American Amazons: The Gendered Construction of Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice in the Libyan Conflict

Posted in 2011 Journal


The business of building a case for war has rarely been an easy one. In the case of the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011, an added dimension of gendered politics acted as a stumbling block for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama foreign policy adviser Samantha Power and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. Their calls for U.S. military intervention earned them the title of “Amazons” – war-making, aggressive women – in the U.S. media. This paper tracks and examines the media coverage of the women in March and April, 2011, the time leading up to the air strikes on Libya. Throughout, I take into account the effect of this characterization on the Obama administration as a whole, as well as precedents of women in leadership or foreign policy roles, such as Margaret Thatcher and Madeleine Albright. The case of Clinton, Rice and Power reveals a major point of contention in not only gendered expectations for women in power, but also for the policy debate between military intervention for humanitarian reasons vs. security reasons.

In the lead up to the U.S. involvement in the conflict in Libya in early 2011, an idea spread virally across the media: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power, and ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice had banded together to push for war, against the wishes of the (uniformly male) military establishment and even the commander-in-chief. Specifically, they were branded “Amazons” and “Valkyries” – both mythological representations of war-making women. The idea of these three bellicose, bullying female politicians quickly spread as far as the New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd and other outlets such as The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor.

First of all, it seems strange that Clinton and Power were lumped together, the latter of whom lost her job as an adviser for the Obama campaign in 2008 after calling Clinton a “monster” (Hayden, 2011). It is even more strange that the media are surprised by the fact that these women are calling for war: historically, Power and Rice have experience dealing with humanitarian crises abroad such as those in Bosnia and Rwanda – crises, naturally, that they wished the U.S. not repeat. Power even won a Pulitzer Prize for her book about responding to and preventing genocide, A Problem From Hell. As for Clinton, she voted for the Iraq war during the Bush administration, hardly making her a dove. Also, she could hardly forget that her husband said his biggest regret during his presidency was not intervening in the genocide in Rwanda.</p.

As soon as the Amazon meme appeared, Politico columnist Mike Allen received an email from the White House saying that the three women were not even at the meeting where Obama decided to proceed with U.S. intervention in Libya (Dowd, 2011). Further, Rice had to use old-fashioned diplomacy to get through the 10-5 vote in the U.N. Security Council to intervene in Libya (Michon, 2011). Why, therefore, did the media deem it so noteworthy that all three hawks were female? With these facts in mind, this paper aims to explore the construction of war-making women in power by analyzing the cultural history of women at war, as well as conducting a discursive analysis of the opinion pieces in which this representation was found during the lead up to the U.S. involvement in Libya in March 2011. In particular, I examine why these women were chosen for this characterization while other strong female leaders in history were not, and whether there is a way forward in terms of both our media discourse and gender representation.</p.

Theoretical Background

In order for the meme of Amazon women to function so well in a political discourse, there must be some cognitive component replicating and reinforcing the idea in the minds of those housing it. Linguistic and critical theorists have interrelated descriptions for this phenomenon. Van Dijck (2007) calls it “manipulative prototypes,” that is, categories for “participants and their properties as well as the typical (inter)actions they are thought to perform, how, when and where” (p. 375). The narrative qualities of this representation catch hold in peoples’ minds, since they fit so well with their preexisting individual and group beliefs and values. Gamson and Monigliani call this same idea “packages” in that the meme works with these previous values to make a message seem “natural and familiar” (Fahey, 2009, p. 133). Paul Chilton (2004) calls it “framing,” defined as a conceptual model or area of experience in a culture. From a critical theory point of view, Louis Althusser approaches the same idea from a different perspective. Subjects are interpellated, or called to, by a certain representation that is indicative of an ideology. What I would like to illustrate, then, is which gendered ideology is represented by the Amazonian depiction, and how the gendered language in the opinion pieces function as interpellation toward this ideology. At this point, it should be evident that my perspective as a researcher comes out of a feminist perspective grounded in deconstructing gender essentialization.

