Episode 65: How Empire Uses ‘Feminist’ Branding to Sell War and Occupation

Citations Needed | February 6, 2019 | Transcript

Citations Needed
54 min readFeb 6, 2019
The illustration accompanying Fortune Magazine’s “Commanders in Chief: The Women Building America’s Military Machine,” September 24, 2018. (credit: Fortune)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: Indeed. So if you’ve been on the fence, we urge you to do it. It helps the show.

Adam: Uh, I think it was a solid beg. It was a good beg.

Nima: Since there’s been an American Empire, there’s been thin moral pretexts justifying our wars. Our invasion of Cuba and the Philippines in 1898 was about fighting [for] freedom from Spanish oppression. Vietnam was about stopping Communist tyranny. Our very own quote “westward expansion” was about “taming” and “civilizing’” the land from violent savages.

Adam: But one current flows through all of these imperial incursions with varying degrees, and that’s the idea that the United States — and its allies the UK and Israel very often — are out to protect women. That our current wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are, in large part, justified in perpetuity because the US is a unique protector of modernity and women’s rights.

Nima: Just the same, the Pentagon is increasingly seen — in the military and weapons contractors’ own PR — as a place where women can exercise their agency; the ultimate meritocracy and vanguard of equality.

Adam: But what if this approach misses the point of equality altogether? What if this is simply a craven branding exercise, putting a liberal face on what is a fundamentally oppressive system of mechanized violence. This week we want to explore the various ways in which women’s rights and women’s empowerment has been used to sell Western imperial objectives and how one can differentiate between actual progress and the superficial language of inclusion in service of mechanized colonization and war.

Nima: We will be joined today by two guests. The first is Dr. Kara Ellerby, Associate Professor in the departments of Political Science & International Relations and Women & Gender Studies at the University of Delaware. Her latest book is No Shortcut to Change: The Unlikely Path to a More Gender Equitable World.

[Begin Clip]

Kara Ellerby: So in militaries and agencies like the CIA, this means that including more women, even at the highest levels, doesn’t change the reality that these institutions produce insecurity for millions of people, not just women all over the world, and that including more women doesn’t actually make an institution more feminist, that actually requires a stated commitment to feminist ideas.

[End Clip]

Nima: Later in the show, we will also be joined by Dr. Sumita Mukherjee, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Bristol. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, member of the Women’s History Network steering committee and sits on the editorial board of Women’s History Review. Her latest book is Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks.

[Begin Clip]

Sumita Mukherjee: British imperialism, the interventions, the colonization of territories in Africa and Asia by British empire was fundamentally justified by this idea of a civilizing mission that the British were morally superior to other parts of the world and fundamentally this came down to ideas about vision of women both in Britain and in the so-called “Orient” in the East and the so-called “savage” African nations.

[End Clip]

Adam: So before we start, I want to do a quick disclaimer. This show is not really about what is and what isn’t Feminism. I think it’s fair to say Nima and I are not qualified to make that distinction as such because, well, we’re not going to have a podcast where two bros explain what Feminism is. What we’re really talking about is Feminism — capital “F” registered trademark after it — Feminism as a sort of quote unquote “branding exercise.” Just as Pepsi used unrest in protests in 2016 to sell us Pepsi we sort of assume that Pepsi didn’t really care about things like Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March. There were sort of just using the iconography and the visuals to sell you a product and that’s what we’re claiming in this episode that these military contractors, the CIA and US empire in general, does. That they use feminism as a disingenuous shortcut to provide moral justification in a world where, something we’ve talked about a lot on the show Nima, where you sort of need to have moral justifications. You can’t fill up millions of people in the Defense Department, State Department, building weapons, if they don’t believe they’re doing some good. And a kind of militaristic feminism protecting women and both including women in the empire and also protecting those under its charge has been a primary mode of marketing for these forces for some time.

Nima: In recent weeks there’s been a wave of articles and television segments on the ascension of women to the highest echelons of the US military-industrial complex. From Politico to NowThis to CBS to Bustle to NBC News, the rise of women as CEOs of major weapons contractors as well as holding the top three positions of the CIA, those are now positions held by women. And so the centrist and even liberal leaning media is kind of presenting this, this fawning propaganda in service of pushing U.S. progress in this area. And no more so than what we heard recently from MSNBC.

Velshi and Ruhle (credit: MSNBC)

[Begin Clip]

Ali Velshi: The military-industrial complex, the CEOs of four of the five biggest defense contractors are in fact women: Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Boeing’s defense wing. There’s also America’s lead Weapons Negotiator, the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and the Under Secretary of State for Energy for Nuclear Security, also a woman, she runs the world’s largest nuclear stockpile. You’re watching Velshi & Ruhle live on MSNBC.

[End Clip]

Adam: So what was interesting there is the use of the military-industrial complex, which I know, Nima, we talked offline is not a term that I particularly like. Um, I think it’s gotten kind of loaded, I think has lost a lot of its impact, but we’re gonna use it for the purposes of this episode because MSNBC used it. We’re going to sort of do it, you know, what you do in first year debate where you kind of accept their terms.

Nima: So what’s kind of fascinating about this is that the term which should probably come as no surprise to many of our listeners, was first coined by President Dwight Eisenhower. It was coined as a warning, as something negative, that the military-industrial complex was something to be avoided because of the unchecked power that it would wield, and you can hear this in the first time that term was ever uttered by Eisenhower. Let’s listen to that clip.

Dwight D. Eisenhower delivers his farewell speech, January 17, 1961. (credit: Bill Allen/AP)

[Begin Clip]

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United State corporations.

Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

[End Clip]

Adam: Now it’s good and woke. Now, obviously MSNBC has taken a broad turn to the pro-war, pro-military even more so than usual in the last few years with the rise of Trump and their sort of general militaristic posture, vis-à-vis Russia, North Korea, but they’re not the only example. So, uh, there was also an article that, I think is what prompted the MSNBC segment, in Politico called quote, uh, “How women took over the military-industrial complex.” This was from January 2nd.

Nima: The sub headline of which is, “For the first time, the nation’s defense hierarchy is no longer dominated by men.”

Adam: So then Fortune magazine had a headline in September of last year, “Commanders in Chief: The Women Building America’s Military Machine,” where they noted much like MSNBC and Politico had done that the CEOs of Lockheed Martin, Boeing and other military contractors were now run by women.

Nima: Yeah. And even more recently on January 5th, 2019 NBC News published an article headlined, “Sisterhood of spies: Women now hold the top positions at the CIA.”

Adam: And the subhead says, “Director Gina Haspel has named Cynthia “Didi” Rapp deputy director for analysis, making her the agency’s top analyst.”

Nima: Yeah, well, congratulations to them.

Adam: This trend was the impetus of an article in a magazine called In These Times, which was the impetus of this show. It was a article written by Sarah Lazare, an editor at In These Times and Dean Spade, a law professor and activist, who we had on our show about the media and trans rights issues. It’s called, “Women Now Run the Military-Industrial Complex. That’s Nothing To Celebrate.” And it’s a really great detailed breakdown of how the media is falling over itself sort of fawning these women taking over the CIA, the Department of Defense, Navy and the military contractors. We can’t recommend it enough. Go check it out in the notes because it’s the sort of basis of the show.

