Feminism, Peace, and Power

The Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 5, Reading 1

By Mary Roodkowsky


“Who then will do it? The men are all fighting, and some women, too.
Betty Williams, Nobel Peace laureate, when asked shy women created the People’s peace Movement in Ireland.

Fighting, vanquishing, attacking, and counterattacking are so-called masculine skills shed of the metaphors of business, sports, and social competition which usually clothe them. War creates heroes, supermen, known by their performance: true men, on whose chests medals and stripes glitter and ribbons flap. Strong men, whose very survival proves brains and brawn. Men in charge of their own lives, and with the power and authority to direct and mold the loves of others.

Victory in war derives from comparative advantage—no stronger or wise for the battle, perhaps poorer than before—to conqueror is defined by his superior position, his lower losses. The loot consists mainly of positional goods, those which can be held only at the expense of others. Use and control over the opponent’s natural resources and social status-the ability to determine if and how others will share in those resources.

Because it seems that conflict’s only rationale is acquisition of goods or power from another, only those who are enfranchised, or who might hope to be, need involve themselves. No wonder, then, that women neither profit from nor join in wars. The round tables where straegic decisions are made never include women-in face, women rarely approach them as with memos or coffee for the real decision makers.

While men wage war, women keep house and also the economy. Their perpetual care of the hearth and of the children maintains a social structure and ensures a home where soldiers may return. Women labor in factories and offices, in seats left vacant by men called to the front.

Women also take on new burdens in wartime. They sacrifice butter to churn out guns in factories, they expand their roles as society’s washers, nurses, and caretakers, to include the extra destruction created by war. Women make and roll bandages, and then use them to bind wounds they never inflicted. At the war’s close they comfort combat-tattered psyches, of both sides. Their wartime jobs—and the newly acquired earning power it brought—are pre-empted by those to whom they really belong, the boys back from the front. Thus, wars that are fought for goods and position benefit women little. In fact, rather than acquiring goods or position in war, women often are the goods, the spoils, acquired by war. Rape has been standard operating procedure during armed conflict, from the Trojan War to the Vietnam War. In her book Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller suggests that soldiers’ abuse of women ranks along with looting, burning, and bombing as a means of subduing the enemy. Later, the women become a part of the victor’s booty:

“The body of a raped woman becomes a ceremonial battlefield, a parade ground for the victor’s trooping of the colors. The act that is played out upon her is a message passed between men-vivid proof of victory for one and loss and defeat for the other.”

Some of glory’s light does shine on women, but indirectly and through their relationships to men, as in so many other areas of life. Army nurses who have bravely cared for wounded men may receive medals, and exceptional female military personnel may also be rewarded for their contributions. But the “glory” comes mostly through their men—the fathers, husbands, sons—”given” to the effort. All women in wartime must sacrifice those men’s presence, as well as their contributions to home and family. Later, the ultimate honor consists in welcoming back the womb’s fruit like the Spartan woman who will only greet her son with his shield, victorious, or on it, dead. Today’s reward consists of a body in a bag, and a yearly appearance in the Memorial Day parade. While triumphant men split the spoils and bask in power, women replace their life’s love and the result of their caring work with a Gold Star banner fluttering in the wind. Only one-half of the men in a battle can win, one side must lose; however, no woman, on either side of the battle line, can ever claim victory or its prerogatives.

Women Propose Peace

Given their suffering—in themselves, in the destruction of what is most important to them, in the violation of their bodies—and given that women receive little compensation for what they give, it is not surprising that many peace movements and movements for nonviolent change throughout history have been led by women. A history of such involvement might include the imagery of Euripides’ Lysistrata, or the way the Pilate’s unnamed wife tried to save Christ; it could also tell of Angelina Grimke’s impassioned please that women work for an end to slavery, without bloodshed; it might discuss Mrs. Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the rear of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, sparking the civil rights movement; it might document the women’s strike for peace during the Vietnam War years, and describe Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan and the other women in the Irish People’s Peace Movement. It might discuss how the woman’s suffrage movement of the 19th and 20th centuries in America diligently overturned law and social order, without violence. Given the deep state of powerlessness of most women and the extra effort it takes for women to work in the organized realms of government, law, and broad scale organization, this record is even more remarkable.

