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Beyond Essentialism: Feminist Theory and Strategy in the Peace Movement

Johanna Brenner 8 December 2016

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After the US elections and Donald Trump's victory, Verso publishes the third in a string of pieces from our five-volume series produced in the eighties and nineties, 'The Year Left'. This article, by Johanna Brenner, details how Feminists organized in the Peace Movement.

Exploding on to the political scene in the early 1980s, the women’s peace movement mobilized and inspired hundreds of thousands of women, many new to political activity, and built an international network of feminist peace activists. Greenham Common in Britain, Seneca Peace Camp in New York State, La Ragnatela Camp in Sicily, demonstrations at military sites all over Europe and the United States affirmed not only women’s opposition to the nuclear arms race but also women’s capacity for leadership, self-organization, and militant political action, as when Greenham women first blockaded and then invaded the missile base.

Sprawling and diverse, the women’s peace movement is difficult to characterize and even harder to assess. It includes women who see opposing nuclear weapons as an extension of feminism (such as Women’s Pentagon Action in the US, WONT in England), and those who explicitly dissociate themselves from feminism (such as the Women’s Party for Survival in the US); political programs which explicitly connect peace to social justice (the Puget Sound Camp) and those which focus entirely on the nuclear threat (the Ribbon Around the Pentagon); demonstrations which are insistently ‘safe and legal’ (the encirclement of the Rocky Flats nuclear plant in Colorado) and those organized around non-violent direct action/disruption (the Greenham Blockade).

Perhaps for this reason, critics and supporters often seem to be talking past one another as each focuses on a different aspect or section of the movement. Some feminists have charged that the women’s peace movement diverts women’s activity from more clearly feminist goals, while defenders point to the militancy and assertiveness of Greenham women, their creative strategies and attention to feminist principles of organization and decision-making. Responding to events such as the Oxford Mothers’ Walk for Nuclear Disarmament, critics charge that the women’s peace movement relies on and reinforces the traditional iconography of virtuous motherhood, while supporters argue that the movement is so successful because it uses the familiar images but incorporates them into action non-traditional for women (skirmishing with the military and the police at Greenham).

Certainly many women who become involved with the women’s peace movement are new to politics, and understand action against nuclear arms as an extension of their motherly or family concerns. They have been most comfortable in organizations which have expressed this ethos.[1] Other actions and organizations have been more explicitly feminist from the beginning,[2] but they do not represent the dominant tendency within the movement. More representative are organizations such as the Women for Peace groups in Europe, who do not have a coherent political ideology but who share the assumption that women have a special interest in peace and a special contribution to make to the movement for peace. This kind of broad appeal has the advantage of attracting large numbers of previously non-involved women. (Thus, for example, the Netherlands Women for Peace had 400 members in 1981 and 5000 in 1982.) How those women develop politically and how their movement develops depend on what the movement does, how it organizes, the kinds of education and discussion taking place within it.

From this point of view, I think it useful to examine the central theoretical and strategic concerns within the women’s peace movement. I am not so much interested in assessing the movement overall (difficult to do in any case) but wish to explore: 1) how to connect the oppression of women to other structures of domination; 2) how to revalue the feminine in a way that does not reinforce traditional gender roles and ideology; 3) how to define ‘feminist’ organization and the relationship of feminism to non violence.

Aggression and Male Dominance

There is, of course, no unitary feminist theory, on militarism or anything else. However, much of the feminist writing of the women’s peace movement has a common theme: not only is there a set of specific social institutions through which men dominate women - the institutions of patriarchy - but all hierarchy and structures of oppression express a male drive to power.

For example, most of the essays in an influential volume, Reweaving the Web of Life,[3] posit a dualistic human nature defined by masculine and feminine principles. A characteristic formulation from the Handbook for Women on the Nuclear Mentality asserts:

"…We do believe that the dominating force within all of us which we label animus or male has taken over… When the intellect and the dominating, controlling, aggressive tendencies within each individual are defined as the most valuable part of their being and those same attributes are emphasized in the political and economic arena, the result is a society characterized by violence, by exploitation, a reverence for the scientific as absolute and a systematic ‘rape’ of nature for man’s enjoyment. The result is patriarchy!"[4]

Radical feminist theory has argued even more clearly the origins of this patriarchal violence in an ancient struggle to subdue and control a female power identified with generativity. Originally, ‘not power over others but transforming power, was the truly significant and essential power, and this, in pre-patriarchal society, women know for their own’.[5] Mary Daly argues that male creativity relies on the appropriation of women’s energy and the consequent spiritual annihilation of woman. When Andrew Dworkin writes, ‘men love death’, she is not speaking metaphorically.

