Gender, war, and male disadvantage

By Michael Flood and David Duriesmith[1]

Men’s rights advocates (MRAs) complain that war is an important site of male disadvantage. They describe the higher rates of sex selective conscription­­ and the large numbers of deaths and injuries among male soldiers as a powerful example of how men are disadvantaged relative to women. This claim is flawed.

Yes, large numbers of men and boys are killed and injured in war. They are sent to war largely by other men. Wars are supported more by men than women. And traditional masculinity has been central to justifications for war. It is men, not women, who have excluded women from joining men in military and combat roles. Feminist women and women’s movements have played key roles in challenging war and militarism. Finally, the overall impacts of war and conflict and their aftermath are greater for women than men.

In more detail:

1.     Men and boys overwhelmingly are sent off to war by other men, not by women, particularly as the vast majority of heads of state, political leaders, and military leaders are male. Legislatures with higher proportions of women are less likely to resolve disputes using military violence.

  • States with a lower percentage of women in parliament are significantly more likely to resolve international disputes through war (Caprioli 2000). A decrease of 5% in women’s participation in parliament makes a state almost five times as likely to resolve disputes using military violence.
  • Similar findings come from a more recent study of 22 established democracies between 1970 and 2000. Increases in women’s legislative representation were associated with decreases in conflict behavior and defense spending, while the presence of women executives increases both (Koch & Fulton, 2011).
  • Societies which have had women’s suffrage (voting rights) for twice as long are almost five times more likely to resolve internationally disputes peacefully (Caprioli 2000). Female political empowerment is associated with greater civil peace, shaped by both women’s political participation and cultures supportive of this (Dahlum & Wig, 2020).
  • National legislatures with higher proportions of female representatives also have longer periods of peace after a negotiated settlement, as a study of settlements over 1946 to 2011 found. Greater female representation reduces the risk of conflict recurrence, first, by prioritising social welfare spending over military spending and second, by improving public perceptions of good governance and the credibility of political elites (Shair-Rosenfield & Wood, 2017).
  • However, female political leaders are as likely as male leaders, in general, to go to war. Female heads of state statistically are as likely as male heads of state to go to war (Caprioli 2000). In fact, a study of kings and queens in European politics over 1480-1913 found that polities led by queens were more likely than those led by kings to engage in war (Dube & Harish 2020).

2.     More generally, men are more enthusiastic supporters of war and militarism than women.

  • There is a gender gap in attitudes to war: women’s support for war is consistently lower than men’s, particularly when comparing women’s and men’s attitudes towards particular wars or military involvements (Brooks & Valentino, 2011; Eichenberg, 2003, 2007; Wilcox, Hewitt, & Allsop, 1996).
  • In fact, the difference in men’s and women’s preferences over war is the “largest and most consistent policy gender gap in public opinion polling” (Brooks & Valentino, 2011, p. 270).
  • However, women are more likely to approve of wars when they are UN-approved or humanitarian (Brooks & Valentino, 2011).
  • More recent studies, such as an examination of American public opinion on the use of military force over 1982–2013, continue to find that men’s support for the use of military force consistently is higher than women’s (Eichenberg, 2016). As this study notes, “women on average show less support for using military force for any purpose, any type of military action, in every historical episode” (Eichenberg, 2016, p. 147).

3.     Traditional masculinity is implicated in political support for and involvements in war and conflict:

  • Those leaders and groups that are most enthusiastic about sending men off to war also are the most strongly supportive of traditional, patriarchal masculinity. Pro-war political leaders are more likely than other leaders also to subscribe to traditional gender ideologies, in which men’s ‘natural’ roles are seen as in part to dominate and defend using aggression (Maruska, 2009; Sjoberg, 2013).
  • Male political leaders draw explicitly on themes of masculinity in justifying and framing military involvement or their work more generally, as such figures as George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin have done (Coe, Domke, Bagley, Cunningham, & Van Leuven, 2007; Ducat, 2005; Riabov & Riabova, 2014).
  • More widely, there are intimate links between the histories of war and militarism and the histories of masculinity (Dudink, Hagemann, & Tosh, 2004; Duriesmith, 2016).
  • Military organizations consistently and intentionally draw on patriarchal notions of masculinity to convince men to fight and take risks in conflict. Within military organizations the valorization of risk taking as a masculine behavior is a cause of significant harm for recruits (Barrett, 1996). Feminists have consistently challenged societal attitudes that demand young men’s military service to prove they are ‘real men’ (Barry, 2010).
  • Societies that are statistically less gender equitable are significantly more likely to be affected by civil war and to resolve international disagreements with violence (Caprioli, 2005). Traditional patriarchal notions of masculinity that support other forms of violence (such as intimate partner violence) are causally implicated in the most destructive practices of war which cause the most harm to men and women (Cockburn, 2004, 2010).
  • Patriarchal values also can drive men’s voluntary participation in armed conflict. A study in the conflict-affected southern provinces of Thailand found that men with more patriarchal values are more prone to volunteer for paramilitary service than other men (Bjarnegård, Engvall, Jitpiromsri, & Melander, 2023).

