Wednesday, May 26, 2021



Males predominate in every form of violence, from the micro-level up through wars and other macro-violence. Is it because of a biological universal--the testosterone theory of violence? Or an omnipresent cultural archetype of maleness? Statistics would appear to bear this out.


But frequency statistics by themselves do not answer the question. If violence is male by virtue of being a biological universal, it should have no exceptions. That females are under-represented in committing violence, however, shows that women are capable of it. This suggests an alternative explanation: women have been historically denied opportunities to be violent.


On the anthropological and historical evidence, women have been excluded from military and weapons training and combat sports. When combat was confined to close physical proximity ("man-to-man" or "hand-to-hand"), greater male size and musculature gave men predominance, upon which cultural exclusion was built. This was true too when distance weapons (bows, spears, slings) were muscle-powered. As weapons became mechanized, size and strength made less of a difference. Even among men, the Colt revolver was called "the great equalizer", and Billy the Kid could bring down contemporary Goliaths.


Integration of women into armies and police forces has been a long time coming, but for the past two centuries their exclusion has been largely a matter of cultural tradition and male monopolization. These have been worn down in the modern era of mass democratization and the mobilization of social movements.


The ideology persists (although now argued from a liberal pacificist direction) that women are more peaceful than men. Hence society would become more peaceful at all levels to the extent that women gain political leadership. But this does not appear to be true. Throughout history, when women were rulers, their reigns were as likely to be warlike as males: the heinous religious persecutions of Protestants under Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary") and of Catholics under Queen Elizabeth I; imperialist wars under Queen Victoria and Catherine the Great (also known for engineering assassinations of rivals at the Russian court); the Red Guards urged on by Jiang Qing (Madame Mao); Eva Peron, the Argentine dictator's wife who avenged social slights with executions; Margaret Thatcher, who repaired her lagging popularity and won re-election by launching the Falklands/Malvinas war. Violence was always easiest to unleash at the level of high command, but modern emancipated women have also been on the front line of political violence: Vera Zasulich who used a revolver to shoot a Russian Governor, setting off the populist ("terrorist") movement that assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881; Ulrike Meinhof of the Baader-Meinhof Gang in 1970s Germany; Patty Hearst with the machine-gun wielding Symbionese Liberation Army; numerous women in the clandestine Red Brigades of 1970s Italy; in the contemporary Middle East, women suicide bombers appear to be a way for women to gain some public status among ultra-male-dominated conservative Moslems. In the assault on the US Capitol in 2021, the only violent death was a woman officer (formerly in the Air Force military police) shot leading the break-in.  (The others died of heart attack or stroke.) On the personal level, the proportion of women committing homicides and other violent crimes has been steadily rising, suggesting ongoing integration is moving on all fronts.


Such examples show that generalizations of the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" variety are useless as explanations. Women have not had the opportunities, the training, or the cultural encouragement to enter potentially violent situations. When these barriers have been lowered, women act very much as men do. Not to say women are merely assimilating into masculine culture. The revelation of empirically-detailed sociology of violence is to recognize that situational dynamics determine what happens--not the background classification of individuals.


Whether the increasing participation of women as activists in the world of violence is a good thing or not is not a question to be decided by sociology. I would point out, however, that the success or failure of violence is above all a matter of emotional domination, not sheer physical strength. Women as well are men are capable of both imposing and resisting emotional domination, including in situations of sexual violence. And that surely is a good thing.