Men/women - War/peace: A systems approach

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D. & Chellis Glendinning

Originally published in Mark Macy (Ed.), (1987). Solutions for a troubled world (pp. 107-121). Boulder, CO: Earthview Press,
Copyrights, Earthview Press ~ Posted by permission of M. Macy and Earthview Press


A Note:
The paper below was published in 1987, before the two Gulf/Iraq Wars. The status and role of women in the military has changed dramatically since that time. In another manifestation of equal rights and equal opportunities, these days, like their male counterparts, women soldiers come back in body bags. For an updated discussion on gender and war you can review Joshua Goldstein’s book War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa (2001, Cambridge University Press) at



“Baby is Born!” This was the cable the Manhattan Project sent to President Truman to report the first atom bomb test.

The revealing Bikini bathing suit was named for the Pacific islands where nuclear testing took place.

We say: “All’s fair in love and war.”

Men tell “war stories” about their “conquests over” women.

Connections between gender and war-making lie deep within the modern psyche.

Most of us are acquainted with the age-old battle between the sexes, which is based on a perception of rigid polarization of women and men. This polarization is also the main quality defining warfare.

While in everyday life men and women are split off from each other and from crucial aspects of themselves, war is the ultimate splitting of human from human. War also separates the population along sex lines, and in that respect it resembles childbirth. In war, women are traditionally excluded from the military; in birthing, men were until recently excluded from the birthrooms. Also, to make nuclear war possible, our society splits the most fundamental material of existence – the atom – and so, as Albert Einstein predicted, “we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” The nuclear threat brings urgency to the way we view warmaking, and the double-edged pain of sexism brings urgency to the way we view women and men. For survival, healing the splits is required. (Glendinning, 1987)

The authors of this chapter bring humility to this task. We also bring hope. Our subject is the role of gender in warmaking and its potential impact on peacemaking. It is how, in the Nuclear Age, women and men can become participants in rites of passage towards the creation of more whole human beings and a more whole world order. As psychologists interested in social change, we take a systems approach. We attempt to understand our subject by identifying its many facets, their interrelationships, and the totality they form.

A False Belief: Men Fight, Women Love
To begin, if we look at observable actions and interactions of men and women, we see that in wartime men are mobilized toward the front line and perceived as the warriors, aggressors and protectors. Women stay home. They are seen as the peace-loving, the passive, the protected. Consistent with this split is a myth, or collectively held belief, that war is a male institution that holds no appeal to women. Men assume the role of “the warrior,” while to women falls the role of “the beautiful soul” (Zur, 1985).

Myths, as portrayed in literature, film, fairy tales, science, and everyday language and imagery, compel respect not necessarily for their truth, but because those who believe in them need them. Myths lay the basis for a society’s perception of itself and its members; sense of identity. They also reflect a set of attitudes that, in the words of Joseph Campbell (1980), are “behavior perpetuators.” Myths about war perpetuate warfare and as such, merit our special attention, especially in the face of nuclear holocaust (Harman, 1984; Zur, 1986A). Myths that men favor war while women are inherently peaceful reflect a dangerous and, as the reader will see, untrue split that keeps us from addressing the issues of gender imbalance and warfare with a fuller understanding.

It was personal experience that inspired Zur’s research on aspects of the relationship between men, women and war. From a recent paper:

“In the 1973 War in the Middle East I served as a Lieutenant in a trained paratroopers’ unit. We were kept at the rear, far from action, for the first part of the war. To my surprise, I found that most of the seasoned paratroopers in my unit devised any possible strategy to secure service at the front. When I questioned their motives, I discovered that their desire to return home to their wives and sweethearts with a glorious or grisly war story outweighed the fear of injury and high probability of death. I realized the incredible power of the women waiting at home on the soldiers at the front. Ultimately, it became obvious to me that the noncombatants, the protected, are an invisible but potent force at the front (Zur, 1986A).”

A similar systems approach has been used by psychologists who study and intervene in cases of girls sexually abused by their fathers. Aggressor, victim and passive bystander each play a part. Without assigning blame to the girl-victim or the mother-bystander, diffusing responsibility of the abuser or denying the hierarchical power structure of the family, these therapists also explore the role of the mother who keeps her passive position, often denying reality for years.

