Book Review of ‘War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa’ By Joshua S. Goldstein

Gender roles are nowhere more prominent than in war, yet our understanding of the relationship between gender and war is confused. Joshua Goldstein analyzes the near-total exclusion of women from combat forces, through history and across cultures.

He concludes that killing in war does not come naturally for either gender, and that gender norms often mold men, women, and children to the needs of the war system.


In War and Gender, Joshua Goldstein attempts a synthesis of disparate analyses addressing the “near-total exclusion of women from combat” over time and across cultures (pp. 5, 58). This interesting approach is largely effective, and the text makes an important contribution to the growing literature on gender and war/international relations.

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Goldstein begins by challenging the dichotomous construction of sex/biology (nature) vs. gender/culture (nurture), arguing that the two are “highly interdependent” and that biology “provides diverse potentials” while cultures “limit, select, and channel them” (p. 2). He articulates this concept succinctly, “biology is diversity” (pp. 131, 191), and demonstrates this variability across societies in detail in Chapters Two and Three. Goldstein defines war as fatal intergroup violence and feminism as an ideology opposing male domination and promoting gender equality (pp. 2-3).

s (1)He then reviews the historical record of men and women in war in simple and complex societies. He concludes that the cross-cultural consistency of gendered war roles is pervasive, albeit not quite universal: women have fought in wars but are (or are portrayed/perceived as) exceptions to the gender rule that men are warriors.


Then he examined the historical record of women as combatants. Goldstein begins with all-female units in eighteenth century. Next Goldstein reviews the record of individual women fighters and military leaders. He concludes that gender exclusion from combat is by policy choice, not by physical capability: the evidence shows that women can and do fight (p. 127), so the explanation for the relationship between war and gender lies elsewhere.



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