Further, the Clinton, Rice and Power issue has larger significance than simply name calling about an international conflict. In reality, political name calling matters. After all, the political sphere is one of the primary places where hegemonic masculinity is asserted: that is, “cultural idealized forms of masculine character link male identity with traits such as physical toughness and competitiveness, and elevate those above other stereotypical gender or sexuality traits” (Fahey, 2009, p. 134). Since the Libya conflict carries associations with the imagined connection between manhood and nationhood, Edouard Said’s theory of Orientalism is also useful to consider, as it outlines the binary between masculine Western powers and the feminized, irrational Other of the East. Gramsci’s idea of hegemony, then, takes two forms in this paper: one of men and women in the United States, and one of the United States and Western powers and the Middle East. This gendered hegemony can often be represented in subtle ways, not just labeling: imagine how much media time has been dedicated to the wardrobe choices of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi – or those of Hillary Clinton.

In order to bring together critical theory and discourse analysis, I refer to Paul Chilton’s (2004) map of deixis: by being represented of Amazons and Valkyries, Clinton, Power and Rice are placed far away from the center of the hegemonic male “we” representation. This is true of all three of Chilton’s axes: the Amazons and Valkyries are geographically distant, chronologically distant, and modally distant. The relation of the first two axes to the historical and physical distance of Valyries and Amazons should be evident. In terms of the latter characterization, I do not mean to suggest that there are no female soldiers today; rather that the moral codes governing three Norse demi-goddesses or an all-female warrior tribe are distinctly different from the rationalized discourse of war today.

Methodology and Data Selection

I will approach the Amazon problem by conducting a discourse analysis; my reasons for this are twofold. First, discourse analysis allows us to “pay attention not only to the explicit contents of the text, but also to the spatial and temporal environment in which it is presented” (Montero, 2000, 53). In other words, in the case of characterization of women as Valkyries or Amazons, the devil is in the details. Second, a discourse analysis provides an interesting counterpoint to my other method of analysis, viewing the problem through the lens of a critical theorist. Just like discourse analysis, critical theory is concerned with power relations, but it also provides a macro-level, culturally based approach to who dominates whom and how. To be more specific, I will focus on Gramsci’s ideas of hegemony and Althusser’s ideas of ideological interpellation, especially by state actors. In this sense, I hope to weave the two methods together in an interdisciplinary fashion not only as a means to provide multiple views on an issue but also to fill any gaps one particular method may leave in the analysis.

My data set is collected from a series of opinion pieces published in American news sources in March and April 2011. As the conflict in Libya is such a recent development, I used all the references I could find of the three women, searching through Google News and other search engines using terms like “Clinton Libya” and “Clinton Power Rice”. I did not limit my search to conservative media; interestingly, the gendered language did not fall squarely along partisan lines, appearing prominently in liberal news outlets such as The Nation. I did, however, exclude personal blogs, as being associated with professional news outlets gives the Amazon meme more legitimacy as well as a good chance of increased readership. As I conducted my analysis, I purposely juxtaposed the cultural history of the Amazons and Valkyries alongside my discourse analysis, in order to place it in an appropriate context.


One etymology of ‘Amazon’ traces the word to the Greek a mazos – without breasts; this refers to the legend that the all-female Amazon tribes were said to remove their right breasts in order to more easily operate a bow and arrow. These fearsome warriors were said to be from barbaric lands such as Asia minor and ironically, Libya (Smith, 2011). In this sense, by altering their natural feminine state, the Amazons had to cheat nature in order to be on a level playing field with men. In the same way, by being forceful in their convictions, female politicians and stateswomen must “break the rules of gentlemanly engagement in order to break the rules of gender and politics” (Lim, 2009, 261). Hence, because she has broken these rules of engagement, Clinton is described as “fearsome when she seems angry” (Weiner, 2011, para. 2).

The trope of women in power being confused over their own sexuality is a common one. Mercer (2011) somewhat confusingly describes the women’s drive to attack Libya as “a product of the romantic minds of women who fantasize about an Arab awakening…estrogen-driven paternalism on steroids” (para. 3). Whether the steroids are souped-up estrogen or testosterone is not clear. What Mercer seems to suggest is that Clinton, Rice and Power are confused about their own gender. Her title, “Libya: A war of the womb” brings out the seeming absurdity that women at war, and indeed, humanitarian hawks in general, are supposed to inspire. I will explore the implications of women buying into a paternalistic system later on in this paper.