When this systems approach is carried over to the context of war, we see that the role of the protector does not exist in a vacuum. A protector implies a protected person, and both of them rely on real and/or projected threats from the outside for role definition and identity formation (Stiehm, 1982).

In the case of nations, the protector is the military, an institution from which women are traditionally excluded. Men in political positions are the ones who usually define threats to the nation, who may in their own perceived interest exaggerate its potency, and whose exaggeration may provoke additional threats, further endangering both themselves and their protectees. Also, those who are protected often use the threat to test the protector and to enhance a real sense of personal safety.

Boys Play to Win, Girls Play to Play
The relationship among men, warriorship and war is complex. Regardless of innate differences between males and females, boys are socialized differently from girls. Qualities like assertiveness, courage to take physical risks, aggressiveness and lack of demonstrated emotions are encouraged so that men are set up to become “all they can be” – soldiers.

Differences are also initiated at a level deeper than socialization. Recent works by Nancy Chodorow (1978), Carol Gilligan (1982) and Dorothy Dinnerstein (1976) suggest that child-rearing structures in our culture produce differing perceptions of survival in make and female children – therefore differing personalities. These theories stress the impact of nuclear families wherein mothers are the primary caretakers and fathers the primary breadwinners, unavailable emotionally or physically to the child.

According to Chodorow’s theory, in order to develop a health gender identity, the male child must make a dramatic break with his primary love object and the person he depends on for physical and psychological survival – the mother. The problem begins when no adult male is present on a daily basis to turn to. Male development, then, is based on rejection of the female and everything associated with her, and then striving to relate to and identify with a distant, separate figure who lives in a world of rationality and rules (Chodorow, 1978).

In her studies of male and female moral development Gilligan (1982) demonstrates these same insights from the point of view of social perception. In this culture a male’s sense of morality is based on impersonal and hierarchical definitions of what is right, and these are identified as the correct and most highly evolved ones.

Boys’ games further illuminate this development. Games like basketball, football, racing and poker emphasize competing to win – to separate oneself out – and competing within the boundaries of set rules. If the rules don’t succeed at containing the game, change the rules. If changes can’t be negotiated or don’t work, win by might.

Unlike boys, girls do not have to rupture with the primary love object and caretaker in order to develop a healthy gender identity. They can maintain the bond with Mother throughout their lives. A female sense of personal survival, then, is based on connection, relationship and communication. Women grow to have a fluid sense of boundaries and develop a relational sense of self. No attempt is make to separate oneself out, individuate or establish ego boundaries (Chodorow, 1978).

Gilligan carries these insights into the social realm. She finds that when judged by accepted male standards of moral development, females score “deficient.” Yet she shows that females are indeed not deficient, but rather live by a different sense of morality. Women of all ages and backgrounds live in a world of relationship and social relativity, a world where awareness of the connection between people gives rise to a sense of responsibility for one another; where belief in communication is the primary mode of conflict resolution (Gilligan, 1982).

Lawrence Kohlberg (1969) observes that traditional girls’ games like hopscotch, jump rope and jacks are turn-taking games in which competition is indirect and one person’s winning does not depend on another’s losing. Plus, when a quarrel breaks out – and, says Glendinning, I remember this from my childhood – girls tend to end the game rather than battle it out. As Gilligan (1982) claims, they subordinate “the continuation of the game to the continuation of the relationship.”

Women’s Role in Warmaking: Supporters and Victims
Unlike the role of men during war, which is clear and apparent, the full role of women has not always been acknowledged. While men are a t the front line, women are the protected at home, but they are also the soldier at the home front. They are the Rosie-the-Riveters working in wartime industry; the Florence Nightingales healing the wounded; the worried mothers, proud sweethearts and acclaimed widows. They take care of all the other noncombatants, and they participate in many operations of defense. Fulfilling these roles is an inherent and necessary part of the war effort. It is what enables the soldiers to carry out their complementary roles.