Winning Over Others

Nonviolence not only opposes war; it also upholds a way of living where conflict creates rather than destroys. Feminism, too, goes beyond its rejection of arms and battle, to suggest and to practice nondestructive patters of conflict resolution. It is perhaps rooted in women’s socialization, or perhaps due to women’s economic and political powerlessness, or perhaps because of the common female roles. But whatever its source, feminist understandings of conflict can help to clarify and expand nonviolent theory.

One major aspect of Gandhi’s nonviolence embodied a stance of non-injury, or ahimsa, to the enemy. Destruction of the opponent merely perpetuates the injustice one tries to overcome. Instead, the goal is to win the opponent over the one’s own side. Gandhi wrote:

“We must try patiently to convert our opponents. If we wish to evolve the spirit of democracy out of slavery, we must be scrupulously exact in our dealings with opponents. We must concede to our opponents the freedom we claim for ourselves and for which we are fighting.”

Ahimsa has been very much a part of women’s attitudes, even with respect to the most emotional, basic issues of feminism. For instance, at the national convention sponsored by the State Department, the most volatile issues included abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and freedom for sexual preference (lesbian rights). All three passed, but not without debate, debate which adhere in various ways to nonviolent principles of respect for the opponent, and of wining over those with whom one disagrees.

Because of socialization from girlhood on, reinforced by the expectations of womanhood, a woman perceives her fate as intimately tied to that of others in a variety of ways-her choices are not always hers alone. A woman has far less decision-making power in the social structures that govern her, whether she lives in the United States, Ireland, Egypt, or India. Likewise, on an individual level, her husband, children, and other family steer her life’s course. What happens to these people and to the dominant social structures affect here with a more conclusive impact than they do a man with more autonomy. Economically, for example, when a woman depends on a man for her sustenance, the political or social factors which increase or decrease his status will likely do the same for her-either directly, when he gets a raise, or indirectly, when a slow economy pushes the “least important” elements out of the work force, as after a war or when labor is costly. He may have alternative choices in his job, and hers depend upon his. Women’s relationship to men, for better and usually for worse, is a derivative one. For women as a group this has led to a greater cognizance of the interrelatedness of all humans, with each other and with the earth. Women’s relationships to other women likewise recognize such interrelatedness, but on a far more egalitarian basis. Contrary to stereotypes of calculating, competitive women, documentation of women in developing nations and histories of women in Western civilization demonstrate norms of cooperation, caring, and nurture among women.

For example, female midwives through the Middle Ages often expertly delivered children at minimal cost. When two male doctors introduced the forceps, many midwives scorned them-for their expense, and for the fact that they foresaw an era when less compassionate, more technological childbirth would become the norm. Women in many developing nations sustain informal exchanges of goods and services among themselves, swapping household foods and childcare on a cooperative, nonprofit basis. In contemporary society, wherever neighborhoods still exist and women’s communities live despite pressures of urbanization, such bartering still occurs, despite the counterpressures of consumerism.

An adherent of nonviolence cannot injure another, because their fates intertwine. How, then, can women make a policy of winning their need and more by destroying or subjugating the adversary, when so much of their own well-being so clearly depends on the welfare of the adversary?

Not only are women’s fates combined with those of their community, but women’s roles in society are constructed with a notion of responsibility to others and to the physical world-such accountability intrinsically leads to nonviolence.

Women bear the brunt of their own actions more directly than do men. Men’s work is supported by others—by those lower on the social ladder, by secretaries, and subordinates in the workplace, by women at home. A woman’s work, however, receives no such subsidy. She takes final responsibility for the children’s and the men’s lifestyles and daily physical and material needs, as well as for her own, since there is no one further down the ladder to whom she can shunt the blame or the chores. Cooking dinner, washing laundry, feeding the baby, are all tasks created by the needs of many but only met by the work of one woman. Such “women’s work” is not the whole of the females’ responsibilities. The world over, women perform not only such womanly chores, but other “male” work as well. In Africa, 80 percent of the farmers are women; in the United States, 48 percent of women work or need work outside the home. Dual workloads complicate women’s accountability and burden. A woman doctor in a remote Himalayan mountain area comments that women in her district “work three times as hard as men,” for they must do all the things men do, and then care for the family.

Without someone down the line to blame, the unpleasant, ugly fallout of violent action might deter more women from participating in it. The desecration of the earth in strip-mining, for example, is encouraged and financed not by those displaced by or living near the site, but by corporations in cities. Nuclear power irresponsibly manufactures energy, allowing others—future generations—to grapple with the radioactive waste it creates. No one thoroughly socialized in female responsibilities could ever dream such a system.

