I research contemporary political violence. My work falls into three overlapping categories: research on women's participation in violent organizations; research on gender-based violence during civil conflict; and research on non-state actors' visual propaganda. Publications and working projects are grouped here accordingly.
Women's participation in political violence
Rebel Women: Violence and Legitimacy in Civil War (book project in progress)
My book manuscript asks how women’s participation in rebellion affects conflict outcomes. I argue that gender can fundamentally shape organizational strategies and rebels’ engagement with core constituent audiences to advance their cause, and thus I call attention to the ways in which women offer strategic benefits to rebel groups. I contend that women’s participation can legitimize rebellion, helping de-fang violent actors by integrating them into local communities and making them appear less like fringe extremists and more like broad movements rising up against oppressive states. I suggest that women's participation consequently contributes to improved tangible outcomes during conflict and shapes internal and external perceptions of political violence.
I explore these theoretical arguments in three ways. First, I leverage an original cross-national dataset of women's participation in front-line, auxiliary, and leadership roles in 150 rebel groups formed between 1960-2020 (the Women in Rebel Organizations (WIRO) dataset) to demonstrate that organizations with visible female involvement fare better during war. I highlight the importance not only of combat insurgents, but of women's contributions as couriers, spies, logisticians, and recruiters behind the front-line. Second, I use a novel, cross-national database of over 2,800 visuals from global militant organizations (see more below) to demonstrate that rebels capitalize on women's participation in their propaganda to build legitimacy and shape narratives among domestic and international audiences. I show how this messaging attempts to reconcile the legitimizing aspects of women's participation with deeply ingrained gender norms proscribing women's involvement in violence. Finally, I explore how women's participation shapes rebel accountability, showing how the same narratives underlying women's participation during conflict influence local and external concepts of participation and responsibility. To this end, I analyze case documents in U.S' prosecutions of Islamic State members and truth and reconciliation commission reports from over 20 civil wars.
"Explaining Extremism: Western Women in Daesh," 2018. European Journal of International Security 3(1): 45-68 (with Anna Zelenz)
Women have participated extensively in armed, Islamist struggle. In recent years, foreign women have traveled from the West to join Daesh. Their participation perplexes policymakers, government officials, and researchers who call attention to the group’s gendered regulation, violence, and widespread use rape. Consequently, observers often argue that women are deceived by the organization or seduced by the promise of romance. This suggests that women would not, under rational circumstances, choose to join the group. In this article, we address two resultant questions: why do Western women join Daesh? Are their motivations distinct from other Islamist recruits? Using an original dataset of social media activity from seventeen Western female recruits between 2011-2015, we evaluate these explanations and conclude that women are primarily driven by religious ideology that adopts an expressly gendered frame. We find that feelings of isolation in the West also drive migration. We suggest that female, foreign recruits are not unique in their motivations and share many similarities with male fighters and women in other Islamist organizations. This research has valuable implications for security studies and counter-terrorism, which tend to treat extremist women as unique. Female recruits should be taken seriously as insurgents intent on establishing an Islamic caliphate.
“Rethinking Rape: The Role of Women in Wartime Violence,” 2017. Security Studies 26(1): 60-92
There is widespread variation in scope, scale, and forms of rape across and within conflicts. One explanation focuses on the integration of women in armed groups. Scholars and international organizations posit that the inclusion of women in armed groups discourages wartime rape. They advocate women’s increased participation to combat rape and other forms of civilian violence. Using an original dataset of women's involvement as combatants in civil wars between 1980- 2009, I argue that the participation of female fighters has no significant impact in constraining an armed group's propensity to rape. Female combatants do not lessen rape because organizational factors, primarily culture, drive violence in armed factions and encourage conformity irrespective of individual characteristics. Advocating further militarization of women in an attempt to reduce conflict-related rape may be an ineffective policy prescription.
The “Rear Guard:' Women Auxiliaries and Rebel Outcomes in Civil Conflict, article in progress
A burgeoning literature suggests that women's combat participation can tangibly improve rebel outcomes. But women's primary contributions to politically violent groups are often behind the front-line: women are regularly smugglers, radio operators, planners, spies, and recruiters. How does auxiliary participation affect rebel organizations' survival and success? In this article, I use cross-national, ordinal data on women's participation in support roles in 150 rebel organizations to demonstrate that groups where women are visibly involved in these ways enjoy greater legitimacy among civilian populations and are able to translate these relationships into improved outcomes during war. I suggest this is because women's participation better integrates rebels into their communities and because women's supportive, often clandestine labor, enables them to provide crucial scaffolding for rebel operations. Because counterinsurgents and policy-makers often write auxiliary women off as the 'wives of' militants, their critical work in support of rebellion is often unacknowledged and uncountered.