The value of this analysis from a feminist perspective is that it connects the oppression of women directly to militarism: both are expressions of the same thing. It explains why a women’s peace movement is necessary: men can’t be expected to oppose militarism because they are implicated in it. And finally, it offers a basis for sisterhood: women are united not only as victims of male violence but positively through their common connection to nature and the nurture of all life. This connection is based primarily on women’s experience of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and then socially mandated responsibility for raising children.

Not all women peace activists and organizations consciously adopt this framework. Yet many of its assumptions and arguments do turn up in the political discourse of the movement, in pamphlets, speeches, leaflets, slogans, demonstrations. Thus, early actions at Greenham Common counterposed women’s concerns as mothers with the male identification of the military and war. Women brought pictures of children and other loved ones to decorate the fence. The Women’s Pentagon Action, more explicitly feminist from the beginning, utilized rape as a central metaphor. Pictures and mementoes of victims was to be transformed into a commitment to oppose male violence in its institutionalized form - the military.[6] These discourses are extremely problematic: they tend toward psychological reductionism; they universalize socially constructed definitions of gender; and they rely either consciously or unconsciously on conventional understandings of femininity.

Masculinity and ‘Mastering Nature’

While gender dualism and devaluation of women characterize all patriarchal cultures, the male/female = culture/nature = abstract/concrete = product/process polarities of our society are not universal. They owe much more to the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and capitalism than to any alleged tendencies inherent in the male psyche.

Most pre-capitalist societies, every bit as patriarchal as ours, had tremendous ‘respect’ for the natural order. Indeed, rather than assuming male superiority over women and nature, they often identified men with nature and viewed women as threats to the harmony between them. For example, Gimi (New Guinea) men explain their fear of menstrual blood and their obsessive efforts to avoid contact with women not as a contempt for non-human forms of life, but as their ambition to be revitalized by the limitless, masculine powers of the non-human world. In the Gimi universe, the world of the village, of human society, is profaned by the presence of women, while the surrounding rain forest, the ‘wild’ contains a transcendent spirit.[7]

The contemporary notion of mastering nature through science developed in the seventeenth century, with commercial expansion, colonial exploitation, technological innovation. Christianity had prepared the ground by destroying pagan animism, making it possible to exploit nature with indifference to natural objects. Male control over women both in the society and in the family was already justified by a gender ideology (e.g. the sin of Eve) which cast women as potentially disruptive of the social order and in need of male authority. It is hardly surprising, then, that the metaphor for domination of science over nature and the justification for the exploitation of the natural world in the interest of profitable trade would be cast in terms of sexual domination.[8]

The said, feminist writing about militarism has increased our understanding of how myth, religion, political rhetoric, indeed all discourses, play out the themes of domination and submission in gendered terms. It is important to recognize how the traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity, both as ideology and as internalized identity, do support individuals’ participation in hierarchical institutions. However, there is a crucial analytic difference between recognizing that gender can be and often is mobilized by social institutions and the claim that gender produces these institutions. When feminist accounts fail to make this distinction, they tend, in spite of their intentions, to explain destructive economic and social practices in terms of male psychology.

For example, although the Feminism and Non-violence Study Group defines capitalism and patriarchy as two different systems, their pamphlet, Piecing it Together, tend to treat capitalism as an expression of ‘male thinking’ and to explain men’s compliance primarily by their fear of being called feminine and thus denied male privilege:

"[Cash-cropping on the basis of] inorganic petrochemicals whose deleterious effects the macho wizards of modern science have no way to eradicating… are another disruption of the ecological balance by the patriarchal industrialized world. The experts are terrified of being seen so ‘unmanly’ as to change direction."[9]

There is some truth here. “Real’ men do ‘hard’ science. The most rewarded fields are those distant from human needs and emotions. In addition, highly rewarded activities, whatever their actual content, are always imbued with male characteristics. And, for men, gender identity and professional identity are bound together in the scientific fraternity.

Yet this analysis is surely incomplete. The fact that capitalist corporations have to make profits and expand their operations disappears from this characterization of imperialism as ‘disruption of the ecological balance by the patriarchal industrialized world’. Also ignored is the way the corporate interest directly and indirectly determines the research done by male (and female) scientists. Not confronted is the fact that the (currently unused) technology appropriate for broad-based and ecologically sound agricultural development has been designed by the same ‘male science’ which produces the ecologically destructive technology for corporate farms. 

