"Where are the women?": An interview with Cynthia Enloe

I began to read feminist literature — real, radical feminist literature — around 2014, and found it transformative. Cynthia Enloe is one of my favourite feminist authors, because reading her book Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics broadened my horizons all over again. Cynthia’s work looks at the sexual politics of everything from agriculture to militarism to high finance and sweatshop labour, and in the process offers readers new insight and clarity with which to look at the world.

In February, I sent Cynthia a few questions by e-mail, which she managed to answer whilst travelling between the United States and Iceland, where she teaches for one week per year. I hope the interview sparks interest in Cynthia’s work.

What are some of the key questions you encourage students to ask more often, and what sort of connections do you encourage them to make and explore, in order to develop a broader analysis?

The challenging in classrooms is always in at least two directions, my trying to challenge students, but also them challenging me!

I’m always trying to excite students to employ their feminist curiosity — about everything.

For instance, as students are developing their new skills for doing gender analysis, one of the projects I ask them to set for themselves is to try doing a thorough gender analysis of their own extended families — over at least two, maybe three generations: who does what chores? Who is admired for doing what? Who has the greatest say in what sorts of family decisions? Who earns what money? Who travels what distances? Whose friendships matter most to each parent or to each older adult? Whose standards of success carry the most weight for each person in the family? Who votes which way? Who leads any conversations about politics? What are the big areas of silence in the family? What in any of these things has changed from generation to generation? What ideas or behaviors cause the most tension in the family? Why?

Then add to these: in what ways does it matter to any of these questions what country you and your family members have been living in? And what has been the ethnic/racial/class status your family has occupied in that country? And does your current generation’s particular historical moment in that country matter? How so?

The revelations that students come up with are wonderful.

When learning skills of gender analysis one should not start with the World Bank. One should try investigating them out close to home.

The first book of yours that I read was Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, published in 1990. This book was as eye-opening for me as the subtitle promises. Could you explain the work you were doing before you wrote Bananas, and how it changed by the time you published this book?

I began thinking about the question “Where are women in the international politics of food, tourism, nationalist movements, military bases, domestic work and diplomacy?” in the mid-1980s. That question sparked my doing the research that finally became the first edition of Bananas, Beaches and Bases.

What I think ignited my curiosity about these four areas then was what I had learned — all so new to me! — when I had asked where women — all sorts of women, from different countries, classes, ethnic groups — were in the waging of wars. That was the puzzle that led me to research and write Does Khaki Become You? in the early 1980s (I returned again to these questions when I wrote Maneuvers, published in 2000).

So, for several years I’d already begun asking myself (and anyone who would help me figure it out!) this core question – “Where are the women?” – before I launched the Bananas book project. What was new for me in the late 1980s, I think, was asking this same question of all sorts of areas of work, starting with who was doing what sorts of work on banana plantations.

When I returned more recently to all these questions as I researched and wrote the new edition of Bananas, Beaches and Bases (2014), I had lots of new information and new ideas to tackle. That was great.

In Does Khaki Become You, you look at just how carefully the military needs to cultivate and manage its image and relationship with women and women’s labour, so that it can be seen as quintessentially male and masculine, but still civil and heterosexual.

In Bananas, you talk about how masculinity even influences the division of labour by sex in agriculture – banana plantations are worked on by men whose work as a “banana man” can become a source of pride; tea is mainly harvested by women.

I also admired how in Seriously! you looked at how masculinity operates in the finance sector and contributed to the global financial crisis of 2008. You explore masculinity and how it influences institutional behaviours in a way that is grounded and clarifying.

What are you are investigating in your work at the moment?

I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed reading the chapters in Seriously! about masculinities in banking, finance and austerity politics. I especially liked researching and writing those chapters because it was so new to me.

And I liked thinking about banking masculinities — and their political consequences — across several institutions and across several countries.

I always try to pose my feminist questions in a way that never assumes that any one country’s gendered dynamics or gendered experiences are the norm.