4.     It is men, not women, who have excluded women from military roles.

  • Historically, women have been excluded from military and combat roles, by the male-dominated hierarchies of military institutions and political leaders (Goldstein, 2001; MacKenzie, 2015).
  • Male soldiers and military personnel themselves often have been hostile to women’s participation in the military (Mankayi, 2006; Sasson-Levy, 2011). For example, during World War II, some US female pilots reported that male peers would put sugar or rags in their engines, put grass in their tanks or acid in their parachutes, or slash their tires.
  • Feminists often have pushed for women to be allowed to participate in combat. Indeed, in the wake of four decades of feminism, there is growing momentum to foster women’s inclusion and participation in the military, including in combat roles (Gustavsen, 2013; Sasson-Levy & Amram-Katz, 2007).

5.     Feminist women and women’s movements have played key roles in challenging war and militarism in general (Enloe, 2000).

  • Yes, large numbers of men and boys are killed and injured in war, and feminists have been at the forefront of efforts to lesson or prevent the horrors of war.
  • Peace and anti-war activism has been a significant focus of feminist efforts over the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century (Leitz & Meyer, 2017). There are long histories of feminist advocacy against militarism, including by organisations such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in 1915.
  • Feminist advocates and organisations have played significant roles in peace and anti-war activism, as Cynthia Cockburn notes in this encyclopedia entry. (Also see entries on the history of women’s peace movements and women’s peace organisations.)
  • Contemporary feminist groups play important roles for example in supporting male conscientious objectors (Kwon, 2012).
  • (In contrast, men’s rights activists or MRAs have had no significant involvement in anti-war or anti-militarism activism. MRAs have significant overlaps with right-wing and alt-right groups, movements, and ideologies that are pro-military and bloodthirsty, and far more comfortable than feminism with war and military action. That is, MRAs are allied with and supportive of groups and political parties that are happy to send large numbers of men (and women) to their deaths.)

6.     War is an important setting for male injury and death, as US data shows (DeBruyne & Leland, 2015). But it is also an important setting for injuries and deaths among women (and children) (Jansen, 2006). As Jansen argues,

“women are much more vulnerable today than in the past because recent wars have had a higher rate of civilian casualties; for example, in World War I, 15% of the casualties were suffered by civilians, compared with 65% in World War II and 90% in recent wars, which have mainly affected women and children (Okazawa-Rey, 2002; UN, 2001; Waldman, 2005). Women are not just caught in cross-fires but are increasingly victims of violence in war situations. There are widespread atrocities; in war, women’s bodies become a battleground – rapes, forced pregnancies, kidnappings, and sexual servitude are common (Rehn & Sirleaf, 2002; Wood, 2004).” (Jansen, 2006)

Because most combatants in armed conflicts in wars are men, males also the major direct victims of military operations (Plümper & Neumayer, 2006). However, there is evidence that the *overall impacts* of war and conflict and their aftermath are spread more evenly between men and women. Indeed, some studies find that the impacts on health and wellbeing (in terms of both illness and death) of war and civil conflict are greater for women than men;