Nima: So in the article Lazare and Spade note that in all of these media pieces about the rise of women to these very powerful positions, they tread familiar ground, commonly seen when dealing with this type of thing. There’s a lot of stereotyping, a lot of gender stereotypes that note women can be more diplomatic, they are protective and kind of have this ferocity that comes with motherhood and the pack mentality and that generally in this sort of anodyne way that they bring a different perspective, right? That purely by being women, it is different to have them in these roles and so along with the diplomacy idea, you know, whereas men are rash decision makers, that having women at the helm of these industries is a very progressive, a very modern way to be without ever investigating that these industries are not actually changing the things that they’ve been doing forever. Lazare and Spade point this out early in the article and they say this quote, “Feminists should not view this “rise” of women as a win. Feminism, as the most recent wave of imperial-feminist articles shows, is increasingly being co-opted to promote and sell the U.S. military-industrial complex: a profoundly violent institution that will never bring liberation to women — whether they are within its own ranks or in the countries bearing the greatest brunt of its brutality.”

Adam: Yeah, and so these articles of course, date back a couple of years, mostly by these kind of middle brow liberal publications. Quartz, which is owned by The Atlantic wrote quote, “Women are slowly taking over the military-industrial complex.” Again, another sort of un-ironic use of the military-industrial complex, which is interesting, um, sort of notable in its own right. And then there was obviously about seven, eight years ago there was invasion of Libya, which Lazare and Spade note was really the kind of feminist war. It was the war in which the media routinely presented it as a kind of win for women.

Nima: And the reason why is largely because President Obama’s foreign policy team at the time was led by three women, Hillary Clinton in the State Department, Samantha Power at the UN and Susan Rice who was the National Security Advisor. And so there were all these articles, it was like this whole kind of spate of articles around that time. This is March of 2011 that talked about Obama entering that bombing campaign of Libya at the behest of these female advisors and basically doing that against the advice of his male advisors, which then became this kind of media narrative, talking point. So for instance, you saw in The National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn published an article with this headline, “America’s Foreign Policy Valkyries: Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice.” You saw John Avlon, the in The Daily Beast, write, “Libya Airstrikes: Hillary Clinton and the Women Who Called for War.”

Adam: And John Avlon is the Editor in Chief of The Daily Beast.

Nima: Yes.

Adam: He is actually a very powerful media figure, a CNN contributor, and so he’s got a picture of his smug face next to “Libya Airstrikes: Hillary Clinton and the Women Who Called for War.” The subhead is, “The Libyan airstrikes mark the first time in U.S. history that a female-dominated diplomatic team has urged military action.” So we’re making real progress here. We’re making real progress.

Nima: Oooo. (Chuckles.) Yeah. Look at that. They can do it too. And he ends the article like this, quote, “In the end, that a female-led diplomatic team argued for war will be a footnote in this conflict as it unfolds. But it is historically significant. And that it seems almost unremarkable to contemporaries is a small mark of our constant evolution toward a more perfect union, even within our civilian-led military.” End quote.

Adam: Yeah, and of course what’s not mentioned in any of these fawning women who blow up Libya is what happened in Libya. As Lazare and Spade note, quote, “The fact that command of the Libya air strategy was given to a woman officer was also celebrated in The Guardian… Are these celebrated woman architects of war required to answer to today’s nightmarish conditions in Libya where Black people are now bought and sold in open-air slave markets? Do cheerleaders of the intervention actually examine whether U.S. military intervention in Libya, or anywhere, leads to improved conditions for women?”

Nima: Right? So of course that’s not going to be investigated. It is simply held as, oh my God, this is progress. It is progress when now the wars usually entered into by men are being entered into by women. That is now progress. So you see all these Valkyrie tropes with, you know, these so-called “warrior women” and this, you know, all these terms are trotted out when talking about women in roles that have to do with violence and you know Valkyrie is, is repeated again and again in a lot of these headlines. Valkyries in, like, Norse mythology where women who were very courageous and bold in battle and like chose to die for whatever cause. And so you see, as we already said, ‘America’s Foreign Policy Valkyries,’ you also saw a Maureen Dowd writing in The New York Times the headline, “Fight of the Valkyries.” She even starts the piece like this quote, “They are called the Amazon Warriors, the Lady Hawks, the Valkyries, the Durgas.” And like she keeps going with like, ‘These are the girls who took on the guys,’ one New York Times White House reporter, Helene Cooper, actually wound up saying that live on Meet the Press that women bringing the United States to war, women making the decision ultimately, or at least guiding the decision, to drop bombs on people in foreign countries is seen as this bold and courageous move. You saw in Foreign Policy magazine, Charli Carpenter write a piece that was headlined, “Flight of the Valkyries?”

Adam: A lot of Valkyries going on here.

Nima: And so it just again and again and again.

Adam: So yeah, and you know, in fairness, you know, this was all in the context of Clinton probably going to run in 2016 and this was sort of trying to be, this is, this was shoring up you’re kind of quote unquote “foreign policy bona fides” so that you can be tough, you know, all these sort of euphemisms about bombing poor people in foreign countries. So that, that was the context in which this took place, right? It was like, this was all sort of like, you know, Hillary’s State Department, quarterbacked this, this was going to be her war. And then of course it became a total fucking unmitigated disaster and everybody sort of forgot about it as we talked about before. You know, Nicholas Kristof, who was a huge proponent of it, hasn’t written about it in eight years. And you know, okay, fair enough. You know, there, there are institutional forces that you could argue that require Clinton on some level to sort of be more militaristic because of overt and subconscious sexism. But nonetheless, here we are, we’re in this place where the actual value of whether or not going to war is good or bad is sort of just taken for granted and now we’re debating whether or not it can be a feminist war, war that’s led by women, who are again, are ordering someone to order someone to order someone to order someone to launch a bomb from an air-conditioned room in Las Vegas that will land somewhere in north Libya.

Nima: And when the people actually clicking the button in Las Vegas, if they’re women, then even better.

Adam: Sure. Yeah. Which leads us to our, the most egregious headline. And this is not, we are not making this up. This is an actual headline from The Daily Beast, which John Avlon runs. This is from 2015. Well, first off, I need to set the stage here. There’s a picture of a stock photo with a woman with lipstick talking into a headset as the background to a drone, and the headline says, “She Kills People from 7,850 Miles Away.” The sub headline is, “Her name is ‘Sparkle.’ She operates a drone. She is sick of whiny boys. And she is perfectly OK with dealing out death.” That was from 2015.

Nima: That’s real. That is a real published article in The Daily Beast.

Adam Yeah and it’s not ironic when you read the article. It is absolutely. It’s about how Sparkle is sick of boys complaining about, I guess the moral ambiguity of feeling out death and she sort of all about it and she’s sort of gung-ho about it and this is again part of a broader trend where you see the feminist branding as a way of selling things that otherwise would sort of be morally, at the very least morally skeptical. We would say, well, is that really? Is dealing out death from 7,500 miles away like a good thing? Like who are we dealing out death to? You know, is this a sustainable moral ecology? None of these questions are really raising.

Nima: No. Stop being a whiny boy and be more like Sparkle.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: So we also see this with the current women led CIA infrastructure. So the head of the CIA is now Gina Haspel, who we know has previously been in charge of dealing out torture at black sites in Thailand, that that is part of her past that was seen as a bonus, one can presume, to her promotion to that spot as the head of the CIA and basically we saw this exploitation of the foe-feminist brand, as we’ve said, the kind of feminist trademark registered and exactly how the Trump administration pushed her nomination. We saw Trump’s Press Secretary, Sara Sanders, right on Twitter at the time, quote, “Any Democrat who claims to support women’s empowerment and our national security but opposes her,” meaning Gina Haspel’s, “nomination is a total hypocrite.” End quote.