What, then, are the options for how female politicians can behave? For Clinton, Power and Rice, they are “all perceived to be strong leaders, but were thought so at the expense of their ‘femininity’ and likeability” (Lim, 2009, 255). Thus, they have to metaphorically remove their breasts in order to become politically and militarily powerful. The alternative, to be a beauty queen leader, à la Sarah Palin, would surely seem to them unconscionable as it would mean not being taken seriously. The case of Venezuela’s presidential candidate and former beauty queen Irene Saez shows this clearly, since her “physical image… is her main political discourse” (Montero, 2000, p. 53). In fact, even when Saez opened her mouth, the new text “became the eyesore of the beholder…silencing itself” because presumably, talking about policy conflicted with her image of a vacant beauty queen (Montero, 2000, p. 65). In terms of war, the only ways in which beauty queens can be warriors is against their own unsightly bulges, blemishes and the like. Rather than meddling in international affairs, the only arena where female attack is approved without question is when it is directed toward the female body (Lazar, 2009).

Other than Amazons, one of the phrases most often cited in the opinion pieces was “Valkyries” – the goddesses of Norse mythology who decided who on the battlefield would live and who would die. The etymology of the word Valkyrie comes from the Norse for “chooser of the slain” (Merriam-Webster). Jacob Heilbrunn (2011) describes Clinton, Rice and Power thus:

Now these Valkyries of foreign affairs want to come riding in on a new humanitarian mission to rescue the Libyan people from their oppressor. But will it end happily? Or will it be a new chapter in the twilight of the Gods – another blow to mighty America’s reputation? (para. 3).

Here the characterization refers to Norse mythology’s story of the Norse kingdom’s eventual demise – although the part where the Valkyries decide the fate of the entire kingdom resides in Heilbrund’s mind, not the sagas and eddas of Norse legend. However, the effect is undeniable: such a narrative demands to know why we are leaving the fate of the nation up to three irrational creatures who are certainly not human, and possibly confused about being female.

Another historical allusion reinforces this idea: Heilbrunn (2011) also describes Clinton, Rice and Power as a “troika” – a term that calls to mind Stalin’s extrajudicial councils to quickly and harshly punish suspected anti-Soviet activists (para. 2). Like the Valkyries, a troika is generally a group of three meting out judgment on the populace, yet because of the Stalinist associations, they have the additional metaphorical association of committing atrocities against their own people. Further, troikas in the U.S.S.R. were known for their expediency, sentencing without a trial, suggesting that Clinton, Rice and Power were overly hasty in calling for war, or even bloodthirsty. Both characterizations, in the end, work together to suggest that we should be afraid of Clinton, Rice and Power, and especially their supposed hasty and illegitimate judgment. Considering this, I will now explore what indeed a woman’s role should be in diplomacy.

Can women play a ‘man’s game’?

Throughout the opinion pieces’ characterization of Clinton, Rice and Power the idea of these women somehow remolding themselves to fit in with a male-led system pervades. This is also part of the idea of hegemony, that less enfranchised groups such as women and people of color sympathize with those who have privilege and thus imitate them as what they see as the only way to gain power. In other words, how could women be reliably less warlike “given that men set up and control the system through which those women must rise?” (Pollitt, 2011, para. 1). Women in politics thus have two options: opt out completely or conform to the male standard, something I will show that because of gendered categories is categorically impossible.

Most importantly, when applied to the case of war-making women, the notion of playing a man’s game assumes that given the choice, women would rather not make war. In fact, it also assumes that women choosing to advocate for military action are acting against their own biological nature. There is a corresponding cultural narrative surrounding this myth that the “biological ability to bear children … is seen to be at odds with terminating life” (Pattinson, 2008, p. 11). In times of war, there is a culturally sanctioned place for women, but it is not on the battlefield, but “as weepers and as keepers of the flame of peaceful values” (Poulos, 2009, p. 5). Like Penelope, women must stay at home while their Odyssean men are allowed to disregard “civilized” values as they go off to war and unproblematically reclaim them as they return. Poulos (2009) describes it as “the collective projection of the pure, the rarefied, the self-sacrificing, the otherworldly, and the pacific Other in opposition, and complementary to political philosophy’s complex construction of the (male) Just Warrior” (p. 4). Nonetheless, the weepers and mourners also serve the purpose of legitimizing war, by suggesting that making war is an inherent part of (male) human nature.