Nonviolent action asserts the value and necessity of acting in support of the truth (the Satyagraha of Gandhi), that doing for self means also doing for others. The U.S. peace group, Mobilization for Survival, made four demands in 1977, the first three were all injunctions against violence: zero nuclear weapons, ban nuclear power, and stopp the arms race; the fourth demand was the advocacy for the justice central to nonviolent action: fund human needs.

The psychology of women supports this policy of non-injury. A woman judges here own worth, and others judge her, in terms of how well she serves others. Rather that basing her worth on the domination of others or on comparative strength, the normative criteria have been sacrifice and service.

Such advocacy is in many ways the raison d’etre of the traditional female role. Psychoanalyst Jean Baker Miller states:

“In our culture serving others is for losers, it is low-level stuff. Yet serving others is a basic principle around which women’s lives are organized; it is far from such for men. In fact, there are psychoanalytic data to suggest that men’s lives are psychoanalytic data to suggest that men’s lives are psychologically organized against such a principle, that there is a potent dynamic at work forcing men away from such a goal.”

When conflict produces an either/or, have/have-not situation, a woman is apt to opt for the subordinate role. The ideal of serving is so firmly implanted in the consciousness, in letting the other win-tennis, and argument, or a job—that not to do so is unfeminine, and therefore attracks the core of the woman’s worth. Women’s spirituality is beautifully described by the French mystic, Simone Wiel, who states that love is merely attention to the other’s needs.

However, in doing such service, we can make another kind of connection between feminism on the one hand, and nonviolence on the other. This ideal of living-for-others not only has avoided overt violence aimed at others by women, its reverse side is the exploitation of that service by men, to hurt women and women’s extreme internalization of that ideal and negation of their own needs.

Because nonviolence promotes action for justice, nothing can be less passive than its “truth-force.” For their own sake women need to emphasize this active side far more than the avoidance of violence to others. Many ethics, nonviolent codes included, speak largely to the male psyche, to is aggressive, competitive, against-others nature. Applying ethical principles of self-denial and service to the already self-sacrificing woman can sometimes overwhelm her into increased living-for-others to the point where any living-for-self seems invalid. Jean Baker Miller writes that the unilateral assignation of women to a service role is the source of overwhelming problems for men and women alike, denying to the former (men), their justly due community responsibility, to the latter (women), a necessary and realistic understanding of self-worth.

Gandhi sometimes glorified suffering for the cause of truth. But he, and other non-violent activists, also stressed the need for noncooperation with the forces of evil. Angelina Grimke urged her Christian sisters to throw away their submissive behavior in order to work to end slavery. Peace activist Dorothy Day illegally asserted herself against nuclear armaments and for the United Farm Workers’ union struggle. Women can apply this principle of noncooperation to their oppression, and to those who hurt them. Nonviolence never assents to the demands of the oppressors, even though it may cause anger or resentment. It strips the oppressors of authority to which they are not entitled, at the same time ascertaining that all enjoy what they rightfully own.

Feminist and nonviolent activist Barbara Deming connects feminism with nonviolent cooperation in application of ahimsa to both the other and the self:

“We act out respect for ourselves by refusing to cooperate with those who oppress or exploit us. And as their power never resides in their single selves, always depends upon the cooperation of others-by refusing that cooperation�refusing our labor, our wits, our money, or blood upon their battlefields, our deference, we take their power away from them.”

Our actions bear upon ourselves as well as on others. Injuring others means injuring ourselves-our capacity to love, to care, to create, and to learn. And this dynamic works in reverse: to respect ourselves will mean to respect others, to expect them to respect, learn, and create in return. Feminism has set in motion a process by which women-in caring, nonviolent ways-are learning to respect themselves, value their own work, and to evoke, expect, and demand that respect from others. In this way, another dichotomy—that between oppressor and oppressed, powerful and powerless—dissolves.

For women, such noncooperation with the degradation of sexism and the self-hatred it brings is non-violent to others and to self. Doubtless, non-cooperation with sexist structures—refusal to make coffee, criticism of policies made by men with high-ego involvement in their work, insisting on equal wages; or going to school—will be threatening to men, who will then accuse women of being angry and even violent. Affirmative action in the U.S.A., for example, is really such noncooperation with the male WASP workworld. Yet, if women are not to continue to judge themselves with violence, noncooperation is essential.