Adam: Which they’re not wrong. If you know, if you take a lot of this stuff to its logical end, like why would you not support that? If we’re going to support women destroying Libya and women blowing away people with drone strikes, presumably women running torture regimes is simply just evening it out and so increasingly you see militarism marketed to young girls specifically. There was a lot of controversy when Wonder Woman came out that it kind of made British militarism look sexy and woke and good. Captain Marvel, a lot of the marketing for that movie is being linked to the fact that the main character is an Air Force pilot and this is seen as again, sort of women’s empowerment. They worked hand in glove with the Air Force. The Air Force subsidized much of the film.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Which again, to be fair, this is something the Air Force has done to a lot of movies that starred men. This is not, this is not specific to women, but those were not marketed as being progressive or woke. They were sort of just gung-ho militarism. This is sort of gung-ho militarism, but also somehow progress.

Nima: Right. Progressive and feminist, and so you see a headline from the website Task & Purpose, which is like a very pro-militarist website that says this quote, “It Looks Like The Real Star Of ‘Captain Marvel’ Is The Air Force.” The article then goes on to say this, quote, “In the upcoming installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Larson,” meaning Brie Larson, the star of the film, “Larson stars as Col. Carol Danvers, an accomplished Air Force fighter pilot who, after a chance encounter with a space-faring alien, becomes imbued with unimaginable power — superhuman strength, the ability to fly, and absorb and redirect energy as she sees fit. But based on the Jan. 8 featurette, and a slew of recent promos, it looks like the superhero flick will devote a considerable amount of time to Danvers’ years in uniform.”

Adam: A follow up article is from the same magazine said quote, “‘Captain Marvel’ Is The Recruiting Tool Of The Air Force’s Dreams.” And went on to say if the structure of the film “seems familiar, it should. The trailer evokes old Department of Defense recruiting commercials, like a young woman’s transformation from student to Marine in last year’s recruiting spot, “Battle Up.” It’s a common hook in military recruiting ads: You tell a life story, or a coming-of-age tale, in 60 seconds flat.” Basically, she sort of was lost and then joined the military and became the sort of mighty hero.

Nima: Yeah, I mean it’s like it’s a common Hero’s Journey that just puts on top of it this girl power mystique.

Adam: And of course this is why the Air Force subsidizes films like this. It’s not for their health. They do it because it’s there to promote their wares. And don’t make no mistakes, subsidizing a film is the same thing as funding a film, which is of course what the DoD has been doing for for years with a lot of movies which we can table for a different episode, but suffice to say that now we are taking what is the first Marvel woman hero and we are specifically putting it in a jingoistic and militarist context and if we sound like hippie busy bodies or maybe, ‘Oh, it’s just a movie. Relax, have some fun.’ That’s fine as far as it goes. And again, this is something that male, you know, superheroes have been doing for years, Captain America was very militarized, although strangely enough, the military dropped out of Captain America too because it was, it’s message was to anti-military.

Nima: Winter Soldier. Yeah.

Adam: Right. But generally they are sort of very gung-ho, “hooah” and this is simply another iteration of this, but with this kind of girl power mystique.

Nima: We’ve seen this obviously in propaganda for decades longer. Rosie the Riveter comes to mind. There’s this common women’s empowerment icon helping the men go to war. ‘Do your duty.’ ‘You are just as integral to the pro-freedom, pro-democracy fight.’ And so there is actually a partnership that really promotes this idea of girl power, women’s empowerment, and you see this and it’s kind of grotesque, and this past Fall, the massive weapons maker, Raytheon, announced a partnership with, what one can imagine, is in a way the most apple pie, Americana, wholesome of girls organizations in the United States, the Girl Scouts. So to put this in context, let’s go back to October 2018. On October 24th of last year, Bernie Sanders was published on the opinion page of The New York Times in which he called out Raytheon specifically by name as related to their support for the Saudi Arabian slaughter in Yemen. The article, the opinion piece rather, was headlined, “We Must Stop Helping Saudi Arabia in Yemen.” And Sanders wrote about the tragedy of what is happening there and said that, uh, with all of these atrocities, it even “gets worse.” That quote, “The Intercept reported that a former lobbyist for the arms manufacturer Raytheon, which stands to make billions of dollars from those sales, leads Mr. Pompeo’s,” our Secretary of State, his, “legislative affairs staff.” End quote.

Adam: And a week later Raytheon announced on November 1st that it was partnering with the Girl Scouts. Now, I think it’s fair to say that they were doing that before this call out and also, but they were probably doing this in response to increased bad publicity, namely that prior August, CNN had done a series of reports detailing how Lockheed Martin and Raytheon bombs were killing children in Yemen, which wasn’t new. And the point is that bad PR can always sort of be countered with feel good girl power STEM pablum, because it’s sort of evergreen, right? No matter how many bodies pile up in Yemen or how much mainstream outrage kind of coalesces, there will always be some elementary school somewhere that needs quote unquote “STEM” training for girls and boys alike. The difference between marketing materials for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, BAE Systems and other weapons makers and STEM education materials isn’t totally clear. They’ve, in effect, they’ve kind of become the same thing. That the rush to promote STEM in schools is almost entirely subsidized now by weapons contractors or weapons adjacent industries.

Nima: And this is something that is not brand new. Just a few years ago, back on September 14th of 2016, Raytheon announced a different partnership, this time with the Boys and Girls Club of America, with a specific focus on helping young girls bridge what they termed the STEM gap. A mere six days later, according to CNN, a GBU-12 laser guided missile struck a vehicle in the Al-Mutama district of Yemen killing 15 members of a single family including 12 children, the youngest was a one-year-old boy and according to witnesses quote, “Their bodies were torn to shreds. Flesh was hanging from the plants and trees.” End quote.

Adam: And this is the thing, is that Raytheon doesn’t really build anything but weapons systems. This isn’t like 10 percent of their business. Raytheon builds weapons systems. And the question I always pose to people is if the Girl Scouts or the Boys and Girls Club partnered with Smith and Wesson, which makes automatic rifles, would you be fine with that? And everyone says, ‘well, no, of course not,’ right? This would sort of viscerally offend us, but there really isn’t any difference. Raytheon just makes instruments of death, that’s what they make. They make munitions that explode and carry shrapnel to rip through flesh and to the extent to which they build air systems and air support and other kind of ancillary or auxiliary items, they build them insofar that they can help carry munitions and deliver munitions that blow up and rip through bone and rip through flesh. That is what they do. They are merchants of violence. There really is no other way around it. It’s not even like say for example Boeing, which build civilian aircrafts. All Raytheon does is build fucking weapons and here they are effectively creating the entire STEM curriculum for entire, you know, elementary, middle and high schools.

Nima: So then you have this partnership with Girl Scouts and so you start connecting Thin Mints and Trefoils with, you know, cluster bombs and fighter jets and this is somehow seen as really cool. For instance, Raytheon and the Girl Scouts put out this little video announcing their partnership and it is full of as much kind of grotesque propaganda as you can imagine. Here’s a clip.

[Begin Clip]

Rebecca Rhodes, President, Global Business Services, Raytheon: We need to tap into that large untapped resource of girls in America.

Sylvia Acevedo, CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA: Raytheon’s vision about making the world a safer place and the Girl Scouts vision of making the world a better place, couldn’t be more well suited as partners.

[End Clip]

Adam: Uh, yeah. So somehow the missions are aligned. Somehow delivering munitions to kill people is somehow in line with what the Girl Scouts do. Of course, Raytheon’s just paying them a shitload of money because Raytheon needs good PR because they’re fucking murdering children in Yemen, uh, as we speak. And so they were, they got a lot of flack when this video went viral a couple of weeks after they posted it, it kind of just went viral. Cause you know how these things are. And the Girl Scouts kind of frantically responded to the tweets and gave this really pat response. They said, quote, “STEM is non political issue, and championing girls in STEM is something that everyone can support, regardless of party or ideology. This collaboration is about expanding girls’ access to one-of-a-kind STEM programming throughout their time in the Girl Scouts.” So there is no moral content to what you’re building. As long as you’re building something, it doesn’t matter if it’s an automatic weapon or a missile launcher or a nuclear weapon or chemical weapon.

