Feminism and Non-Violence Discussion/Feb and March 1998


Feminism and Non-Violence Discussion/Feb and March 1998


Query From Linda Grant De Pauw minervacen@aol.com 20 Feb 1998

In an e-mail exchange with an individual associated with the George Washington University Women's Studies Program, I mentioned that in the old days--early seventies--we assumed a connection between feminism and opposition to war. Her response was:

>Interesting. I guess that that is the old version of feminism. >my understanding of feminism is that women can do anything >and everything, including believe and choose to do >anything they want. No stereotyping even of feminists, and >no pigeonholing of people.

I confess, I've been out of the loop with women's studies and feminist theory for a while now. But I had assumed the link between feminism and non-violence still existed. Indeed, I attributed the relatively slow growth of the field of women's military studies to this connection.

I would like comments from those who self-identify as feminists. (Those who do not so identify or who oppose feminism may also have opinions about what feminists believe, but I am trying to get to the primary sources if possible.) I'm also curious about the current link (if any) between feminism and women's studies programs--the programs were very political in my day. Thank you.


From Pamela McVay pmcvay@ursuline.edu 23 Feb 1998 I am a feminist, have always been a feminist, and also gave very serious consideration to a military career when I was in High School. I graduated in 1994, and the biggest reason I didn't join the Air Force through ROTC or apply to the Air Force Academy was that I am (was?) too short to work as a pilot or navigator.I DID visit West Point for a week and I did go through the physicals for the military academies AND the merchant marine. I just didn't attempt to get a nomination from a Congressman. I don't believe in the right of conquest, and I often disagree with specific foreign policy decisions of US presidents, but I am not a pacifist.

I'm pretty sure I would meet just about anyone's definition of a feminist, too. I teach women's history as a class, include women's history in all my courses, am involved in trying to start a Women's Studies program at my College,
and am usually (as now) a member of at
least two women's organizations.

From Elisabeth I. Perry eiperry@mindspring.com 23 Feb 1998

As far as I have been able to tell, feminist ideas and non-violence are not necessarily connected. In my view, the only idea that binds feminists together is a rejection of male domination. If men use violence to impose their domination, then I would think feminists would oppose it, but reject violence per se as a means to an end? I doubt it.

Feminists are rarely in total agreement on everything, which is why anti-feminist bashing that characterizes feminism as a monolithic conspiracy should always be answered. Feminists differ on lots of issues,from the reasonableness of war to how freely abortion ought to be available to who should plan, shop for, and cook dinner. To say that certain attitudes or behavior are or are not feminist is to impose an orthodoxy on feminism that, in my book at least, does not exist.

From Kate Bayes KLBayes@aol.com 23 Feb 1998

I'm an older feminist myself. My version of feminism is why do we automatically assume that feminists are girls? In my version of feminism, there is a connection between feminism and anti-war ideals and internationalism and and environmentalism etc. etc. but boys can be feminists,too.

From Shannon Wyss HugDyke@aol.com 23 Feb 1998

I found your question about the connection between feminism and non-violence
interesting. I, too, am a student at George Washington University; I'm in their MA Women's Studies program. (:::waving to that other GW person out there:::) To demographically situate myself, i'm a 25 year old, upper-middle class, white lesbian woman living in Washington, DC who grew up in St. Louis.

I've identified as a feminist for as long as i can remember and also consider myself non-violent. However, i agree with the previous GW person who wrote that feminism is about women being able to do and be anything they want to. I don't believe in essentialist concepts of women as inherently non-violent and men as innately violent. I think men are socialized to be violent and women are socialized to be passive. Each of us has within herself the ability to be each; it's society that helps tip the balance one way or the other.

I think that women should be able to fight in the military on a completely equal footing with men. (No segregated boot camps for this feminist!) If men are drafted, women should be, too. If men populate death row, women should,also.

The larger issues for me are the fact that i don't think there should be either a draft or the death penalty. But neither do i want to see women contained in boxes of non-violence and protection from aggression. *No one* should face any of those threats. And *anyone* should be able to subscribe to notions of non-violence and passivity, regardless of gender, genitalia, or political belief.

