Thoughts on Women & the Peace Movement

Against the Current, No. 1, January/February 1986

Johanna Brenner

THROUGH INSPIRING and creative actions, the women’s peace movement has captured worldwide attention and forged international ties between activists in Europe and the United States. Greenham Common in Britain, Seneca Peace Camp in New York State, La Ragnatela Camp in Sicily, the Women’s Pentagon Action, local demonstrations all over Europe and the United States mobilized thousands of women -many new to political activity-and brought them to challenge the law and its enforcers, as when Greenham women first blocked and then invaded the missile base.

Women-organized and women-led, these campaigns affirmed women’s capacity for militant political action; they created and strengthened networks among women’s communities and organizations. Though not explicitly feminist in its aims, the women’s peace movement has nonetheless contributed to building the base for an autonomous women’s liberation movement.

In addition to its potential for feminism, antimilitarist organizing by women offers an important point of connection between feminist and socialist politics.

However, the major theoretical framework and strategic choices of the women’s peace movement do not fully realize these potentials. For example, a feminist anti-imilitarism cannot mobilize women by appealing to our anti-violent and maternal “nature.” We have to construct women’s opposition to the arms race and military intervention in ways that transcend rather than incorporate traditional feminine ideals. The women’s peace movement hasn’t always managed to do this.(1)

A socialist-feminist antimilitarism cannot account for imperialist intervention, as the women’s peace movement often does, in terms of an aggressive and violent male psyche. However, an adequate socialist-feminist theory must explain the connection between militarism and male dominance.

This article explores theory and practice in the women’s peace movement in light of these concerns. It has been too easy for socialists to ignore the women’s peace movement, too easy for feminists to celebrate it.(2) We need instead to think together about a political program demands, arguments, actions-that connect women’s oppression, militarism, and capitalism and therefore build links between the movements organized to oppose them.

Men and Aggression

There is, of course, no unitary feminist theory-on militarism or anything else. However, most of the writing on feminism and peace 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.

Most of the essays in an influential volume, Reweaving the Web of Life, posit a dualistic human nature defined by masculine and feminine principles. A characteristic formulation from the Handbook for Women on the Nuclear Mentality argues:

“… 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 parts 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. This result is patriarchy.”(3)

Against this patriarchal violence, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, and Andrea Dworkin envision a female power, overthrown in ancient times, that was identified with generativity. Originally, “not power over others but transforming power, was the truly significant and essential power, and this, in prepatriarchal society, women knew for their own.”(4) According to this theory, male creativity relies on the appropriation of women’s energy and the subsequent spiritual annihilation of woman. Thus when Dworkin writes, “men love death,” she is not speaking metaphorically.

These arguments assume a feminine “essence” connected to our child-bearing capacity. Others argue that women’s exclusive responsibility for early child-rearing produces male aggression and violence. This psychoanalytically based point of view is probably less accepted than radical feminist ideas among activists in the women’s peace movement. Still, drawing on the work of Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow, this approach reflects an influential theoretical tendency within feminism in general and socialist-feminism in particular.(5) In this account, boys and girls resolve differently the conflicts that are bound to occur in the process of human development. Briefly (and therefore with injustice to the complexity of the argument), in individuating from a mother who is all-powerful within the child’s early world, boys achieve a sense of separateness by identifying with a father who, typically, is physically absent and emotionally distant.

Boys therefore develop a negatively-defined sense of masculinity as that which is “not feminine.” They come to fear and devalue the feminine in themselves in that they associate femininity with regression and dependency. Men thus develop a fundamental concern with autonomy and the maintenance of ego boundaries, a fear of engulfment, and a profound misogyny (a reaction­ formation in which hatred of women serves as a defense against this fear).

This path of psychosexual development produces a male world view that worships abstract rationality as a “way of knowing” and defines objectivity as thinking separated from emotions and the body. According to this view, male character structure and male values allow the exploitation of nature and other human beings by identifying rationality with separation, and by constructing a self that knows itself only in relation to a feared and despised Other.

