Thoughts on Women and Pacifism

For my U.S. Women and Social Change class I am writing a 15 page research paper comparing the WWI Women’s pacifist movements to second-wave feminist pacifism in the 1980’s. I will be focusing primarily on the gender theories behind these two movements (although my teacher has reminded me to tie it back to some sort of social change).

It’s really quite interesting when you begin to study the rhetoric used in the early 20th century. The feminist pacifists of the time were coming out of the Progressive political ideology that emphasized social welfare and was in many ways a utopian vision. At the outbreak of WWI in Europe, women like Jane Addams (pictured right)–who was famous at the time for her social work–formed peace parties. The platform for Addams’ group (Women’s Peace Party) used gendered language (“nurturing peace”) that articulated Victorian gender ideals. Women were seen as virtuous, morally superior beings in contrast to the morally corrupt, yet naturally stronger men. Progressive women reformers, however, took ownership of this flattering (yet oppressive) social ideal and it turned it against their patriarchal society. If women are so morally upright, why are they not allowed to participate in the public sphere (i.e. politics)?

When war was declared in 1914, American progressives were absolutely astonished that (in Jane Addams’ words) such an “archaic institution” was still present in the world. In response, women pacifists wrote of the need for feminine traits in the government (specifically woman’s suffrage); Motherhood was needed in foreign policy. In the 19th century, these sort of ideas were described by feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

The male element is a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, conquest, acquisition, breeding … discord, disorder, disease, and death. (from Sara M. Evans’ Born for Liberty p. 171)

These gendered notions of war were picked up by the WWI pacifists, who in turn used them as a basis for arguing for suffrage. Based on idealistic progressive ideologies, suffragists of the time believed that women, should they gain representation, would put an end to barbaric (and exclusively masculine) warfare through the feminine nature of peace and reconciliation.

Of course, women gained suffrage in 1920, only to see the country fall into another horrific war 20 years later. But the essentialist belief in a woman’s propensity for peace did not die out. In the 1980’s, following a second wave of feminism in the 60’s and 70’s, new theories of peace and environmentalism began to again emphasize the inherent feminine traits that could contribute towards a better world. Feminist theorists like Sara Ruddick and Luce Irigaray criticized the overwhelming masculization of warfare and urged the immediate uplift of the feminine in an effort to find a new balance in global affairs. They found inspiration from the ideas of Jane Addams, embracing gender difference as the key element of social change.

Though less motivated by the progressive spirit, these feminists were strongly driven by the possibility of nuclear holocaust. Their cause was just as immediate and real as the pacifists during WWI. Irigaray argued on the nature of male/female sexuality. Male sexuality, she wrote, was cyclical and destructive; it mirrored and produced the overwhelming rise of militarism in the 20th century and was heading towards the inevitable orgasm (nuclear detonation). Only with the immediate insurgence of female sexuality could this be stopped.

Sara Ruddick similarly argued on gender difference in her book, “Maternal Thinking”. She advocated a “politics of peace” that included the voice of motherhood. Women, who are so intimately connected to life through the experience of childbirth, have an understanding of peace that men lack. The incorporation of this perspective into the public arena will surely contribute to peace in the world.

Similarities between the two movements are certainly noticeable. Nuclear warfare pushed the second-wave feminists towards a discourse of nature and earth, but essentialist notions of gender difference closely connect the two time periods.

The rise of postmodernism in the 1980’s, however, provided an alternative vision of gender and warfare that rejected these sort of essentialist-based arguments. In poststructuralism, dualities (male/female, war/peace) are rejected as human constructions that conveniently privilege one group or idea over another. Essentialist thinkers like Irigaray, argue many post-modern feminists, contribute to this dualistic notion, and actually provide impetus for more violence in the process. Furthermore, gender roles and ideals are seen by poststructuralists as 100% socially constructed. The idea that women are somehow inherently peaceful in comparison to men is not only false, but restrictive. As humans, we must all take responsibility for peace and justice. To incite gender conflict by these means is merely finger pointing and ultimately just as destructive as war itself.

These two polarized visions have been a contentious field of debate among feminists for the past few decades. Do we embrace and utilize gender difference? Or, are notions of gender difference culturally determined and destructive?

My own opinion lies somewhere in the middle. I believe most culturally accepted ideas of gender are socially constructed (history all but unanimously proves this), but remain open (but certainly not convinced) to the possibility of certain inherent gender differences.

I know its a lot, but any thoughts on the matter?


EDIT: I have located a blog that compiles about 160 photos from the 1983 Seneca Peace Encampment. This was a protest by women against nuclear weapons/warfare.
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