There is still a substantial strain in feminism that links women with non-violence. But there are also a lot of feminists out there, myself included, who don't want to see ourselves automatically linked to one stance (i.e., non-violence) merely because of our genitalia or our feminism. I think it all comes down to the fact that there's no such thing as "feminism," per se. But there are a million different "feminisms" -- one for each person who so identifies. Some feminists do oppose war, but some don't. Just like some feminists (like me) are radical and want to overthrow the entire system. And others, like members of NOW, are somewhat more content to work within the system we have to enact change. And i'm sure there are even feminists out there who are Republicans. <g>

Ain't no such thing as a monolithic "feminist movement." Guess that's what coalition building is all about!

From Hera Cook hcook@sas.ac.uk 23 Feb 1998

I certainly self identify as a feminist and I also believe in non-violence, however I have Irish feminist friends for whom that was never part of their feminism even in the heyday of the early 1970s. Personally I don't believe that women doing anything and everything are feminists - feminists are women who believe in helping other women, not just women doing new things as far as I am concerned.

But I do believe that the result of feminism will be that women can do anything and everything. Other ethical arguments are needed to defend non-violence rather than relating it to feminism.

From Lois K. Herr loiskherr@att.net 23 Feb 1998

As an early 70s feminist, I was fully aware of the peace agenda of many of my feminist friends and supported them in concept but not in activity.

I did not feel that agenda to be necessarily part of the feminist agenda, even then. We were allied in some of our causes and not in others. That caused tensions and limited resources but was for me an accepted part of the process. In some ways, those tensions increased the total energy available. As for the young women on our campuses now, I see them (and their professors) struggling with how to build alliances in a relatively non-protest oriented time.

From Julie A. Charlip charlija@whitman.edu 24 Feb 1998

I think that in many minds feminism and non-violence are linked because this wave of feminism emerged in the late-60s and early 70s, when a progressive agenda included feminism, resistance to the Vietnam War, and a distrust of institutions (e.g. marriage). Here we are some 30 years later, with women fighting for complete equality in the military and gay couples wanting to get married. Times change and so do agendas.

From Sydney Langdon aalan@asuvm.inre.asu.edu 24 Feb 1998

Re: your query feminism and non-violence. I am a self-identified feminist. Have been for many years. I currently am in my 5th (maybe 6th) year teaching in the Women's Studies Department at Arizona State University, although my degrees are in psychology and anthropology. While I favor non-violent approaches as the first means of approach to any troubling situation, I am not uniformly and across-the-board opposed to the use of legitimate force. "Non-violence" is not a general category I would associate with modern feminists, it just isn't one of the "isms" of feminism.

You also asked about the relationship between women's studies programs and feminism. Here are ASU, all faculty members in the WS dept. self-identify as feminists, and most of the office staff seems to. It is not a means test for employment, but does work out that way.

I find the cannon to be political, and many of the courses others teach, the projects they are involved with, are reflections of or demands for political action. However, my view may be biased. I come from the cultural feminism wing, so if the "political" aspects have lessened over the years, I wouldn't notice that. I would and do simply notice that others are within the political feminist camp. Please keep us advised of what your informal survey discovers.

From Evelyn Kerslake E.O.Kerslake@lboro.ac.uk 24 Feb 1998

There is an excellent contribution to this debate in Andrea Jaggers' _Living With Contradictions: Feminist Social Ethics_ (1995?)...

From Eve Rosenhaft dan85@liverpool.ac.uk 24 Feb 1998

I am a feminist and I am not a pacifist *but* as an academic (historian) I would want to challenge the idea that feminism is about "women being able to do or think anything they want" in two respects:

First, as a *critical* position, feminism implies (for me) the imperative to examine in the most rigorous way "what we want": Where does this wanting come from, and what are its consequences? (This doesn't preclude deciding that wanting to fight is legitimate or creative.)

