The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide

| January 2021
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The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide, Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 616 pp., cloth $40, paperback $28, eBook $27.99.

This book begins with the story of how one of its authors, Valerie Hudson, while chatting with one of the first woman ministers of the Afghan Parliament, commented on how much progress women had made in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban. The minister explained, however, that while she had political power in the public realm, under customary law she was still subordinated in the private realm of her home. If her husband says, “I divorce you” three times, she will be made homeless and lose access to her children without recourse to justice. This story was one of the first catalysts compelling the authors to theoretically and empirically examine how intimate relationships between husbands and wives are linked to security at a national and international level.

Hudson and her coauthors proceed to convincingly argue that the fate of a nation is tied to the status of its women. The book explores and clearly delineates how the first political order, that of the relationship between a husband and wife in the home, and how women are treated within this relationship, is reflected in the political order that has developed in that society and influences the degree of stability, wealth, and peacefulness of the nation-state. The book is divided into three sections. Part 1 provides the theoretical framework and empirical data; part 2 develops the theoretical framework; and part 3 considers the possibility of change to social systems. What the authors refer to as “The Syndrome” are the patrilineal/fraternal system of kinships, clans, and tribes who strive for security through dominance. They do this by creating systems of male fraternal bonding that are dependent on the use of violence as a means of control and the commoditization of women’s and girls’ bodies to cement bonds between families. To assess the Syndrome across countries, the authors measure on a sixteen-point scale the presence of eleven different cultural practices as indicators: (1) the practice of patrilocal marriage, where women move in with the man’s family; (2) early or childhood marriage; (3) personal status laws that benefit men and give women few rights; (4) laws restricting women from property ownership; (5) bride price and dowry customs; (6) the preference for having a son and thereby a sex-ratio alteration; (7) marriage between cousins; (8) polygyny; (9) impunity for the killing of women; (10) the rape of women being viewed as a property crime against men; and (11) physical violence and force, which is used universally to dominate and control women. Looking at this list, we may be tempted to think that such kinships are operating in a minority of countries. The opposite is in fact true. According to this scale, the Syndrome currently exists in 120 of the 176 countries assessed. The authors’ theory is that men are dependent on women as bearers of children, in particular male children, who are valued more highly for religious, cultural, and social reasons, and that this leads men to seek dominance over women. The Syndrome works systematically through women’s unequal participation in family decision-making, unequal access to resources, violence in the home used against women, and unequal status in common law. The eleven identified practices are consistent across space and time and strengthen fraternal alliances while subordinating women. All eleven practices are interrelated, creating a vicious cycle that the authors compare to the ouroboros, a mythical snake of antiquity eternally swallowing its tail.

The heart of the book focuses on the empirical data that supports the authors’ analysis of the negative impact that the Syndrome has on everyone in society—on men and boys as well as women and girls. The authors theorize that the Syndrome not only systematically abuses women by inflicting physical, sexual, and psychological trauma and harm but also heightens insecurity and instability within the wider group. This happens through a complex mix of fluctuating factors. For example, the practices of bride price and polygyny render men with access to several wives “elite.” If lower-status men cannot afford bride price they will not have offspring or male heirs, a crucial aspect of masculine rites of passage into manhood within the kinship. This can create tensions, leading to violence and group instability that can spill over into intrastate conflict between clans/tribes and even interstate wars, creating national and international insecurity.

Women’s access to equal education, economic participation, and political representation, while important, is not enough to break the Syndrome. Dismantling the Syndrome requires transformative legal and social norms that create contract societies rather than status societies. This would necessitate the adoption of new marriage and family laws, such as the ending of child marriage and polygyny; and new property rights laws, such as establishing women’s right to inherit and own property and land. The creation of these new laws would require men to wake up to how the Syndrome forces them to live in violent, dysfunctional, poor, and unstable societies, and how by letting go of the domination of women they can create a shared vision of a better life, alongside women.

The book’s strength lies in its comprehensive theoretical framework linking the situation, security, and status of women in their households to governance, stability, and national security. It does this by gathering extensive data from 176 nations and adopting a multidisciplinary research approach to support its theoretical arguments. The authors explain that their research on the Syndrome and national outcomes is in the exploratory stage and as such they make claims of association rather than of causality. The book offers a robust contribution to the literature on national and international security by drawing on history, anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and political science, and accessing open-source data on 350 different variables detailing the situation of women country by country. (For more information, refer to the WomanStats Project, which maps this data on its website). It cross-references multiple indices such as the Global Gender Gap Index, the Gender Inequality Index, Fragile States Index, the Political Instability Index, the Global Peace Index, and the World Bank’s government effectiveness index, and concludes with extensive appendices outlining how the data was tested.

A potential area for future research is the role of men in ending the Syndrome “because nothing will change until men change” (p. 375). By exploring and assessing research and programs designed specifically to engage men in dismantling discriminatory gender norms and ending violence against women, organizations such as Promundo, MenEngage, and Sonke Social Justice could share relevant insights into alternative practices and processes that support men’s evolution from modes of dominance and control in their relationships with women to modes of cooperation and interdependence.

The great achievement of this book is the extensive data underpinning its argument that the subordination of women anywhere undermines national security and stability everywhere (p. 5). Statistical analysis links women’s insecurity and subordination with food insecurity, poverty, fragility, violence, the rise of autocratic regimes, and intra/interstate conflict. Surely, therefore, our moral imperative is to break the Syndrome if we want a more peaceful, secure, and stable world. Yet, as the authors themselves ponder, how likely is it that academic and policy fields of national security studies are prepared to receive and act on this research?

Interestingly, although the research was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, the organization’s recently launched implementation plan for the U.S. national security strategy on women, peace, and security (2020) lacks any reference to this study. This would seem to be a clear indication that the study has not, as of yet, been acted upon by those particular policymakers. However, those of us who are professors do have the power in university classrooms, and a key aspect of teaching is bringing new research to our students, many of whom will become future policymakers. Therefore, I am excited to be able to add this book to my curriculum and look forward to engaging students in critique and debate of the multifarious aspects of how sex shapes governance and national security worldwide. As the authors state in the final words of the book: “That time has come to slay that old serpent, that old ourobous, and for men and women to build together a new first political order in its stead. That new order of equal partnership is the sturdy foundation of all good, all peace, all security, all freedom—and all hope” (p. 378).


—Shirley Graham

Shirley Graham, PhD, is an associate professor of practice in International Affairs in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, where she teaches graduate courses on global gender policy and gender, war, and peace; and an undergraduate course on women and global politics.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 34.4

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