‘Rational’ Violence

Similar problems undermine many feminist accounts locating the dynamic of the nuclear arms race in men’s insecurity about potency and their preoccupation with size and power:

"Thus we have a group of people who are profoundly insecure with poorly developed conflict resolution skills and a deep-rooted sense of entitlement, who feel a need to prove themselves through aggression, achievement and competition. These people who are least equipped to deal with absolute power are then put in positions of absolute power, from the heads of families to the heads of nations."[10]

Explaining the irrationality of the arms race in terms of the irrationality of individuals does not recognize that what is irrational from the point of view of the long-term survival of the world may be the outcome of the quite rational pursuit of interest by those in charge of powerful institutions and nation-states.

The psychological account fails to consider the forces inside both the United States and the Soviet Union which benefit from increased military spending, and denies the real conflicts of interest between the two countries. Both systems depend in different ways on their political and economic domination of other nations - thus, their conflict over spheres of influence in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The drive to gain a nuclear edge, or to prevent the other side from gaining it, is part of the overall strategic maneuvering by which each power attempts to make inroads into the other’s sphere of interest.

Military leaders and state managers are not little boys playing cowboys, but bureaucrats presiding over vast accumulations of resources. The most powerful US corporations, heavily invested in military production, have a pressing interest to continue the Cold War. In both countries, military bureaucrats and their political allies - scientists, industrial managers or corporate executives, prinvicial commissars or state governors - use the ‘Soviet threat’ or the ‘capitalist threat’ in the effort to justify increased military spending which preserves or expands the resources under their control (whether a military base, a tank factory, or a research institute).

Nor does the claim that militarism expresses male drive address the structures of real interest, threat and rewards which recruit the mostly working-class, Third World men into soldiering as a profession or into support for militaristic government policies and political movements. It is true that rape of ‘enemy women’ (the enemy’s women) is a normal part of conquest. Military training everywhere plays on men’s fear of the feminine and being called feminine. The objectification of the enemy and of women goes hand-in-hand in the process of dehumanizing the soldier. However, this aspect of soldiering and warfare can be overemphasized. Men may enjoy prancing about playing at soldier, but most are reluctant to fight in reality.

Especially in modern warfare, the connection between act and death is too abstract. One drops a bomb, shoots into the dark or the trees, a soldier falls, but no one knows whose was the bullet. To see war as analogous to rape does not capture its reality. Few men in battle fight in terms of the ideology of the military or of masculinity. As Platoon shows us, they fight terrified and miserable; the glory of battle disappears quickly in the muck of war. Morale and discipline of armies rest on far more than the manipulation of gender identity. Morale depends on a combination of fear of punishment (by one’s own command), group solidarity, personal loyalty, the mobilization of civilian support, and so on. Soldiers could not be counted on to fight in Vietnam precisely because many of these elements were missing.

Men can become soldiers for a variety of psychological reasons. The military defines itself in terms of combat, of being tested, of winning, then being in control. Some men may be attracted to the military because they can act out that fantasy. Yet to be a soldier of the state is also to be subservient, obedient and almost totally dependent. Some men may be attracted to the peacetime military because it allows them to be more subordinate and passive than is possible for most men in civilian life. Other men may join because the military fosters intense emotional bonds between men which are treated with suspicion in civilian society. And gay men may use the opportunities the military provides for homosexuality, while tacitly accepting (or temporarily resigning themselves to) military homophobia.[11]

Still, while in theory the military is the quintessential male pursuit, the vast majority of men are not particularly interested in becoming soldiers. Until the recession, the volunteer army experienced notable recruitment difficulties. Many soldiers serving today would not be there if jobs, education, and economic security were available in civilian life.

Conservative movements, governments in war, and the military do manipulate gender ideology to win the support of men. But women can be just as vulnerable to these appeals. The ‘battle front’ relies on the ‘home front’ for its justification. What is more fully feminine than to exchange womanly support for manly protection? Femininity can lead women into war-mongering. Moreover, insofar as women may more easily reject militarism, this might be not because of an innate peaceableness but because it is more acceptable for women than for men to oppose war. War, after all, is socially defined as men’s sphere.

In her survey of the politics of the women’s peace movement, Celia McDonagh argues that an analysis of militarism based on male aggression is not dominant within the movement.

"The argument that is most often put forward in the WPM is that the relations of economic, political, and ideological power are profoundly influenced by ‘masculinist’ values and assumptions. Social relations and the conduct of international affairs are said to be clearly and demonstrably shaped by masculinist assumptions about the need for strength, aggression, domination, mastery, and control. Attention to this dimension and a strategy of challenging such premises do not however preclude a recognition of other structural factors."

