, preferences, and goals more effectively into research through a gender lens?  We say we’re trying to look at power dynamics between men and women; it’s widely agreed that we need to do that.  But we haven’t really figured out how.  I have been dissatisfied with studies of intra-household bargaining.  Though I recognize that it takes place and is worthy of study, there exist other forms of significant interaction between husbands and wives. Mulyoutami has written about a comparatively gender-equitable region (southern Sulawesi) where there is a great deal of cooperation between men and women in production and decision-making.  

As I read Mulyoutami’s work, I remembered the differentiation that some scholars make between ‘power over’ (the ability to dominate), ‘power to’ (the ability to accomplish something, capability) and ‘power with’ (the ability to cooperate toward shared goals).  If we take these differentiations seriously, then including cooperation in our investigations of ‘power dynamics’ makes sense.  Could an emphasis on cooperation—the ‘power to’ and the ‘power with’ rather than the ‘power over’—gently move us toward a reduced need for warriors who have to kill?  Even without such a shift, we need to recognize more systematically the many positive male traits as we better incorporate men into the gender equation.  Women are not always the victims, as we’ve come to realize; nor are men always the perpetrators.


*I doubt, from reading the jacket, that it’s about women soldiers—it’s billed as a memoir of a Chinese American woman and was published in 1975.

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2 Responses to On Warriors, Men and Gender Studies

  1. Linda (i.e. dougnlinda) Vliet says:

    As usual… your words are most interesting and very insightful.  Reading them brought back memories of conversations in "Bushler Bay".  I was pleased to find them posted on face book.  I hope you are doing well Carol.    Linda

    • Carol J. Colfer says:

      Hey, I just saw this!  Thank you for the kinds words (always fun to see evidence that you exist!  🙂 )

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