Second, I think something is lost when "feminism" as a programme becomes detached from an understanding of the history of feminism. In that history, women's challenge to institutional violence has often and repeatedly been intimately linked with the aim of critiquing and transforming gender relations. Not always. We need not feel bound by that tradition, but I think we ought to know it and understand why, and to pass that knowledge on.

From Alan B. McCullough Alan_McCullough@pch.gc.ca 25 Feb 1998

The legal defence of the battered-wife syndrome is surely another instance where some (most?) feminists support a violent response to a violent act.

From Lori Askeland askeland@eagle.cc.ukans.edu 25 Feb 1998

In response to the relation of military service to feminism and non-violence, and to Alan McCullough's assertion [see above]:

I think most feminists *understand* violence in that situation, but like _Beloved's_ Baby Suggs, we frequently can't easily "approve or condemn" the "rough choice" of violence in response to violence, especially if it is a violence that unwittingly does violence to others in the house (especially is there are children watching--like Denver in that novel; children who-- regardless of circumstances--may not be able to trust a mother who they have seen do real violence, even to a "bad" father, who the children may love, despite everything.) Many feminists would still want a woman in a violent relationship to be able to make a "clean" break, if that's ever at all possible (and probably no break is "clean," vis _Black and Blue_ by Anna Quindlan, but we still accept and understand the way that abusive relationships make some amount of violence from the victim understandable and possibly almost inevitable.

But I don't think recognition changes the central values of nonviolence to feminism. And, although I've missed some of this thread, that's how I'd interpret military careers for women: although it's complex, it seems to me you can love being physically aggressive, and even get a certain pleasure from controlled aggression that some of us experience via sports or the martial arts or military service. I do Tae Kwon Do, so I suspect that women in the military may have a similar feeling about the way that activity allows and even encourages physical assertiveness, without condoning needless violence. (Part of the oath that we take in Tae Kwon Do is "never to misuse TKD" and to "refrain from the senseless killing of all living things," because we are learning a skill that can be deadly.) It *is* important for any feminism worth the name to advocate that women be allowed to preserve themselves and to protect those that they want to protect, including themselves or even the whole country. If they believe military service is the best way for them to preserve the country the love, then I don't think other non-military feminists are necessarily right to quarrel about the fundamental value of non-violence, because that isn't necessarily what's really at stake. You can be in the military and believe that military force should be used as infrequently as possible, as a last resort, when good-faith diplomatic solutions fail and the cause is correct. That attitude doesn't necessarily seem contra-feminism to me. We should instead see the difference more as an honest disagreement over the question of what is the *best* way to achieve a society that is safe for women and nurtures their goals; what is the best way to achieve a less violent society.

It's a matter of sorting out priorities and sometimes acting in what you hope is the best way, knowing that in complex situations, one is not always able to be entirely at peace with a decision that may *be* both good and bad--i.e., "a rough choice." But I guess that's life. And all feminisms should agree that a woman has as much "right to life" as anyone else on this planet.

From Joan R. Gundersen gunderj@numen.elon.edu 26 Feb 1998

Let's get this discussion back to a historical perspective. If one looks at actual published expressions of feminismi. e. feminist theory, there is a very strong vein *historically* of feminists who have posited that women are "natural pacifists" - you can find these assumptions in works such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's _Herland_, the writings of Jane Addams (_Newer Ideals of Peace_), and this position among early 20th century feminists is discussed by Nancy Cott in her work _The Grounding of Modern Feminism_. The idea of a "natural pacifism" resident in women's culture (or women's being) does reappear in a number of strains of post-1960 feminist thought.

The writings of eco-feminists have a strong vein of non-violence which is integral to their positions. It is also evident in the work of feminist separatists like Mary Daly. There are also feminist critiques of war as a male construct, for example, Helen Caldicott's _Missile Envy_, and Diana E.H. Russell's _Exposing Nuclear Phallacies_. Thus despite the fact that many current members of this list may not subscribe to such theories, these theories have been an important thread within feminist thought through time and at some times have been a very widely held idea.