This formulation is clearly preferable to one which simply reduces foreign policy to male psychology. However, it leaves completely untheorized the relationship between these different types of factors. What precisely does it mean to say that the conduct of international affairs is ‘shaped’ by masculinist assumptions? To what extent do masculinist values rather than geopolitical strategies aiming to maintain the spheres of US government interest, or to protect fields for capitalist investment shape US policy?

It seems to me that a more fruitful theoretical approach is to locate the connection between women’s oppression and militarism more indirectly. The institutionalized violence of the military is used to defend a social order organized around class, sex and racial domination. It is this social order that has to be overturned for women to have full participation in public life, a living wage and creative work, the right to live as a lesbian, collective responsibility for children, thus being able to mother without depending on a man, and so on. Militarism denies these goals, in its defense of capitalist power and capitalist interests around the globe, in its privileged hold on government resources and corresponding impoverishment of social expenditures.

It may very well be true that men fear and need to control women. And it may be that these needs are created by a family structure based on exclusive female parenting and male power. But these male needs and this family form are reproduced and legitimated by the class structure and the political and social institutions built upon it. Women’s economic dependence on men, the base for male power in the family, is constructed through the wage-labor system of capitalist economy - earning differentials, exploitation of women as part-time seasonal workers, sex-segregated labor markets and the like. Women’s vulnerability as wage workers is perpetuated in turn by our family roles.

Men survive class oppression in part by standing on women’s backs and living off our labor. While men monopolize positions of power in economy and state, most men must submit to the power of other men - bosses, judges, administrators, commanding officers. But no matter how lowly, every man can find solace in male honor and respect, identification with those who rule. And as the father, every man rules. For women to have an equal place in the economy and family, it would drastically reduce men’s leisure time and increase their domestic work. But most frightening to men, if women cease to mirror their superiority they are robbed of a major source of self-worth.

Male violence against women does reflect the psychic needs of particular men. It is also perpetuated and supported by a whole range of institutions protecting male privilege and authority. These institutions implicate all men in the specific acts of violence of some men against women. But these institutions are themselves not organized around violence. They include capitalist media which promote a more or less openly violent image of heterosexual romance. They include political structures (legislatures, courts, enforcement) which tolerate male violence. They also include service professionals and social scientists (the ‘therapeutic community’) whose mainstream members hold women accountable, either directly or indirectly, for male violence. The military, on the other hand, is organized around violence for the purpose of upholding the social order of which it is part.

This approach is already implicit in the practice of at least sections of the women’s movement. I have in mind the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s ‘Woman’s Budget’ campaign calling for major cuts in the military budget to fund human services, and the Seneca Peace Encampment which demanded a shift from military to social spending. Participants may explain the distribution of resources in terms of masculinist values of political leaders and governments, removed from the daily activity of care, blind to pressing human needs.[13]

An alternative explanation to link militarism to international capitalism, to the maintenance of exploitation around the globe and the increasing destruction of lives and communities by disinvestment at home, at the same time demonstrating how militarism prevents the public programs and services which would allow women to challenge male domination. This approach not only links feminism with anti-militarism but demonstrates the common interest of feminism and other movements for social change. 

A Feminist Vision of Motherhood

The very fact that women are engaged in public political action without male leadership challenges the ideology of woman’s place. In a 1982 organizing leaflet, Greenham women wrote: ‘As women we have been actively encouraged to stay at home and look to men as protectors. Now’s the time to reject this role.’[14]

Although many women join for reasons which have nothing to do with feminism, the experience in itself can be consciousness-raising, helping women to understand internalized sexism, and certainly this is sufficient justification for organizing a women-only movement.[15] However, participation will not necessarily lead women to challenge other aspects of our traditional roles, especially so long as the movement’s political discourse operates within an essentialist framework which identifies women with peace. While feminist writers who see the women’s peace movement as a diversion from feminism tremendously underestimate its feminist potential, their concerns are understandable given the widespread expression of sentiments within the movement like Helen Caldicott’s call to action: ‘As mothers we must make sure the world is safe for our babies.’

This counterposition of female caring to male aggression and violence overlooks women’s right to act out of concern for our own survival, uncritically celebrates motherhood and ignores the powerlessness of most mothers. This kind of peace politics does not address the conservative counter-argument that men are also concerned about children but are able to make difficult decisions - decisions which may require the sacrifice of some lives for the benefit of everyone - a responsibility from which women supposedly shrink.

