Where Are The Women? The Gender Gap Of The Nuclear Age

How has the understanding of gender affected the theoretical study of International Relations? Should it do so at all?

Week 12 of the core theory and history module of my masters program at Oxford. Every week, one student was asked to address a thematic question in an essay that would become the basis of group discussion. This week, that was my job. I chewed a pen at the table of my perpetually damp British kitchen, turning the question over in my mind.

Spread out over the table were the materials I had collected from the course’s reading list. A few were library books, but most were printouts from various articles and journals. All of them discussed a particular set of International Relations theories called Feminist theories, to assess their claims and even their validity as a body of work among many other schools of thought.

After some reflection, I set all of these materials aside. To answer this question, I needed to start somewhere else.

I pulled up my copy of the reading list.

The reading list felt like its own institution. It covered all twenty weeks of the core theory and history course, containing an incredibly expansive catalogue of books, articles, and other materials that would shine a light on the topics to be covered.

I started with Week 1, creating a simple database that listed each text as authored either by men or by women -- a lack of better information required this crude simplification of gender identity. If a resource had even a single female co-creator, it was coded as female. This work consumed my weekend, long and tedious hours spent at the kitchen table.

When I was done, the fruit of this labor was a single sentence in the essay I ultimately submitted: “781 of the recommended texts (86.7%) were prepared or written by men and 120 (13.3%) were prepared or written by women.“

My professor and I discussed this finding during class and she told me the construction of this reading list had included an intentional and concerted effort to include more women.

The problem wasn’t just this institution or this list. My program’s reading list was not 86.7% male-authored because of a systematic devaluing of female scholarship (although that is certainly a real issue). The reading list was 86.7% male-authored because women were missing from the discipline.

How has the understanding of gender affected the theoretical study of International Relations? The reality is that International Relations has been deeply distorted by gender, and not because of the influence of Feminist theories. The field is marked by a long-standing, entrenched absence of women -- as thought leaders, as contributors, as subjects. Women are missing. The lack of their experiences and perspectives impoverishes the discipline and warps its conclusions.

Leaving academia and entering the world of security policy, this is equally true. I am fortunate to work for Global Zero, a security organization that -- not as a matter of policy or organizational priority, but simply as a result of a fundamental respect for women and their capabilities -- employs more women than it does men. But we are certainly an aberration in the wider security and defense community.

The women of Global Zero are joining the women’s strike to express solidarity with the values of equality and justice. I am grateful to join them, grateful that my organization embraces a common humanity, champions my abilities and ambitions, is chafed by the conditions of bigotry that constrain them.

But the women’s strike also reminds me of a sad truth: in security and defense communities, a day without women is pretty close to a normal day.

It shouldn’t be that way, and as communities we are weaker because of it. That isn’t to say that the contributions of women are unimportant. Some exceptional women have broken through difficult barriers to leave their mark, but even these women spend most of their lives swimming upstream. Many more who try to enter this field are swept out in the current, and we lose the skills and knowledge that might have been expended to keep us safe.

At Global Zero, we know that this is especially true in the realm of nuclear security. Women were not consulted when President Truman authorized the development of nuclear weapons, nor when he authorized their use. Women were unrepresented during the Cold War when the world spiraled into an uncontrolled arms race, when the most sophisticated machinery of mass destruction became the foundation of supposed security. By and large, women are not in the room today, when decisions are made that could result in the end of human civilization.

Dr. Carol Cohn reported this interview with a nuclear physicist recalling an encounter with his colleagues: “...we re-modelled a particular [nuclear] attack, using slightly different assumptions, and found that instead of there being 36 million immediate fatalities, there would only be 30 million. And everybody was sitting around nodding, saying, “Oh yeah, that’s great, only 30 million,” when all of a sudden, I heard what we were saying. And I blurted out, “Wait, I’ve just heard how we’re talking—only 30 million! Only 30 million human beings killed instantly?” Silence fell upon the room. Nobody said a word. They didn’t even look at me. It was awful. I felt like a woman.”

If women were in the room, would considering the victims of a nuclear attack been shamed? If women were in the room, would nuclear policy today be different?

At Global Zero, that question both haunts us and compels us forward. We are determined to find out. On March 8, the women of Global Zero are striking with women all over the world as a reminder of the invaluable contributions that women, of all races, backgrounds and beliefs, make to society. You can count on us to stand with you. And though we will be missing on March 8, you can count on something else: we aren’t going anywhere.

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