The Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 5, Reading 4
By Carol Ascher
The attitude of nonviolence stems from a reverence and respect for life. It is the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” understood in its widest meaning: physical and psychic harm, short of death, are included in the assumption that in this bountiful world there can be sufficient space, time, and resources for each of us to get what we need without violently taking from others. There is an appealing optimism in this attitude, and I believe also the truth. Its complications arise, of course, when there are vast differences in the power to procure or command resources, and when violence is declared the order of the day. At times like this, when editorial writers congratulate their readers for getting over the “Vietnam Syndrome,” as if a reluctance to kill people and destroy another country were a disease, nonviolence can seem like a sweet pipedream.
The irony of the nonviolent attitude, of course, is that it only has a living meaning in exactly those moments when an individual or group has the power to kill or destroy, or when a person’s or group’s safety is threatened.
When we talk about women and men in relation to nonviolence, I think we are talking about an urgent and ultimate good for both. But because of real differences in strength and power created by both nature and society, the nonviolent attitude has had a quite different meaning for women than for men. Most obviously, for men in our society, nonviolence means relinquishing physical and mechanical powers to which they usually have had easy access, and probably even learned to believe they have a right; it means deciding not to go to war, to carry weapons, or to hit their wives. For women, on the other hand, a nonviolent world immediately conjures images of walking in safety and ease on the street, feeling unafraid to argue heatedly with a lover, not worrying about the loss of husbands and sons in war. If women must give up anything to accept a nonviolent world, it seems to me, it is their age-old standards for judging “manliness” in men. At the risk of bifurcating the world too sharply, I suspect that when you as a man to picture a gun he most often imagines himself holding it; while to a woman, the gun in the picture is pointed at her or at someone she loves.
The problem for women who want to take a nonviolent stance in this still extremely violent world is, in fact, rather like the problem for men who decide to become pacifists while on the battle field. They must invent tactics, strategies, and states of mind which take them out of real-world and internalized victimization. Insofar as it is possible to get off the battlefield, they must do so. But men can shoot their guns into the air, volunteer to drive an ambulance, or go AWOL. Women in their homes and in the cities of today have a more difficult time discovering the demarcations of the battlefield. What are the equivalents for women of shooting a gun into the air? I myself am not always sure.
It will come as a surprise that for thousands of years, without being pacifists, women have largely taken a defensive position towards violence. Whether they believed violence was right or wrong, they knew that they could get killed; and having children under their wing, they stayed out of the line of fire. In primitive societies, women cultivate the soil while the men hunt or make war. There is no value system which judges the men’s activities as pejorative; on the contrary, they are most often accorded a higher status exactly because of their closeness to death. It is the connection between men’s higher status and their activities as hunters and warriors that made Simone de Beauvoir write in The Second Sex that, “If blood were but a nourishing fluid, it would be valued no higher than milk. For it is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills.” Although I think we are deeply embedded in nature exactly because of both our violence and the oppression of women which our consciousness could enable us to overcome, I believe that the two phenomena are linked.
In our urbanized industrial society, beyond the very real dangers which women rationally try to avoid, an elaborate culture has developed through which women indicate their inferiority to men at the same time as showing their “sensitivity” to violence. The hands over the eyes during the murder scene at the movies, squeamish shrieks in the face of bugs that must be removed or killed, an avoidance of certain kinds of articles on the front page of the newspaper or stories on the evening news – these are the images that rush to my mind. But again, these sensitivities do not reflect more than the dullest adherence to the Commandment against killing; and I doubt that the connection is more than rarely even made. Instead, all this acting out is largely ritualized drama, a kind of pageant play affirming men’s important role as gun bearers, bug squashers, and decision-makers on those front page issues of destruction and violence. The women will wash and clean up and bear whatever life and death bring them.
Of course, the men have their reciprocal role: they not only risk their lives to “defend” the homeland (experiencing “life” and friendship at its peak while out alone with their buddies), but with due chivalry they protect their women from knowing the grisly and glorious truths about the violent atrocities they may have committed away from home.
