Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

The Restless Reservist: Gendered Labour and the Reproduction of Britain’s Warfighting Capacity

Dr Victoria M Basham (University of Exeter)

24 November 2015

Dr Victoria M Basham

This seminar was presented by Dr Victoria M Basham


The British Army is undergoing radical transformation in its doctrinal thinking, organisational configuration, war-fighting capabilities and approach.

Key among these changes is the development of a progressively smaller professional and technologically-focused force which has led, amongst other things, to greater reliance on, and more demands of, Reservists. The Army's plans for the expansion of the trained Reserve Component to make up for personnel and capability shortfalls resulting from defence cuts, mean it is likely to become ‘greedier’ about what it requires from reservists. At the same time, the economic downturn and spending cuts elsewhere mean that individuals, including those who volunteer for Reserve service, are likely to find their work-life balance being squeezed by increasingly complex working patterns and the growth of a long-hours working culture.

Dual-earner families are also now the norm, meaning that familial responsibilities such as caring for children and elderly relatives are becoming harder to meet. All of these trends mean that Reservists not only have a number of demands upon their time but that they are more likely than ever to rely on family members to ‘free them up’ from some activities to carry out Reserve duties.

Drawing on original qualitative research with Reservists and members of their families, this paper examines the reliance of the Army, and with it Britain’s warfighting capacity, on the unpaid, and often unacknowledged, labour of families. Whilst acknowledging that women are increasingly participating in Reserve service, I argue that the British Army is still heavily reliant on 'traditional' gendered divisions of labour, despite changes to the ‘the family’ in cultural and economic terms. As such, its demands upon Reserves and their families risk reinstituting gender norms and assumptions often at odds with the needs and desires of families. I conclude by suggesting that Britain’s warfighting capacity relies not so much on the selflessness of individuals willing to serve for the greater good, as is often suggested, but more on the 'Restless Reservist' who prioritises their own desires, and the exploitation of gendered labour that makes fulfilling those desires possible.