In recent research Zur (1986B) revealed that indeed women support warmaking, but for different reasons than men. While men favor war for abstract reasons – for defense of “freedom” and to protect allies with whom one has formal treaties – women support war when an appeal is make based on empathy for oppressed and vulnerable human beings. They also relate more easily to the dynamics of group cohesion and intensification of community during war as it is consistent with their psychological makeup. For example, women responded more favorably than men to such Likert-type items as:

  • Aiding an attacked ally justifies war.
  • One of the benefits of war is that it intensifies connections among civilians.
  • Any country that violates the rights of innocent children should be invaded.

One of Zur’s conclusions: women are not just the passive “beautiful souls” our myths describe them to be. They participate in war activities in numerous capacities, and they cooperate, support warmaking, and collude in it, albeit in different ways and for different reasons than men.

Women’s relationship to war, however, is more complex. They are also its victims. On the other side of the proud mothers and enthusiastic workers lie the women who, as a class, never make the actual decision to wage war, but whose loss of father, husband, brother, son and lover always means devastating personal grief. For many women, this loss of relation and loved one also spells economic hardship for the rest of their lives. Second, women are the target of dehumanization in wartime pornography. Degrading pinups that reduce women to sexual objects are the constant companion of the troops in their barracks, planes and submarines. Dancing, singing women entertain soldiers at the front. Third, the vicious and violent rape of women is a universal and accepted part of men’s violence in warring (Brownmiller, 1976). Finally, women are the victims of modern warfare in that the battlefields, which used to be far from the kitchens and marketplaces of society, are now anywhere that a long-range missile and its nuclear warhead can reach. Today all the world, and all the human beings in it, are the battlefield too.

The question then arises: How can women be both active supporters – nurses, typists and proud mothers, making war in an interactive dynamic with male warriors – and also victims of the universal dehumanization, rape and intimidation that men enact in war?

Another question arises: How can men be both heroic soldiers, fighting for homeland, family and the women back home, and also bullies committing insensitive and violent acts against women?

The Systems Approach
The contradictions inherent in these questions bring us to search for a bigger perspective. At this point a systems approach is required that includes not just observable actions and interaction of different sectors of society or the myths that determine and give meaning to behavior patters. We need a system that includes the overall psychological, cultural and social context that surrounds and often determines those actions, interactions and myths.

We live in a society that is founded upon myths and institutions that value and carry forth what has been defined as the “male principle,” without benefit of the balancing effect of “feminine” values. Barbara Zanotti (1979) describes this society:

“Patriarchy is a system of dualisms: mind over body, thinking over feeling, heaven over earth, spirit over flesh – dualisms in which women are identified with the negative side. Patriarchy is a system of values developed through male experience: competition, hierarchy, aggression, bureaucracy, alienation from the earth, denial of emotion, generational shortsightedness, the objectification of the other.” (Insert: See Men and Women – Poles Apart?)

Within the context of this kind of society, women are too often the unwitting – or witting – expressions of the narrow categorization of them as servers to men’s goals, in anything. They are the nurses, mothers, typists and wives not just for warmaking, but for all endeavors. And they are prepared for these roles by a system – by the interactions they experience as infants, by their socialization, and by the roles make available to them. In other words, by psychology, economics, culture, social opportunity (or lack of it), and by force.

When war is declared, the need for community cohesion is magnified. The female personality that our society encourages presupposes women to the often invisible, “helping” roles that maintain the fabric of society in wartime. Plus, these roles often place women in positions where they are vulnerable, dependent, and easily victimized. (Insert: See Opposites Attract)

Our systems approach must recognize that men, too, are the unwitting – or witting – expressions of narrow categorizations of them. They are the soldiers, experts, leaders and protectors, locked into the feeling and behavior available to such roles. Men are prepared for them, again, by psychology, economics, culture, social opportunity (and lack of it), and by force.

Since the declaration of war always involves a series of splits into us-them, men-women, soldiers-civilians, godly-ungodly, the male finds it a mode consistent with his personality. When a young man enters the military, despite the grueling and authoritarian nature of basic training, he can find it a unique haven, psychologically speaking. While provided with food, shelter, entertainment and medical care, he can learn in an all-male setting what it is to be a man. The exclusion and degradation of women and female values is not accidental here. They are crucial parts of this system of “building men.”

