Women and War: Gender and Militarism in Wartime Ukraine

An Interview with Cynthia Enloe

This Feature appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

Cynthia Enloe, currently a research professor at Clark University, has devoted her career to exploring and interrogating the intersections of gender, militarization, and warmaking. The Journal spoke with Professor Enloe about the role that women in Ukraine have played in the war both on the front and behind the lines, blindspots around feminist understandings of Russian imperialism, and the various impacts of the war on children and minoritized groups.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): To start, could you share a little about your research interests? What are the types of questions you engage with?

Cynthia Enloe (CE): My general areas of interest are international politics, comparative politics, and where women are in both. I’m not interested just in someone’s cookie cutter notion of gender, though; I want to explore broad, fluid understandings of gender. I ask where gender politics are operating—in whose interest, with what resistance? For instance, how do gender politics work in the Hague, at the international crimes court, or in banking, or around militaries? And, of course, I keep my eyes on the gender politics operating within women’s movements around the world.

I’ve learned always to pay attention to gendered militarism—that’s the package of ideas that promotes the use of violence, that justifies escalating defense budgets, that makes civilians especially proud of soldiers, and that can turn a civilian organization into a tool for national security. So, for example, I wonder how a Nike factory in Vietnam might be militarized. Or a professional football team, or a university. Gendered militarism doesn’t take place just inside of militaries.

JIA: Focusing on the conflict in Ukraine, can you talk about women’s role in Ukrainian society and the war overall?

CE: This has been a steep learning curve for me—and new learning is exciting. There are so many wonderful feminists in Eastern and Central Europe, and we’ve all been educated by them, but I’m having to learn quickly now about the specific gender politics in Ukraine. In the five years before Putin’s massive invasion, and now during the full-scale war, I’ve been very lucky because a number of Ukrainian feminists have asked me to take part in their conversations. I’ve been the learner. In 2017 in Odessa, when the Russia-provoked war in eastern Ukraine already had started, a group of transnational feminists, including Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the Swedish feminist group Kvinna till Kvinna (Women to Women) asked me to join them and local Ukrainian feminist activists for a meeting in Odessa, a Ukrainian port on the Black Sea.

Some of my conversations have had to be on Zoom. But last summer, five months into Putin’s aggressive invasion, two Ukrainian feminist professors asked me to come to a small German town where they were holding a summer school for Ukrainian feminists forced to become refugees. They called their feminist summer school “Thinking Under Bombing.”

Ukrainian feminists have taught me that Ukrainian women have been organizing for generations, going back to the 1890s. Many of us haven’t paid enough attention to the long histories of women’s organizing—not just in Ukraine, but also in Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil. If we do pay any attention to Eastern and Central European politics in those early decades, we tend to ignore women’s organizing—in Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Austria—and just talk about the politics of the rival Austrian, Russian, German, and Ottoman empires. One of the things I’ve been struck by is how Ukrainian feminists and activists for generations have had to navigate competing colonialisms.

Most of us who have tried to understand colonialism and the patriarchal politics of colonialism investigate—and we should!—French, Dutch, Italian, Danish, British, American, and Spanish colonialisms. But many of us—and this is embarrassing!—have not paid much attention to Chinese imperialism or Russian imperialism. I’ve been lucky because Japanese and Korean feminists have nudged me to pay attention to Japanese imperialism (in Manchuria, Korea, Okinawa, and Taiwan). Still, most of us have not paid much attention to Russian colonizing occupations and how those expansionist projects have depended on ideas and policies manipulating masculinities and femininities (just as other colonizers have too). So today we’re all having to run to catch up. Learning how Russian imperialists manipulated gender ideas and attempted to control local women, including Ukrainian women—and how those women resisted those imperial efforts—has been a big education for me. And, of course, I’m only now at the beginning. But I’m learning that, to make useful feminist sense of the current war, we need to understand the long history of Ukrainian women’s activist thinking, and their anti-sexist and anti-imperialist local organizing.

JIA: In some ways, women who are most engaged in holding communities together have been excluded from meaningful participation and decision-making processes. As women continue to bear different and additional burdens of conflict, how can we ensure they do have representation, and do we see some of that happening now?

CE: Despite patriarchy and violent conflict, Ukrainian feminists have had some genuine successes. Since Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union and from Russia in 1991, for instance, local feminists have pushed hard for more women to run and be elected to local and national office. Ukrainian women are now 21 percent of the Ukrainian parliament (that’s not much less than the proportion of women in the U.S. Congress). They also now hold several cabinet posts, though President Zelensky’s inner circle seems to be chiefly male. Feminists have taken effective actions to push the police and the courts to take men’s domestic violence against women seriously. Wartime tensions, they warn, may exacerbate existing domestic violence.

