Sjoberg on Cook, 'A Woman's Place: US Counterterrorism since 9/11'

Joana Cook
Laura Sjoberg

Joana Cook. A Woman's Place: US Counterterrorism since 9/11. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. xvi + 564 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-750655-4

Reviewed by Laura Sjoberg (Royal Holloway, University of London) Published on H-Diplo (November, 2021) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Joana Cook’s A Woman’s Place: US Counterterrorism since 9/11 is a comprehensive treatise on where women have been positioned, and how they have been framed, in US counterterrorism strategy for the better part of two decades. Cook explains that the goal of the book is “to examine how, where, and why women have become visible in discourses and practices related to counterterrorism through the lens of US efforts since 2001” (p. 1). Particularly, the book focuses on the executive branch, including the presidential administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and, to a lesser extent, Donald Trump, as well as executive agencies the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of State (DoS), and Agency for International Development (USAID). In introducing readers to the importance of the subject matter, Cook explains that “women have never been more emphasized, active in, or relevant to broad counterterrorism considerations” (p. 8), but points out that this relevance is “conspicuously undocumented and under-examined” (p. 9).

Across the book, Cook identifies seven categories in which women are discussed: security practitioners; conflict prevention, reconciliation, and reconstruction; female rights, empowerment, and equality; members of the public or community; the private/domestic sphere; victimhood; and terrorist actors (p. 23). How women are categorized, or which categories receive attention, from the various facets of the US government relies on a variety of factors, including international discourses, national discourses, operational environments, operational objectives, terrorist group behavior, agencies’ own knowledge and background about gender, agencies’ limitations, and interagency cooperation and coordination. Across these categories and factors, Cook identifies three discourses justifying women’s inclusion: one of perceived operational innovation and effectiveness, one emphasizing women’s positive right to participate and/or negative right not to suffer at the hands of terrorists, and a third emphasizing that women are half of the population and therefore should be included. There is a useful table with these arguments and their relationship on p. 35 and an equally useful appendix A on pp. 423-425 with a short list of examples frequently used across the text.

Chapter 1, “Analyzing Women in Counterterrorism,” sets up the book’s theoretical and methodological approach and addresses the gaps in the literature that the book hopes to fill. Discussing the women, peace, and security (WPS), feminist security studies (FSS), and (gender and) terrorism studies literatures, Cook suggests that the existing literature has not provided a significant level of detail about diverse agencies within the US government in terms of gender and terrorism, and that there has been more emphasis on terrorism than on counterterrorism. The chapter is a comprehensive and conversant engagement with a large and diverse literature which is accessible given that complexity. Where I differ from Cook (here and across the manuscript) is in a part of the feminist literature that is not engaged as much in this chapter—the part that critiques the gendered and raced implications of the use of the term “terrorism” and its imposition in the terrorism/counterterrorism dichotomy.[1] A Woman’s Place “doesn’t offer definitions of key terms such as ‘women’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘counterterrorism’” because “the very basis of this book is to investigate how these were defined and interpreted” (p. 19). That justification falls short, to me, because it elides the problems with the deployment of the terms themselves both within the agencies and then amplified without critique in the book. Those who disagree will find the theoretical position in chapter 1 well justified and appropriate to the task of examining how women have been placed, understood, and framed in US post-9/11 counterterrorism discourses.

The second chapter, “Counterterrorism from Bush to Obama,” provides an overview of the Bush and Obama administrations’ views on terrorism, the ways that the administrations articulated counterterrorism, and the ways in which women were visible in those approaches. Across these, Cook finds both similarities and differences in how women are framed, with particular emphases on the home and being “at war with terrorism” (p. 119). The chapter presents a wealth of information about different policy initiatives (such as the US National Action Plans [NAPs] for the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 [pp. 121, 124] and several National Security Strategies [NSS] across the two presidencies). It is both a useful read on its own—for historical information and/or for comparison between the two administrations—but also provides much-needed background for the following chapters, which focus respectively on the DoD (chapter 3), DoS (chapter 4), and USAID (chapter 5). At the end of chapter 2, Cook provides another useful table (figure 2, pp. 146-147) with a summary of the key ways in which each president framed gender in counterterrorism.

The three agency-focused chapters begin with Cook’s explanation that the three agencies are “distinct in history, culture, mandate, and role” (p. 149). Each chapter is packed with rich histories of the agencies’ work on both counterterrorism and women, well-evidenced examples that contextualize the claims Cook makes about how each agency deals with women, and strong critical analysis of the agencies’ strengths and weaknesses. In chapter 3, Cook notes that the DoD operates with four primary categories of women’s inclusion, seeing women as: servicewomen, members of foreign forces that the United States had partnered with, members of foreign populations as communities of interest (especially when pursuing counterinsurgency measures), and as security threats to which counterterrorist measures might respond. Many of the DoD framings of women include more than one of these categories: female engagement teams deploy women servicemembers to engage women in partner forces, women servicemembers in COIN operations look to “gain the women, undermine the insurgents” (p. 164), and women soldiers can be trained in part to combat the security threat women can be. Cook also points out in this chapter some of the DoD’s high-profile gender-related controversies during the period under examination (e.g., Jessica Lynch and Abu Ghraib), noting that these things weighed on how seriously one could take US claims to be looking out for women’s rights.