Girls, in contrast, construct their identities by distinguishing themselves from others like themselves. They tend, therefore, to fear separation rather than domination, to desire connectedness, and to have more flexible ego boundaries and a capacity for empathy. Feminine world views emphasize the concrete needs of others rather than abstract rationality, accept a unity, appreciate the emotional and bodily.

Profoundly insecure about their sexual identity, men feel the need to prove themselves through aggression, achievement, and competition. In addition, patriarchal culture confers on men and entitlement to the sexual, emotional, and domestic services of women. In consequence, male power in the family and in the society reinforce and recreate each other:

“violence against women, from genital mutilation to marital rape and abuse, violence against humanity, from agent orange and the neutron bomb to starvation and poverty, become the social norm.”(6)

The common thread of feminist theory-that militarism expresses masculine drives, however the origins of those drives are understood-is reflected in the political symbolism, the demands, and the political arguments of the women’s peace movement. Greenham Common and the Women’s Pentagon Action capture the major tendencies.

The big actions at Greenham counterposed women’s concerns as mothers to the male identification with the military and war. Non-violence was argued for in terms of women’s nurturance. The Women’s Pentagon Action was organized as a women-only demonstration on the grounds that militarism is just the extension of a system of male violence against women.

The women brought to the Pentagon not pictures of children, as at Greenham, but pictures and mementoes of women victims of male violence. Rape was the metaphor of a whole action. Mourning for the victims of male violence was to be transformed through rage and grief to a commitment to oppose male violence in its institutionalized form: the military.(7)

Understanding militarism as an expression of male violence runs into difficulties both as theory and as political practice. We need an alternative approach.

We need to identity the “enemy” not simply as male violence but as a hierarchical and oppressive social order maintained through the institutionalized violence of the military. Organized around structures of domination (of class, sex, race … ) this society inevitably produces and sustains male violence against women.

The link between women’s liberation and anti-militarism rests on our opposition to this social order and our demand for full participation in public life, a living wage and creative work, the right to live as a lesbian, collective responsibility for children, thus to be able to mother without depending on a man. We oppose militarism because it denies these goals-in its defense of capitalist power and capitalist interests around the globe, in its celebration of masculinity defined by women’s inferiority, in its absorption of resources and corresponding impoverishment of social expenditures.

Beyond the Male Psyche

The feminist analysis connecting male violence against women to militarism tends to reduce social institutions to an expression of psychological needs. It is true that gender ideology defining masculinity in terms of “combat” (just as it defines femininity in terms of motherhood) is used to mobilize men into the military. But it is not useful to explain the military or war in terms of male aggression.

To take a simplistic example: if we knew the psychic structure of every soldier in World War II, from general to private, could we explain the war? Even if we included all the men who made government policy, would their “aggressiveness” account for the western powers’ interest in building up Germany’s military strength as a counter to the Soviet Union?

Psychological theory is an important tool for understanding how it happens that individuals behave in ways that appear to be inconsistent or at odds with their objective interests; for example, why working class men fight wars for the ruling class. Nonetheless, there is a complex relationship between social and psychological factors, between individual psychic needs, gender ideology, the economic interests of individuals and groups, the distribution of power, and so on. Social institutions cannot be understood in terms of individual psychologies any more than the psychology of individuals can be deduced from their location in the economic system.

Class differences do determine very different social and individual experience. Thus class has an impact on individual psychic structures. For example, some class locations make it easier than others for individuals to develop a sense of mastery and autonomy: some social positions offer more possibilities than others for “sublimation” through productive work. On the other hand, individual personality structures affect what individuals make of these different possibilities, how they come to understand their world, how those world views change, and thus how they act.

The contention that early nurturing by women produces male violence against women ignores the impact of social organization, especially power relationships both within and outside the family, on the development of individual personalities. There are societies, such as the (pre-colonial) Iroquois, in which the sexual division of labor between men and women is quite marked-men responsible for hunting and warfare; women for young children, domestic tasks, and agriculture-but women have equal power, or at least very close to equal power, with men.(8)

Such cases indicate that the psychological consequences of women’s primary parenting in very early childhood may differ depending on the context. Misogyny may be the outcome of a mother’s intense and isolated relationship with her boy-child in a society where women are devalued and where men hold power and authority within the family and outside it. Boys’ development may be quite different where women combine care for children with productive labor in extended networks of other women, in a society where women in general are valued and where women have authority both within and outside their households. (This is not to deny the potential advantages of men’s equal involvement in parenting.)