The Just Warrior narrative has served more purposes than simply legitimizing war. In fact, many female pacifists have appropriated the frame to advance their own cause, drawing a morality of pacifism from the idea of motherhood (Bloch, Hegel). Poulos calls this the “Moral Mother” trope. Indeed, the idea of women’s suffrage “was originally justified in part on the grounds that women were less likely to vote for war” (Chait, 2011, para. 4). Of course, neither the Moral Mother nor the Just Warrior leaves any room for a female humanitarian hawk – something that would be a double contradiction in terms: between female and hawk and between humanitarian and hawk.

In contrast with the feminist pacifists, there has been a historical drive for women to gain equal combat rights in the military. Equal rights are often the cause in question: “it is women’s right and even responsibility to perform martial service because the military is the sine qua non of full citizenship and thus equality” (Poulos, 2009, p. 3). The women who make war in spite of cultural obstacles are often subjects of media and cultural fascination, from Joan of Arc to G.I. Jane. But according to traditional frames, women are only allowed to engage in war for short periods of time and with good reason, or else like female serial killers, they are “bad” or “mad” (Pattinson, 2008, p. 12). They have also received more attention because they function as exceptions that prove the rule, in that it would take something along Joan of Arc’s vision from God to make a woman want to go to war. Extreme circumstances are necessary because unlike men, women need to justify violent actions because they do not have a discourse available to refer to (Pattinson, 2008). Unfortunately, a good reason to make war does not include reason or personal experience, the factors that drove Clinton, Rice and Power. Unlike the saucy story of a woman gone mad or on a personally vindictive rampage, using international relations expertise to prevent a humanitarian crisis is something that, as Clinton noted, cannot be easily covered by the nightly news (Bumiller and Kirkpatrick, 2011).

Even among the female soldiers who have made it into the modern imagination, there are many restrictions. Women are only supposed to fight in extreme circumstances and limited duration, such as the British female paramilitary in WWII. As soon as a more traditional discourse was available, these women took it: “the public were reassured in the tabloid press that they were not masculine in appearance and that they had returned to conventional womanly roles after their wartime adventures” (Pattinson, 2008, p. 27). An anonymous State Department insider told The Daily’s Josh Hersh something similar about Clinton, that she would decline if asked to be Secretary of State if Obama wins reelection, and that “She wants to be a grandmother more than anything” (2011, para. 20). The problem with such a statement is not that Clinton might wish her daughter Chelsea to reproduce, but that the categories “Secretary of State” and “grandmother” ideologically conflict, in the way that “grandfather” would not. Just as in the case of the WWII paramilitary women, Clinton retiring and becoming a full-time grandmother would comfort the public because it would fit in with the narratives they have experienced and interpellated before. In this way, the statement assuming Clinton’s preferences is undermining her current power: if she would rather be elsewhere, why should anyone take her seriously? This hits upon the same problem Clinton experienced as a presidential candidate, where the media was quick to explore her foibles or wardrobe choices but not take her seriously.

In contrast, women who continue to fight or are not conventionally beautiful do not fit in to this discourse. Some, as Clinton, Rice and Power, are then accused of not really being female, as a headline states: “They know who wears the pants in this country” (Krikorian, 2011, para. 1). Power is especially interesting here, as she is both Irish-born and as attractive as the WWII paramilitary women, one article even describing her as “the femme fatale of the humanitarian-assistance world” (McKelvey, 2011, para. 1). Being foreign has been one obvious way Power has been criticized in the past: she has been labeled anti-American and “a decided enemy of the Jewish state” for her push to intervene in the Israel-Palestinian conflict (Washington Times, 2011, para. 5). Michon (2011) describes the two narratives available here for women making a case for war: one, that “Clinton, Rice and Power walked into the Oval Office, batted their eyes, and asked the President to pretty-please attack that mean old Mr. Gadhafi” or two, that they “march[ed] in and grab[bed] him by the scruff and order[ed] him to launch the damn Tomahawks already” (para. 14). The thing that both characterizations have in common is that they are equally damaging to the male-led discourse. A femme fatale, in other words, is equally as dangerous to the male hegemon as “ball busting” women.