We may view warmaking and its escalation as a result of the patriarchal emphasis on competition, power-over and conquest. We may also view it as a result of the patriarchy’s narrow categorization of human beings through rigid sex roles. In this kind of system, the loss of full human development for both women and men, may result in frustration, resentment, anger, grief, powerlessness, conflict, violence and lack of vision.

Ironically, in the context of this system, making war also provides the opportunity for women and men to become more whole human beings. Working in industry, business and the military, women have the chance to become physically and mentally more assertive, take risks and be independent. Likewise, men can experience an enlarging of their boundaries. They can touch each other, care for one another, and see their personal survival linked to communication, trust, and group cohesion. In light of these insights, we then wonder: Is war the best vehicle for offering psychic wholeness to human being? Or, as Betty Reardon (1985) asks: Is peach even possible as long as patriarchal societies that split male from female dominate the globe?

Looking at this predicament from a pragmatic point of view, we could say that the very phenomena which the modern world needs to complement current values are those that women, as a class, know most about. In the Nuclear Age all human beings need, desperately, to remember our connection with one another – whether that be viewed as material connection through economic or ecological reality, or psychic connection through spiritual reality. We need to communicate our needs, our fears, our desires and our dreams. We need to subordinate the continuation of the game to the continuation of the relationship.

The absence of these “feminine” qualities and phenomena in the public forum has led to the excesses of our era. Were these same qualities to be reintroduced into our lives – not just in girls’ games and at home, but at all levels of society – human survival would be more likely that it is today.

A rite of passage into the Nuclear Age for women, then, involves acknowledging, valuing and manifesting women’s special concern for connection, relationship and communication on a societal level. To accomplish this, ironically, women must learn to selectively break the bond of connection that they constantly seek. They must individuate enough, separate enough, develop ego boundaries enough, to bring their concern into the world.

Men encounter a different set of tasks. For them the problem is not that there is anything inherently wrong with the qualities and phenomena that have been cordoned off and called “male.” Separateness, ego development and rationality are essential characteristics of human life and are crucial for the kind of thinking we must use if we are to survive, but in many societies they dominate and are not subject to the healthy balancing and complementary effect of those characteristics we call “female.”

What we are called upon to do in the Nuclear Age is to undertake a rearrangement of psychological, cultural and social forces so that they male-dominated system by which we live does not arrive at its destined end point – a win-lose game leading to a lose-lose conclusion of nuclear weapons – but rather becomes more balanced and life-affirming. A rite of passage into this Age for men has to do with making this kind of transition. As for women, it involves acknowledging and validating what resources are already present: the will to individuate, the passion of the warrior, the desire to protect; but what is new is that this rite of passage cannot be complete until these qualities are manifested and honored in the context of connection and relationship.

As Shepherd Bliss (1985) has said, at this junction of history the value of men “shedding their armour” and “tending their wounds” is undeniable. With this tending comes an acceptance of the nurturing, reflective aspects of the male self, as well as direct, unprojected experience of the impulse behind violence against fellow living beings. Male involvement in child rearing and care also breaks the cycle of patriarchal development, offering the male adult the opportunity to explore nurturance and connection. Plus, it gives both boy and girl children the chance to relate to and identify with the male, and to grow into more whole human beings.

At this point we are well aware that “male” cultural configurations stand challenged by the nuclear reality. While the ultimate bomb may have been the technological device that destroyed Hiroshima, the ultimate “sex bomb” was Rita Hayworth, a decal-picture of her body glued to that bomb as it was dropped from the belly of the Enola Gay, a plane named for the commander’s mother. In these times it becomes clear that militarism and sexism emanate from the same system of thought and that this system must change. The old myth of the male warrior-hero no longer works. There is no more triumph in winning. There is no more separating oneself out, and no more putting down women in the process. As Mark Garzon (1983) has written: “The frontiersman now becomes the healer, the soldier becomes the mediator; the breadwinner becomes the companion; the expert becomes the nurturer.”

As we embark upon these rites of passage, women and men join together to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal; to ask questions about our myth of war and peach, women and men; and to accomplish change – not just in policy, but on all levels of our human being. In these times both sexes need protection, and the talents of both sexes are needed to protect our endangered planet. Working together we stand at the fragile edge of a vision – a world made up of more whole women and men no longer engaged in the battle of the sexes.