Nima: This is really just about science and engineering and get over it everyone.

Adam: Yeah. You could certainly teach girls about chemistry by opening up the old chemical lab in Atlanta, Georgia and letting him play with some, some neurotoxins, some biological weapons. You can teach them biology way. I mean, look, it’s, it’s such an obvious con, right? It’s such an obvious marketing thing for Raytheon and the Girl Scouts, you know, wants to be relevant. They want to jump on the STEM bandwagon and I’m sure Raytheon wrote them a pretty big fucking check. So you know, you have this propaganda video where these sort of, you know, and they’re, they’re using children in their marketing, they’re exploiting children, really is what they’re doing. They have these 10, 11, 12 year old girls talking about excited they are to work with Raytheon. They of course have no context for what Raytheon does. They don’t know how the bills are paid and it’s pretty gross and the assumption is is that if you can kind of launder it through the sanitizing terms of like defense and aerospace and building rockets, you know, ‘we’re going to build rockets to go to space.’

Nima: Right. Then it’s really cool.

Adam: Right. You know the fucking ICBMs that are going to level Moscow in the event of a nuclear war are fucking, they go to space.

Nima: And actually this is seen as something to be proud of. In the Fortune magazine article Adam mentioned earlier in the show, that came out in September of 2018, the article, “Commanders in Chief: The Women Building America’s Military Machine,” was accompanied by a five minute puff piece video produced by Fortune magazine where it has interviews with all of these female CEOs, Lockheed Martin, of Boeing, and one of them, Lynn Dugle of Engility, which is another massive contractor, actually says this:

[Begin Clip]

Lynn Dugle: It’s probably one of the most exciting times to be in this industry that has ever been.

Man: T-minus 60 seconds and counting.

Lynn Dugle: People for awhile were debating, um, is space and part of warfare. War on the ground is driven by space. If we’re going to target something, we need to know where that is, so if adversaries disable our space assets, that’s the consequence, we’re disabled on the ground as well as well.

[End Clip]

Adam: Yeah. We’re not even trying to hide behind the romance of civilian space travel. It’s like, ‘yeah, we need to fucking weaponize space so we can more efficiently blow people up halfway across the world without having to risk your own guys.’ And there is a corollary to this as Spade and Lazare note for their article for In The Times, Lockheed Martin, which is the biggest weapons contractor, on their website where they try to recruit women, “A page on its website quotes the Langston Hughes poem, “A Dream Deferred,” to make the case the the company helps girls achieve their dreams. ‘This poem was one of my favorites from my high school English class, but, now, as I consider my Community Service and Engagement with the Lockheed Martin community, I personally know what can happen to a dream deferred, when many say no, but I say, ‘Yes you can,’’” So here you have quoting Langston Hughes in a feminist context for women to apply to build fucking missile systems.

Nima: So that poem, you may also know it because A Raisin in the Sun phrase comes from that same poem, you know, its, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore — And then run?” So it’s really using this piece that is so well regarded and has been used in very specific contexts, especially in terms of Raisin in the Sun and having to do with race and it is Langston Hughes who wrote it. So, uh, to divorce all of that and have it be basically promoting the dream of working with Lockheed Martin, the contractor that builds 500-pound laser guided bombs, responsible for destroying school buses in Yemen and murdering dozens of people, that is now somehow super, super woke.

Adam: Yeah. And of course the whole point of it is to sort of sanitize what we’re really talking about here, which is again, delivering weapons that kill people by definition. There’s no other use for any of these things. It’s not like that missile is going to deliver flowers. It kills fucking people.

Nima: Right, but you know, if women are in charge, then it’s good Adam.

Adam: Right. Clearly.

Adam: Friend of the show Roqayah Chamseddine wrote an article, also for In These Times, a few months ago about a similar phenomenon and she had talked about Democrats increasingly recruiting women to run who have military and CIA backgrounds. Because there’s some, there’s some, apparently there’s a single political consulting firm that tells every Democrat that if they want to quote unquote be “electable” they have to find the most ostensibly right-wing person. Right? This is sort of like the one weird trick, right?

Nima: That’ll do it. That’ll do it.

Adam: Yeah. Everybody’s thinks that they’ve solved the Da Vinci Code because they, uh, they figured out how to beat Republicans by being Republicans. There was a woman by the name of MJ Hegar who ran in Texas’s 31st District. She lost her election, but she ran this ad that was sort of like, ‘I’m a tough, tough hawk’ in response to Republican John Carter. Uh, she constantly referred to her opposition to John Carter as a, as a quote unquote “war.” There’s all this martial imagery, but we’ll listen to it here.

[Begin Clip]

MJ Hegar: Congressman Carter, I’m MJ Hegar. You know, the lady that you’re at war with? Well, respectfully, Congressman, you don’t know s*** about war.

[End Clip]

Nima: Yeah, so Hegar actually wrote a book as well, which is called Shoot Like a Girl, which is now also being like optioned to become a Hollywood movie with like Angelina Jolie, but to give a sense of how this reclaimed feminism is used to really just further imperial and martial ideology.

Adam: Well, and to be clear, she was discriminated against. She was not permitted to be a helicopter pilot because she was a woman and she sued and she won. And this is something we talked about with Dean Spade in our episode on trans rights saying that, you know, militarism and trans rights discourse was centered by certain interests similar to the ways that gay marriage was, was prioritized over other things. And those things are, discrimination is per se bad, but this is again, this is sort of, by accepting the premise that we need to ascend to these martial positions, these, these militaristic positions, you are per se endorsing them as something that’s desirable or good. And so you want to sort of, at least I want to be careful and be like, yeah, there was legitimate discrimination of course, but is this really is butting one’s way into the imperial machine really the kind of discourse we want to have when it comes to these things?

Nima: Right. Is that really what ultimate progress is going to be?

Adam: Yeah. Or is it, or is it sort of just like tokenizing, you’ve been accepted into this, into this militaristic or kind of bourgeois institution, so.

Nima: To talk more about this, we’re now going to be joined by Dr. Kara Ellerby, Associate Professor in the departments of Political Science and International Relations and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Delaware. Her latest book is No Shortcut to Change: The Unlikely Path to a More Gender Equitable World. Dr. Ellerby will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We’re joined now by Dr. Kara Ellerby. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kara Ellerby: Thank you for inviting me.

Adam: Thanks so much for coming on. So the impetus of this episode was, as we mentioned earlier, an article written by Sarah Lazare and Dean Spade in In The Times about the increased media trope of women in the CIA, military and the head of defense contractors, which MSNBC calls the military-industrial complex, which is interesting. It’s good to see they’ve turned to Oliver Stone in that. But um, the first question I have is that one of the things you note in your interview is you reference what you call an “add women and stir” approach to gender justice, sort of women, you know, female faces in high places kind of thing. Can you talk about what you mean by “add women and stir” and how it manifests particularly in the context of military and clandestine agencies?

Dr. Kara Ellerby

Kara Ellerby: Sure. So the term “add women and stir” or “add gender and stir” is a liberal feminist model of equality. And basically it means that institutions include some more women or any women and they call it good. So the goal is to remove discriminatory barriers for women. But the analogy is a recipe. Okay. So I can add nuts to a chocolate chip cookie, but it’s still just the chocolate chip cookie. So we can add women to an institution like the military or an arms producing institution without necessarily changing that institution. So in militaries and agencies like the CIA, this means that including more women, even at the highest levels, doesn’t change the reality that these institutions produce insecurity for millions of people, not just women all over the world, and that including more women doesn’t actually make an institution more feminist. That actually requires a stated commitment to feminist ideas.