This discussion leads to another commonality among the opinion pieces I examined: the suggestion of a battle of the sexes about the battle in Libya. The idea of men having a natural talent for war mentioned earlier has something to do with this expectation: Knickerbocker’s headline “A ‘gender gap’ in Obama administration’s approach to war?” has a number of meanings, none of them flattering for women. Is he referring to a talent or ability gap in waging war? There are certainly precedents for this type of accusation: Hersh (2011) quotes an unnamed insider describing Obama’s foreign policy staff as “amateur night” (para. 10). Dreyfuss (2011) takes the same stance, casting doubt on Rice’s ability to lobby for U.N. Security Council votes, saying she “had to dragoon tiny little countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Portugal to vote yes” since “legitimate” countries such as India, Brazil, Germany, China and Russia abstained from the vote (para. 5). In order to cast further discredit Rice’s ability to persuade others, he says she had to “scurry out to find the South African ambassador” who was trying to avoid voting (2011, para. 5).

On the other hand, does Knickerbocker’s “gender gap” headline mean to suggest that the three women are overshooting in order to make up for past inequalities? Surprisingly, President Obama himself has not exactly discouraged this line of reasoning, joking at the Gridiron Club dinner that Clinton has “gotten a little passionate about the subject” of the Middle East and that “These past few weeks it’s been tough falling asleep with Hillary out there on Pennsylvania Avenue shouting, throwing rocks at the window” (Hersh, 2011, para. 18). Sadly, the fact that he made such a statement suggests that Obama himself has been indoctrinated in the Hillary “angry woman” trope, even to the point where he can play it for laughs. From a linguistic perspective, Hodge and Mansfield (1985) would tie such behavior to “in group” humor, in which an identity and solidarity is expressed by alienating another group or person. In both cases, though, the “gender gap” idea suggests another related headline: Politico’s “Boys against girls”: the idea is not only that that one gender must win out over another, but also that individuals cannot make choices based on their own preferences – only their hormones (2011).

Critical theory has a good deal to say on this subject. In this same vein, gender is incorrectly assumed to be innate rather than (as Judith Butler would have it) performative. From the point of view of pundits, any move a female politician makes can be attributed to her gender, even if, as in the case of Rice, her performance is more likely a product of the circumstances of multilateral negotiations or the particular personalities involved. If a woman politician’s actions do not fit into a predetermined narrative, the problem is never assumed to be with the ideology of gendered binaries, but rather with the woman herself, who is confused about how she should behave. When Obama, even as Clinton’s superior, has been successfully interpellated into a gendered discourse to the point where it becomes unconscious, such is the danger of use of gendered categories in politics. He can perform masculinity, but appears only to be able to do so at the expense of one of his most important cabinet members.

Why these women and not others?

As Lim (2009) points out, gendered metaphors tend to be “backward looking” because “we are far more likely to have experienced women as mothers and beauty queens than senators or presidents” (p. 258). Fair enough; but we have already experienced two female secretaries of state: Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice. There have also been a number of strong female heads of state abroad, such as “Iron Ladies” Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir. All the women in question appear to more or less adhere to the idea of humanitarian international relations, that is, none are shy to push for military interventions in crises abroad. As I examine gendered attitudes in the U.S., I will leave a discussion of comparative cultural roles in the case of Meir and Thatcher for another occasion and for future research and analysis. In the case of the American female secretaries of state, both Albright and Rice were heavily involved in making the case for wars in Kosovo and Iraq, respectively; yet they were not accused of being warmongers. Albright is even famous for having clashed with Colin Powell about Kosovo, saying, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” (Dowd, 2011, para. 10). Why the discrepancy between the female hawks of yesterday and today’s Clinton, Power and Rice?

