This month’s installment of Inkstick’s monthly culture column, The Mixed-up Files of Inkstick Media (inspired by From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), where we link pop culture to national security and foreign policy, is about the “Lifelines” project on women in nuclear policy and their pandemic experience.
The first time I saw Barbara Kruger’s “Forever” exhibition, I was at home during the most intense phase of COVID isolation, scrolling through art blogs to pass the time. Kruger’s work is loud, unmissable, and beloved: her cut-and-paste vinyl text artworks have dominated American pop culture for decades. They are often co-opted, at times downright copied, by admirers. But looking at photographs of “Forever” on a listless afternoon felt strangely urgent. The exhibit consisted of a bright, high-ceilinged room wrapped in her signature black-white, Futura-fonted aphorisms. Even the floors were covered with thick bars of text, which gave the effect that one was inside a large book trapped between sentences. All four walls featured murals so large it was impossible to ignore. One wall read:
You are here, looking through the looking glass, darkly,
Seeing the unseen, the invisible, the barely there. You
whoever you are. Wherever you are. Etched in
Memory, until you, the Looker, is Gone.
Unseen. No More. You Too.”
Presented before pandemic times, “Forever” nonetheless leapt out of the screen and commanded my attention. With a handful of words, Kruger pressed a sore spot that I, and undoubtedly millions of people, felt at the time. You, me, all of us: We watched the pandemic erase what we had come to know and love. We were also forced to reckon with the possibility that our lives and memories may be the next ones to disappear. But it wasn’t just COVID on my mind; Kruger also unexpectedly tapped into something more personal. These words described the precarity of womanhood: the feeling of being unseen, a reality of moving through the world as “barely there.”
It is undeniable that women carried the world through the most brutal stage of the pandemic. In 2020, the New York Times reported that one in three women in the United States had jobs that qualified as “essential,” spanning health care, social work, and retail, among others. Women in the United States also shouldered the majority of caregiving responsibilities during quarantine, reflecting recent research that found many Americans still believed that labor associated with nurturing and homemaking is a natural fit for women even when they have gained tremendous public support for equal rights.
Growing recognition of gendered labor and its disproportionate impact on women gets us closer to addressing and undoing this universal harm, but the public conversation around it remains woefully insufficient.
Women in other countries experienced similar trends. The UN conducted country and regional surveys that revealed increased violence against women in 12 countries. Women reportedly spent more than 30 hours per week exclusively on childcare, which is equivalent to an additional, yet unpaid, full-time work. In a way, these statistics and anecdotes resemble Kruger’s looking glass: a glimpse of the invisible at work.
Growing recognition of gendered labor and its disproportionate impact on women gets us closer to addressing and undoing this universal harm, but the public conversation around it remains woefully insufficient. Perhaps it’s because these facts, quite ironically, are labeled as a “gender” or “feminist” or “women’s” issue rather than civic responsibility where everyone — no matter the political, economic, racial, or gender identity — should hold responsibility. These labels become convenient exits for anyone who doesn’t think it relates to their experience or work.
Efforts to put these facts in the context of significant societal problems gain little purchase. When they do, there is often a counterargument about how these connections are an overreaction at best and fabricated at worst. Recently, researchers found observable evidence of bias against gender bias. In this unnerving meta phenomenon, studies about gender discrimination in the sciences and academia are marginalized by publications in those same communities, suggesting that they are not as desired as other topics of study. In her book “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny,” scholar Kate Manne described this as a “self-masking” mechanism of a misogynistic society, whereby calling out the harm produces more of it. In other words, the critic becomes the subject of critique.
SEEING WOMEN IN NATIONAL SECURITY
It is also a peculiarity that the systems we’ve created to explain the world allow little room for the Self. The notion of “you” or “me” ceases to exist in many work environments, given the assumption that they provide marginal contributions. Companies and organizations across all sectors have always struggled to reconcile the needs of the human behind the worker. Even international security — a field about human violence, survival, order, and ultimately, peace — has long debated how much personal perspective should inform its knowledge base, even when the outcomes significantly impact individual lives. The lived experience of those who set security policy and those affected by it often fall on the background and in service of traditional, positivist analysis that views countries as “rational” actors and personal narrative as less rigorous than quantitative data.
Putting the pieces together, it is no wonder that some of the strongest advocates to make human lives visible in international security work come from women in the field. Political scientist J. Ann Tickner insisted on it: “feminists are motivated by emancipatory goals — investigating the often disadvantaged lives of women within states…and structures to change them.” More recently, scholar Monika Thakur shared her own experience in academia focusing on international relations — an approach she calls autobiographical international relations — to highlight how erasure starts within the discipline, and the ways this triggers a cycle of exclusion and underrepresentation that impacts how the field eventually sees and studies foreign policy. It strikes me how Tickner, Thakur, and other similar approaches to foreign policy act like another possible mirror, an eyewitness to expose power dynamics and structures that make people, particularly women and other marginalized groups, disappear from the world.
The importance of the Self comes to mind as I finish the Lifelines project, a collection of short stories and testimonials from women in nuclear policy during the height of the pandemic. Inspired by a general survey that the Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy conducted in the Fall of 2020, Lifelines is an attempt to memorialize how the pandemic not only disrupted nuclear policy work but fundamentally affected the people doing the work as they are forced to reckon with grief and insecurity in their personal and professional lives. This is especially poignant for women in the field, who juggled caregiving responsibilities or felt even more isolated and unseen as their work transitioned remotely.
After sifting through 200 survey entries and working with four women in the field who graciously shared their stories with us, a clear pattern emerged. Many women found themselves questioning how to continue engaging in international security work while they face insecurities within their immediate households and communities during a global pandemic. The stories in the Lifelines project also showed the cross-cutting nature of risk — one woman shared the complexity of being immunocompromised and Black while traveling for work, and another reflected on the multivalent nature of violence as organized crime and a spreading virus.
Like Thakur’s approach, Lifelines unapologetically rely on personal narrative rather than hard data. While more empirical research should be done on how the pandemic altered the nuclear policy field, the stories told in the moment of crisis serve an essential role as initial access points to the larger problem. There is also great power in sharing a personal experience as it is, without the fear or embarrassment that it would be seen as insufficient or unprofessional just because it isn’t typically done.
We, women, must insist on seeing ourselves rather than asking for validation.
Lovely Umayam is a writer and nuclear nonproliferation expert. She is the founder of the Bombshelltoe Policy x Arts Collective, which convenes policy experts, artists, and community members to explore how nuclear issues relate to today’s cultural trends and social movements.