Adam: So let’s inspect that a little bit here. So when we talk about the sort of fundamental nature of these institutions like the CIA, military and the harm that they do overseas, what kind of evidence do we have, and the article presents some, but like what is the sort of outcome based evidence of what things like covert war’s or overt bombing campaigns, like what you see in Saudi Arabia, what they’re doing to Yemen, what is the effect that war in general, let’s kind of establish the stakes here, what is the effect of war in general has on women and have we seen any change in that since women have quote unquote “taken over” the military-industrial complex?

Kara Ellerby: So military campaigns are gendered in that women are more likely to be displaced by conflict. They’re actually more likely to die in conflict because it’s not true that military campaigns just target military personnel. They’re more likely to be food insecure as a result of conflict, to be refugees, so everything about it is likely to impact women and their families. And there’s no evidence that that has changed because now that there’s women in charge. So that Gina Haspel, who’s the Director of the CIA, has been linked to torture, shouldn’t actually be a surprise to anybody. I don’t know why we would expect her to make different decisions than her male peers.

Adam: Yeah. I was being somewhat pollyannaish with my question. I. I was just trying to establish to our guests who may be skeptical of our premise that that there is absolutely zero basis that women in high places makes institutions less reactionary in their very nature. And you see this also with police departments. There was kind of a movement briefly after Ferguson to have more diverse police departments and then a lot of activists came around and said, ‘look, we’ve looked at all the data and there’s absolutely zero evidence that having more diverse police departments makes them less reactionary.’ The LAPD being the prime example, their police force is actually almost one to one with the ethnic makeup Los Angeles and, uh, they are, they’re still one of the most violent and repressive forces in LA.

Nima: So to those who say, and this is of course hypothetical, there’s no one who would actually say this, but to those who would say, ‘Okay, well look, you’re kind of barking up the wrong tree here. The US military or the CIA or weapons contractors, they’re not going anywhere. They are built on the principles and ideology that they are built upon and so to expect that just because there is, let’s say, female leadership now at the highest level, to expect anything to change in those industries or those specific departments is naive and is ridiculous. But at least if you have to have these things and you have to have a leader, it might as well include women and the more women the better.’ How do you respond to that and, you know, is this sort of a lost cause in general?

Kara Ellerby: Well, I should preface that, I do think it is important to include women even in really sexist or militaristic institutions, and I do believe that people can change institutions. But my issue is that we think women ought to change those institutions. First because it’s a burden on women even those women, particularly white women in positions of power, that they must play the game differently. It’s fundamentally unfair and it often undermines their likelihood of success in actually changing an institution. Second, if an institution like the military adds women because they think they will behave differently, it basically reinforces that women are different and this can be a really slippery slope because those same arguments that women are less reactionary, more peaceful, more trustworthy, community oriented, I hear these things often, are the same arguments that end up excluding them in the first place. So could there be changes, of course, but why don’t we ask this of the men in these institutions? You know, expecting women to change institutions means that we’re not asking men to do it.

Adam: Yeah. You see this kind of, um, Michael Moore centralism that he does a lot-

Kara Ellerby: (Laughs.) I like that.

Adam: Where he goes, he goes to Iceland and talks about how the banks are run by women and they’re more benevolent, again, something I’ve heard there’s very little empirical evidence for. And it does become paternalistic, right? There’s this sort of assumption that, now you see this a lot with black women too, that somehow they’re like this magical entity who’s going to save us. That they are our moral compass.

Kara Ellerby: Right.

Adam: And the whole thing sort of smacks of condescension. Can we talk about this kind of like kinder, gentler machine gun hand that we assert? That women are going to somehow make these institutions more soft, despite the fact that again, there’s no evidence that that’s even the case. So it’s kind of this double thing where you both assume that they’re magical saviors and also you’re really just kind of warming over the same institutions.

Kara Ellerby: Exactly. And like I said, the conversation is always focused on the women, right? Not the majority of men already in the institutions that actually have the authority to make changes from the top down.

Nima: Yeah. I find this kind of having it all possible ways in this kind of propagandistic push about women now running most of the huge military contractors, at the top of the intelligence and national security state, that both they will act differently in positions of power then man, as we’ve been talking about, but also simultaneously that the reason that they have ascended to those heights is because they have proven themselves to be just as vicious, just as cutthroat as men have always been. And so it’s this dual kind of condescension where these women in these roles are expected to basically play every single part that is being thrust upon them.

Kara Ellerby: Well, and it’s always curious to me too why the CIA or the military even cares about touting, I guess this is a status of progressiveness, right? Like the number of women you have is a signal, but it’s a weak signal.

Adam: Right.

Nima: I would actually love to talk about how you and your book, No Shortcut to Change, talk about the kind of intersecting levels of oppression and how, you know, there is race, there is gender, there is economics, of course, you could go on and on. How does this play out when you look at the media really touting women at the highest echelons of power and that is always this big, impactful headline? Can you just sort of unpack a little bit for us, based on your own research, the ways that those systems kind of intersect?

Kara Ellerby: Sure, so it’s not a coincidence that the women that end up in positions of power in these institutions are predominantly, if not entirely white. That race is almost, I would say probably just as important as talking about gender, when you talk about the dynamics of militaries and the CIA and, and arms producers. That whiteness makes it easier for women to get into those institutions and move on and that gender isn’t the same kind of barrier for them. And then if you think about, you know, when I look at sort of leadership and governments, it’s a very elite affair, right? So it’s people from particular institutions, Ivy League institutions. So you are talking about class. You’re also talking about predominantly kind of a heterosexual narrative going on, whether or not they are it’s implied. So all of these dynamics are at play. We sort of talk about women as a singular category, so any woman in power will do, right? Instead of actually which women are getting promoted.

Adam: One of the things we talked about at the top of the show, is the increased trend of military contractors like Raytheon, BAE Systems, Boeing to use the language of STEM to partner with what we see as typical female or girl empowerment. I wouldn’t even say feminist because I think the organizations in question don’t even consider themselves feminist. Recently, Raytheon joined a partnership with Girl Scouts of America, which we played one of their kind of dystopian videos earlier. To what extent does this kind of obsession with women in STEM, which I think we can all objectively agree is important, that women have been left out of major job sectors in the sciences and math and science and technology, but to what extent now this has been used as a kind of marketing tool to condition women for militarism and to sort of boost the long term bottom line of these weapons makers?

Kara Ellerby: It’s as much about capitalism and militarization and how those are linked. So Girl Scouts is trying to maintain its relevance and to do that, I think they jump on the STEM bandwagon, which you’ve talked about is sort of uncritically, I’m sure parents are like, ‘yeah, this is where the future of jobs are.’

Adam: Right.

Kara Ellerby: I also wonder the degree to which they even know who Raytheon is or what they do.

Adam: Yeah. My guess is many of them don’t.

Kara Ellerby: Right. But what they do see is, you know, kind of corporate social responsibility. They see it everywhere. It probably doesn’t look that much different and that Raytheon probably does want more women in its workforce and they also want the good PR. So I actually think that this is going to become more common, you know, as the number of women a business or institution has becomes a benchmark for how progressive it is, that this is sort of the inevitable conclusion or step to that. I see the same behavior in universities, you know, they engage in some pretty suspect partnerships for resources and it’s the military-industrial complex for lack of a better term that has those resources.