But even if exclusive mothering leads boys and girls to differently resolve early conflicts around separation and attachment, subsequent childhood and adult experience may allow individuals to transcend infantile experience. This is certainly not true of our society, which everywhere promotes and reinforces male aggression toward women. The power relationships of the nuclear family-the mother over the child and the father over both-are reproduced in every institution we encounter as children and as adults.*

In addition to the real subordination defining all areas of life, the culture legitimates hierarchy and is infused with a heterosexual ideal that eroticizes power, defining romance in terms of feminine submission to a dominant and aggressive masculinity. No matter how an individual comes to terms with it, whether one acquiesces or rebels, identifies with “the father” or with “the mother,” the problematic fusing of love and domination inherent in hierarchical family relationships necessarily shapes our actions, our conscious and unconscious motivations and needs.

To put it more broadly, this society reproduces the structures of infantile experience. Therefore, while “mothering by women” may explain how women develop the motivation and capacity to nurture, motivation and capacity do not explain why women are mothers. Much more than infantile experience forces motherhood on women. The same argument holds for men and misogyny. It is necessary to differentiate between psychological “needs” — in this case those of men created by certain kinds of childrearing — and the social institutions that allow men to act on those needs at the expense of women.

It is at least possible that men’s conflicts and anxieties around their gender identity would have to be expressed in other ways, for instance, in art, sport, ritual. The “vagina dentata” (vagina with teeth) theme which appears in Iroquois myth might very well have articulated male fears arising from primary parenting by women. But in that society men were not able to act them out directly. Economic and political arrangements allowed women autonomy, respect, and collective organization, the ground to resist.(9)

Capitalism and “Mastering Nature”

While gender dualism and devaluation of women characterize all patriarchal cultures, the male/female culture/nature = abstract/concrete = linear/circular polarities, which so many feminists treat as universal expressions of the male psyche, owe much more to the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and capitalism than to male control over the culture.

Our identification of the highest kind of knowledge with active control over the natural world would have astonished the quite patriarchal Greeks. Greek philosophy used the term “nature” to refer to the essential character or essence of a thing or person, making no distinction between human and non-human realms, and endowed material phenomena with human characteristics.

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 by a contempt for lower forms of life, but by 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.(10)

The contemporary notion of mastering nature through science developed in the seventeenth century, along with commercial expansion, colonial exploitation, technological innovation. Christianity had prepared the ground by destroying pagan animism, making it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects,

Male control over women both in the society and 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.(11)

Feminist writing about militarism illuminates the skein of connections through which myth, religion, political rhetoric, indeed all discourses, play out the themes of domination and submission in gendered terms. Both as ideology and as internalized identity, gender definitions provide crucial support for all hierarchies. But the hierarchical institutions of class domination and militarism have their roots in other soil. When feminist accounts fail to make this distinction, they tend, in spite of intentions, to explain destructive economic and social practices in terms of male psychology.

For example, although the Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group defines capitalism and patriarchy as two different systems, their pamphlet, Piecing it Together, tends to treat capitalism as an expression of “male thinking” and to explain men’s compliance primarily by their fear of being called feminine, thus denied male privilege.

“(Cash-cropping on the basis of) inorganic petrochemicals whose deleterious effects the macho wizards of modem science have no way of 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 …”(12)

There is some truth here. “Real” men do “hard” science. The most rewarded fields are those most 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 terribly 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 that corporate interests directly and indirectly determine 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 from 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, 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 the 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.”(13)

Rather than accounting for the irrationality of the arms race in terms of the irrationality of individuals, we need to 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 that benefit from increased military spending, and denies the real conflicts of interest between the two countries. Both systems depend in different ways on the 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 in which each power attempts to make inroads into the other’s sphere of interest.

Military leaders and state managers are not little boys playing cowboy, but bureaucrats presiding over vast accumulations of resources. The most powerful U.S. corporations, heavily invested in military production, have a pressing interest in continuing the Cold War. In both countries, military bureaucrats and their political allies-scientists, industrial managers or corporate executives, provincial 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).