Most importantly, if we rely on a traditional definition of women as mothers, which reduces mothering to something passive and giving and ignores the hard work and rational thought it requires, we will be unable to counter the right-wing mobilization of women on the same grounds. Motherly concern for life is equally at the heart of anti-abortion and pro-family politics.[16]

Motherhood does not necessarily lead women to oppose male authority and the state, or to mobilize for peace. Women, as mothers, have been and will continue to be recruited into militarist political movements.[17] Recently, feminists have been attracted to the argument that mothering creates a unique worldview for women, a distinct ethic different from the male-defined moral order.[18] This may be true. But it is also true that women can react to conditions of mothering in conservative ways. Mothering does force us to a realization of the fragility of human life and the difficulty of its preservation. But that realization can lead women to be fearful and dependent, willing to give power to the state or to men in return for protection.

Child-rearing forces us to appreciate nature’s limits and the necessity to work with and through those limits; a child of two simply cannot be or do as a child of five. But women can respond with fatalism and a sense of powerlessness to influence the world. Successful work in child-rearing is defined by how well the unique needs of an individual are met so that the person can grow fully and develop. But women can translate their focus on the concrete needs of their children into willful ignorance about life beyond their own families, and fail to consider the needs of other people’s children.

The idea that women have a special role in containing male aggression harks back to the nineteenth-century cult of true womanhood which labeled women ‘God’s own police’. Traditionally, women are expected to be more peaceful than men and therefore to provide a civilizing and restraining force in a world based on exploitation of man and nature, on ruthless competition, on rational calculation for narrow self-interest. On this view, our role is to inspire men to take the higher view in exercising their public responsibilities, based on moral superiority which we retain so long as decision and power are left to men. As part of our maternal function, women are expected to arbitrate conflict, to suppress our own needs for those of others and, thereby, to make it easier for everyone to get along.

The logic/emotion, abstract/concrete, aggression/nurture framework sentimentalizes women and trivializes motherhood. Against the definition patriarchal culture gives to motherhood, feminists have emphasized that motherhood is a work requiring theory, logic, means-ends calculation, the ordering of ends, the demand for restraint: the fusing of emotion and thought in labor. Since it involves the exercise of tremendous power over another human being, the need to resist being taken over by emotion is of great importance. In other words, the practice of motherhood combines elements which gender ideology treats as opposites.

Incorporated into a feminist politics that includes a critique of compulsory motherhood and a demand for women’s autonomy and full participation in public life, motherhood can be a resource for opposition to a system which denies its goals: the development of other people, appreciation for human life, attention to process, acceptance of change. ‘Maternal thinking’ which is feminist does offer something special to the peace movement: it can help us imagine how we want to live, define the goals of our movement, and inform the practice of our struggle.

Feminism and Non-violence 

If anything unites all sections of the women’s peace movement, it is a principled commitment to non-violence. Yet within this commonality there are radical and mainstream, feminist and non-feminist ways of arguing for and organizing non-violent action. Circling the Pentagon with a hand-made ‘ribbon’ of panels in a peaceful protest challenges state authority less directly than blockading the gates to a missile base.

Two kinds of argument are made in defense of non-violent direct action as a tactic within the radical wing of the women’s peace movement. The first kind is shared with the entire peace movement: violence breeds violence; you can’t secure peace through war; means should suit ends, and so on. But in addition, women’s peace activists assert an especially appropriate correspondence between a women’s peace movement and non-violence, and between feminism and non-violence.

The different capacities of men and women for violence, the tendency for men to resolve conflict through domination rather than negotiation, and, in its feminist version, the use of male violence to subordinate women, are central themes in the politics of the women’s peace movement. Much of the political symbolism of the actions undertaken by the movement tries to delineate ‘the incredible differences between men’s and women’s worlds’.[19] The Women’s Pentagon Action argued, ‘Individual men attacking individual women is one end of the continuum of violence which leads inexorably to international military abuse of power’, and counterposed women’s moral and spiritual strength to men’s dependence on guns and physical force.

The assertion of a womanly commitment to non-violence without qualification seems to move away from the earlier feminist concept of woman-power based on physical strength, self-organization and a will to fight back. ‘Self-defense’ training and development of the skills and muscles neglected in girls’ childhoods were part of a new feminine ideal which asserted that emotional strength and self-confidence depend on both physical strength and collective organization.

A feminist challenge to militarism which does not perpetuate traditional notions of femininity will be impossible so long as the movement continues to think in terms of those very polarities: - violence/nonviolence, power/nurturance - which now construct masculine dominance and feminine submission. As Adrienne Rich so eloquently argued in Of Woman Born, a feminist ideal of nurturance embodies a feminist ideal of woman’s power: the power to create; the power to determine collectively the conditions within which life will be lived, toward the end of fostering the full development of every person. Counterposed against the patriarchal idealization of ‘moral’ motherhood is the feminist ideal of mothers who are strong, capable, autonomous beings, respected in their society, women who are powerful because they are effective. This ideal does not embrace masculine images of power, but neither does it imply a total rejection of the use of physical force.

