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Feminism must rediscover pacifist roots


In the first feminist movement in 19th century America, it was widely assumed that feminism and peace were closely connected. This view was rooted in the Quaker theology of early feminists, such as Sarah and Angelina Grimke and Lucretia Mott. In this Quaker theology the original equality and harmony between men and women was broken by the “usurpation of power of some over others.”

From this original sin of usurped power flowed all forms of oppression and violence: slavery, male domination of women and war. In this Quaker take on original sin, it was not women who were scapegoated for the sin of “disobedience,” but rather dominating men who were blamed for seizing unjust power over others.

This did not mean that Quakers thought that women were simply innocents in this primal sin of dominating power. Women had been distorted into passive dependents and ruling class men into aggressive oppressors. Conversion meant a transformation of both men and women. Women were enabled to “stand upright on that ground which God has designed for us to occupy,” as Sarah Grimke put it in one of her 1837 letters “On the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women.” Men overcame the patterns of violence and abusive power for mutual partnership with women. Liberating all peoples from slavery, blacks, women, Indians and overcoming war, were linked together.

This link between feminism and peace continued in American feminism through the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Some men argued that the goal of suffrage, women’s vote, was illegitimate because the right to vote and to defend one’s country in war were linked together. Since women didn’t go to war, it followed that they also could not exercise the vote. Leading feminist pacifists, such as Jane Addams, replied to this claim by asserting that war itself was a barbaric and outdated way of settling conflict between nations. Civilized nations should settle disputes through negotiation and arbitration, not war. It was the task of women, once they acquired the vote, to use it to end war. Addams founded the Women’s Peace Party in 1915 to carry forth this task.

When women won the vote in the 18th Amendment, this movement was renamed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. This organization became consciously international, creating links between newly enfranchised women in America and Europe. They looked to the League of Nations as the place where arbitration might replace war as a way to settle international disputes. They themselves sought to create public conversations between women on different sides of conflicts, such as English and Irish women. Their rule was that women on the more victimized side of a conflict should define the issues and women on the more aggressive side listen and try to understand their views. Through this process they developed proposals they sent to the League of Nations, in hopes of serving as models for conflict resolution.

This world of early 20th century feminist-pacifism seems very far away from us now, as the rule of violence as the only way to settle conflict drowns out all other voices. The idea that the ultimate goal of feminism is to end war has been almost entirely forgotten. During the Gulf War in 1991 we were treated to scenes of women military pilots kissing their children goodbye as they went off to war. Young girls vindicating their right to attend military academies against male-only traditions were hailed as the cutting edge of feminist progress. The military touted its own progress in teaching men to accept women as equals in the military. In Afghanistan, the United States justified the success of its military assault in part through picturing Afghan women happily shedding their burqas, although there was no interest in Afghan women’s oppression before we started to make war on this country.

Feminism has perhaps long been divided between two different goals. For many the primary goal is simply dissolving those male-exclusionary traditions that prevent women from entering any profession they want. In this view of feminism, women becoming equals with men as warriors would seem to be the last frontier to be breached. As war becomes less and less hand-to-hand combat and more and more technological, the goal of which is to kill “them” without putting any of “us” “in harm’s way,” clearly women can push those buttons as readily as men.

But for many of us getting women to do the same things as men, while also doing most of the child care and housework, has never been the goal of feminism. Rather the guiding vision is one of a deeper transformation of both men and women. The underlying patterns and cultures of violence and oppression need to be transformed into relations of mutuality. Feminism is integrally linked to anti-racism, ecology and peace because all these movements have to do with changing the patterns of relationship from exploitative abuse of some by others to just and harmonious mutuality.

This is a vision that constantly gets lost for short-term goals. Equality is interpreted as a few of the excluded being included in the same exploitative activities as the present dominators. This is touted as overcoming racism or sexism.

This, of course, never ends exploitation, but simply includes a few token outsiders on the inside or creates new outsiders. In a system based on exploitation, most people must fall on the side of the exploited so that the few can benefit excessively. This is the basic nature of structures of antagonism, which we constantly deny in our claims that we are progressing toward “equality.” As earlier feminist-pacifists understood clearly, one can only end violence and abuse by changing the whole system that privileges some at the expense of others.

This message needs to be remembered today, now more than ever.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002