The claim that militarism expresses male drives also fails to address the structures of real interest, threat, and rewards that recruit 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 of being called feminine. The objectification of the enemy and of women go 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 really fight.

Especially in modern warfare, the connection between act and death is often 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. They fight terrified and miserable-the glory of battle disappears quickly in the muck of war.

Morale and discipline of armies rests 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 either Korea or Vietnam precisely because many of these elements were missing.

Men can become soldiers for very different 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 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 far 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 that 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. (Historians have shown how World War II helped lesbians and gay men find one another, planting the seeds for the lesbian/ gay movement.)

Still, while in theory the military is the quintessential male pursuit, in fact the vast majority of men are not particularly interested in becoming soldiers. Until the recession, the volunteer army was in trouble. 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. However, women may more easily reject militarism, not so much because of our innate peaceableness but because women may more legitimately oppose war which. after all, is socially defined as men’s sphere.

In sum, militarism and women’s oppression are linked, not by male violence nor male psychology but by systems of production and reproduction organized around relations of domination. Men’s fear of women and need for control over women 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-earnings differentials, exploitation of women as part-time seasonal workers, sex-segregated labor markets and the like.

Women’s vulnerability as wage workers in turn is perpetuated by our family roles.

Men survive class oppression in part by standing on women’s necks 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 would drastically reduce men’s leisure time and increase their domestic work. But most frightening to men, for women to cease to mirror their superiority is to rob them 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 male 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 that promote a more or less openly violent image of heterosexual romance. They include political structures-legislatures, courts, enforcement-that tolerate male violence. They also include service professionals and social scientists-the “therapeutic community” whose mainstream members either directly or indirectly hold women accountable 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.

By linking women’s oppression and militarism exclusively through male violence instead of through women’s subordination in the economy, the family, and the society as a whole as well, the women’s peace movement is less able than it might otherwise be to mobilize working-class women and women of color. Nor can it offer as well as it might a program and strategy that make clear the common interest of feminism and other movements.

If, on the other hand, the women’s peace movement can make links between militarism and the maintenance of exploitation around the globe and the increasing destruction of lives and communities by disinvestment at home; if it can be shown how militarism in practice and in its world view prevents the public programs and services that would allow women to challenge male domination; it then has the opportunity to outline a genuine feminist vision and to express and prefigure different social relations based on that vision.

In what follows I discuss some concerns about current strategy in the women’s peace movement and briefly outline an alternative.

For Ourselves, Not Just Our Babies

In counterposing female caring and mothering to male aggression and violence, some segments of the women’s peace movement fail to sufficiently challenge the traditional view of women. Helen Caldicott’s call to women, “As mothers we must make sure the world is safe for our babies,” appears to have been reflected at Greenham Common when women decorated the perimeter of the base with baby clothes and pictures of children. Organizers defended Greenham as women-only in terms of our special connection to peace and life through caring for children.

This kind of peace politics overlooks women’s right to act out of concern for our own survival uncritically celebrates motherhood, and ignores the powerlessness of most mothers. This 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-responsibility from which women supposedly shrink.

Most important, if we rely on a traditional definition of women as mothers, a distorted definition that 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 at the heart of anti-abortion and pro-family politics.(14)

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.

Recently, feminists have been attracted to the argument that mothering creates a unique world view for women, a distinct ethic different from the male-defined moral order.(15) This may be true. But it is also true that women can react to conditions of mothering in very 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 men in return for protection.

Child rising 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 affect the world. Successful work in childrearing is defined by how well the unique needs of a particular individual are met so that the person can fully grow and develop. But women can translate their focus on the concrete needs of their children into willing 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.” Some of the slogans of the women’s peace movement reflect that ideal. “Take the toys away from the boys,” even if tongue-in-cheek, does play on women’s motherly role in disciplining men.

