Come Back, Andrea Dworkin
Military history needs you
Yesterday I acknowledged that armies have followed women into battle many times, yet the vast majority of the warriors in those armies were men. Women, in turn, have followed behind countless armies on foot, very often with the wagons, mostly invisible to capital-H Historians but still very consequential. Arguably, women are responsible for the Neolithic farming revolution, and they may very well deserve most of the credit for domesticating key animals in Eurasia, too. Women made armies possible.
Also navies, although this can be harder to discern. Famous pirate queens exist, to be sure, but space is more limited on a ship than on dry land. Viking women in longships no doubt took turns at the oars. However, by the late 19th Century, all of the world’s navies were using coal energy to propel their ships, and kept their women on shore.
Studying this late, golden era of European imperialism and the conversion to steel navies, we find Alfred Thayer Mahan touring the world on his last cruise, feted in capitals and taking tea with Queen Victoria. His book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, already the most influential book on sea power ever written, has inspired the world’s most expensive and consequential arms race. But what about the women in his life, the wife and daughters left back home? Well, as Warren Zimmerman tells us in First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power:
Mind you, this book was published in 2004. It’s a single throwaway statement in a much longer history of American imperialism. I don’t think Zimmerman is being malicious here. Nevertheless, “the author of this paragraph needs a kick in the pants” was the reaction of one feminist with whom I shared it, and I don’t disagree.
A woman at the turn of the Century might not marry for many reasons, but too much helicoptering from a parent away at sea is an unlikely explanation. Mahan did not start out as an advocate of imperialism; rather, colonies were incidental to his ambition that America should have a global naval presence. Similarly, Zimmerman did not start out this paragraph as chauvinist. He was simply a man, reading 19th Century women through the eyes of the “Great Man” at the center of his narrative.
During his time running the Navy’s new school of warfare, Alfred edited his writing in detail, then Elly would type up her husband’s notes. In all probability, Ellen and Helen were ironing his uniforms and shining his shoes. Then there are the ships — those famous little models that Mr. Mahan crafted by the hundreds in order to reconstruct great naval battles of the past. Did he really lack help? We shall never know.
Polemology is in dire need of a radical feminist analysis, a dialectic rooted in a coherent understanding of the sex hierarchy and its consequences for the way men have constructed history.