From Debbie Ann Doyle dadoyle@bellatlantic.net 27 Feb 1998

There were also feminists who linked non-violence and women's culture during the 1980s-I remember reading several articles about the Greenham Common Women in Great Britain, who claimed authority to demand the removal of American nuclear weapons in part on their status as nurturers. There's a book by Cynthia Enloe called _Does Khaki Become You_ that examines the effect of militarism on the status of women that also fits into feminist non-violence.

From Jackie B. McNeil JBM96002@uconnvm.uconn.edu 27 Feb 1998

As a member of the second generation of the second wave, I do believe that feminism and non-violence are intertwined. But perhaps there are two poems which say it better than I ever could. (I am quoting these from memory, so please don't cite me!) One is from _Dream of a Common Language_by Adrienne Rich, referring to a woman's hands...

"Such hands could carry out an unavoidable violence, with such restraint, and with such a knowledge of the range and limits of violence, that violence ever after, would be obsolete."

The other is "I am A Dangerous Woman" by Joan Cavanaugh which (I believe) was printed in a booklet put out by the Seneca Women's Peace Encampment in the 1980s. It begins:

"I am a dangerous woman,
Carrying neither bombs nor babies,
Flowers nor molotov cocktails.
I confound all your theory, reason, realism Because I will not lie in your ditches, Nor dig your ditches for you,
Nor join in your armed struggle and bigger and better ditches..."

From Julie Landweber jlandweb@compuserve.com 27 Feb 1998

To Joan Gundersen's list of historical expressions of feminist pacificism, I'd like to add Virginia Woolfe's _Three Guineas_, a very moving short book which doesn't seem to get much recognition these days. I'd also just like to say that I'm finding everyone's comments on this thread extremely interesting.

From Melinda Salazar msalazar@hopper.unh.edu 27 Feb 1998

Feminist peace scholar Betty Readon (Teacher's College, Columbia) links the roots of the two phenomena, sexism and the war system, to the same set of authoritarian constructs--patriarchy--each as complex and pervasive. In the 60s and 70s, woman peace scholars who identify as feminists observed the same hierarchial and chauvinistic patterns existing within the peace research community as in the world at large. That, combined with looking at definitions and conditions of peace which consider deeper, root causes of structural violence (and women as primary victims of) carved out the field of feminist peace studies. The various perspectives of feminist peace scholarship runs the gamut of variations in feminism (degrees of biology vs. socialization talk), but there remains a core a beliefs shared in common regarding patriarchy, militarization and warfare. However, as I say that, there are those liberal feminists who champion equal rights and will support women in the military. Brigit Brock-Utne, Reardon, Elise Boulding, and others would argue outright that women achieving 'equality' through military service is not a step forward, but a co-option. Some women believe their presence in the military could serve to mitigate the savagery of warfare. Arguments against women in the military are founded upon two sexist assumptions: that women will be less prone to initiate and to escalate violence, and that men in opposing forces will be reluctant to inflict violence upon women. This argument goes on and on and leads into the big question: Are women more peace-loving than men? A radical feminist peace scholarship perspective looks at the structure of consciousness--the transformation of human beings and changes in thinking and behavior--and the analysis of the institution of patriarchy. Where I believe women's studies classes and peace scholarship share a common ground is in exploring sexism, racism, class exclusion, heterosexism and misogyny.

[H-Women Ed. Note: This is a X-Post from H-Minerva, so the post from "Donna Dean" he refers to is on the H-Minerva logs].

From William Paulsen paulsen@rain.org 02 Mar 1998 To: H-MINERVA@h-net.msu.edu (H-NET List for Discussion of Women & the Military and Women in War) X-Post to H-Women

...Donna Dean wrote:

<< ...most of us would agree that most individuals actually possess traits and characteristics assigned to both genders to greater and lesser degrees. Surely we all know men who are gentle, open to their emotions, and who are nurturing, just as we all know women who can be violent, are aggressive, and lack any nurturant qualities whatsoever. Therefore, assigning any particular trait or characteristic (of behavior) by gender is impossible. >>

Donna, I would heartily agree. Recent research has even undermined the simplistic idea of female reproductive advantage coming from her ability to attach herself permanently to a strong male and male reproductive advantage arising from his ability to mate with as many different individuals as possible. Both promiscuous and "monogamous" adaptive behaviors and physiology are now recognized in both genders. As usual, nature is more complex than we knew.

