Revolutionary Versus Reformist Politics and the Military

By Jessica Englund

*This is a paper I wrote for a class. I don’t completely agree with the argument I am making in the essay, but I think it’s valid. Please tell me what you think!*

The debate regarding the ‘proper’ feminist standpoint regarding the military has been going on for quite some time. Reformist feminists and revolutionary feminists have been the major forerunners of this monumental question: Should the military be reformed or dismantled? Perhaps this question is not appropriately presented or does not capture the true essence of the issue of the military, however, regardless of its imperfections, I utilize this particular form of question as its broad nature allows for multiple opinions and interpretations. One such view is captured by bell hooks in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, where she debates reformist versus revolutionary feminist politics. I suggest that her definition of feminism as a movement to end sexist oppression be the guiding framework for the discussion of feminist politics as it encompasses the topic at hand as well as incorporates many forms of feminist endeavors. Throughout the discussion of reformist versus revolutionary feminist politics regarding the existence of the military, I will argue that although reformist politics have worked in the past to ‘get the ball rolling’ in terms of feminist movement, however, revolutionary stances on masculinized institutions such as the military are necessary to truly create social change.

In a most basic and rudimentary effort to distinguish reformist and revolutionary politics, I offer these definitions. Reformist feminists wish to diminish sexist oppression in the military by reforming its policies and institutional norms to incorporate women as equal entities in the structure. In the United States and other cultures, women have become more involved in the military as soldiers, ranking officials, and as supporters. Reformist feminists attempt to entrench themselves in high administrative positions in order to affect the policy decisions made and, over time, change the institution itself. Revolutionary feminists believe quite the opposite. Rather than attempting to reform a highly masculinized institution that is inherently and irrevocably patriarchal, they advocate for a complete dismantling of the system. Revolutionary feminists do not support women joining the military and becoming a part of the institution and in essence, perpetuating the sexist oppression. Why become a part of the system and perpetuate its violence and oppression rather than overturn it and truly instigate social change?

Although bell hooks’ book was first published in 1984, her theories and ideas are still very relevant to today’s recurrent feminist questions and dilemmas. She argues that “[a]lthough liberal perspectives on feminism include reforms that would have radical implications for society, these are the reforms that will be resisted precisely because they would set the stage for revolutionary transformation were they implemented” (hooks 23). According to hooks, reformist politics will not be effective enough to gain policy in order to affect society at large. “It is evident that society is more responsive to those “feminist” demands that are not threatening, that may even help maintain the status quo” (hooks 23) and that feminist, “reforms have not corresponded with decreased sexist exploitation and/or oppression. Prevailing sexist values and assumptions remain intact, and it has been easy for politically conservative anti-feminists to undermine feminist reforms” (hooks 159). Assuming these statements are true, there is no feasible way for reformist feminists to change the status quo. Staying in the safety of non-threatening demands and policies are not appropriate means to effectively restructuring the military.

Cynthia Enloe addresses these same issues in her book, Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. She suggests that there are many means that military recruiters utilize in gaining volunteers and that one of these methods is to deliberately enlist women into the ranks. These recruiters “believe that they need to recruit and deploy women in only those ways that will not subvert the fundamentally masculinized culture of the military. To surrender its masculinized culture might result in few young men joining the ranks at all. Somehow…the military that enlists women must remain…a military that is appealing to men” (Enloe 237-8). Reformist feminists advocate for women to be joining the ranks and bridging the gap within the military to try and reach gender/sex equality. Although this is a valiant goal, the military recruiters are working within their means to get women to join the military and yet making sure that “not too many women should achieve high rank” and that women “should not deprive men of the chance to serve in those posts held most precious to the masculinity-seeking men” (Enloe 238). Instead of finding a way to infiltrate the military to gain equality, women are merely filling the ranks and making up for the loss of male volunteers. Women are at the bottom of the pool getting very few promotions and gaining no equality with men in this endeavor. Young men who join in the military are awarded with ‘first-class citizenship’ whereas women who join are deprived of that privilege. The attempt at reform is thwarted.

Back to the original question at hand, should the military be dismantled? Reformist feminists who argue against total disintegration of the military, suggest that by joining the military and gaining rank allows women to gain ‘first-class citizenship’ and therefore, status and power in society. “Nira Yuval-Davis has been among those feminist theorists who have shed light on the political and cultural processes that define citizenship in such a way that a manly man can slip most comfortably into the cloak of ‘citizen’ and that a man who has served in the state’s military wears that privileging cloak most comfortably of all” (Enloe 245). Are women included in this? Do women gain the status of the ‘highest citizen’ after serving in the military? Enloe argues, “seeing military service as the path to full citizenship status…leaves unexamined the militarization of ‘first-class citizenship’ itself” (Enloe 245). If in fact women were able to gain this ‘first-class citizenship’ after serving in the military, would they truly have combated sexist oppression in the military? Or is this merely playing the patriarchy’s game in order to appear more powerful or important? Audre Lorde in her book, Sister Outsider, would argue that these military women are simply playing the game. She states, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde 123). Women are going to need to do more than ‘play the game’ – they will need to revolutionize the military and the way society envisions citizenship.

In examining the way feminists view citizenship, Feminists Theorize the Political, edited by Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, is a necessary compilation to study. Within Chantal Mouffe’s article, Feminism, Citizenship and Radical Democratic Politics, she addresses the issue of citizenship and the ways in which she believes feminists should be examining the topic. Mouffe argues that “[l]iberal feminists have been fighting for a wide range of new rights for women to make them equal citizens, but without challenging the dominant liberal models of citizenship and politics” (Butler & Scott 373). Much like Lorde’s assertion that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Mouffe suggests that feminists should be revolutionizing their thought process rather than attempting to gain equality in patriarchal arenas. She demonstrates this view in her analysis of Carole Pateman’s views on liberal citizenship.