Bart and Hamilton (2009) may have a partial answer: they tie Albright and Rice’s policy to a notion of feminist International Relations: an ideology that “redefines security, security-seeking behaviors, and power, expanding them beyond the traditional-masculine to suggest alternative (feminine) discourse for conducting foreign policy” (p. 88). Although this approach relies on gendered binaries with which I would take issue, it does appear to have been effective for the two former secretaries of state, in that their calls for war were recognized rather than derided. It is not just that they were perceived to have a feminine cooperative rather than male domineering management style; rather the two also were overtly conscious of their gender as they asked for war, appealing to the plight of the women and children in the nations affected (Bart and Hamilton, 2009). In such a way they could associate themselves with a “protective mother” trope, and make it difficult for others to question their motives. As mentioned previously, since women have less precedent for making war, this type of justification is often necessary to gain legitimacy.

On the other hand, Clinton’s February 2011 statement about why the U.S. should intervene in Libya mentions only “innocent civilians,” never resorting to gendered language or references to Libyan women and children being in danger. It remains to be seen whether such an approach would have worked, given Clinton’s previously existing reputation as being neither man nor woman. Although they may have navigated gendered power issues more easily than Clinton, Albright and Rice also likely found that “success comes at the price of maintaining masculine discourse of power/security that obscures women’s roles and feminine values in the larger world community” (Bart and Hamilton, 2009, p. 102). What I would question is whether we should always assume that all women will subscribe to these “feminine” values.

There is another important distinction between this war and others I must note: some prominent military men have argued against intervention in Libya, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and White House chief of staff William Daley, among others. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark said of the strikes “it seems we have no clear basis for action” (Knickerbocker, 2011, p. 2). In other words, terrorism or threats against America are valid bases for war, not humanitarian reasons. Further, the fact that military men – the epitome of masculinity – are not hungry for war seems to suggest that Clinton, Power, and Rice are being either bloodthirsty or irrational. What I believe this discrepancy truly suggests is not a battle of the sexes but simply a divergence in foreign policy doctrine. Bush-era foreign policy, often supported by members of the military and conservatives, was about unilateral regime change due to terrorist and/or commercial interests; Obama-era foreign policy, if Libya is a precedent, is about multilateral and regionally-backed regime change due to humanitarian issues. Gendered language, then, is the veil behind which to hide this humanitarian ideology for those who happen to disagree with it.

Nagged into war

Although deconstructing gendered representations of women is a useful exercise, in another sense, could this attack not be about the “troika” at all but rather a thinly disguised attempt to emasculate President Barack Obama? The labels thrown at Obama are straight out of Freudian discourse: homosexual, castrated, not a real man (suggesting of course that woman politicians, just like all women, are nothing more than a castrated man). In the articles deriding the three women policymakers, Obama is described as an “effete vacillator who is pushed around by his female subordinates…[who] nagged him to attack Libya until he gave in” (Krikorian, 2011, para. 1). These characterizations are similar to those on 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry for being a “flip flopper” who, contrary to traditional masculine narratives, allows himself to be persuaded by others (Keen, 2004, para. 4).

Other commentators minced words even less: Michon said that Obama had been “pussywhipped into war by three women” while Rush Limbaugh called male liberals “the new castrati – they’re sissies!” (Dowd, 2011, para. 5). Again, this is simply a continuation of a conservative discourse, popularized by former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s penchant for referring to his opponents as “girlie men” (Nicholas 2004). In this sense, Obama’s seeming inability to put women in their place is made to seem dangerous because “to have it confirmed so publicly for less-attentive foreign goons means that they’re that much more likely to try to push us and see how The One responds” (Krikorian, 2011, para. 2). Sadly, this suggests that the U.S. must continue to reinforce traditional, essentialized gender norms simply because our opponents do.