Women, Gender, and Ideology in the Contemporary American Militia Movement (with Kanisha D. Bond), article in progress
The contemporary militia movement is a relatively understudied yet significant element of the American radical right, which is experiencing a renaissance of attention and political retrenchment. While this new spotlight tends to highlight the complicated relationships between men and women in this community, research on gender and militia mobilization rarely extends beyond examining the role of masculinity in this process. To explore how gender dynamics inform the movement’s ideology and activities more broadly, we focus in this paper on the ways that militia ideology is both constructed and communicated through groups' staging of sex, sexuality, and gender in their iconography. Using an original database of 341 U.S.-based militia organizations, we analyze a representative images disseminated by these groups for evidence of how they use sex, sexuality, and gender to legitimize their actions, normalize ideology, recruit new members, and consolidate cross-group platforms. We conclude that militia iconography--thus, militia ideology--relies heavily on gendered representations of paramilitary activity, duty to country, family, and citizenry, rule by the people, and nostalgic political superiority . We further suggest that images depicting women’s participation in and affiliation with militias provides particularly critical infrastructure and is a key vehicle for legitimizing and normalizing this ideology.
"Deploying Justice: Strategic Accountability for Wartime Sexual Violence," 2018. International Studies Quarterly 52(4): 761-64 (with Milli Lake and Kate Cronin-Furman)
Why do governments and militaries publicly condemn and prosecute particular forms of abuse? This article explores the Sri Lankan government's decision to promote limited legal accountability for state-perpetrated rape committed in a country otherwise renowned for widespread impunity. We argue that rather than representing a turn against impunity, the symbolic stance against conflict-related sexual violence in a small number of high-profile cases served an explicitly politico-military agenda. The state deployed legal accountability in specific cases to garner political legitimacy among key domestic audiences. The Sri Lankan government drew on the symbolism of female victimhood to mobilize support at a time when support for military counterinsurgency was waning. We show that governments can uniquely instrumentalize sexual violence cases to establish moral authority and territorial legitimacy. Through an examination of the domestic legal response to state-perpetrated human rights abuses, we illustrate the many ways in which women's bodies—and the law—can be mobilized in war to serve military ends.
"Violence Against Gender and Sexual Minorities During Civil Conflict" (with Jamie J. Hagen), under review
Research on armed conflict’s gender dynamics has expanded significantly in the past decade. Moving away from the singular conception of women as sexual violence victims, scholars broaden the theoretical and empirical scope of gender-based violence to include male victims, women perpetrators, and non-sexual harms. But research in this field and the international architecture established to prevent gender-based violence pay little attention to sexual orientation and gender identity. Where relevant scholarship and policy interventions exist, they are largely siloed from work on gender-based violence. We argue for the theoretical expansion of ‘gender-based violence’ as a conceptual, empirical, and analytic category informed by sexuality studies, concluding that this framework can contextualize and help explain targeted attacks against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people during conflict. We support this argument with novel, descriptive data on rebel violence, identifying at least 31 organizations that committed targeted abuses since 1980. We use these data to demonstrate that this type of violence is gender-based, to identify cross-conflict trends and variation, and to motivate future research in this area.
Armed group visuals
"Both Needed and Threatened:’ Armed Mothers in Militant Visuals," 2020, Security Dialogue, Online First
Because women are assumed non-violent, their participation in militant groups can humanize organizations and legitimize rebellion. But gender beliefs are deeply engrained and consequently women’s involvement can generate resistance. This article explores how militants navigate these tensions through their political visuals, specifically analyzing images of ‘armed mothers’ across six diverse conflicts. Leveraging life-giving as the ‘natural’ role for women, these images signal violent disruption of everyday life and authorize political violence in response. But they also stress the temporariness of gender role expansion, promising and preserving a ‘return to normal.’ Militant groups contextualize, justify, and humanize violent struggle this way even in cases where women rarely participate on the frontlines.
Militant Visuals Data Project (MVDP), data collection in progress
Violent non-state organizations appreciate that legitimacy is key to their survival and success. Most groups consequently undertake governance and provision programs designed to persuade others of their appropriateness in cause and tactics. But while militants’ quest for legitimacy is well documented, we know little about how organizations use visual propaganda to develop and maintain public support. This is despite the proliferation of non-state groups’ publicity wings and evidence that emotional, militarized images can shift opinions about violence. The Militant Visuals Data Project (MVDP) is an original dataset of approximately 2800 visuals produced by militant groups in civil conflicts from 1960 to 2018. These data focus on content attributes to identify trends and idiosyncrasies among organizations fighting in diverse conflict, allowing for both cross-national analyses of image content and descriptive case study to assess the roles, purposes, and forms of visual messaging among violent organizations.
I also conducted field and archival research in Northern Ireland and research in 11 other professional and academic archives to collect militant visuals. The MVDP also includes case narratives of militant visual operations, which range from highly sophisticated efforts to amateur publications. These include, but are not limited to, the ANC, FRELIMO, the Provisional IRA, Hamas, MPLA, FSLN, Amal, Hizbollah, and Palestinian groups including the PLO and sub-organizations like Fatah. When publicly available, the MVDP will include a searchable website to accompany the dataset that includes corresponding images and the case narratives.