Gendered Perceptions of Nuclear Armament, War, and Energy

Tanvi Jayaraman
March 12, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, A Greek Symbol of Feminism. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Gender, according to Joan Scott, is "a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between sexes and ... a primary way of signifying relationships of power." Gendered perspectives and roles can be seen throughout history, from early religious texts to Greek mythology. Goddess Athena, seen in Fig. 1, embodied the goddess of wisdom, bravery, and war strategy in Ancient Greece, and had a mix of "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics. Many feminist scholars believe that gender differences have played an important and essential role in the structuring of social inequalities in much of human history, and the resulting major discrepancies in self-identifications, human understandings, social status, and power relationships. International relations and politics, specifically regarding nuclear armament, war, and energy, closely parallels the way we understand gender differences - hierarchal constructions, power, dominance, and subordination are all factors. [1]

Ecological moralism is a form of moralism in which the rhetoric and policy proposals make clear distinctions between right and wrong. Many core beliefs of the antinuclear movement in France, Sweden, and the United States come from the ecological moralism theory. Antinuclear debates are filled with stylistic traits of the moralist: references to law of nature, a concern for future generations, the potential for catastrophe, the rights of "the people", and outrage at putting profits before lives. The impact of this ecological moralism can be translated to differences in opinion between genders in regards to nuclear armament, war, and energy. [2]

Gendered Perspectives on Nuclear War 1980-1990s

American men are often observed to be more supportive of war than American women; this observation has led to the speculation that masculinity plays a role in war and the nuclear arms race. Understanding what motivates people to build nuclear weapons and to initiate nuclear war is one of the most important initiatives of our time. Yet, masculinity's mediating role in the gender-war relationship is seldom tested. [3]

Fesbach et al. in 1985 reported that male students demonstrated more positive attitudes toward nuclear armament than women, but this difference was not significant. They also reported that nuclear armament scales were correlated with knowledge about nuclear armaments and scales that assessed both affection for children and willingness to expand resources to benefit children - two measures that can be considered as "feminine" qualities. The more value placed on children, the more those studied were opposed to nuclear armaments. [3]

Jensen's study in 1987 showed that gender demonstrated a significant relationship in restraint of use of military force when provoked as males were more likely to indicate nonsupport for the use of military restraint. Femininity was significantly related towards attitudes that not support the use of military restraint and nuclear armament. [3]

Gendered Perspectives on Nuclear Energy 1980s-1990s

Attitudes towards nuclear power are important because of the impact this energy source has on industry, and the consequences for the environment and human safety. It has been found in the literature that there is a striking and significantly large "gender gap" towards nuclear power production. [4]

Solomon et al. focused their study in the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant in North Carolina in 1986. In their results, they found that the mean level for safety concern for males was lower than the mean level of safety concern in females - females are more highly concerned about nuclear power technology than males. Safety therefore was found to be a significant predictor of support for nuclear power at both the local and general levels. Different levels of safety partially explain gender differences in support of nuclear power. An increasing gender gap in attitudes towards nuclear power may reflect the effect of the politicized local environment on female attitudes. [4]

This study was conducted during the decade of US history that spanned the Thee Mile Island accident, the Chernobyl plant disaster, and the Coalitions for Alternatives to Shearon Harris social movement. As a result, this study may suggest that women are more likely to process information about the possible and actual devastation of nuclear power accidents and therefore become opponents of nuclear power. [4]

Next Steps

Examining gender in nuclear energy and nuclear war decisions can have practical implications for those who wish to influence armament policies. Since the 1990s, few studies have been conducted to understand current gendered views on this subject. With the current state of international diplomacy, evaluating such studies can have utility in shaping international relations. [3]

© Tanvi Jayaraman. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. A. Tickner, Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (Columbia University Press, 1992).

[2] J. M. Jasper, Nuclear Politics: Energy and the State in the United States, Sweden, and France (Princeton University Press, 2016).

[3] M. P. Jensen, "Gender, Sex Roles, and Attitudes toward War and Nuclear Weapons," Sex Roles 17, 283 (1987).

[4] L. S. Solomon, D. Tomaskovic-Devey, and B. J. Risman. "The Gender Gap and Nuclear Power: Attitudes in a Politicized Environment," Sex Roles 21, 401 (1989).