Nima: Yet, to me, there’s also an aspect of seeing these multibillion dollar, multinational weapons contractors, these, these huge, huge corporations as being kind of the best of America. Right? So like it’s sort of intertwined with, you know, look with jobs shipped overseas and manufacturing down, like what we still have at least are our smarts and the weapons that we sell to other people and it kind of comes together as, you know, to make it to the top of that corporate pyramid is kind of as good as you can get in terms of the way that things have been set up. And so to see women and to hold up women at the top of that really, as you were just saying Kara, brings everything together. It is corporatist, capitalist, imperialist and also in incredibly kind of condescendingly gendered still.

Kara Ellerby: Yeah and like I said, I think you’re just going to see more of it. Again, because I don’t think parents are thinking about it as critical consumers or as an issue of our relationship to other countries or to militarization. Cynthia Enloe has written extensively about how that militarization mentality kind of leeches itself into our culture and I think about like in high school I had a pair of like fatigues, like for what purpose? Well, because everyone else had them. Right? Without even thinking about what it means to normalize that sort of clothing. It’s the same process here, right? That parents are thinking, oh my kids can get ahead. Not how are we engaging in this really complex system that marginalizes so many people?

Adam: Yeah. And in, in, in a lot of places in this country, building military hardware is really the only real job. I mean I know that military contractors, by the very nature because of the way that the Senate and the House Representative works, they spread out their factories strategically, right? So for so many people in this country, these are the only game in town and the idea that they, so in one way you want to be careful, right? You want to make these anti-imperialist criticisms while understanding that like, what you don’t want to do is, I think as a man is to sort of say, okay, well, you know, we had these privileges, I’m now going to pull the ladder up from behind me and then scold you for being an imperialist because for a lot of these towns it seems like from, from what I’ve read, that they’re pretty much the only game in town that you either work for Raytheon in rural Arizona or you don’t work.

Kara Ellerby: Yeah. I lived in Tucson. So you couldn’t say a bad word against Raytheon.

Adam: Yeah. Right.

Kara Ellerby: People you knew, knew somebody who worked there.

Adam: Right. And they said they’ve done like this, um, sort of, uh, this kind of, um, Spanish firing squad thing, right? Where everyone’s invested in it five percent then no one’s really allowed to criticize it.

Kara Ellerby: Well, that’s the complexity of it, right? There’s not an easy answer.

Adam: Right. And so one of the beauties of being a Patreon funded podcast is you get to be really morally smug.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: So before we go, I want you to talk about your book. You published a book last year called No Shortcut to Change: The Unlikely Path to a More Gender Equitable World. Can you tell us about your book and where people can find it if they’re interested?

Kara Ellerby: Yeah, so this is something I’d kind of been working on, I work on different areas of political science. I’m interested in women in leadership and also women in the economy and violence against women. And I kept seeing the same narratives about ‘oh look at all these things we’re doing to help women,’ but when you look at the data, we’re not making really big shifts. So there’s the global average of women in Parliament is still like 22 percent and we all know that women still make a lot less money everywhere in the world and that violence against women is an epidemic. So I kind of wanted to challenge how good things have gotten and the more I looked into it, I found the same patterns that all go back to issues of gender, right? That there’s all kinds of informal practices that happen that we don’t notice, but impact the degree to which policies aimed to help women actually don’t. And a lot of that is similar here. So I kinda just wanted to challenge that anytime we add women to something, we’re promoting gender equality. That it’s not gender equality. You’re just including women and by reframing that, then perhaps gender equality can come to have a different meaning.

Adam: Right.

Nima: Imagine that.

Adam: Imagine that. Thank you so much for coming on. And this was extremely enlightening.

Kara Ellerby: Well, thank you for having me.

Nima: Yeah, this is fantastic. Dr. Kara Ellerby, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations as well as Women and Gender Studies at the University of Delaware. Her latest book, uh, as we’ve said, is No Shortcut to Change: The Unlikely Path to a More Gender Equitable World, which incidentally won the 2018 Victoria Shuck Award from the American Political Science Association for best book in women and politics. So everyone should check that out, rush out and get it. Dr. Ellerby, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kara Ellerby: Thank you. I appreciate it.


Adam: Uh, yeah, that was, uh, that was great. If you get a chance definitely check out her work, there’s a ton of stuff there to chew on. She’s definitely thought a lot about this and it’s a new book, so she addresses a lot of the emerging tropes around this.

Nima: So these tropes actually, as we often discuss on the show, these tropes are not particularly new. They come from a playbook of American and Western European colonialism in which colonizers argue that their presence in these far flung, wild and dark places ultimately helps women and that their exit from these places would do native women grave harm. To take just one example, Evelyn Baring, The Right Honorable Earl of Cromer, who was the British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, cited the veil and women’s general well-being to argue that Egyptians should be forcibly civilized by the Brits. He said this, quote, “The position of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan countries generally, is, therefore a fatal obstacle to the attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation.” Now, however, as feminist scholar Leila Ahmed has pointed out, at the same time that Cromer was railing against the veil in Egypt, in an Islamic society, he was forcibly agitating in favor of the subordination of women in England itself as he was the leader of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.

Adam: Yeah, and we saw this with the American press, the Spanish American War, the leader of the Spanish Army during the Cuban Revolution, the US sided with the quote unquote “revolution.” Of course it later just took over. They would demonize the head Cuban General, General Weyler. He lead the Spanish forces on the island. He was described by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal as quote, “Weyler the brute, the devastator of haciendas, the destroyer of families, and outrager of women.” Historian David Traxel, in his book 1898: The Birth of the American Century, he said quote, “stories about women provided opportunities for particularly moving copy, because of the great value placed on the civilizing role of feminine virtue in the United States. There were reports of innocent family victims: ‘WEYLER THROWS NUNS INTO PRISON. BUTCHER WAGES BRUTAL WARFARE ON HELPLESS WOMEN,’ said one Journal headline.”

Nima: Yeah. So, um, you know, this is seen time and again and especially in that yellow journalism era of the New York Journal when Hearst really was helping push the US further and further into war and using these scare headlines, you know, “outrager of women” was used a lot actually. So at the same time that the United States is emerging as an imperial power, Great Britain is delving further and further into its colonial expansion. In the book Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture, 1865–1915, Antoinette M. Burton writes that, quote, “Organized feminism in Britain emerged in the context of Victorian and Edwardian imperialism. Historically speaking, arguments for British women’s emancipation were produced, made public, and contested during a period in which Britain experienced the confidence born of apparent geopolitical supremacy as well as the anxieties brought on by challenges to imperial permanence and stability. She goes on, “…despite the imperial discourses that leading British feminists utilized, the world-civilizing significance they attached to their role in national political culture, and the frequent invocation of non-Western and especially of Indian women as subjects in need of salvation by their British feminist ‘sisters.’”

Adam: Yeah. You saw this similarly, we talked about this I think briefly on our episode about abortion where the 1910s, 1920s feminists, suffragette movements, um, and it, it predated that as well, but they trafficked also in eugenic language as well as imperial language. And what’s important to note is that it’s not as if those things have anything to do with feminism. It’s that to achieve any modicum of equality, they latch themselves onto what was the prevailing ideology of the day. Right? It’s not as if feminism at all created or even stoked the concepts of imperialism or eugenics it was just the, the vogue thing. It was taken for granted that these things were true, that the British empire was morally superior, and that eugenics had scientific basis. And feminism, a certain brand of feminism, of course, there are exceptions in the Global South and elsewhere of course, but the sort of white feminist to put it broadly speaking, it tried to sort of mold itself to fit the times. Which is, you know, in some sense, understandable, you know, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that we’re saying that feminism sort of caused this or or, or help this out per se. Then you see this again, you see this with the ways in which the current militaristic or corporate iteration of bourgeois feminism or feminism that’s sort of centered or sought out or heavily funded is necessarily going to prop up the present ideology. And that manifests itself more and more as a, as a worship of the military and the CIA.