Simultaneously, Ukrainian feminists have successfully lobbied for more gender-fair social policy, challenging Ukrainian conservatives who (like conservatives everywhere!) keep dreaming of the “ideal family,” in which women stay at home having children and doing unpaid work, not controlling their own bodies. Their organizing successes have made Ukraine different from Poland, right next door, where Polish feminists have had a tough time resisting their own local conservatives. This really matters. Ukrainian women have managed to protect their abortion rights, whereas the rightwing party now in power in Poland has systematically shrunk women’s reproductive rights. It is similar to North America, where Canadian women now have much fuller reproductive rights than do women next door in the U.S.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women have fled the war, oftentimes having to take their children to another country. But if a Ukrainian woman has fled to Poland, its next-door neighbor, she will have lost her reproductive rights, despite all the support she is receiving from local Polish feminists. So, I’m learning how crucial it is for us to think of the fight for reproductive rights not just in single-country terms, but in regional terms.

JIA: To build on that, how have gender dynamics or norms around gender, power, and militarism in Ukraine shaped the current war situation? From gender-based violence to the loss of livelihoods, Ukrainian women are facing serious impacts. How might the situation compound the vulnerabilities of women and girls? Are some Ukrainians suffering more from gender discrimination than others?

CE: These are great questions to investigate in any war—not only in Ukraine, but today also in Sudan, Ethiopia, Kashmir, and Myanmar. Maybe some of the people that you’re asking to contribute to this issue will talk especially about what the impacts of war on the Ukrainian LGBTQ community. When we try to do a realistic gender analysis of any catastrophe—war, pandemic, earthquake, climate disaster—it’s important for us still to stay curious about the gritty specificities—and intersectionalities—within any LGBTQ community.

So, for instance, now during the horrors of the Russian-provoked war in Ukraine, we should be wondering what is happening to young urban lesbians, to older gay men, to Roma lesbians, to African gay men studying in Ukraine, to Ukrainian middle-aged trans men. They may be making deliberate alliances with each other (easier to do in Kyiv and Lviv, though, than in Ukraine’s hundreds of farming and mining villages), but that still doesn’t mean that we should presume that they are experiencing this war in identical ways. LGBTQ communities are not monolithic. To be feminist investigators, we have to stay curious—energetically curious.

Ukrainian society has a relatively high percentage of elderly women. UN Women commissioned Ukrainian gender experts to write a 2022 report on the demographics and conditions of women in Ukraine. It’s chock-full of interesting information. That’s where I learned that elderly women are such a prominent part of Ukrainian society. And that made me think more about pensions and war. When a government under attack has to divert public funds into military defense, whose economic security is most jeopardized? When rural villages are under siege from an aggressor’s missiles, who has the hardest time fleeing? The good news is that during the current war in Ukraine, gender-smart journalists are interviewing (not just taking photographs of) elderly women. Many Ukrainian elderly women in small towns have told reporters essentially, “I want my daughter and my grandchild to flee. I want them to get as far away from this violence as possible. But this is my home, I refuse to leave.” These women in their late 60s and 70s are making their own wartime decisions; in the face of aggression, they are very determined. I think that that should be understood as a significant war story. Now I realize I know too little about the thinking and actions of elderly women in wartime Congo, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia.

UN Women’s 2022 report also shows that Ukrainian women have very high rates of literacy, on a par with Ukrainian men. As I’ve been writing this newest book (Twelve Feminist Lessons of War, coming out in September), I’ve been thinking more about how gaps in literacy between women and men, girls and boys, affect the abilities of each to cope with the dreadful pressures imposed by a violent conflict. For instance, in wartime, who has to depend on whom for news? Who can or cannot read the bus schedule? Who can or cannot read the warnings on unexploded landmines? And literacy is gendered everywhere because the politics of education—going to school, being able to stay in school—are gendered everywhere. For decades, Ukrainian feminists also have pushed for more women to have access to paid work. That access is always shaped by the gendered politics of paid and unpaid childcare. We’ve learned this—well, we’ve begun to learn this. But rarely do we think about what these inequalities of access to paid jobs mean for women in wartime. A woman without income of her own has fewer options when she copes with war’s uncertainty and dislocation. So it matters, I think, that in February, 2022, at the start of the war, thanks to Ukrainian feminists campaigning, 61 percent of Ukrainian women had paid jobs. Doesn’t that make you wonder about the proportion of Sudanese women now who earn their own incomes?

JIA: It is interesting to think about how different demographics are impacted in different ways. This brings to mind the effects on varying groups, and children in particular. What are your thoughts on women and girls and youth and their experiences in the war?

CE: One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is not to lump women and children together. In fact, back during the first Gulf War, I deliberately wrote women and children as one word— “womenandchildren”—to highlight how journalists or television talking heads merged them. They lazily slid the two together as if women were children, as if there were no difference between an adult woman and a vulnerable child. Those are deeply patriarchal presumptions. They were used to justify denying women the vote; today, they still undergird a lot of the thinking of those male legislators everywhere who imagine that women, like children, need to be controlled by adult men.