Traditionally, women are expected to be more peaceful than men and to therefore provide a civilizing and restraining force in a world based on exploitation of man and nature, on ruthless competition, on rational calculation to the end of the most narrow self-interest. Our role, in this view, is to inspire men to take the higher view in exercising their public responsibilities-based on a moral superiority that we retain so long as decision and power are left to men. Women are expected as part of our maternal function to arbitrate conflict, to suppress our own needs for those of others, and, therefore, to make it easier for everyone to get along.

The logic/ emotion, abstract/ concrete, aggression/nurture framework sentimentalizes women and trivializes motherhood. Instead of taking on the definition that patriarchal culture gives to motherhood, we should emphasize that motherhood is a work that involves 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 actual practice of motherhood combines elements that 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 that denies its goals: the development of other people, appreciation for human life, attention to process, acceptance of change. “Maternal thinking” that is feminist can help us envision how we want to live, define the goals of our movement, and inform the practice of our struggle.

Must Feminists Be Pacifists?

While Greenham emphasized women’s special connection to peace, the Women’s Pentagon Action emphasized men’s special connection to violence, including violence against women. In one sense, WPA responded to the radical feminist critique of the women’s peace movement at Greenham for not explicitly raising feminist issues. WPA argued that : “Individual men attacking individual women is one end of the continuum of violence which leads inexorably to the international military abuse of power,” and counterposed women’s moral and spiritual strength to men’s dependence on guns and physical force. In asserting a womanly commitment to non-violence without qualification, we seem to be moving 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 depended on both physical strength and collective organization.

A feminist challenge to militarism that does not perpetuate traditional notions of femininity will be impossible so long as we continue to think in terms of the polarities -violence/ non-violence, power/ nurturance-that 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 collectively determine the conditions within which life will be lived, toward the end of fostering the full development of every person. This ideal does not rest on a moral superiority growing out of exclusion from the world. It rejects nurturance based on compulsion and sacrifice. A mother guided by such impulses cannot nurture herself or others.

Against the patriarchal idealization of motherhood, we imagine mothers who are strong, capable, autonomous beings, respected in their society; that is, women who are powerful in the sense of effective. To achieve that vision we build a movement of women brought together by common oppression but organized to transcend it.

Such a movement cannot afford to counterpose to violence a feminine morality that absolutely refuses the use of force simply because violence is a traditional male prerogative:

“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.”(16)

To choose the “forms and goals of violence” requires that we weigh means and ends, that we define feminist criteria by which we evaluate a tactic, a strategy, an organizational form. Ideas about process developed by feminists through reflection and experience offer some guidelines. We must judge actions 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 and decision-making that will not exclude the less knowledgeable, less experienced, and the less assertive from equal participation. Ultimately we want women not only to feel “empowered” but to win real power-social, economic, and political.


In place of the current emphasis on violence I would propose a strategy for feminist opposition to militarism that focuses on the interrelationship between structures of domination. In this approach women’s oppression and militarism are connected by the fact that the military, nuclear weaponry and state police are organized to defend a social order oppressive not only to women but also to working-class people and people of color.

Opposition to the military, then, is opposition to the lie that U.S. 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.”

“Containing communism” and the military build-up perpetuate dictatorships protecting low-wage havens for multinational corporations, including the global factory that exploits women workers from the Philippines to El Salvador.

In a recent demonstration called “Not in our name,” women marched through Manhattan, pausing to picket places that 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 that had smashed a union organizing drive by women workers, the South African consulate, etc.

The women’s peace movement ought to oppose U.S. intervention against Third World liberation movements, first in the name of self-determination but second 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, socialism.

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, then, is not for men as individuals or as 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. For example, the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp demanded funds be shifted from the military to human services.

We can raise this issue in a radical way by making the demand in the name not only of women’s immediate needs, but our aspirations for liberation. For example, we can demand spending for childcare instead of military weapons, but not only on the ground that many mothers are “forced to work.” We should argue that children are a social responsibility and that quality childcare helps children become happy, effective adults and helps women to live as free human beings.

We can demand a government war on poverty instead of on the people of Central America, 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 our lives? Government provision of guaranteed income and universal childcare challenges 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 and the arguments around that focus in no way exclude the issue of violence against women. Women’s family responsibilities are at the heart of our economic exploitation, low wages, and thus our economic dependence as wives, our vulnerability as single women and single mothers. Married women with children are especially defenseless against battering, because life is so difficult for single mothers. Women’s economic dependence also reinforces emotional dependence, both of which lead women in some instances to complicity in men’s abuse of themselves and their children.