This indirect strategy of attacking Obama is another side of the same strategy taken by some columnists in later questioning his decision to “lead from the back” in the Libya and let the French attack Libya first. France has long been associated with feminized values in American political discourse, and this strategy would mirror the previous attacks on Kerry for his French heritage, associating him with “snobbery, elitist arrogance, and military incompetence” (Fahey, 2007, p. 133). Even politicians who agree with the intervention in Libya, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have given the women, not Obama, the credit for entering the war. Graham stated: “I thank God for strong women in the Obama administration. I don’t know what finally got the president to act. But I am very worried that we are taking a backseat, not the leadership role” (Costa, 2011, para. 2). The foreign policy Amazons, then, are simply a tool for contrast in a scheme to make the president look weak. If this is the purpose, the fact that the women are made ridiculous is simply a side effect.


As shown throughout this study, the effect of calling Clinton, Rice and Power “Amazon women” and “Valkyries” has been threefold: it makes them seem irrational, it subtracts from their identities as women, and it undermines the masculinity and presidency of Barack Obama. These ulterior motives should be considered because other women in recent history and similar positions of power have called for war without even close to such a kerfuffle. Of course, part of the reason this meme took hold could be simply that it is the self-reinforcing continuation of media ire against Clinton. But the addition of the other two women must be significant because previously Power had only been admired for her flowing red locks and Irish accent, while Rice was virtually ignored. Perhaps, as Michon (2011) suggests, it is simply a matter that “three women means three times the opportunity to point out how these ladies fall short of God-ordained feminine norms” (para. 7). Having a stable number such as three also means that Clinton was not the only outlier, and the beginnings of a trend can be inferred and that it is significant to write about.

Although the media coverage of Clinton, Power and Rice is certainly frustrating, it is not without opportunity. From a critical theory point of view, it is always important to look for areas of resistance to dominant hegemonic models. Although pundits may say their language is too ‘masculine’, I assert that Clinton, Power and Rice are gradually redefining institutions by refraining from playing into sweeping generalizations about their gender as politicians like Sarah Palin do. In her work “Three Guineas,” Virginia Woolf’s depiction of female fighters’ role is “breaking up the male monopoly on the ‘hard virtues’ and thus divesting them of the need to prove their masculinity through war” (Poulos, 2009, p. 10). In this sense, the cultural institution will have to change its depiction of masculinity at the same time it changes its depiction of femininity. This is not, as some may label Clinton, “emasculating.” Rather, this change would allow men and women both the freedom to choose to fight – or not – without it threatening their identities as men and women.

Unfortunately, we are not yet at a point in history where politicians’ gender is inconsequential, even for liberals. As Pollitt (2011) snarkily points out in a response to the Amazon characterization, “can you imagine a piece in The Nation titled ‘Black President Opts for Bombs’ or ‘Gadhafi, a Man, Threatens to Massacre Rebels, Most of Whom Are Also Men’? ” (para. 4). It is perhaps only at the point when we are at least as familiar with women being senators and presidents as mothers and beauty queens that the male monopoly on hard virtues can break down, and headlines no longer point to a politician’s gender as significant. Although Clinton, Power and Rice may be characterized by their gender, it is thanks to these trailblazers that perhaps their daughters and granddaughters will instead be characterized by their abilities and actions.

Works Referenced

Alterman, J. (2011, June). “Hillary Clinton: Woman of the World.” Vanity Fair. Retrieved from

Bart, H. and Hamilton, H. (2009). “Madame Secretary: Is the Female Voice a Difference That Makes a Difference in National Security Discourse?” Gender and Political Communication in America: Rhetoric, Representation and Display. Ed. Edwards, J. Plymouth, U.K.: Lexington Books. 87-106.

Bumiller, E. and Kirkpatrick, D. (2011, March 24). “Airstrikes Pound Libya.” New York Times. Retrieved from

Carlson, M. (2011, March 22). “Girl Power Tests History’s Great Man Theory: Margaret Carlson.” Business Week. Retrieved from

Chait, J. (2011, April 1). “Obama’s Female Hawks.” The New Republic. Retrieved from

Chilton, P. (2004). Analysing Political Discourse: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.