Now I try, instead, to use the phrase “women and their dependent children.” That longer phrase is more realistic. It makes one realize that women attempting to protect and support children are carrying major responsibilities. And they are making decisions. Most of us who’ve tried to take a threeyear-old on a train or a plane in peacetime know that it can be exhausting. Imagine thousands of Ukrainian women taking responsibility for young children, leaving behind their pets, and maybe taking an elderly parent too, grabbing passports and whatever else they can, not knowing their final destination—Lviv, Warsaw, Riga, Berlin? I think it’s really important that when we talk about children in war, we talk about who their main protectors and guardians are and the work that they do, the calculations they make— every hour. Has the woman had to leave her hard-earned paid job? Will her partner survive? Does she know any other languages? If she is killed along the way, what will happen to the children? And thinking about children … of the two war crimes for which the International Crimes Court (the ICC) prosecutors thus far have indicted Vladimir Putin, one is his personally ordering the abduction of Ukrainian children from the towns that his soldiers have occupied. Yet we’ve learned from feminist researchers in war-ravaged countries as different as Uganda and Korea that girls don’t have the same experiences of war as boys. I learned this when I tried to research the lives of Iraqis during the U.S.-led war in Iraq. I discovered that it is girls who were more likely to be pulled out of schools than boys, because their concerned parents feared more for their daughters’ safety on their way to and from school, as gun-carrying men began to roam the streets. Taking the risk of keeping a boy in school improves his chances of getting a paid job, many parents figure. A girl’s security, parents may think, will depend, by contrast, on their finding her a husband to take care of her. Many girls, though, do try, often with the help of their mothers, to delay marriage and continue their learning during violent conflict. But, as Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, or Afghan teenage girls tell us, it is not easy.

JIA: There have been discussions about policies in the country restricting women’s participation to highly gendered roles, as well as conversations about more women fighting on the frontlines. What is your perspective on women’s presence in the war?

CE: You’re right to be curious about women in the roles of armed fighters. Before the full-scale Russian invasion, the Ukrainian military already had 15 percent women. Many of the women volunteers were deployed as medics and logistics personnel in the eastern region, where the fighting was then heaviest. The most recent figure I’ve seen, for 2022, is that the Ukrainian uniformed military is up to 23 percent women, which is higher than the U.S. military’s 16 percent. Because, as a feminist, I’ve learned to be very suspicious of all sorts of militarization, I don’t jump to the conclusion that increasing the proportions of women in any country’s military is a measure of women’s liberation. Rather, I try to look underneath the raw numbers to see what is going on in the actual relationships of diverse women in militaries to all sorts of men, and the relationships of diverse women in militaries to the state. That means going beyond just thinking about “combat.” When researching any military, be sure to ask who defines which jobs as “combat.” Often those officials are trying to keep women out of what have been the military’s most masculinized roles, which also are the roles that give a soldier the best chance for promotion to a higher rank.

As a feminist, what’s really important, I think, is not to imagine that the women who have joined the Ukrainian military are somehow the only heroes amongst all Ukrainian women. A lot of people think that, to be a hero in wartime, you have to be in a military uniform and wield a lethal weapon. My own sense of who’s being courageous and who’s taking on extraordinary civic responsibilities in wartime, though, are all kinds of women doing the demanding jobs that keep the fragile social fabric woven together. Today, among Ukrainian women, I’m thinking of wartime social workers, health workers, battered women’s shelter volunteers, teachers who keep schools open, and women working in the electricity and water departments which are scrambling to sustain the crucial infrastructure in the face of constant Russian bombardments. Yes, women in the Ukrainian military are very interesting to watch, but militaries are not the only place where heroism might be found in wartime (or, for that matter, in peacetime).

JIA: What is important to take away from this current conflict in Ukraine, and from a feminist lens, what should people be aware of looking ahead?

CE: I think the first thing that I’ve learned—from Vietnamese women, Bosnian women, Syrian women, and now Ukrainian women—is always listen to the diverse women’s rights activists in the country that’s at war. Make them your authorities. That doesn’t mean they’ll all agree. So we need to listen to local feminists as they debate each other about strategic choices, about what is causing what. We also need to be curious about the history. Today, when thinking about the Ukraine war, that means learning about the long-running gendered politics of Russian imperialism and Russian colonization—being aware, too, that many Russian feminists have been opposing their government’s imperialist policies.

Ukrainian feminists also have urged us all to understand that fighting a war of self-defense is not the same as supporting a war of aggression, or autocratic perpetuation, or neo-colonial intervention. To sustain a war of genuine (not falsely claimed, as many militarists suggest) self-defense means that even women who are anti-militarist feminists may in the middle of that self-defense war of survival have to support their government’s military. That is, militarism is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You can be a Ukrainian feminist who is very critical of the militarization of masculinities, of motherhood, or of national identity, and yet still contribute to risky selfdefense work under Russian hourly bombardment.

My main takeaway from this appalling war—and from trying to understand other wars—is that it is hard work to be a feminist. It takes deep thinking, wide curiosity, careful listening and, of course, constant learning.