Katherine Williams


Sjoberg, Laura. Gender, War, and Conflict. Polity Press: 2014

It is often the case that most traditional academic works on war, and theories thereof, do not discuss women, or men from a gender perspective, at all. As well as an ongoing silence regarding women as rational actors with political agency, gender has been neglected as a mode of analysis. Most cores texts for IR courses are distinctly lacking in any kind of feminist or gender-based inquiry. Consequently, students are led to believe that gender is somewhat irrelevant in IR, and other related disciplines. However, Gender, War, and Conflict by Laura Sjoberg, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida, offers students and general readers alike an engaging, in-depth look at how gender can impact on the ways in which we conceive warfare, and how conflict is caused, fought, and experienced.

Whilst women have been frequently lauded as the new face of modern warfare, whether as military personnel or as members of terrorist organisations, the fact remains that women have always fought in wars. Thus, traditional conceptualisations on the ‘place’ of women in war are rendered somewhat obsolete; as the case studies in the book illustrate, both women and men have diverse roles to play in the making of war.

Sjoberg’s introductory chapter makes the case that gender is in fact critical to analyses of conflict, and she begins by defining those all-important concepts. She identifies the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender; whilst ‘sex’ connotes the biological female/male-ness of a person, gender is described in the text as being the social traits that are ascribed to women and men, often inaccurately (p.5). In order, then, to unpack such dichotomies (women are naturally feminine, men are naturally masculine, for example), special attention must be paid to revealing gender hierarchies in order to fully understand war and conflict, and the gendered aspects therein (p.5).

Feminist research, therefore, has two explicit goals, according to Sjoberg: it aims to understand where both women and gender are in war and conflict; and it draws attention to gender subordination both in war and conflict, and within the scholarship that studies them (p.8). Aside from paying particular attention to gender, feminist IR researchers must also have an understanding of war and conflict; what constitutes war? What doesn’t? Sjoberg uses the definitions offered by Levy and Thompson’s Causes of War; wars and conflict must involve the use of force; be between two or more political groups; be political in nature; and must be a violent, sustained encounter between two political groups over a political cause (p.10). With these definitions and concepts in mind, students and readers can begin to see the intricacies of the debate. We suppose that war as a general concept is easy to define (one aggressor against another, depending on your viewpoint), but feminist researchers need to ask questions regarding not only the nature of war itself, but how women and men are portrayed in what Sjoberg calls ‘war stories’ (p. 16-17).  It is important not only to understand the roles of men and women, but also those individuals who identify as queer or trans- (p. 16-17). Only then can the transgression of traditional gender roles and their relation to war and conflict be fully understood and analysed.

Expanding further on this point in Chapter 4 (‘Why women and men are not enough’), Sjoberg talks about her experiences of watching trans-women and men being unfairly targeted at airport security. The stories relayed, Sjoberg argues, illustrate the link between an existing gender hierarchy and (perceived) security threats (p.87). This is not an anomalous occurrence, states Sjoberg, but a symptom of the relationship between the need to feel ‘safe’, and the need to enforce traditional associations between sex and gender in order to ‘achieve’ that feeling of safety (p.87). Gender hierarchies, it is argued, are a key cause of war, and also a key result of war, and both are mutually reinforcing, according to Sjoberg.

Sjoberg explores more gender non-conforming roles throughout Chapter 4, and deftly illustrates how people who fall outside of traditional gender roles are almost always considered more ‘dangerous’ because of their transgression. Sjoberg gives us the example of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, former Minister for the Family and Women’s Affairs in Rwanda, and the first women to be convicted of genocide and genocidal rape in the International Criminal Court. Are Pauline Nyiramasuhuko’s crimes worse because she is a woman? Would the controversy surrounding her case be the same if she were a man? Is she more dangerous than then the men around her? All of these questions need to be unpacked in order to reveal how traditional notions of gender (and their promotion by the media) reinforce the gender hierarchy, and obscure discussion regarding the role of women and men during times of war and conflict.

Gender, War, and Conflict compromises of six principle chapters, with discussion ranging from the role of women and men in war stories, the role of transgressive gender roles or identities and maintaining security, and redefining war in order to understand gender.

In her closing chapter, ‘War(s) as if Gender Mattered’, Sjoberg reiterates that there is a frustrating lack of information when it comes to gender analyses of IR (p. 149). Sjoberg hypothesises about how it would look to ‘mainstream gender’ when thinking about war and conflict methodologically, empirically, and theoretically (p.152-3). A ‘gender mainstreaming’ approach, one which has been utilised by bodies such as the United Nations, suggests that gender should be a core element when considering, constructing, implementing, and studying policy (p. 183). Whilst some organisations have utilised ‘gender mainstreaming’ in their practices, Sjoberg argues that this is often propagandistic, and needs improvement. Thus, looking forward, gender analysis has the power to change thinking about war; a paradigm shift would have a positive knock-on effect for other disciplines, not just IR, and this new way of thinking may just affect policy making for the better (p. 170). Though, as Sjoberg contends, this sadly, is somewhat rare in real-world terms. However, we can afford to be optimistic about the future.

Gender, War, and Conflict offers the reader much food for thought. It shows that we cannot begin to understand war and conflict if we don’t understand the gender hierarchies that perpetuate them. The text offers a comprehensive breakdown of each chapter, with suggested discussion questions, and a list of relevant resources that prove especially useful to students of IR. All in all, Gender, War, and Conflict is a valuable tool that will help readers to eschew traditional IR theories, and help them to construct their own.


Katherine Williams graduated from Swansea University in 2011 with a BA in German and Politics, and is currently studying for a MA in International Security and Development. Her academic interests include the de/construction of gender in IR, conflict-driven sexual violence, and memory and reconciliation politics. You can follow her on Twitter @polygluttony.