Parry-Giles on Muehlenbeck, 'Gender, Sexuality, and the Cold War: A Global Perspective'

Philip E. Muehlenbeck, ed.
Shawn J. Parry-Giles

Philip E. Muehlenbeck, ed. Gender, Sexuality, and the Cold War: A Global Perspective. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2017. 312 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8265-2142-2; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8265-2143-9.

Reviewed by Shawn J. Parry-Giles (University of Maryland) Published on H-Diplo (November, 2017) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

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In many respects, we are living through a second Cold War. The Russians have retaken Crimea. They not only engaged in a disinformation campaign during the US presidential election in 2016 but also hacked into email accounts of the Democratic National Committee. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is sounding the alarm about a Russian buildup of troops near the borders of the Baltic states and the United States is expanding its nuclear arsenal in different parts of Europe. Given the increased intensity of a second Cold War, it is fitting that the first Cold War is attracting renewed attention as the world grapples with a newly emboldened Russia at the turn of the twenty-first century. 

Gender, Sexuality, and the Cold War takes a step back in time and examines moments of the Cold War left unexplored over the course of the four-decade battle. Philip E. Muehlenbeck’s edited volume shifts the focus away from foreign policy doctrines, psychological warfare battles, and the domino theory and centers instead on the contributions of “gender and sexuality ... in manifesting anxieties during the Cold War and ... post-Cold War” (pp. 2-3). The authors in this volume grapple with the role of “gender and sexuality” in the “master narrative” of the Cold War (p. 3). The aim is to ensure that the “political and the personal” are not artificially separated (p. 4). A key trope of the Cold War, Marko Dumančić maintains in the introductory chapter, was the idea of “deficient masculinity” or “soft masculinity,” which produced a heightened anxiety over the “‘homosexual threat’” (pp. 6, 7). The three parts of the volume reinforce the themes of sexuality, femininities, and masculinities. 

Muehlenbeck’s volume is unique for the global perspective it brings to the Cold War. One chapter views the Cold War through a predominantly US lens (US population control efforts worldwide by Kathleen A. Tobin) while another delves into Soviet Cold War heroes (Yuri Gagarin by Erica L. Fraser). Yet the bulk of the chapters shift the dominant focus away from the two superpowers to show the Cold War’s impact in others parts of Europe (France, Germany, Canada, Iceland, Britain, Czechoslovakia [Czech Republic]), Latin America (Brazil, Mexico), Asia (India, Vietnam), Africa (Ghana), and the Middle East (Egypt). This diversity of contexts and attention to gender and sexuality ensure that this volume will be a welcome addition to Cold War studies. 

Yet readers interested in the topics of gender, sexuality, and the Cold War should not expect a cohesively organized volume of essays. Some edited volumes posit organizing themes in the introduction and ensure that each essay threads the themes through each chapter. Muehlenbeck appears to have given free rein to the authors to tackle an eclectic range of topics. These topics range from discussions of wartime occupations, Christianity and anticommunism, family planning and nation building in socialist states, “queering subversives” (p. 53), women’s activism in wartime, childhood education, documentary films about Vietnam, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations, and views about masculinity during the Korean War. The book is also billed with a focus on the Cold War, yet as Dumančić notes in the introduction, some chapters spill over into the post-Cold War (for example, “A Vietnamese Woman Directs the War Story: Duc Hoan, 1937-2003,” by Karen Turner). 

The three sections also exhibit an unevenness (five chapters on sexuality, six chapters on femininities, and two chapters on masculinities), and some chapters exhibit a loose connection to these themes. Some of the chapters in the sexuality section seem thinly tethered to the sexuality theme. One insightful chapter by Tobin, “US Perspectives on International Birthrates during the Cold War,” focuses specifically on US attempts to either control or monitor birthrates in regions like the Soviet Union, China, and parts of Latin America. The chapter’s connection to sexuality is murky, raising questions over how the subjects differ meaningfully between the “Sexuality” section and the “Femininities” section. One chapter in the “Sexuality” section is titled “French Occupation Policy toward Women and Children in Postwar Germany” (by Katherine Rossy). Another chapter in the “Femininities” section is about “postcolonial nonalignment” in Ghana where the “kitchen” served as a liberating function for women (by Jeffrey S. Ahlman) (p. 170). Both chapters examine women’s (and children’s) containment and empowerment; why they are placed in different sections is puzzling. The editor also curiously pluralizes femininity and masculinity but not sexuality. To clarify the organizational structure, the editor needed to bring greater clarity to his conceptualizations of sexuality, femininities, and masculinities. 