  • An analysis of the effects of civil conflict on post-war public health finds that they are greater for women and children than for men (Ghobarah, Huth, & Russett, 2004). As they note, “We estimate that the additional burden of death and disability incurred in 1999 alone, from the indirect and lingering effects of civil wars in the years 1991–1997, was nearly double the number incurred directly and immediately from all wars in 1999. This impact works its way through specific diseases and conditions, and disproportionately affects women and children.”
  • Armed conflict has a greater impact on female life expectancy than male life expectancy, with inter-state and civil wars affecting women more adversely than men over the entire conflict period (Plümper & Neumayer, 2006).
  • A recent global analysis of war-related deaths finds, “men are more likely to die during conflicts, whereas women die more often of indirect causes after the conflict is over” (Ormhaug, Meier, & Hernes, 2009).
    • Focusing on deaths, wars generate deaths both in battle and in other situations caused by the war, including through criminal and unorganised violence and wars’ impacts on public health such as disease and malnutrition (Ormhaug, Meier, & Hernes, 2009, p. 7).
    • Battle deaths can be a small proportion of the total deaths caused by war. For example, focusing on a series of sub-Saharan African conflicts over the 1960s to 2002, battle deaths accounted for between 2% and 29% of all war deaths (Ormhaug, Meier, & Hernes, 2009, p. 8).
    • There is limited data that disaggregates war-related deaths by gender. This review notes that some studies find higher rates of deaths among males, while others find higher rates of deaths among females (Ormhaug, Meier, & Hernes, 2009).
    • This review concludes, “in ongoing wars which occur most often in developing countries, men die more frequently than women in direct armed conflicts, while more women than men die in post-conflict situations of the indirect causes of war” (Ormhaug, Meier, & Hernes, 2009, p. 23).

Note: Also see the Men's Bibliography references on gender, war, and militarism, including its section on men, masculinity, and war, available here:

The White Feather campaign

Men’s rights advocates (MRAs) like to point to the White Feather campaign to counter the point that support and advocacy in favour of war and militarism has come more from men than women.

The White Feather campaign was begun by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald, a strong advocate of conscription who wanted to increase the number of those enlisting in the armed forces. In 1914 he organised a group of thirty women in his home town of Folkestone to hand out white feathers to any men that were not in uniform (Wikipedia). The campaign then spread to other parts of Britain.

Yes, the White Feather campaign is an example of a campaign that, while not started by women, was driven by women. At the time, it represented a split between different suffrage groups. Many pacifist feminists and organisations such as the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom opposed this campaign, while other suffrage organisations such as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) rejected pacifism (Gullace, 2014).

The existence of the White Feather campaign does not significantly undermine the points made in this article, as:

  • At the time, there were women’s and feminist groups both supportive of and critical of militarism and conscription;
  • The history of this early twentieth-century campaign is dwarfed by the far larger and longer history of feminist pacifism;
  • It remains true that women’s support for war and conscription is lower than men’s, as documented above.

References cited

Barrett, F. J. (1996). The organizational construction of hegemonic masculinity: The case of the US Navy. Gender, Work & Organization, 3(3), 129-142.

Barry, K. (2010). Unmaking War, Remaking Men: How Empathy can Reshape our politics, our soldiers and ourselves: Spinifex Press Melbourne.

Bjarnegård, E., Engvall, A., Jitpiromsri, S., & Melander, E. (2023). Armed Violence and Patriarchal Values: A Survey of Young Men in Thailand and Their Military Experiences. American Political Science Review, 117(2), 439-453.

Brooks, D. J., & Valentino, B. A. (2011). A war of one's own: Understanding the gender gap in support for war. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(2), 270-286.

Caprioli, M. (2005). Primed for violence: The role of gender inequality in predicting internal conflict. International Studies Quarterly, 49(2), 161-178.

Cockburn, C. (2004). The continuum of violence: A gender perspective on war and peace Sites of Violence: Gender and Conflict Zones (pp. 24-44): University of California Press.

Cockburn, C. (2010). Gender relations as causal in militarization and war: A feminist standpoint. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 12(2), 139-157.

Coe, K., Domke, D., Bagley, M. M., Cunningham, S., & Van Leuven, N. (2007). Masculinity as Political Strategy: George W. Bush, the “War on Terrorism,” and an Echoing Press. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 29(1), 31-55. doi:10.1300/J501v29n01_03

Dahlum, S., & Wig, T. (2020). Peace above the glass ceiling: The historical relationship between female political empowerment and civil conflict. International Studies Quarterly, 64(4), 879-893.

