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In Defense of Not Being On the Defense

Updated: Feb 17


I recently had an interesting conversation with a colleague during a course I am taking on Counterterrorism; we were discussing potential fixes to what seems to be a true “forever war” against non-state actors or terrorist organizations. I decided it was high time to bring up the fact that the systems in place for addressing counterterrorism issues are inherently designed through a “masculine” norm of engagement and policy making, and, if we had a more balanced representation of women in policy making circles, we would have more nuanced, multifaceted, unconventional, and perhaps, successful outcomes.

My colleague, a man, wanted to continue the discussion in a meaningful way, so he prefaced his “devil’s advocacy” stance by agreeing with me. He then went on to say, however, that we should look at female leaders who have made decisions about US foreign policy, and, more specifically, those regarding counterterrorism policy. He noted that these examples of leaders (Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton) were historically hawkish and, therefore, we could not say that giving more representation to women in this particular context would change anything.

This placed the discussion right where I wanted it - props to my colleague who set it up for me so I could dunk it. Now we can get to the meat of what “masculine norms” are and, conversely, what “feminine norms” are. “Masculine norms” can be presented by anyone: man, woman, or non-binary people. Masculine implies the nature of the norm: dominant, aggressive, binary (aka: “black-and-white”). Historically, our leadership structures have been defined by the “masculine” point of view. This lens has become not just prevalent, but highly normalized. “Feminine norms,” on the other hand are more multifaceted, in the simplest of terms.

Sorry - I didn’t mean to get off on some quasi-academic tangent there. That’s not, per se, what we are here for in a simple blog post. But it is important to always remind ourselves the differences between a person’s mental/physical gender and the status-quo of “normalized gendered”—i.e. “masculine”—culture in the workplace.

What I’m actually trying to discuss with all of you fine readers is what it’s like to be a woman in this world of a normalized masculine status quo, specifically in the world of national and international defense. Our female leaders in policy circles who have had to make strategic defense decisions or write policy have been in rooms dripping with institutionalized masculinity for the last… forever. It is unfair to expect that the women leaders could single-handedly break these norms without recognizing the tremendous systemic odds they have been up against. That these select few leaders were able to ascent into roles of power was, during their time, remarkable enough. Condoleezza Rice, an American woman of African heritage, becoming the Secretary of State was beyond remarkable - even in 2018 we would be noting it. So let’s not get, in hind-sight, all high and mighty about her responsibility toward sewing the feminine lens in security circles. It’s unrealistic.

But NOW….is it unrealistic today?

Let’s see: we are currently in the middle of the 3rd Wave of feminism. Some of my mentors who are on the older side, say they have never seen anything like what is happening today, and they truly believe this is a tipping point. Institutional resistance will be there, but the next generation of entry-level government change makers are about to begin their roles. Some of the current representatives and leaders who are still in the prime of their life are standing up for their autonomy and feeling safer to express their multi-layered point of view, unconventional ideas, etc…

The answer is: cautiously, I will say….it’s not unrealistic.

I believe these old, entrenched, risk-averse institutions might not be “READY” as if they were inviting change, but they are ready in that they cannot stop it from happening. The current women’s movement has given women in national and international security the permission to no longer be on the defensive, to speak their truth, and hell …change some things for the better.


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