Costa, R. (2011, March 20). “Graham: I thank God for strong women in the Obama administration.” The National Review. Retrieved from

Dowd, M. (2011, April 1). “Fight of the Valkyries.” New York Times. Retrieved from

Dreyfuss, R. (2011, 19 March). “Obama’s Women Advisors Pushed War Against Libya.” The Nation. Retrieved from

Fahey, A. (2009). “French and Feminine: Hegemonic Masculinity and the Emasculation of John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential Race.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. Vol. 24 (2): 132-150.

Hayden, T. (2011, March 30). “Samantha Power Goes to War.” The Nation. Retrieved from

Heilbrunn, J. (2011, 21 March). “America’s Foreign Policy Valkyries: Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice.” The National Interest. Retrieved from

Hersh, J. (2011, March 17). “Oh, Hill No: Obama’s indecision on Libya has pushed Clinton over the edge.” The Daily. Retrieved from

“Hillary Clinton Statement on Libya and NATO agreement.” (2011, March 24). PoliticsNewsNews. Retrieved from

Hodge, B. and Mansfield, A. (1985). “Nothing Left to Laugh At: Humour as a tactic of resistance.” In Chilton, P., ed. Language and the Nuclear Arms Debate: Nukespeak Today. London: Frances Pinter. 197-211.

Keen, J. (2004, August 10). “Bush: Kerry Repeatedly Flip Flops on War.” USA Today. Retrieved from

Kelemen, M. (2011, March 22). “Women In Spotlight As U.S. Debates Libya Policy.” NPR. Retrieved from

Knickerbocker, B. (2011, March 19). “A gender gap in Obama administration’s approach to war?” Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from

Krikorian, M. (2011, March 21). “They Know Who Wears the Pants in This Country.” National Review. Retrieved from

Lazar, M. (2009). “Gender, War, and Body Politics: A Critical Multimodal Analysis of Metaphor in Advertising.” Politics, Gender and Conceptual Metaphors. Ed. Ahrens, K. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 209-234.

Lim, E. (2009). “Gendered Metaphors of Women in Power: the Case of Hillary Clinton as Madonna, Unruly Woman, Bitch and Witch.” Politics, Gender and Conceptual Metaphors. Ed. Ahrens, K. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 254-269.

Mercer, I. (2011, April 8). “Libya: A war of the womb.” World Net Daily. Retrieved from

McKelvey, T. (2011, March 23). “Samantha Power’s Case for War on Libya.” The Daily Beast. Retrieved from

Michon, H. (2011, March 22). “Was Obama Henpecked into War?”. Salon. Retrieved from

Montero, M. (2000). “The Eyesore of the Beholder: Beauty as Political Discourse in the 1998 Venezuelan Presidential Elections.” Beyond Public Speech and Symbols: Explorations in the Rhetoric of Politicians and the Media. Ed. De Landtsheer and Feldman. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Nicholas, P. (2004, July 18). “Schwarzenegger deems opponents ‘girlie-men’ – twice.” SF Gate. Retrieved from

Pattinson, J. (2008). “Turning a Pretty Girl into a Killer: Women, Violence and Clandestine Operations During the Second World War.” Gender and Interpersonal Violence: Language, Action and Representation. Eds. Throsby, K. and Alexander, F. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pollitt, K. (2011, March 23). “The Nation: News Flash, Women Aren’t All Pacifists.” NPR. Retrieved from

Poulos, M. (2009). Arms and the Woman: Just Warriors and the Greek Feminist Identity. New York: Columbia University Press.

“Samantha Power Resigns Over Hillary ‘Monster’ Remark.” (2008, March 28). Huffington Post. Retrieved from

“Secretary Clinton: ‘Libya Has a Responsibility to Respect the Universal Rights of the People.” (2011, February 21). DipNote: the U.S. Department of State Official Blog. Retrieved from

Smith, B. (2011, March 20). “Boys Against Girls of Libya?” Politico. Retrieved from

Smith, W. (n.d.). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Vol 1 p. 138. Ancient Library Online. Retrieved from

“Team Obama, World Police.” (2011, March 29). Washington Times. Retrieved from

Van Dijck, Teun. (2007). “Discourse and Manipulation.” Discourse and Society. Vol 17 (3): 359-383.

Weiner, J. (2011, March 21). “Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama Tension in the Lead Up to Libya.” Vanity Fair. Retrieved from