Chapter 4, focusing on DoS, traces a series of evolutions of DoS policy on women and counterterrorism, from ignoring the relationship between the two to seeing women’s rights as a part of a democracy promotion strategy in the Middle East framed as a long-term counterterrorism investment to an explicit focus on gender in counterterrorism/countering violent extremism (CVE). Looking at the post-2010 work of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Cook notes that Clinton drove the implementation of the WPS agenda in DoS, arguing that “state stability, security, and propensity to extremism now become directly tied to women’s rights, equality, and economic and development status” (p. 257). Marking the Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review (QDDR) as a turning point, Cook notes that women are referenced there 107 times, constituting ”unprecedented” visibility (p. 260). Cook frames DoS as the most responsive agency to gender post-9/11, where “soon after … women were the most visible and targeted recipients of US State programming” (p. 293).

USAID, the subject of chapter 5, operates directly under and reports to DoS, but cannot be seen to mirror State’s priorities and goals. That said, Cook documents the first two decades of the twenty-first century as a time when USAID came into “increasing alignment with US foreign policy and security objectives” despite its mission as the “lead government agency in efforts to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies” (pp. 298, 297). Across the time being examined, development became a core pillar of US government views of security, and therefore security became a key part of development assistance. This led to a “strong and rapid prioritization of gender in its institutional frameworks” and the increasing recognition of existing USAID programs for women as part of CVE efforts (pp. 332, 329).

The book concludes with chapter 6, “Enter Trump: Counterterrorism Going Forward.” This chapter opens by pointing out that the environment in which US counterterrorism policy is being made is changing, as are the people making the policies. Noting that “the Trump Administration’s approach to national security has contained both elements of change and continuity from its predecessors,” Cook goes over some of the changes through 2019 (p. 360). Identifying some of Trump’s language as “particularly problematic,” Cook suggests that “discourses and reactions utilized by Trump also impact the salience and effectiveness of the broader security agenda” (pp. 364, 361). After going over some of the policies of the Trump administration, Cook discusses the framings of women and security in US approaches to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

After these evaluations, Cook observes that “overall there appeared to be an encouraging shift between 2001 and up to 2019 to think more expansively about women in relation to both counterterrorism and terrorism” (p. 414). Cook looks to push this forward further, though, suggesting that “we” are at a “crucial turning point” and need to “demand that women are involved in meaningful and inclusive ways in all aspects of security and particularly countering terrorism and violent extremism (in its many forms) in our societies” (pp. 420, 421).

By the end of the book, what I thought might be an attempt at normative neutrality toward the US government’s counterterrorism strategies comes to look like normative endorsement. Certainly, Cook is critical both of particular agencies (see discussion of DoD’s knowledge, p. 238) and the US government as a whole (for example, of Trump policies, pp. 363-364), and recognizes intragovernmental tensions (see discussion on p. 36). Cook further notes in the early pages of the book that “terrorism concerns have never constituted an existential threat to the United States” even though “the scale of the campaign against terrorism cannot be understated” (p. 4). I saw these statements as hinting at a critical approach not just to specific counterterrorism policies but to US government counterterrorism more generally. Such a critical approach, however, cannot be found in the closing sentence of the book: demand that women are involved in counterterrorism and CVE. While Cook does not define any of these concepts, the text also does not reject the commonplace definitions of these terms. The argument, then, seems to be for the liberal inclusion of women in the status quo understanding of counterterrorism. In my view, this is something which is both unnecessary to the text as a whole and less justified than the other arguments in the text. My recent work has expressed concerns about the instrumentalization of women’s participation toward security ends, and I have those concerns about the implied prescription coming from this book.[2]

That said, the evidence and analysis of women in the counterterrorism approaches of the different eras and agencies in the United States government after 9/11 in A Woman’s Place is impressive, detailed, thoughtful, and comprehensive. Cook emphasizes the contribution of highlighting the necessity of looking at different agencies, strategies, and actors within a state to understand its policies, and I am convinced on that point. The detail and nuance with which Cook analyzes each step, each factor, each policy, and each event is a real contribution, as is the in-depth incorporation of a number of security situations around the world. Very few books have both the level of theoretical engagement and the level of empirical depth that is found in A Woman’s Place, and I believe it will be a key reference in security studies and terrorism studies in the years to come.


[1]. See, for example, Caron Gentry, Disordered Violence: How Gender, Race, and Heteronormativity Structure Terrorism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020); and Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

[2]. Helen M. Kinsella and Laura Sjoberg, “Family Values? Sexism and Heteronormativity in Feminist Evolutionary Analytic (FEA) Research,” Review of International Studies 45, no. 2 (2019): 260-79.

Citation: Laura Sjoberg. Review of Cook, Joana, A Woman's Place: US Counterterrorism since 9/11. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.