  • Bliss, S. (1985). “Men, wounding and war.” Paper presented at Self, Society and Nuclear Conflict conference. University of California, San Francisco / Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, October 19-20, 1985, in San Francisco, Calif.
  • Brownmiller, S. (1976). Against our will: men, women and rape. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Campbell, J. (19800. Myths to live by. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Chodorow, N. (1978). The reproduction of mothering: psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
  • Dinnerstein, D. (1976). The mermaid and the minotaur. New York: Harper Calaphon Books.
  • Gerzon, M. (1983). A choice of heroes. New York: Houghton Miflin.
  • Glendinning, C. (1987). Waking up in the nuclear age. New York: William Morrow and Company.
  • Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Harman, W. (1984). “Peace on earth: The impossible dream become possible.” Journal of human psychology 24 (3) pp. 77-92
  • Kohlbert, L (1969). “Stage and sequence: The cognitive-development approach to socialization.” In D.A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research. Chicago: Rand McNally.
  • Lorenz, K. (1966). On aggression. New York: Bantam Books
  • Reardon, B. (1985). Sexism and the war system. New York: Teachers College press.
  • Stiehm, J. (1982). “The protected, the protector, the defender.” Women’s studies international forum 5, pp. 367-76.
  • Zanotti, B. (1979). “Militarism and violence: A feminist perspective.” Paper presented at Riverside Church Disarmament Conference, New York.
  • Zur, O. (1985). “Men, women and war.” Paper presented at the Western Psychological Association annual conference, April, San Jose, Calif.
  • Zur, O. (1986A). “The myths of war: Analysis of the most common beliefs of the nature of warfare.” Paper presented at the California State Psychological Association annual conference, March, San Francisco, Calif.
  • Zur, O. (1986B). “Men, women and war: A new scale of attitudes towards war.” Under editorial review.

Men and Women – Poles Apart?
Men and women … the differences that unite us in love, divide us in society. We’re obviously built differently, we are conceived from different chromosomes and hormones, and recent studies seem to indicate that we also think, behave, communicate, and view life differently.

But how different are we … really? If all men moved to the northern hemisphere of our planet, and all women moved to the southern hemisphere, would all masculine aspects of humanity now be at the top, all feminine aspects at the bottom?

Not at all. Actually, everyone is a composite of male and female qualities … so in a sexually segregated situation there would still be a world wide mixture of masculine and feminine qualities. Let’s go a step further and put the most masculine men at the north pole and the most feminine women at the south pole. Along the equator would be those frustrated individuals with the physical characteristics of one gender but the compulsions of the other – “women trapped in men’s bodies,” and vice versa. Everyone else would be distributed along the latitudes according to how masculine or feminine they are in physical appearance, behavior, and hormonal make-up.

A psychological study would probably show men in the far northern communities to be heavy in masculine traits – rational, active, direct, gifted with spatial skills (math and science), intelligent, project-oriented, out in the world, and competitive. Women in the southernmost communities would be ultrafeminine – sensitive, emotional, passive, intuitive, creative, gifted with verbal skills, mysterious, people-oriented, internal, home-oriented, and cooperative.

A demographic study would probably show that the communities at the poles and along the equator had the smallest populations; the sexual extremes seem to make up only a small proportion of humanity. Along the middle latitudes would be scattered most of the people – those with a comfortable balance of feminine and masculine aspects. Men of these midnorthern latitudes might have a sensitive, people-oriented side to polish up their masculine nature. Women of the midsouthern latitudes might have a rational, competitive side to round out their feminine aspects.

Now imagine that this segregated world can suddenly become integrated. People move where they wish, find partners, and settle. New social systems grow. But let’s assume that this integration occurs with one very important fact underlying the whole process: Humanity is a joint venture of men and women; every system, subsystems and unit within it can be complete and in top form only when the masculine and feminine aspects are in a comfortable balance.