Denying women, especially women with children, the means to live independently of men maintains traditional family roles. These roles define women as submissive and in need of protection and promote the heterosexual ideal at the center of the culture of rape.

Feminist theory and practice continue to evolve. As feminists in the peace movement have supported the armed revolutionary struggles of Central America, thinking about non-violence has been revised. 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 made lasting ties with miners’ wives. I’ve drawn on these initiatives and hope that the approach outlined here will contribute to their consolidation.

*These two relationships are not precisely parallel. The mother’s power over the child is, to a certain extent, the inevitable product of the child’s physical dependence. This is, of course, not true of the father’s domination over the mother. Nonetheless, I think it can be argued that within the nuclear family, compared to other arrangements for raising children, the child is more vulnerable vis-a-vis the mother than is mandated simply by its physical dependence. Thus, I think the term hierarchical is appropriate. A sole caretaker protected by the privacy of the family, the mother has not only a tremendous burden but also the right to do what she wants with the child within wide limits. And she can even surpass those limits without penalty in many cases. Where children are raised more collectively, the mother’s power is tempered by the presence of other adults who can directly control her behavior and whose support allows children to be more independent of their mothers.


  1. On this point, see Breaching the Peace: A Collection of Radical Feminist Papers. Onlywoman Press, Ltd. (London, 1983.)
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  2. See, for example, Barbara Epstein and Barbara Haber’s claim that the women’s peace movement superseded feminism. “The Impasse of Socialist-Feminism,” Socialist Review, No. 79 (January-February 1985).
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  3. Reweaving the Web of Life, Pam McAllister, ed. (New Society Publishers, 1982; Nina Swaim and Susan Koen, A Handbook for Women on the Nuclear Mentality (Women Against Nuclear Development, 1980).
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  4. Adrienne Rich, quoted by Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology (Beacon Press, 1978), p. 82.
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  5. Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper and Row) 1976; Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (University of California Press, 1978).
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  6. Lisa Leghorn, “The Economic Roots of the Violent Male Culture,” in Reweaving the Web of Life, p. 197.
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  7. Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere, (Pluto Press, 1983); Rhoda Linton and Michelle Whitham, “With Mourning, Rage, Empowerment, and Defiance; The 1981 Women’s Pentagon Action,” Socialist Review, nos. 63-64 (May-August, 1982).
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  8. See, for example, Judith K. Brown, “Iroquois Women: An Ethnohistoric Note,” in Toward An Anthropology of Women, Rayna R. Reiter, ed. (Monthly Review Press, 1975).
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  9. Along the same lines, see Sacks’ analysis of the battle-of-the-sexes theme in Mbuti culture. Karen Sacks, Sisters and Wives, (University of Illinois Press, 1982), p. 136.
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  10. Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance, (Monthly Review Press, 1981), p. 247; Carol MacCormack and Marily Strathern, eds., Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge University Press, 1980.
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  11. Leacock, p. 247. For an excellent critique of structuralist arguments for a universal gender dualism encoding male superiority, see Chapters 11-13.
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  12. Piecing It Together: Feminism and Non-Violence, (Feminism and Non-Violence Study Group, 2 College Close, Beckleigh, Westward Ho, Devon EX39 lBL, England, 1983), p. 20.
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  13. Leghorn, p. 197.
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  14. For a similar critique, see Piecing It Together, pp. 46-49.
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  15. Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice (Harvard University Press, 1983); Sara Ruddick, “Maternal Thinking,” in Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, ed. Joyce Trebilcot (Rowman and Allanheld, 1984). Ruddick, however, also recognizes the destructive as well as progressive side of “motherhood.”
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  16. Editorial Collective of Questions Feministes, “Variations on Some Common Themes,” Feminist Issues, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1980), p. 13; see also Piecing It Together, pp. 28-29. It should be clear that I am only addressing the arguments for women to be pacifist and not making a critique of pacifism in general.
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January-February 1986, ATC 1

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