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The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000–2014 (June 2016): Legacies in Gender Relations

By Jerry Lembcke

Legacies in Gender Relations

Philip Jason’s Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture notes that the subfield of gender studies known as men’s studies arose from recognition that the US sense of manhood derived from men’s martial accomplishments, and that the loss of the war in Vietnam would be a blow to male pride and self-esteem.  Furthermore, the concern was that the damage would bleed beyond the postwar anguish of veterans themselves into the nation’s male-identified collective culture, where it would impair public confidence in the future.  Central to those studies was the folklore of female perfidy held responsible for battlefield letdowns, à la Lysistrata, which gained traction in the cultural histories of modern wars—for example, in Tokyo Rose.  In Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal, Jerry Lembcke recalls the role played by women’s organizations such as Women Strike for Peace in opposing the war in Vietnam, and delves deeply into the vilifying of Jane Fonda as a scapegoat for the US defeat.

The scapegoating of homefront feminism for the loss of the war inspired a backlash of hyper-masculinity that manifested in the militia movement of the 1980s.  James William Gibson explores that link in Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America.  John Dipple in War and Sex: A Brief History of Men’s Urge for Battle argues that wounded masculinity—be it the consequence of previously lost wars or the relative loss of superiority due to women’s movements for equality—motivated men to reaffirm their masculinity through combat throughout the twentieth century.  Dipple uses the post-Vietnam US experience to extend that trajectory into the present.  In The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, Susan Faludi reprises the case she made in Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women that the push-back against gains made by the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s was fed by fears that an overly feminized culture had sapped American men of their will to war and cost the nation its victory in Vietnam.  Zaretsky (No Direction Home) found that the family values agenda that powered cultural conservativism into late-twentieth-century prominence was born out of anxieties left by the POW experience and the central role women played in fighting for their release—surely one of the most consequential legacies of the war.