So, some people select mates who can balance out their strong male or female qualities. Other individuals learn to nurture and develop within themselves their opposite gender traits to become more complete individuals, and then unite with a member of the opposite sex who has done the same. It is this latter relationship – two people striving for wholeness within self – that seems to be the most stable. It is based on traits such as love, trust, respect and growth rather than neediness and dependency.

As the higher social systems develop – communities, companies, states, nations, and so on – all develop with a balance of male and female traits … unlike most cultures of the present world. Today most cultures foster and respect the masculine side because of its predominant role and domineering nature. Lately women around the world have been developing their masculine side in order to compete with men in a man’s world. The women’s movement has fueled this trend. At the same time, men are being asked to be more sensitive and more in tune with their feelings and their homes.

Women have pioneered this development out of necessity, also to gain the respect that the feminine aspect deserves but has not received lately. It is time for men to join with women in the vital move toward integration of our species – not behind them, not in front, but side by side. The world will find peace only when the sexes have found peace through integration.

Information provided by Regina Macy, counselor and psychotherapist

Opposites Attract
Girl attracts boy. Boy pursues. Girl resists. Boy persists. Probably the most widespread conflict in human history, and for many people no doubt the most fun. Flirting and romance, subject of vast volumes of literature down through the ages, seems to be driven by two basic urges – the feminine urge to attract and tempt, and the masculine urge to conquer and dominate.

These urges that can excite us in love, often divide us in society. They spice up the inner workings of our social groups, but indiscriminate spice often ruins the entire meal. Flirting and romance in inappropriate places at inappropriate times with inappropriate people can generate friction and conflicts in our schools, clubs, companies … in any social systems where males and females interact.

Besides discretion, the secret to peace between the genders is to maintain respect for and knowledge of the opposite sex. Here are some of the things modern psychologists are learning about masculine and feminine aspects.

Children’s games. Boys tend to play competitive games outdoors in large groups. The games are often long-lasting and involve a lot of skill. Disputes break out fairly often, but boys seem to enjoy resolving conflicts as much as playing the game. Boys are preoccupied by game rules, referring to them frequently to work out disputes. While playing, boys learn competitiveness, independence, and organizational skills that will be helpful later in life in coordinating the activities of large, diverse groups. Meanwhile, girls like to play indoors, usually in small, intimate groups. The games are less competitive, more cooperative, and when disputes break out the girls usually end the game rather than threaten the relationships. Girls are more flexible than boys; they are more likely to bend the rules and adopt any changes that will result in greater fairness and less pain all around. Girls learn to cooperate smoothly while nurturing and preserving interpersonal relationships. They become open-minded.

Law and morality. Women generally have a more difficult time than men making moral decisions because they consider many variables. They analyze a situation, looking for the “right” option – the one that will cause the least conflict and pain. Men seem to prefer making hastier, more rational decisions. They eliminate many variables by creating legal and moral boundaries and rules. To make the “right” decision they simply consult the rulebooks. They want quick, neat justice … even if it sometimes causes pain to individuals and puts a strain on relationships. Women want to nurture healthy relationships, even if it requires more time, more creativity, and a bending of rules to come up with the “right” solution.

Communication. Communication. Women tend to express their feelings openly. Men generally do not. Girls while away hour after teenage hour exchanging their feelings and analyzing relationships over the phone or in hushed, excited conversations. Boys talk about cars, girls, sports, studies … virtually anything but their feelings. Boys and girls each think that the other gender’s subjects of discussion are trivial.

Interpersonal fears. If men and women were to make separate lists of the social conditions they fear most, women might have a sense of separation and isolation near the top of their list, along with being held in suspicion or being rejected by others for being too successful and competitive. Men might have among their greatest fears feeling entrapped or betrayed, humiliated by deceit, and smothered in a clingy relationship. Coming together intimidates men, while moving apart intimidates women … a situation reminiscent of the combined forces of the sun’s gravity and our planet’s centrifugal force – one trying to pull our solar system together while the other tries to pull it apart. If either force were to prevail, the system would be destroyed, but when working together they keep our sun and Earth in a comfortable harmony.

A peaceful world will require the efforts and skills of both genders working together in comfortable harmony, in mutual respect and understanding.

Adapted from existing Earthview Press publications and from reference material (Gilligan) cited in Chapter 10



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