There are perfectly pragmatic reasons for choosing a tactic of mass protest or non-violent direct action in many instances. The women’s peace movement has effectively used non-violent direct action to publicize issues and to build morale. It is not so much the choice of tactic but the rationale that poses problems. One tendency within the movement is to assume a feminine moral superiority associated with the choice of non-violent tactics. For example, writing of her experience at Greenham, Anne Sellars says:

"Is [non-violence] simply a technique that works well in some places, not in others? (What if the miners had tried it?) No, it is the development of a different form of political association… (Men are not frightened by riots; many of them enjoy them. Look at the expressions on the faces of police and miners. But they are terrified by women acting independently, especially en masse - ‘The women have gone berserk. They are attacking the fence.’)"

This limited moral judgment does not reflect adequately on the differences other than gender which separated the British miners’ strike from the Greenham Common protests. The miners provoked violent repression not because they were violent (the police attacked demonstrations and marches) but because their strike threatened far more serious social disruption; the stakes for both government and protestors were far greater than at Greenham. (This is not to say that all physical violence by the strikers, against working miners, for example, was coherent and effective. But to judge the use of violence in such pragmatic terms is to use criteria which the women’s peace movement does not accept.)

Moreover, the tidy moralism which castigates all participation in violent confrontation as ‘male’ does not fully accept the ways in which women peace protesters have relied on their ‘innocent’ womanhood to constrain the extent of the physical harm which police and military are willing to inflict. ‘One of the important reasons for entering the base is that it makes visible what is being defended by whom against whom - American missiles by the British and American armies against British women.’[21] The horror of the missiles, their vulnerability and their immorality are exposed because it is (weak) women who successfully invade and it is (innocent) women who are brutalized.

In an informative and wide-ranging article on Greenham, Ann Snitow argues that the women are learning how to ‘skew the dynamics of the old male-female relationship toward new meanings’:

"The army cannot prevent them from getting inside the fence or shaking it down… Or rather, it could prevent all this, but only by becoming a visibly brutal force, and this would be another kind of defeat, since the British armed services and police want to maintain their image of patriarchal protectors; they do not want to appear to be batterers of non-violent women. Greenham women expose the contradictions of gender; by being women they dramatize powerlessness but they also disarm the powerful."[22]

In my view, this symbolic dance around the fence at Greenham still relies implicitly on traditional gender ideals rather than challenging them. (When was the last time any peace group used a man or male face rather than a female or a child as an image in a poster or leaflet?) The meaning of the action is revealed in part by the form of the opposition: counterattacks on the women’s peace movement have aimed to ‘expose’ the women, by claiming, for instance, that they are lesbians, neither innocent nor really women. (See, for example, the difficulties this created for the women at the Seneca Peace Camp.)[23]

Some feminists and peace activists have raised doubts about the absolute commitment to non-violence. Responding to the deployment of Pershing II missiles in Germany, despite a massive non-violent protest campaign, East German feminist Christa Wolf argued: ‘If they dare to draw the annihilation of Europe into their calculations then, surely, we - who are just morituri in the statistics of the planning staffs in the headquarters - are allowed to take liberties in our choosing of effective means of resistance.’[24] And the Editorial Collective of Questions Feministes, writes: ‘We must reclaim for ourselves all human potentials, including those monopolized by men in order to enslave us more thoroughly. For instance, violence: it’s up to us to choose its forms and goals. But violence is necessary against the violence of oppression. We want to be able to choose.’[25]

To choose the ‘forms and goals of violent’ or to choose non-violent direct action, however, requires some criteria for weighing means and ends, evaluating a tactic, a strategy, an organizational form. Drawing on previous experience in the women’s movement, the more radical and feminist wing of the women’s peace movement has elaborated feminist criteria which can be used to make such decisions on grounds other than a simple moral principle. Actions are to be judged in such terms as whether women are integrated or excluded, made more confident and more capable; whether working-class women, women of color, women with children are at the center or periphery; what alliances are being made and at what price.

Feminist criteria emphasize education and consciousness-raising and seek modes of leadership which will not exclude the less knowledgeable, less experienced, and the less assertive from equal participation. These criteria, and the commitment to individual autonomy, democratic decision-making and individual responsibility, have been very productive, not only for individuals within the movement, but for its political development. The open and fluid forms and attention to how people feel as well as what they think have allowed the movement to be creative, not only in its actions and activities but also in taking new political initiatives, as when Greenham women helped organize support for the miners’ strike.


