War and Sex: A Brief History of Men's Urge for Battle

War and Sex: A Brief History of Men's Urge for Battle

by John V H Dippel

In this engrossing exploration of men’s motives for war, the author argues persuasively that one important subconscious reason young men volunteer for battle is to enhance their status as marriage partners for the women on the home front. Especially for men from low socioeconomic backgrounds becoming a soldier offers a sexual and reproductive edge over their


In this engrossing exploration of men’s motives for war, the author argues persuasively that one important subconscious reason young men volunteer for battle is to enhance their status as marriage partners for the women on the home front. Especially for men from low socioeconomic backgrounds becoming a soldier offers a sexual and reproductive edge over their civilian male peers.

The author also examines the subtle influence that women’s expanding power in society has on male attitudes regarding conflict. Drawing upon extensive literary as well as historical sources, he demonstrates how tensions over gender roles affect men’s willingness to go to war, and how the experience of war, in turn, changes the relations between the sexes. Until very recently, war has reaffirmed the central social importance of masculinity and demoted women to supportive, domestic roles. Reviewing the social circumstances leading up to conflicts from the American Civil War through the Viet Nam War and the current clash between the West and Islamic fundamentalists, he convincingly shows that gender-based pressures play a significant, if often unconscious, role in tipping a society toward the decision of war.

Thoroughly researched, yet engagingly and accessibly written, this unique discussion of men and women’s roles in a society contemplating war offers much food for thought.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Historian Dippel (Race to the Frontier) turns his attention to the sociological motivations behind war in this meticulously researched account of gender roles, social movements, and other factors that have compelled men to fight. Though he doesn't discount patriotism, Dippel examines other factors that caused men to take up arms in the Civil War, both World Wars, and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though each conflict had its own set of sociological flashpoints, recurring themes are a desire to prove one's manhood, defend a country's perceived "manliness" after the humiliation of losing a war, and women. Attempting to untie the Gordian knot of gender relations, Dippel reveals how men have fought not for their countries but to win the affections and defend the honor of women. And the role of women in the workplace during and after war greatly complicated matters. Without explicitly blaming feminism for war, Dippel examines the impact of shifting gender roles on masculine impulses. Other contributing factors round out his study, and marriage statistics, birth rates, and plentiful notes and sources both buoy and saddle his argument. Still, his insight and analysis is impressive, and will be of interest to hawks and doves alike.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

Prometheus Books
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

War and Sex

A Brief History Of Men's Urge For Battle

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 John V. H. Dippel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-188-2

Chapter One


In the spring of 1840, eight young American women set sail for London to help change the world. They were in a joyful mood. One of them had just gotten married, and so this voyage across the Atlantic was also her honeymoon. She was tiny—only about five feet three—with twinkling blue eyes that conveyed a girlish mischievousness. She was a free spirit who loved to kick up her heels and dance. But, beneath this lighthearted façade, this bride had a steely nature. Whenever she played a game like chess she always fought hard to the bitter end and never gave her opponent any quarter. If she lost, she was devastated. Mercurial in love, she had toyed with the affections of the man who had proposed to her—first accepting his proposal, then breaking off their engagement in a panic about losing her freedom, and then changing her mind again, abruptly accepting his offer of marriage. The couple had married in a rush because her handsome suitor was on his way to England: he had slyly used his invitation to a gathering there to persuade her. Because she simply had to go, too, she had said yes. She was not about to step back into the shadows and trust things to men. After digging in her heels she got the Scottish minister in Peterborough, New York, to back down and leave out the word obey from the vow she had to make to her betrothed, as she was not about to be subjugated to the will of any man, even one she loved this much. Her husband—ten years her senior—acquiesced. His bride clearly adored him and the work he was doing, and that was enough for him to love her back. He could never have imagined that someday she would be more famous than he. When twenty-four-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton (as she now agreed to be called) stepped on board the packet ship Montreal in New York harbor a few days later, she could see the course of her life taking shape. The man who guided her up the gangplank, Henry Brewster Stanton, was already a celebrity in the abolitionist movement. His oratory and pen were persuasive in a way few men of his day could match. Elizabeth had been smitten with him from the moment he opened his mouth. Now she was his partner—in her commitment to ending slavery, if not experience, fully his equal. Here was a man who stood on the right side of issues that mattered most to her, like her stodgy, slaveholding, Calvinist father who had frowned at her courtship with an abolitionist, who believed only men should go to college, who regretted that she was not a boy, who wished she could replace the son, Eleazar, he had lost just before his graduation from college, when Elizabeth was only eleven. Now she and her new husband were heading out in the world to fight the battle to end this scourge together. Henry was to attend the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London, and she would, of course, be at his side. Men and even some women from both sides of the Atlantic would be attending. If the occasion arose, she, too, would speak. They would buck each other up, Henry and she.

