Jo Shaw holds the Salvesen Chair of European Institutions at the University of Edinburgh, and is Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. These words were written in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views of the University of Edinburgh or the Dangerous Women Project.
Here is a picture of a woman doing her job. She is standing outside a polling station in the city of Granada, Spain on the day of the general election in December 2015, ensuring peace and order in the democratic process. This is a normal function for a police officer to undertake, and in a state where police officers are generally armed with hand guns, this should be understood as a perfectly ordinary image. I took the picture, as I sat having an afternoon drink in the shade nearby, and I watched her interacting with the other officer present, also a woman, and with passers by and those who went in the building to vote. This is an everyday scene of European democracy, and hardly a vision of a ‘dangerous woman’, despite her having a weapon of death at her hip.
Yet both the history and present position of women in relation to guns are by no means just a story of ‘the ordinary’, and given the dangers that guns pose, this is perhaps just as it should be. The images and narratives conjured are quite complex and sometimes conflicting. Google ‘women and guns’, and wherever you are in the world you will find endless sexualised images of scantily clad women grasping large hard and shiny objects, the phallic qualities of which are quite obvious. The contrast to the search on ‘men and guns’ is quite stark. While many of those images are still glamourised, relatively few of them are overtly sexual in character. Most of the sexual imagery is homo-erotic. Cartoons and video games are more or less as bad in their portrayal of women with guns, although the ones for younger children are somewhat less obviously sexualised.
Few and far between in such a search for imagery are the non-romanticised pictures of women police officers or soldiers going about the essential business of defending a way or life or a country, or challenging an oppressor, either as a group or alongside men as equals. In fact, as Chiara Bonfiglioli showed in an earlier Dangerous Women post, women partisans in places such as Yugoslavia occupied an often marginal position in the structures of resistance, although they have subsequently come to be admired and venerated.
Traditionally, the possession of guns by women was seen as inviting danger, and thus a protective patriarchy demanded that women should be kept away from firearms. Until the 1990s, the police force in Northern Ireland, the only one in the UK where officers are routinely armed, refused to allow women to carry guns on the grounds that it argued that it made them targets, and lost a sex discrimination case in the European Court of Justice on this issue. More recently, newspapers reported that police forces struggled to recruit women as armed officers, because apparently they ‘don’t want to carry great big guns’. That’s an interesting contrast to the sexualised (male?) fantasy images that show up on internet searches. But the more recent routinisation of the practice of women carrying guns or undertaking activities associated with being armed comes with additional baggage. On International Women’s Day 2016, Frontex, the European Frontiers Agency tweeted in support of the work of women border guards, with a series of images that did not show them actually carrying guns. This triggered a swift response from one tweeter, who obviously didn’t appreciate the possibility that IWD greetings could valorise the role of women undertaking this type of work: ‘Now we too can be complicit in the mass killing, detention and humiliation of migrants! #progress #InspiringWomen’.
The spread of ‘gun culture’ in the United States has attracted the closest attention to some of the implications of women carrying guns, and the different images that they present. The argument has developed that a woman who carries a gun can use it in self-defence and so will be less vulnerable to violent or sexual assault. Many states and universities within states now allow the open carrying of guns on campuses and other public places. To someone from the United Kingdom, the idea is shocking and seems contrary to the very notion of a university. But in any event, the research carried out on the presence of guns in society demonstrates conclusively that the more guns present in society, the more women are in danger. In reality, they are not used to repel danger. Since women who are killed by firearms in the US are most likely to be killed by a member of their family or by an intimate partner in private, the relevance to the possibility of self-defence of being permitted to carry guns in public seems tenuous. On the contrary, the general case can be made that the more guns are available, the more firearms killings there are, and lax gun laws contribute to rather than prevent firearms deaths. Furthermore, research has also shown that where there is access to guns, domestic abusers will routinely use them to threaten and discipline their partners, even if they are not used to kill or wound. Guns, then, do seem to be more about terror and danger (to women) rather than safety (for women), whatever the second amendment purists in the US might claim.
Let’s return to the image with which we started. A photograph of police officers in modern peaceful Spain, superintending what turned out to be an inconclusive general election. There has been so far no peaceful transfer of power, which we associate very strongly with being the very core of a democracy, but equally the electoral stalemate has not been contested or led to any form of violent resistance. Women police officers carry guns in Spain, but Spain itself now stands at the heart of a democratic Europe. There seems to be a certain irony involved in capturing such a banal image of a woman with a gun in the country that gave us one of the most iconic and earliest of such images: the picture taken by Juan Guzman of Marina Ginestà, armed with a rifle, and standing on the roof of the Hotel Colon overlooking Barcelona, during the Spanish Civil War. And yet, as we now know, that image was itself a ‘set up’. Marina Ginestà was a reporter, not a soldier, and the only time she carried a gun was for the purposes of the making of the photograph, which was intended as a propaganda image, to inspire the Republicans in their fight against Franco’s fascist troops. There are many extant pictures of ‘real’ women Republican soldiers with guns, but it was the Ginestà picture that has captured and held the world’s attention. To put it another way, in their very different ways, encompassing the striking and the banal, both pictures are part of the complex and often contradictory iconography of ‘women with guns’.