And some chapters seem more about the secondary topic of analysis than the Cold War. An interesting chapter by Nichole Sanders, “The Medicalization of Childhood in Mexico during the Early Cold War, 1945-1960,” seems only tangentially related to the Cold War. This medicalization happened during the Cold War yet the Cold War did not appear to inspire such medicalization activity. The Cold War theme is more buried in this chapter than in others. 

In the end, this loose coherence does not take away from the strength of the individual chapters. The following four chapters reflect the insight of the contributions made in the volume overall. Patrizia Gentile, for example, explores the ways in which the Canadian government treated gays and lesbians as “subversives” during the Cold War because they were believed to threaten the stability of the nation-state (p. 53). Gentile shows how Canada mimicked the “queering” of “subversives” in the United States under McCarthyism, where the most fervent anti-communists argued for ridding government of “homosexuals” due to fears they were vulnerable to Soviet blackmail (p. 56). Canadian officials also presumed that "homosexual" activists working outside of government were intent on undermining the capitalist system. The “Canadian security regime” ultimately acted on their presumption that “homosexuals” suffered from “personality defects” and “‘character weakness[es]’” (p. 63). These perceived security risks resulted in “surveillance” campaigns to rid the country of the threat. Unlike the United States, which mounted a public campaign against gays and lesbians during the Cold War, Canada conducted such surveillance acts in “secret” (p. 56). Within her chapter, Gentile explores these secret acts by delving into the intelligence reports found in the papers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. 

Tobin’s chapter on birthrates and the Cold War is particularly intriguing. Tobin demonstrates the ways in which the United States and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) responded to population growth in vulnerable regions like the Middle East as a threat to the region’s stability and correspondingly to US national security. The research for the essay was impressive as Tobin examined US government reports on birthrates and US practices of disseminating “contraceptives” and family planning information during the heart of the Cold War (p. 102). Tobin concludes that such interests in population control “were rooted in economics and a desire to preserve and expand the US global position in the name of national security” (p. 103). 

Other essays provide a more intersectional approach that addresses gender and race or feminism and class within a Cold War context. Valur Ingimundarson, for example, examines the ways in which US soldiers were “segregated” in Iceland in the early Cold War years to prevent the “fraternization” of Icelanders and Americans (p. 41). Ingimundarson also shows how Icelanders were most bent on banning “black soldiers” from their nation’s borders to preserve “racial purity” (p. 43). The chapter ultimately explores the “‘policing of sexuality’” that stigmatized Iceland women as “national traitors for consorting with troops” (p. 35). The country also imposed a “secret racist ban” on black soldiers from the United States, revealing the global reach of racism throughout the Cold War (p. 36). 

Elisabeth Armstrong also offers a compelling essay, “Indian Women’s Activism in a Hot Cold War,” in which she examines types of Indian “feminism” by grappling with local political activity to show how women from cities to rural communities worked to “resist British practices” and combat “sexual and economic exploitation” in the Cold War. The essay dealt with how class as well as culture and nationhood intersected with gender and the Cold War to marginalize and activate women. As Armstrong argues, “Peasant women in the hot Cold War of Asia and Africa exposed the colonial and feudal complicity in the colonies,” making clear how women helped to build “women’s pan-Asian, anti-imperial solidarity through their collective refusal of these embodied systems of exploitation” (p. 133). 

These are but four instances of insightful essays that Muehlenbeck commissioned for his volume. Cold War scholars as well as scholars of gender, sexuality, and militarism will find this volume of great interest. Readers will be delighted to find a smorgasbord of subjects to explore.

Citation: Shawn J. Parry-Giles. Review of Muehlenbeck, Philip E., ed., Gender, Sexuality, and the Cold War: A Global Perspective. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. November, 2017. URL:

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