DeBruyne, N. F., & Leland, A. (2015). American war and military operations casualties: Lists and statistics.

Dube, O., & Harish, S. P. (2020). Queens. Journal of Political Economy, 128(7), 2579-2652.

Ducat, S. (2005). The wimp factor: Gender gaps, holy wars, and the politics of anxious masculinity: Beacon Press.

Dudink, S., Hagemann, K., & Tosh, J. (2004). Masculinities in politics and war: Gendering modern history: Manchester University Press.

Duriesmith, D. (2016). Masculinity and New War: The Gendered Dynamics of Contemporary Armed Conflict: Taylor & Francis.

Eichenberg, R. C. (2003). Gender differences in public attitudes toward the use of force by the United States, 1990–2003. International Security, 28(1), 110-141.

Eichenberg, R. C. (2007). Gender differences in support for the use of military force in cross-national perspective: The war system, modernization, and the universal logics of military action.

Eichenberg, R. C. (2016). Gender difference in American public opinion on the use of military force, 1982–2013. International Studies Quarterly, 60(1), 138-148.

Enloe, C. (2000). Maneuvers: The international politics of militarizing women's lives: Univ of California Press.

Ghobarah, H. A., Huth, P., & Russett, B. (2004). The post-war public health effects of civil conflict. Social Science & Medicine, 59(4), 869-884. doi:

Goldstein, J. S. (2001). War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice-Versa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gullace, N. F. (2014). The 'White Feather Girls': Women's Militarism in the UK. Open Democracy.

Gustavsen, E. (2013). Equal treatment or equal opportunity? Male attitudes towards women in the Norwegian and US armed forces. Acta Sociologica, 56(4), 361-374.

Jansen, G. G. (2006). Gender and War. Affilia, 21(2), 134-145. doi:doi:10.1177/0886109905285760

Koch, M. T., & Fulton, S. A. (2011). In the defense of women: Gender, office holding, and national security policy in established democracies. The Journal of Politics, 73(1), 1-16.

Kwon, I. (2012). Gender, Feminism and Masculinity in Anti-Militarism. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 15(2), 213-233. doi:10.1080/14616742.2012.724209

Leitz, L. A., & Meyer, D. S. (2017). Gendered Activism and Outcomes: Women in the Peace Movement. In H. J. McCammon, V. Taylor, J. Reger, & R. L. Einwohner (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of U.S. Women's Social Movement Activism: Oxford.

MacKenzie, M. (2015). Beyond the band of brothers: the US military and the myth that women can't fight: Cambridge University Press.

Mankayi, N. (2006). Male constructions and resistance to women in the military. Scientia Militaria: South African Journal of Military Studies, 34(2).

Maruska, J. H. (2009). When are states hypermasculine? In L. Sjoberg (Ed.), Gender and International Security: Feminist Perspectives (pp. 235-255): Routledge.

Ormhaug, C., Meier, P., & Hernes, H. (2009). Armed conflict deaths disaggregated by gender. PRIO Paper, 23.

Plümper, T., & Neumayer, E. (2006). The unequal burden of war: The effect of armed conflict on the gender gap in life expectancy. International organization, 60(3), 723-754.

Riabov, O., & Riabova, T. (2014). The remasculinization of Russia? Gender, nationalism, and the legitimation of power under Vladimir Putin. Problems of Post-communism, 61(2), 23-35.

Sasson-Levy, O. (2011). The military in a globalized environment: Perpetuating an ‘extremely gendered’organization. Handbook of gender, work and organization, 391-411.

Sasson-Levy, O., & Amram-Katz, S. (2007). Gender integration in Israeli officer training: Degendering and regendering the military. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 33(1), 105-133.

Shair-Rosenfield, S., & Wood, R. M. (2017). Governing well after war: How improving female representation prolongs post-conflict peace. The Journal of Politics, 79(3), 995-1009.

Sjoberg, L. (2013). Gendering global conflict: toward a feminist theory of war: Columbia University Press.

Wilcox, C., Hewitt, L., & Allsop, D. (1996). The gender gap in attitudes toward the Gulf War: A cross-national perspective. Journal of Peace Research, 33(1), 67-82.



[1] Dr Michael Flood is an Associate Professor at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Dr David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the University of Queensland (UQ).