Nima: This was seeing also in South Africa, which in it’s pre-official Apartheid state was still basically an apartheid colonial state. At the 1899 International Congress of Women, one Mrs. Stewart who was representing, quote, “various associations of women in South Africa” end quote, proudly reported on missionary work that she and her colleagues were doing quote, “among the native races.” And she said this quote, “Africa affords a great area of work where women need help and guidance. This vast continent, which 5000 miles long by 5000 miles wide, awaits all the efforts that British women can put forth, more especially upon its ignorant and degraded native population.” And she continued, “We have the nineteenth century civilization with all its good and, what is very serious, all its evil sweeping in upon us. This civilization has a good side and a bad side; the latter tends to corrupt as much as the good side tends to elevate.” There’s a lot of talk of elevation here. She adds, “This specifically applies to our less fortunate sisters belonging to the native tribes. It is mostly through the various mission agencies that anything is being done to raise the native women and fit them to take their place in the new conditions of life alongside of this large white population that is now filling their land.” And she adds this, quote, “We all realize what Christianity, civilization and education have done for women in this and other countries.”

Adam: That’s good times.

Nima: To speak more about the colonial history of this and its implications still today, we’re going to be joined in just a moment by Dr. Sumita Mukherjee, Senior Lecturer in history at the University of Bristol. Her latest book is Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks. She’ll join us in just a moment.


Nima: We are joined now by Dr. Sumita Mukherjee. Sumita, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Sumita Mukherjee: Well, thank you for inviting me.

Adam: So one of the things we’re fascinated with on the show in general is the sort of historical current of narrative surrounding war and for lack of a better term, empire or imperialism, specifically the kind of moral narratives that we construct around those. And this episode specifically, we touch on the uses and misuses of protecting women or kind of quasi feminism. We see this obviously with the war in Afghanistan in effect, I think, I’m pretty sure that quote unquote “protecting women,” it’s more or less the only excuse that’s given anymore for why we’re there. Can we talk about the uses of this in both present terms in historical terms and how kind of evergreen it is?

Dr. Sumita Mukherjee

Sumita Mukherjee: Yeah, sure. Your point about protecting women in this being the sole justification for military interventions today is exactly paralleled with imperial interventions in the 19th century. So British imperialism, the interventions, the colonization of territories in Africa and Asia by British empire was fundamentally justified by this idea of a civilizing mission that the British were morally superior to other parts of the world. And fundamentally this came down to ideas about women both in Britain and in the so-called “Orient” in the East and the so-called “savage” African nations.

Adam: We saw this most profoundly, we discussed this a little bit earlier, in Egypt. There was a gentleman by the name of Lord Cromer who was a British general who said, quote, “The position of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan countries generally, is, therefore a fatal obstacle to the attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation.” And he specifically talked about the hijab and how oppressive it was to women. This was, this was the turn of the century, about 1901, 1902. Was this a common feature seen in other parts of British imperialism, namely, um, India, Pakistan, in what I guess what it is today in India and Pakistan?

Sumita Mukherjee: Yeah, so this whole idea of measuring civilizations by the status of women was something that was really prevalent in 19th century by a lot of political thinkers or people who associated with justified British imperial state, so Lord Cromer, who was Governor General in Egypt, which is mirroring the kind of establishment thinking about civilizations and statehood, and it was really easy for British imperialists to pick up on stereotypes that they had about the position of women in the Middle East, in Africa, in Indian subcontinent, and use that to justify their understandings of how they felt those civilizations were inferior. So the veil was something that was constantly brought up even in the 19th century, just as much as is today, whether it’s about women in the Middle East or women in what is now Pakistan and India and Bangladesh. And especially because in the 19th century the veil was some part of a wider social curtailing of women’s freedoms in some Islamic societies whereby, you might have heard of the Zenana? So there’s the separate spaces for women in the house and this whole idea that women were veiled, they were secluded, they didn’t have any freedoms were something that was constantly brought up by not only by British imperialists, but also women missionaries and other people invested in the British imperial project.

Nima: So something that I find really fascinating is the intersection between rapidly expanding British empire and then meanwhile the first wave feminism that was going on back in Britain and how, you know, the kind of suffragette movement was growing in England while at the same time there was kind of a missionary force in India. And so you know, this, this kind of woman’s empowerment used as both expanding freedoms and rights at home, but also then with this very colonial quote unquote “civilizing mission” abroad. Can you talk about kind of how those two things work together?

Sumita Mukherjee: Yeah, and it’s really interesting how closely aligned the first wave feminist movement is in Britain and America and Western Europe with an ongoing missionary sentiment. An idea of kind of civilizing women in the colonies. So what’s really crucial to understand is that while white American women and British women are campaigning for the vote in the late 19th and early 20th century, and although they were presenting themselves as liberal feminists, they had very conservative attitudes towards women in India and other parts of the empire and other parts of the world. And they didn’t always say that contradiction in their demands for greater fiscal freedom, getting the vote in their own states with an ongoing desire to control women in India and in Kenya and Egypt and Sudan.

Nima: Yeah. There’s this idea that bringing Christianity to the barbarians is this noble thing so that they know their place, you know, they know their role in society and that’s the kind of elevation and attainment of forward thinking. Modernity, really.

Sumita Mukherjee: Yeah and in the case of British suffrage campaigners these women who were campaigning to vote in Britain, they would argue that, so there’s so many contradictions in their arguments because they argued that by giving women the vote in Britain, they would actually have to shore up the empire and keep the empire going for longer. Because women had a crucial role in continuing this kind of civilizing role the empire had. They argued that they were the ones who closely allied with the missionary projects of setting up schools, trying to educate women, to get rid of the veil, for example, or to try and eradicate practices of child marriage and other kind of stereotypes they had about what was going on in the Indian subcontinent. And so fundamentally arguing, the majority of them were arguing that these Christian white British women were superior. They understood democracy better than women in other parts of the world. They understood how to kind of function better and by giving women the vote in Western countries, they would be able to look after and save these unfortunate women in other parts of the world. But at no point were they arguing really that those women should get the vote, that these women should be spearheading their own educational projects or ever actually talking to women in Egypt or India or China or wherever else they were kind of projecting their ideas.

Adam: One thing I want to be careful we don’t do, or rather than I don’t do, is to erase the very real organic feminism that was part of the anti-colonial process specifically in India. Can we talk about the role that feminists and specifically women in turn of the century India had and ultimately getting their independence from the British empire in the mid to late 1940s?

Sumita Mukherjee: Yeah, sure. What’s really interesting, I guess with this, if we go back to the 19th century idea of civilization being rooted in the position and status of women, this idea is actually taken up by anti-colonialists as well. And they understand that if they are to prove that they wish to be independent of British or other European colonial powers, they need to prove that women are able as well to function and participate in a new independent nation state. So you see women in India had and have been involved in politics for centuries. It wasn’t something that was new to either the 19th century or the 20th century. It had a long history of women being queens and princesses and ruling states. Women had been involved in military campaigns for centuries as well in India and so anti-colonialists were able to refer back to these histories on one side to argue that women had always been involved in the nation and to encourage a wider population en mass to embrace women and equality of women in setting up a new nation. But you also of course have examples of women themselves setting up political and social associations fundamental to International Congress, which was the main nationalist body that fought for independence in India. Women were leading that Congress. They were involved in strikes and marches and protests against imperial rule. Thousands of women were imprisoned as well during the 1930s and ’40s by the British imperial state because of their role in trying to challenge the current state.