Right now I am in the midst of writing an article about wartime women nurses as political thinkers. I first began investigating women as nurses in wars back in the 1980s, but not as people who developed their own analyses of war, of patriotism, of manliness, of women’s capacities.

It’s always fun to return to a question you posed earlier, but with a new approach, recognizing the questions you back then forgot to ask! In this instance, I’m trying to push the envelope as to what “counts” as political thinking.

You dedicated your last book, The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy, to three women, including Teresia Teaiwa, who was a New Zealand academic who examined militarism in the Pacific. What are some of the things that you learned from, or discussed with, Teresia?

Teresia Teaiwa taught me so much about the varied levels and diverse genderings of militarized politics in the Pacific. She taught me to pay close attention, for instance, to Fijian feminists as they responded to and challenged the Fijian military’s anti-constitutional coups. She made sure I paid attention to Guam too, and to Guam’s women anti-bases activists.

Although Teresia was a sharp critic of the present militarization of Pacific peoples, she never demonized women who decided to join a military. Instead, she listened carefully to each of them, to understand their own assessments of career, of family, of marriage.

Teresia taught me to avoid any simplistic generalizations about gender politics in the South Pacific – for example, Samoan women and Tongan woman have had different histories, experience different current pressures.

I am interested in asking you about militarism and repression in New Zealand. Part of the reason is that feminists here – there are very few – are having to put up a ginormous fight in order to have a voice at all. On issues like prostitution and sex self-identification, there is a total media lockdown, and politicians actively intimidate women out of the conversation on sex self-identification laws.

I have had many conversations to try to understand why the New Zealand context is so repressive. Since New Zealand has a population of less than five million, “small town mentality” is the standard interpretation.

But I have also interviewed Gudrun Jonsdottir in Iceland – she attributes the radicalism and strength of the Icelandic women’s movement partly to Iceland’s small population.

The fact that New Zealand was one of the first nations to adopt neoliberal economic policies, which we did in 1984, is also a common explanation – one commentator has called this country “Chile without the gun.” I’ve also found the book by Jock Phillips, A Man’s Country, helpful.

How would you go about interpreting the level of complacency and repression here in New Zealand? What questions would you ask, in our to determine the reasons for it?

Comparing women’s movements and their impacts on national policies in two seemingly similar countries — for instance, New Zealand and Iceland (where I spend a week each year teaching) — can be clarifying. I don’t think smallness by itself is the key explanation for what now seem major differences in either feminists’ influence or levels of militarization: think of all the differences among, say, Fiji, Honduras, Costa Rica, Finland. It is worth noticing that New Zealand women were the first in the world to win the vote on the same terms as men. Icelandic women took another 20 years to win the vote — in 1915.

Icelanders’ decision not to have a military seems to at least partly to have come out of their never being a conquering settler community. When the first Norwegians arrived there were no indigenous people in Iceland (due to its extremely harsh climate). This may have altered their national narrative about themselves today. It’s only outsiders who portray Nordic Vikings as warriors. Icelanders see their ancestors as hardy farmers and fishing people.

Significant numbers (not all?) of New Zealand government officials’ and MPs’ eagerness to stay close to an American militarized alliance may have to do with the current interlocking narratives of brave masculinities and portrayals of external threats. Those interlocking are always worth tracking.

I think that it is also important not to let fade from popular and official sight New Zealanders’ instances of anti-militaristic choices. The most prominent was under the country’s first woman prime minister, Helen Clark, the refusal to allow US navy ships to come into NZ ports if they would not spell out whether they were carrying nuclear weapons. This was a major decision. New Zealand was the only US ally to insist on this.

It is crucial for the present day gendering of New Zealand politics that these anti-militaristic and patriarchy-challenging national decisions are not forgotten. When they are forgotten, it is easier to persuade people now that the present militaristic policies are simply “inevitable.”

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