Using Power Creatively

At their cores, both feminism and nonviolence perceive power differently from male-centered ideology and are alien to the reality principle that directs our world and which encourages violent struggles for position.

Power, as the dominant ideology understands it, cannot coexist with love or caring-it is an imposition over others, rather than a force to help us compose, or create, together.

Those who know that only one side can be victorious in war can well understand the corollary of this truism: that any concept of a loving or interdependent ethic must mean a relinquishing of social and positional goods and therefore, powerlessness. Power so conceptualized cannot be used for the general good of the society—only for the aggrandizement of an individual or state—hence, a state of war. Feminist philosopher Mary Daly suggests that this split degrades humanity: “Power split off from love makes an obscenity out of what we call love, forcing us unwillingly to destroy outselves and each other.

Feminists and advocates of nonviolence live by the contrary force, the power of love, which compels us to ahimsa. Learning to use our human energies as a loving force in the process of empowerment-a process which enables us to act critically and creatively to end injustice, not accept it. Empowerment comes both from the community—in the consciousness-raising group or the affinity group—and from the individual’s new reconceptualizing of his/her own loving capabilities.

For poet and feminist Adrienne Rich, motherhood dissolves many dichotomies between power and powerlessness. While a mother has ultimate power over, responsibility for, and control over her baby since the baby depends on the mother for all sustenance and warmth, the baby also controls the mother—her psyche and her body, as in the flow of milk from here breasts. Rich writes of the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over in the one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities in the other, a heightened sensibility which can be exhilaration, bewildering, and exhausting. For Rich, motherhood dramatizes the interactions of “exclusive” opposites, impresses upon us, for example, that “love and anger can exist concurrently.”

The women’s health care movement generally, and feminist attitudes toward both specifically, understand the concurrence of power and powerlessness and use it as a principle of developing nonviolent attitudes toward the body. The women’s health care movement seeks to change the physical alienation affecting women, replacing a variety of attitudes that deny the body’s goodness and fear of its function. Rather than labeling menstruation “the curse,” women are learning to accept and celebrate their cyclical rhythms. Instead of birth control pills which, although “sure,” chemically dominate and sometimes injure the body, women are turning to methods that are perhaps more limited but far safer.

The movement toward home births and toward “childbirth without violence” integrates many principles of nonviolence in the relationships involved in childbirth. Modern technological obstetrics sterilizes, shaves, and generally obfuscates the nature of childbirth, dehumanizing the most profound of human experiences. Mothers become passive observers, while their bodies become objects. Babies likewise are objectified, not considered to be people affected by their environment. The goal of such obstetrics is, of course, total control through the domination of the doctor. The entire birth experience is subject to manipulation, not only its labor and its pain, but also its passion, creativity, and satisfaction. Home births have developed an alternative to this, where midwife, mother, child, father, and others all participate and cooperate with natural forces. The benefits of such non-injury to mother and child alike include physically healthy birth without drugs, less birth trauma for the baby, early development of emotional ties between mother, father, and baby. Beyond these, new attitudes toward birth signify the development of supportive and less destructive attitudes toward our bodies, and to the natural environment generally.

Feminism and Nonviolence as Creativity

New thinking by women shedding old oppressive roles, yet retaining the real joys of womanness, can become one of the most creative political forces society has ever known. Women, like all oppressed groups, have had to know well, and bargain with, the structures which hurt them. Feminism has helped to evoke new social understandings based on women’s experience and sisterhood. Many of these are implicitly grounded in nonviolence. Sisterhood implies democracy, for the needs and points of view are all-important in community. Women’s responsibility provides a rationale for self-reliance and an end to exploitation.

Perhaps, as men take on new roles which encourage human values, nonviolence will seem more realistic to them too. Those who care for children and who understand their value as derived from caring will be less willing to kill. Environmental accountability will be encouraged when men take more responsibility for their day-to-day actions, and deal more closely with the consequences. Competition may lose some of its importance to those with other priorities.

Life is not a zero-sum game, where some must win at the others’ expense. Violence and sexism in their many forms destroy our bonds with each other and our standing on the earth. They are ideologies which deny to the ways in which we need each other and our natural order, and attempt to do what cannot be done-discard human needs and emotions and the natural workings of the earth.

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372

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