Soon Elizabeth discovered that James G. Birney—the child of a slaveholder just like she was, a Southerner who had freed his own slaves and was now running for president as the Liberty Party candidate—was a fellow passenger. He, too, was bound for the convention. Elizabeth saw in him a kindred soul, but she was soon disappointed by his persistent patronizing, by his insisting she needed "toning down"—whatever that meant—before they reached England. The polite and gracious Birney turned out to be just as hopeless about women as her father, telling her it was not "ladylike" to ascend to the top of the ship's mast in a chair, as the male passengers did, or to call her husband "Henry" when others were in earshot. He was not, she ascertained, a believer in equal rights for women. Rather than brood over this, Elizabeth spent much of the remaining weeks at sea preparing for the questions on slavery she felt sure that, as the wife of a delegate, she was bound to be asked. She was more than ready to do so when the Montreal became becalmed within sight of the English coast, so she coaxed Henry and Birney into being lowered into a pilot boat to strike out for land ahead of everyone else.

Their lodgings in London were the "gloomiest" Elizabeth had ever experienced, but her mood brightened with the arrival of eight wonderful ladies from Philadelphia and Boston who—mirabile visu!—were also attending the antislavery gathering as delegates. They were a fine, upstanding, well-spoken group—Lucretia Mott, Sarah Pugh, Abby Kimber, Elizabeth Neal, and Mary Grew in plain Quaker outfits and with equally modest demeanors; Bostonians Ann Green Phillips, Emily Winslow, and Abby Southwick a bit livelier and outspoken. The New England women told a story about how they had been prevented from holding the annual meeting of their Female Anti-Slavery Society a few years before because of the threat on the part of some unconscionable men to disrupt the proceedings. There had been a big fuss in the newspapers about this beforehand: "trouble and violence" were bound to occur at this incendiary gathering, the ladies had been warned. But this had not cowed them: they had let their consciences and God's guidance dictate what they should do. They had written to one paper saying, "The cause of human freedom is our religion," and that they intended to go ahead and hold their meeting at a more welcoming venue elsewhere in the city. But this had only stirred up another hornet's nest, with handbills being nailed up outside city hall denouncing their plan and outrageously inviting members of the public to vie for a prize of one hundred dollars to go to the first person who laid "violent hands" on the "infamous foreign scoundrel" George Thompson, an English abolitionist who had been invited to speak before the ladies' group. That evening the place was packed with angry, red-faced, snorting men, some thumping bullwhips, intending to thrash the speaker and cart him off to South Carolina, where he was likely to be lynched. The proslavery men hurled rotten tomatoes and vegetables at the president of the society, Mary Parker, until Mayor Lyman himself strode into the room and told the ladies to leave before there was bloodshed. In the face of such threats, prudence had prevailed, and they had gone back down the steps and out onto the street where a howling throng awaited them, full of "rage and contempt." There were other men waiting there—supposed friends who, just days before, had proclaimed themselves enemies of slavery—but now, sensing the crowd's wrath and revealing their own hypocrisy, did not lift a finger to help them. William Lloyd Garrison, a last-minute replacement for the anxious Thompson, had barely escaped with his life. What they had sadly learned from this incident, the ladies from Boston stressed, was that in the future they would have to rely more upon themselves. Men were too easily swayed from the cause, too undependable.

Elizabeth was more than delighted to meet for the first time in her life women who shared her belief in equality between the sexes. (She wished Henry was more inclined toward this view.) She was particularly taken with Lucretia Mott—an older Quaker woman, the daughter of a Nantucket whaling captain, a friend of Garrison's, a fine organizer, deeply religious, a mother of five. She was just a sprite of a woman, shorter than Elizabeth, thin as a bird. She was accompanying her husband, James, to the convention. Mrs. Mott was already a battle-hardened veteran, having faced hostile mobs and once narrowly avoided having her house set ablaze. She had made a name for herself by forming an antislavery society in Philadelphia and then inviting free blacks in the city to come and speak before it. She was the only female delegate planning to address the assemblage, and Elizabeth, listening to her fellow lodger in the evenings in the abolitionist Mark Moore's boarding house, sensed here was a woman who stood head and shoulders above the rest of them—here was a woman she could model herself on. The ladies' enthusiasm for the forthcoming proceedings received two unexpected jolts. First, calling this a "world" conference turned out to be a gross exaggeration: the British were obviously in charge, and the Americans and the few from other countries were expected to play only minor parts. But that was a small disappointment compared to the other disheartening news: before the convention had a chance to meet, its British planning committee—emboldened by several American clergymen—had voted to bar females from taking an active part in the proceedings. Although this came as a surprise, it was not unusual for men in the antislavery movement to close their ranks to females. When William Lloyd Garrison had founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) in Philadelphia seven years before, he had wanted it to include women, but the organization had never gotten around to inviting any to join. That was why Lucretia Mott had gone ahead and formed a group for women in the City of Brotherly Love. By the end of the decade, some forty women's societies in New England were working to end slavery. Many male abolitionists felt they could accomplish more by keeping these bodies apart—thereby not alienating potential new members by being seen as too tied to the "woman question." Frankly, they, too, disapproved of females being in politics. When a female was nominated to serve on the business committee of the AASS in 1840, this was the final straw: conservative-thinking men stormed out of the convention and formed their own organization. It expressly barred members of the fair sex from participating.