If we reject arguments which assert a special relationship of women to peace either through our common victimization by male violence and/or an essential connection to ‘nature’ and to ‘life’, is there then no rationale for a women’s peace movement? Even if women have nothing more to say on this issue than men have, women-only organization and action, in alliance with the broader peace movement, is necessary to counter the prevalent sexism in most organizations and contemporary society as a whole. However, it can also be argued that women do have more to say on this issue than men, because women’s oppression and militarism are connected. The military, nuclear weaponry, indeed the entire repressive state apparatus is organized to defend the social order which subordinates women.

Much of the most radical activism and ‘global thinking’ within the women’s peace movement comes out of a radical feminist critique of the competition and hierarchy which infuses all institutions of contemporary society. But a refusal of the status quo does not provide a strategy for creating a system of alliances which could alter the balance of forces in domestic politics sufficiently to challenge militarism. To connect feminist anti-militarism to other movements for social change, the women’s peace movement will have to develop a political analysis and program which focuses attention on the fact that the social order defended by the military is oppressive not only to women but to all working-class people and people of color.

I want, then, to end this article with some suggestions for such a politics. Most of these ideas have been articulated elsewhere within the women’s peace movement, even if they are not yet dominant.

Opposition to the military is opposition to the lie that US intervention around the world protects women or is carried out in our interest. In Virginia Woolf’s often-quoted phrase: ‘As a woman I have no country; as a woman I want no country. My country is the whole world.’ In the name of ‘containing communism’ the US government perpetuates dictatorships protecting low-wage havens for multinational corporations, including the global factory which exploits women workers from the Philippines to El Salvador. Women can oppose these policies and effectively advance the struggle against women’s oppression.

Let me illustrate this point with a example. Several years ago, in a demonstration called ‘Not In Our Name’, women marched through Manhattan, pausing to picket places which symbolized the connections between women’s oppression, capitalism and the military. The march ended with a Wall Street blockade opposing production of nuclear warheads, and the profits made from it. Stopping points included a publishing company which had smashed a union organizing drive by women workers, and the South African consulate. The women’s peace movement ought to oppose US intervention against Third World liberation movements, firstly in the name of self-determination but secondly because liberation movements carry hope for a revolutionary democratic socialism. We want the same for ourselves. In the long run women’s liberation requires a society based on equality, participatory democracy and socialsm.

In the short run women’s self-determination requires abortion rights, the right to live openly as a lesbian, a living wage, quality childcare. Our central demand is not for men as individuals or as servants of the military, the corporation, the government, to stop victimizing us, other countries, or the natural world. Rather, our demands should center on creating the conditions necessary for women to challenge male power. In the reproductive rights movement, in organizing women workers, in building women’s communities, feminists have long recognized the important connection between sexual freedom, control over reproduction, economic equality and women’s power. One way to extend this approach into the women’s peace movement is to focus protest on government spending priorities. This issue can be raised in a radical way by making the demand in the name not only of women’s immediate needs but of our aspirations for liberation. For example, spending for childcare instead of military weapons can be demanded not only on the ground that many mothers are ‘forced to work’, but also because children are a social responsibility and quality childcare helps children to become happy, effective adults while enabling women to live as free human beings.

A government war on poverty instead of on the people of Central America is necessary, but not only because millions of old women, single women and working women are impoverished. Economic security is fundamental to women’s self-determination. So long as poverty waits for women, especially women with children who lose a job or a husband’s wages or pension, how can women be in control of their lives? Government provided minimum incomes and universal childcare challenge the ideal of the male breadwinner family. Such demands also run counter to a state policy constrained by corporate profitability and give concrete expression to the ideal of a society organized to meet individual needs and to value collective experience.

A focus on government spending priorities in no way excludes the issue of violence against women. Women’s family responsibilities are at the heart of economic exploitation, low wages, and thus our economic dependence as wives, our vulnerability as single women and single mothers. Women’s economic dependence also reinforces emotional dependence, both of which lead women in some instances to complicity with men’s abuse of them and their children. 

Feminist theory and practice continue to evolve. As feminists in the peace movement have supported the armed revolutionary struggles of Central America, the way they think about non-violence has changed. As feminists have seriously confronted the experience and organizations of women of color and working women, increasing attention has been paid to their economic concerns. Greenham women helped organize support for the miners’ strike, and feminists forged lasting ties with miners’ wives. The lessons learned from these examples can help feminist militants to transcend the single-issue politics which threaten to constrain the impact of the women’s peace movement.