Citizenship is, according to Pateman, a patriarchal category: who a “citizen” is, what a citizen does and the arena within which he acts have been constructed in the masculine image. Although women in liberal democracies are now citizens, formal citizenship has been won within a structure of patriarchal power in which women’s qualities are still devalued. Moreover, the call for women’s distinctive capacities to be integrated fully into the public world of citizenship faces what she calls the “Wollstonecraft dilemma:” to demand equality is to accept the patriarchal conception of citizenship which implies that women must become like men while to insist that women’s distinctive attributes, capacities, and activities be given expression and valued as contributing to citizenship is to demand the impossible because such difference is precisely what patriarchal citizenship excludes (Butler & Scott 375).

In light of Pateman’s views on the exclusivity of modern patriarchal citizenship, Mouffe argues that this conception should be remedied, “not by making sexual difference politically relevant to its definition, but by constructing a new conception of citizenship where sexual difference should become effectively nonpertinent” (Butler & Scott 376). Her views on remedying the current lack of equal and acceptable citizenship are brilliant and needed, and the only way to completely restructure something like citizenship, is through revolutionary feminist politics and activism.

It is clear that reformist politics are not appropriate for the current times in regards to citizenship and especially the military. Enloe states that, “publicly challenging militarism has not been a successful strategy for getting generals, cabinet ministers, and powerful legislators to pay attention to the concerns of women” and that, “the presence of women as soldiers is not a reliable indicator of declining state masculinization” (Enloe 287). Revolutionary feminism is needed in order to keep feminist movement from becoming a part of the status quo and to radically change society so as to incorporate all of its members. As already stated, bell hooks defines feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression. “Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires” (hooks 26). This feminist politic of revolutionizing ideologies of domination is exactly what is needed in order to dismantle the military and institute an inclusive form of citizenship. It won’t be easy; in fact, feminist movement “actively engages participants in revolutionary struggle. Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable” (hooks 30). What is most important in order to achieve revolutionary feminist movement against the military, is unlearning the sexism that is perpetuated by institutions as well as oppressors and the victims of oppression. (hooks 43). It is vital to feminist movement that all participants critically analyze their behavior and realize how their lives have been militarized. Through that realization, it is possible to change one’s frame of mind and think through a revolutionary feminist perspective and not the socialized oppressive norms.

So, what next? What’s the next step for feminists? Hooks argues that in order “[t]o build a mass-based feminist movement, we need to have a liberatory ideology that can be shared with everyone. That revolutionary ideology can be created only if the experiences of people on the margin who suffer sexist oppression and other forms of group oppression are understood, addressed, and incorporated” (hooks 163). One of the ways that feminist movement has improved itself is in its attempt to include and understand the marginalized persons that hooks alludes to. As a movement, feminists have taken one step forward, however, there is still so much to accomplish. “Leaders are also needed, and should be individuals who acknowledge their relationship to the group and who are accountable to it” (hooks 163). In order to create a revolutionary movement large enough and powerful enough to tackle huge institutionalized structures, feminists must rethink and reshape the movement’s direction. As difficult as it is and as impossible as it may seem, a form of sisterhood or group unity is necessary. “In the United States, women and men committed to feminist struggle know that we are far outpowered by our opponents, that they not only have access to every type of weaponry known to humankind, but they have both the learned consciousness to do and accept violence as well as the skill to perpetuate it” (hooks 165). This form of overthrow or revolution cannot be the basis for feminist revolution. Being as outnumbered as we are, there is no way to defeat such opponents. “Our emphasis must be on cultural transformation: destroying dualism, eradicating systems of domination” (hooks 165). In a way, revolution is going to take time and effort to work at dismantling not only society’s normative views on women and the military, but also will require the dismantling of a physical, and powerful, institution.

Throughout this discussion of reformist versus revolutionary feminist politics regarding the existence of the military, it is evident that a revolutionary feminist movement is necessary to effectively alter or change the military system. In addressing the question of whether the military should be reformed or dismantled, bell hooks’ definition of feminism as well as her feminist theory guides us successfully to conclude that revolutionary politics are the only feasible means of dismantling the military. She also offers the movement a means to move forward towards feminist revolution and eventual equality and understanding. As Audre Lorde asserts in Sister Outsider, “it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes” (Lorde 114). Utilizing hooks’ theories and suggestions to rebuild feminist revolution and recreate an inclusive conception of citizenship, it is possible to not only abandon the military, but also all forms of dominance.

• hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge: South End Press, 1984.
• Enloe, Cynthia. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.
• Mouffe, Chantal. “Feminism, Citizenship and Radical Democratic Politics,” in Feminists Theorize the Political. Eds. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott. New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 369-384.
• Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Freedom: Crossing Press, 1984.
• Dietz, Mary G. Turning Operations: Feminism, Arendt, and Politics. New York: Routledge, 2002.
• Nicholson, Linda. “Interpreting Gender,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. University of Chicago, Autumn 1994: vol. 20, no.1.
• Denov, Myriam, and Gervais, Christine. “Negotiating (In)Security: Agency, Resistance, and Resourcefulness among Girls Formerly Associated with Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. University of Chicago, Summer 2007: vol. 32, no. 4.

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