An Introduction to Gender Nationalism Theory

Carole Pateman points out in her book, The Sexual Contract, that in the ‘new civil society,’ men designed social contracts for the state, giving them paternal freedom from their fathers; however, in this process, a new patriarchal civil society’ emerged—women became subjected to men. As social contracts were written, women were excluded from this process; thus, social contracts became sexual as well, engendering women’s bodies to the private sphere. During this period, men only embodied characteristics capable to enter into contracts, composing them as the only “individuals” in Western societies. Although Pateman argues women’s rights have progressed, social contracts and institutions still permit marital rape; hence, patriarchy endures in our contemporary world. Thus, one can see the contracts upon which states base their core institutions and laws, linger with patriarchal constructions sexualising bodies in the nation. The engendered hierarchies place divisions around biological sex identities, empowering men and restricting women. Furthermore, engendered identities that emerge from these constructions are important when considering society’s demands and pressures on women.

Through imagined constructions of one group’s vision for the state, nationalist projects often control women’s reproduction. As Tamar Mayer declares eloquently, “One nation, one gender and one particular sexuality is always favoured by the social, political and cultural institutions which it helps to construct and which it benefits from.” As one nation envisions a nationalistic venture, women typically are assigned to biological and cultural symbolic duties. Political elites will define and construct their imagined nation.

Literature on gender and nationalism provides insight into different ways state actors use or control women’s wombs through nationalistic projects. Nira Yuval-Davis describes three types of gender nationalism. The first being “people as power,” in cases where the nation calls upon women’s reproductive powers to produce more citizens: for the workforce, for settlement, or for war. Opening immigration policies and systems could remedy the issue; however, women are often called upon to reproduce instead. As Japan faces a shrinking population, creating a welfare crisis, the government has offered child allowances, supported matchmaking services and launched initiatives for one city to subsidise egg freezing fertility treatments. According to 2015 census data in Japan, birth-rates have fallen to 1.4 per woman, while nearly one third of its population is over 65 years old. The second nationalist discourse Yuval-Davis describes is “The Eugenist discourse,” in which a nation will control the “quality” of the people, through selective reproductive processes. During the Second World War, Aryan women were taken to brothels to form future generations with German soldiers; meanwhile, the Nazis ensured other women, particularly Jewish women, could not have children. The third type of nationalist project is called “the Malthusian discourse,” which is when state or international actors try to control populations through reducing birth rates, for fear of a population growing too large for a country. Yuval-Davis references the Reagan administration “[giving] 3 million dollars for population control.” The Christian Right pressured the administration to refrain from giving aid to abortion services. This example is particularly interesting because a connection can be seen between the imagined fear of overpopulation (in the global South), but Christian moral values determining in what ways to cope with this ‘threat.’

In the three nationalistic discourses Yuval-Davis discusses, women’s bodies no longer are their own; the state constructed pressures and nationalistic imaginaries around women’s fertility. Moreover, in many cases of nationalistic discourse, bodies are not only engendered, but also racialized to meet the visions of these nationalistic projects. As a human rights and women’s rights advocate myself, gender nationalism is dangerous—all women should be able to choose to reproduce or not reproduce and be in control of their own bodies, without government interference or nationalistic influence.

Jacqueline Stein will graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) this December with a Master’s in Human Rights. She can be reached at j.r.stein@lse.ac.uk.

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