[1] See, for example, Tamar Swade, ‘Babies Against the Bomb’, and Jini Lavelle, ‘Children Need Smiles Not Missiles: Planning a Walk’, in Lynne Jones, ed., Keeping the Peace, London: The Women’s Press, 1983.

[2] For example, the Seneca Camp. See Cynthia Costello and Amy Dru Stanley, ‘Report from Seneca’, Frontiers p. 8, 2, 1985, pp. 32-9.

[3] Pam McAllister, ed., Reweaving the Web of Life (New Society Publishers, 1982)

[4] Nina Swaim and Susan Koen, Handbook for Women on the Nuclear Mentality, Women Against Nuclear Development, 1980.

[5] Adrienne Rich, quoted in Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology, Boston: Beacon Press, 1978, p. 82.

[6] Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere, London: Pluto Press, 1983; Rhoda Linton and Michelle Whitham, ‘With Mourning, Rage, Empowerment and Defiance: The 1981 Women’s Pentagon Action’, Socialist Review 63-4, May-August 1982.

[7] Carol MacCormark and Marilyn Strathern, eds, Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

[8] Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981, p. 247. For an excellent critique of arguments for a universal gender dualism-encoding male superiority, see Chapters 11-13. See also Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986, pp. 163-96.

[9] Piecing It Together: Feminism and Non-Violence, Feminism and Non-Violence Study Group, 2 College Close, Beckleigh, Westward Ho, Devon EX39 1BL England, 1983, p. 20.

[10] Lisa Leghorn, ‘The Economic Roots of the Violent Male Culture’, in Reweaving the Web of Life, p. 197. Defending Greenham women against the charge that they are not feminist, Birgie Brock-Utne argues, ‘Most Greenham women say that they are raising the issue of male responsibility for the nuclear threat and see the nuclear threat as just one form of male violence,’ Educating for Peace: A Feminist Perspective, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1985, p. 54.

[11] World War Two helped lesbians and gay men to find one another, planting the seeds for the lesbian/gay movement. See e.g. John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, pp. 24-33.

[12] ‘The Women’s Peace Movement in Britain’, Frontiers, 8, 2, 1985, p. 57.

[13] ‘We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and from the imagination … We want to know what anger in these men, what fear which can only be satisfied by destruction, what coldness of heart and ambition drive their days.’ Women’s Pentagon Action Unity Statement in Lynne Jones, p. 43.

[14] Brock-Utne, p. 52.

[15] Among the many written testimonials to this process, see Anne Sellars ‘Greenham: A Concrete Reality’, Frontiers 8, 2, 1985, pp. 26-31. In addition, women’s peace organizations have been built by women activists fed up with the sexism of the anti-nuclear movement. The women-only organizationions have provided a space for women to develop skills and ideas which would have been unavailable had they remained in mixed organizations.

[16] For a similar critique, see Piecing It Together, pp. 46-9.

[17] See, for example, the Nazis’ use of gender-based organization to mobilize women in Leila J. Rupp, ‘Third Reich, Second Sex’, The Women’s Review of Books 4, 9, June 1987, pp. 1-3. Nottingham WONT makes a similar criticism. However, their analysis does not consider a feminist revaluation of motherhood as an alternative. See Nottingham WONT, ‘Working As A Group’, in Lynne Jones, pp 22-9.

[18] Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1983; Sara Ruddick, ‘Maternal Thinking’, in ed. Joyce Trebilcot, Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory (Rowman and Allanheld, 1984). Ruddick, however, recognizes the destructive as well as progressive side of ‘motherhood’.

[19] Linda Pershing, ‘Each Piece Makes the Ribbon; Each Piece Brings Peace: Women and the Ribbon Around the Pentagon’, Perspectives 5, 2, Winter 1987, p. 7.

[20] Sellars, p. 28.

[21] Sellars, p. 29.

[22] Ann Snitow, ‘Holding the Line at Greenham’, Mother Jones, Feb/March 1985, p. 46.

[23] Costello and Stanley, pp. 36-7.

[24] Beate Fieseler and Ulrike Ladwig, ‘Women and the Peace Movement in the Federal Republic of Germany’, Frontiers 8, 2, 1985, p. 59.

[25] ‘Variations on Some Common Themes’, Feminist Issues 1, 1, 1980, p. 13; see also Piecing It Together, pp. 28-9. It should be clear that I am addressing only the arguments for women to be pacifists and not making a critique of pacifism in general. 

Filed under: feminism, imperialism