Nima: Yeah I think something we’ve been discussing on this episode is all the recent press reporting on how women are now top CEOs of weapons contractors, how women hold the top spots at the CIA and how this has seen, or at least projected largely in our media and in our politics, as being signs of progress. That this is a very positive thing because obviously women have not traditionally been in rolls of such power in corporate America or elsewhere, and yet again, there’s this whole other side that is being completely omitted from the conversation, which is who’s on the other end of the bombs built by the companies run by these very, very powerful women. So where do you see that in historical precedent? How touting the accomplishments of women in one society and then really just omitting the voices of others?

Sumita Mukherjee: Yeah. I mean you see that in the examples I was giving with first wave feminists in Britain who were campaigning for suffrage and ignoring the plight of, Indian in empire, the ways in which, uh, women were fundamental to just maintaining and setting up the British empire. So through missionary activity, through critical roles as well, through philanthropic organizations.

Nima: Yeah, there’s a kind of constant propaganda you see when Western nations are going to war, namely the United States and the UK. All of these like propaganda posters urging women to like join the fight, right? To support the men in the battlefield by doing your part or, you know, join the women’s Army Corps, that kind of stuff to bolster, I guess the idea of the kind of leading edge of civilization on one side and that that is very empowering and I just feel like we’re seeing that again, it’s just not necessarily in the form of like, you know, old timey propaganda posters.

Sumita Mukherjee: Yeah, and I think the problem is that we are underestimating the societies that these Western powers are intervening in, whether now or historically on multiple levels. So we are reverting to stereotypes about these societies and women as kind of faceless victims who need to be saved or liberated. We also underestimate the role that women have in their societies. Insurgency themselves, guerilla fighting that women are involved in and have been involved in. You know, this kind of idea of a separation of gender roles and women as being this weaker sex is something that continues to dominate the rhetoric, which is just so problematic. As is problematic the idea that having a few female prime ministers or presidents or CEOs of large multinational conglomerates has fundamentally changed anything about gender dynamics and opportunities for women either in the West or in the countries that the West is intervening in.

Adam: Obviously people who are trying to work to protect women in a lot of these countries, especially those that have been subject to US occupation for years, I want to sort of talk about what the options are. Because in a lot of ways there isn’t really a ton of alternatives because when you live in a certain country especially, you see this a lot in Africa with the Gates Foundation, that these kind of imperial aligned or soft imperialism is sort of your only real alternative. And there’s a sort of infamous poster we talked about in Episode 8 where NATO was having it’s summit in 2012 in London and Amnesty International put up these posters of a young girl and two older women in Afghanistan sort of fully covered and it says, “Human Rights for Women and Girls in Afghanistan. NATO: Keep the Progress Going!” And this was, this was Amnesty International, right? This was ostensibly a human rights organization, effectively calling for NATO to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. To what extent can one sort of sympathize with people who are quote unquote, our “human rights concern,” that America may not be perfect, but it’s sort of the only game in town and was there a similar thread historically with the British that somehow there was actually some kind of organic saying that this was the only alternative to what they viewed as kind of a religious despotism?

Sumita Mukherjee: Hmm. Yeah I mean, I can empathize with folk who wish to be charitable, who have well meaning intentions behind trying to improve the lives of others because, you know, cause that’s a great noble intention. But the problem lies when those intentions are rooted in stereotypes.

Adam: Right.

Sumita Mukherjee: And being called, the stereotype of Africa as this monolithic homogenous country when it’s not even a country. And of course charities find it difficult to appeal to people so they have to use stereotype and stereotypical images. But when we are being drawn in by images of crying children or children who look emaciated when that perhaps is not, I’m not saying it’s not the reality, but when our level of knowledge is so limited then I think, I think there are issues. And I think that’s where you see those parallels between what’s going on in the 19th century to what’s going on now. If there is no attempt to listened to the, as a historian who works on empire and post-empire it’s something we talk about that as agency. If we don’t listen to, if we don’t give agency to people on the ground and listen to them and listen to their voices, then we are just perpetuating neo-colonial practices.

Nima: Yeah. I think that there’s also the idea of stereotypes on the, you know, the kind of imperial side as well. Right? So now that women hold these very powerful positions that is seen as kind of, you know, progress, period. Like that alone as if larger systems aren’t at play. As if these same people who are now at the top of the corporate ladder or the, you know, government surveillance ladder, as if they haven’t been there the whole time. As if they just walked in from the street and they’re like, now like a woman’s in charge, as if, as if that somehow changes the overall structure.

Sumita Mukherjee: Right. Yeah. And I think as myself, someone who’s based in the UK, in Britain, we’re used to being really conscious of trying to stop othering other parts of the world and the activities that are going on in other parts of the world. So the idea of wanting liberty is not something that is unique or invented by Westerners. The idea of women’s equality is not something that had to be taught to young girls and women in the Sudan or in India. This is something that human beings, these kind of ideas of humanity are ideas that all humans can understand and can put forward. So perhaps sometimes yes, the organizational interventions that come with cash and money are something that some groups in the less developed world have less access to, but the ideas are not something that needs to be imposed.

Nima: You mean Howard Dean doesn’t know better than native societies that he’s really intent on keeping US troops in?

Sumita Mukherjee: Right. Exactly.

Nima: Shocking.

Sumita Mukherjee: (Laughs.) Yes. Yes.

Adam: Before we let you go, is there anything that you want to push? You got a book or anything coming out or a website or?

Sumita Mukherjee: So I have a book that came out in 2018 called Indian Suffragettes and is very much about this relationship that Indian campaigners for the vote had with Western campaigners and really pushing the idea that suffrage is not an idea that was invented by British or American women and that Indian women themselves are very much at the forefront of global struggles for women’s equality.

Adam: Well that contradicts what that movie told me, which is that only white women were involved. Suffragette.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Sumita Mukherjee: (Laughs.)

Adam: Well, thank you so much for coming on. This was extremely enlightening.

Nima: Yeah, this has been great. Dr. Sumita Mukherjee, a Senior Lecturer in history at the University of Bristol and author of Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Sumita Mukherjee: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me on.


Adam: I think that was a theme in an of itself that could have been worth the whole show. We could have kept going on and on, but we wanted to sort of have one definitive episode.

Nima: Yes. So, this was kind of an uber-episode, although we reserve the right to also revisit these topics because they warrant a lot more investigation.

Adam: Yeah, totally. So we’ll probably revisit something similar at some point, but I think this about wraps it up.

Nima: Yeah. So thank you everyone for joining us this week on Citations Needed. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and of course please do, if you can, if you would like to support the show, do so through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. Your help is so appreciated and wherever you happen to listen to this show, if you could rate it or write a review, that is also incredibly helpful to us. So thank you everyone who has done that already and we hope that more people do it because it’s really great and it keeps us going.

Adam: Yeah, rating and reviews apparently help a lot, so we really appreciate that. And of course you can always go to Patreon and support us. We are needy and in need of validation.

Nima: (Chuckles.) And as always a very extra special shout out goes to our critical level supporters on Patreon. I will make one quick note which is that we are on Spotify now, so please, if you want to listen to us on Spotify, you can do that. So thanks for pushing us there.

Adam: Please upload to Spotify’s plan worked brilliantly.

Nima: It worked. It worked out. Yours can too. Become a critic level supporter and tell us to do stuff because we probably will.

Adam: We’re easily corruptible.

Nima: That will do it for this week of Citations Needed. Thank you again for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Research and script support by Sarah Lazare and Dean Spade. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music, as always, is by Grandaddy. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, February 6, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.