Presentation on patriarchy and nuclear weapons at the 2017 NPT Preparatory Committee

At the 2017 NPT Preparatory Committee, Ms. Ray Acheson, Director of WILPF’s disarmament programme Reaching Critical Will, delivered the following presentation at a side event hosted by the governments of Ireland and Sweden on gender, development, and nuclear weapons. This presentation is based on a longer article soon to be published.


Thank you to the governments of Ireland and Sweden for organising this panel and inviting WILPF to be involved.

It’s 30 years since Dr. Carol Cohn’s seminal work on gender and nuclear weapons. She wrote a series of articles in 1987 about what she called her “close encounter with nuclear strategic analysis”. These articles—“Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” and “Slick ‘ems, Glick ‘ems, Christmas Trees, and Cookie Cutters: Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb”—described the unabashed sexual imagery associated with nuclear weapons.

About twenty years later, she wrote more about the relationship between nuclear weapons and gendered notions of “masculine strength”. The idea is that being willing to use nuclear weapons means being “man enough” to “protect” your country. A nice example of this is an Indian leader saying his country had to develop nuclear weapons “to prove that we are not eunuchs”.

A note on this: The fact that masculinity is equated across so many cultures with the willingness to use force and violence is a social phenomenon, not a biological one. Boys come to learn to define themselves as men through violence. The way the norms of hegemonic masculinities—toughness, strength, bravado—play out in the media, at home, at school, teaches boys to exercise dominance through violent acts and rely upon violence as a form of communication.

So, why are these observations important?

The association of masculinity with militarism, particularly in the context of nuclear weapons, is one piece of the puzzle impeding disarmament and the pursuit of demilitarised security arrangements.

The association of weapons and war as a symbol of masculine strength makes it harder to open up discussions about disarmament. One current example is that proponents of abolishing nuclear weapons (or even of discussing humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons) are put down as unrealistic and irrational—and as “emotional” and “effeminate”.

This is class patriarchy. It links caring about the humanitarian concerns being feminine, weak, and not relevant for the job that “real men” have to do to “protect” their countries. It not suggests that caring about the use of nuclear weapons is spineless and silly, but also makes the pursuit of disarmament seem to be an unrealistic, irrational objective.

This is also a problem for proliferation. When nuclear weapons are seen as a symbol of strength, they become attractive to others. They are seen as the platinum credit card of state security and as giving admission to a very elite club of powerful states.

And, the accusations of being effeminate or irrational are applied to certain states that are perceived as wanting to acquire nuclear weapons.

There is a distinction between the Self, which has a right to possess nuclear weapons, and the Other, which is too unpredictable to possess them. This is also highly gendered. When nuclear-armed states work hard to ensure that other countries don’t obtain nuclear weapons, they create a context in which they are perceived as keeping other countries down, subordinating and “emasculating” them.

Denial of lived experienced

This denial of rationality and accusation of being emotional is also applied to the lived experience of everyone who has ever suffered from the use or testing of nuclear weapons.

Outside the ban negotiations in March, US Ambassador Nikki Haley opened her press conference by saying, “First and foremost I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a daughter.” And, “as a mom, as a daughter, there’s nothing I want more for my family than a world without nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic.... Today when you see those walking into the General Assembly to create a nuclear weapons ban, you have to ask yourself, are they looking out for their people? Do they really understand the threats that we have?”

Ambassador Haley’s statements are deeply rooted in patriarchy. She identifies the desire for disarmament with her womanhood, but connects her desire to “protect” her family to the “necessity” of retaining nuclear weapons for the indefinite future.

One campaigner we work with in Fiji pointed out that her statement was a slap in the face in particular to every woman who has given birth to “jellyfish” babies as a result of US or French or British nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific islands or in Australia.

She said: “Pacific women—mothers and non-mothers alike—have spoken out against nuclear weapons repeatedly and want them banned. Anyone who knows the impact of nuclear weapons knows their effects on women, and on children.”

Studies on women’s health in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear testing in Marshall Islands and in Kazakhstan, and the Chernobyl disaster provide useful though incomplete analyses of ways in which women are uniquely impacted by radioactive violence.

In particular, high rates of stillbirths, miscarriages, congenital birth defects, and reproductive problems have been recorded. A possible link between breast cancer in younger women and women who were lactating at the time of exposure to nuclear radiation has also been found to exist.

In 2012 the UN Special Rapporteur investigating the impacts of US nuclear weapon testing in the Marshall Islands found that among other things, the bathing and eating habits of women potentially played a role in their higher rates of contamination. Women often bathed in contaminated water, which may have been overlooked as a possible means of exposure, as was the fact that women eat different parts of fish than men, such as bones and organ meat, in which certain radioactive isotopes tend to accumulate.

The Special Rapporteur said: “Apparently, women were more exposed to radiation levels in coconut and other foods owing to their role in processing foods and weaving fiber to make sitting and sleeping mats, and handling materials used in housing construction, water collection, hygiene and food preparation, as well as in handicrafts.”

So there are the physical impacts of a nuclear weapon detonation on women’s bodies, but there are also ways they are increasingly exposed to radiation due to social norms.

The social and psychological harm is much broader, of course. After the bombings in Japan, many female hibakusha were stigmatized. They were social pariahs, they were not seen as “marriage material”, etc. These problems persist over time and even through generations.

The denial of lived experience in order to project the “realism” of arguments in favour of nuclear weapons dismisses the very real pain and suffering of those who have experienced the use of nuclear weapons, as if these experiences are not relevant to the policies and practices of governments who are charged with “protecting” civilians.

This of course has serious implications for disarmament and non-proliferation. A different approach to politics and militarism is critical, so I’m happy to hear next about the Swedish feminist foreign policy.