The evening before the convention was to start, some gentlemen came around to the ladies' lodgings to dissuade them from showing up and provoking trouble. The Rev. Nathaniel Colver, representing the First Free Baptist Church in Boston, declared it to be his opinion that women were "constitutionally unfit for public or business meetings." When he was reminded that this was just what proponents of slavery said about blacks, he grew angry and left the boarding house. The women agreed they would not be deterred. On the following morning they strolled through the bright, cheerful streets of London, heading toward the ornate Freemasons' Hall. News of their impending arrival caused the predictable stir: "The excitement and vehemence of protest and denunciation could not have been greater, if the news had come that the French were about to invade England." The arbitrary decision to silence them prompted some male delegates from across the Atlantic to protest. Responding to some nudging from his wife, Ann, Wendell Phillips—a leading abolitionist from Boston—rose to denounce the women's exclusion and proposed that all duly chosen delegates be seated. (Mrs. Mott had modestly proposed that no such case be made.) The Harvard-educated lawyer pointed out that male members of his antislavery association considered women as equals and declared, "We think it is right for women to sit by our side there [in the States], and we think it is right for them do the same here." William H. Ashurst rhetorically asked, "Are not these women as competent as yourselves to judge of the principles of Christianity, and to bring forth the best affections of our nature?" The Englishman Thompson chimed it by reminding them all, "For years, the women of America have carried their banner [of abolitionism] in the van, while the men have humbly followed in the rear." But such heartening remarks only produced the retort that "all order would be at an end" if the "promiscuous [mixed with men] female representation be allowed," and "God's clear intention violated." The invitation to the convention, it was allowed, had been extended only to "gentlemen." An English cleric named Burnet implored the ladies to accede to the "prejudices and custom" of his native land and accept the committee's ruling; otherwise it would be better if the convention was called off and all returned home. Another minister opined that "women will be badly off when they have nothing but their rights, and the men also." Even a majority of the male American delegates, including many clergy, did not support seating the women, as it was not the custom in their societies to honor this practice.

So, in the end, the profemale contingent lost its fight. In a show of solidarity, Phillips and a late-arriving Garrison opted to sit among the ladies and remain silent as well. The females were ushered to seats behind a bar and curtain, like members of the choir, so that the sight of them would not distract or discomfort the men. The male delegates opposed to the presence of women in the hall considered this a major concession. In recognition of her preeminence among the segregated females, Mrs. Mott—dubbed by one Irish newspaper the "Lioness of the Convention"—was given an elevated chair, from which she could observe what was being said on the other side. (Subsequently, she was the only woman at the convention to appear in the official painting commemorating it.) During the breaks, other women flitted about her like moths. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the most indignant over this turn of events. Before she and Lucretia Mott left London shortly afterward, they agreed that this kind of treatment of their sex should not—and would not—continue. It was high time that men be taught the "first principles of 'Human Freedom.'" Even after she returned to New York, Mrs. Stanton's anger had not ebbed. At her urging, she and Mrs. Mott made a pledge to call together a gathering of women, when the time was appropriate, to take up the issue of their rights. However, the moment did not become propitious for eight long years, as Mrs. Stanton was busy raising her first four children (learning in the process not to count upon men), and Mrs. Mott was chronically beset by neuralgia and occupied by speeches up and down the eastern seaboard on the evils of slavery. By chance, in 1848, Mrs. Mott was visiting her sister in the same town, Seneca Falls, New York, where Mrs. Stanton was then living. Elizabeth was feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the demands of running a rural household full of rambunctious young children while her husband was traveling around the country leading the fight against slavery. At the same time, the rebuff that she and the other women had experienced in London still rankled. Meeting with Lucretia and several other women in a nearby town, Elizabeth poured out all her frustrations. In response, the women agreed to call together a convention five days hence—the first ever to be held in the United States on the subject of women's rights. This was to be totally independent from the struggle to free the slaves.

Thanks to public notices and word of mouth, more than three hundred women—and, unexpectedly, some men—traveled to Seneca Falls for this historic gathering. Most of them came from nearby towns; many were Quakers well steeped in the creed of equality and committed to making it a reality in America. Others were drawn there because of the Finger Lakes' reputation for unorthodox ideas and causes. Some, like the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, came straight from the first meeting of a new political movement—the Free Soil Party—in nearby Buffalo, freshly imbued with a democratic, reformist spirit. Still other women were motivated by economic freedoms they were beginning to enjoy due to the recent developing of manufacturing in the region. To link their campaign for women's rights to this broader context, the "Declaration of Sentiments" that Elizabeth Stanton drafted over two stifling midsummer days and evenings, July 19 and 20, wisely parroted the document Thomas Jefferson had penned nearly three-quarters of a century before:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women [italics added] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.


Excerpted from War and Sex by JOHN V. H. DIPPEL Copyright © 2010 by John V. H. Dippel. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John V. H. Dippel (Piermont, NY), an independent historian, is the author of Race to the Frontier, Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire, and Two Against Hitler. His articles on politics and social affairs have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, Christian Science Monitor, and many other publications.

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