A wave of American feminism arose out of the ashes of the anti-draft and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Women, gathering political skills at the same time as a new understanding of their second place in the violent world of men, began to strike out on their own. During the 1970s, as a result of the women’s movement, a change occurred in this country in women’s relationship to violence. In large part, women lessened their fear of it, but they themselves at times also became more involved in it. Early on there was the anger that men had controlled the streets too long with their threats of mugging and rape, and the cry that women had to reclaim the right to walk about freely at night. I recall vigilante squads of women who, for a time, tried to ensure other women’s safety in the dark hours. One friend of mine joined a women’s group which organized regular rifle practice so that women could become at ease with the control side of a gun. I myself too karate lessons – a chance to learn the limits of my own physical power and to lose my feminine fear of violence, I thought – until after three months its militaristic elements repelled me too much to continue. For the first time, too, there were publicized cases of women who defended themselves against rape with guns and knives. Joanne Little became a legend when, herself already a prisoner, she killed a guard who had tried to rape her, using his own weapon. Women have become sensitive to the cultural violence against them, and some began to picket in front of theaters which showed images of sexual violence against women. I attended uncomfortable meetings where women admitted to being battered wives and asked other women for help. And there was the drive by women to join the military, and the resulting machinations for and against the equal Rights Amendment and the revival of the draft.
On the other side, although it sometimes seems less publicized, has been an active feminist-pacifist movement. Feminists with a nonviolent perspective have been at the core of anti-nuclear organizing, and their sensitivity to the preciousness of life has made them turn up at the forefront of a variety of ecological issues from Love Canal to uranium mining on Native American territories. The idea of nonviolence has been extended from the relationship between people to the ties between human beings and our delicate earth. A significant number of feminists-pacifists have also chosen to live in rural areas, in women’s communities, without men. They have said, in effect, it is too hard to live one’s private life ethically and comfortably on the battlefield.
Strangely, there is one area of battle and conflict that women carry with them even unto the furthest rural reaches. Within feminist-pacifists circles, the issue of abortion has been upsetting and unresolved. Most feminists without a nonviolence perspective, perhaps wisely, argue in public for women’s right to control their own bodies, including their reproductive systems, and reserve their sadness and moral concern about the fate of a fetus for quiet discussions, behind closed doors. But feminist-pacifists have made a commitment to sanctify life, and so some feel they cannot simply argue the expedience of first winning a right for women that they may then pronounce unethical to use. There have been angry and hurtful interchanges among these women, but more recently also open discussion, including an enormously interesting transcribed discussion among several feminist-pacifists in the August 1, 1980 issue of WIN, the War Resisters League magazine.
I believe a nonviolent approach to th4e universe is more urgent than ever before. But I also believe that both the “violent” as well as the nonviolent aspects of the women’s movement over the past decade have been largely to the good. Both sides, each in its way, have worked to narrow the gap and so have an effect on the violent world of men. I suspect that there are fewer women now than 10 years ago who worship men’s capacity for violence from afar, while denigrating their own life-giving activities – however much noise Phyllis Schafly, Maribel Morgan, and the men who finance them may be making. Also, psychologically, many women may need to move from seeing themselves as passive victims of violence through a phase of anger and violence before they can become nonviolent activists. From this perspective, even women entering the military may have some good results. The problem is: do we have time, given our capacity for destruction, for women to get this experience, and can it be gotten without creating its own added waves of violence?
I said before that I hold to the connection between the sharp bifurcation of genders, with its concomitant oppression of women, and the violence and destruction we experience throughout the world. In her book The Mermaid and th3e Minotaur, one of the great theoretical contributions of this wave of the women’s movement, Dorothy Dinnerstein has elaborately argued how female-dominated child-rearing guarantees “male insistence upon, and female compliance with, a double-standard of sexual behavior,” including male aggression and violence and “certain forms of antagonism – rampant in men, and largely shared by women as well – against women.” Turning away from their mothers, who they must not be like, men also run from their own softness and nurturance, their “fleshy mortality,” the memory of infancy when they experienced both boundless and helpless passion. With their infantile longing neither satisfied nor transcended, war and conquest are the “amoral greed of infancy turned loose on the world; and the death and destruction which they create is the fear of both which they must deny in themselves. Arguing the urgency for men to share in child-rearing with women, Dinnerstein writes, “They cannot be our brothers until we stop being their mothers: until, that is, we stop carrying the main responsibility – and taking the main blame – for their early introduction to the human condition.” Of course, as she adds, what also stops true solidarity among women is that women share men’s anti-female feelings.
If Dinnerstein is right, as I believe she is, then a nonviolent world must be worked toward at home, in a differently structured family, as well as on the street and in the recruitment center. The battlefield that must be narrowed includes those widely differing roles deemed appropriate for men and women. This is an enormously difficult task: when one talks to people about murder, most will have to concede that it is wrong; but there still are many who see nothing amiss with one-half the world, women, taking full responsibility for bringing to adulthood each new generation of human beings. Yet the enormity of the task is matched by the risks on the other side, as men continue to develop technology that can not only wipe out an entire hemisphere of our planet but also make life impossible for countless future generations.
From Confrontation, Winter, 1991, Long Island University Library Journal.
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