<< Regarding matriarchy as the preferred dominant culture: There have been some matriarchal cultures here and there in history, although this is often denied by scholars steeped in patriarchal education, particularly of the Euro-centered philosophies. However, those matriarchal societies with which I am somewhat familiar did not exclude violence or the potential for war. Rather, the roles of males and females usually differed, and the powers to wage war, or to decide to wage war, often resided in some sort of female council. The council would then decide war was appropriate, and permission to go out and wage it would be passed on to the warrior societies, usually predominantly male. >>

Perhaps it is just a matter of the classification criteria we use (and I would by no means assert mine to be "correct"), but I know of no society I could classify as "matriarchal," as opposed to "egalitarian." We do have abundant (and very precious) ethnographic data for egalitarian societies, in which no person has coercive authority over any adult of either gender. This means there are no chiefs or presidents, policemen, jailers or judges, and nobody "governs" anything. It means there are no serfs and no landlords, and it also means there are no fathers, brothers or husbands who may command wives, sisters and adult daughters as if they were serfs. I am also aware, painfully aware, of many ranked and stratified societies which are also despotically patriarchal--societies in which a woman passes her entire life in the complete control of men: father, brothers, and then husband and his male kinsmen.

Regarding the possibility of matriarchy, there is neither reliable ethnographic evidence nor theory, as far as I know, to support the idea that a human society has ever existed in which females dominate males in the ways that males control females in patriarchal societies [except for the United States, of course. ; )= ].

There are egalitarian societies in which women "participate strongly" in group decisions. I would expect that the Navajo, Cherokee and Iroquois, which were egalitarian prior to the European acculturation, are among them. These societies reckon kinship matrilineally and establish residence upon marriage matrilocally. So by definition fathers, as such, do not lead or dominate any household; they are "outsiders" in the households of their wives and children. However, as a brother of his sisters and an uncle of their children, a man might be the principal "authority figure," if we had to single somebody out for that designation, in the household in which his sisters and nieces will live together for their entire lives, even though he himself "resides" elsewhere, in another household, a household which belongs to the family of his wife, i.e., her sisters, brothers, mother and maternal aunts and uncles.

Are there societies in which women participate *more* strongly in group decisions than do men? I decided to look again into my two cross-cultural databases, both published by Cognitive Development, Inc., of Seattle, in 1988. In their "Standard" cross-cultural sample of 186 societies I found this variable: "Degree to which women have political rights, compared with men." Not an exact match to my question, but very close. In only 9.6% of the societies for which data were compiled on this variable, I found, are women's political rights "equal" to those of men. In 21.7% they are reported to be "less," and in 8.4% "much less." In 60.2% of the societies women's political rights are reported as "none."

Another variable, "degree to which wives display institutionalized deference to husbands," I thought also could be relevant to the question. In 34.5% of the societies there is none. It is "low" in 42.9% and "high" in 22.6%.

I thought also of interest "gender of whom can inherit property of some economic value:"

  men only                25.4%
  male bias               38.0%
  equal                   31.0%
  female bias              5.6%

The "female bias" category here is the only instance I found of a gender-related variable which went in the direction of female being favored over male. The New World tribes, BTW, in which a female bias was reported were Hidatsa, Zuni and Saramacca (S. America). (This database, unfortunately, contains no data on Iroquois, Navajo and Cherokee.)

In the second database, which includes George Peter Murdock's 563 societies from the Human Relations Area Files, although I found no variable which addressed political participation as such, I thought the following might bear on the issue of matriarchy/patriarchy. "Inheritance of movable property by gender":

equal rights 16.1%
males more than females 9.2%
males only 74.8%

The "males only" category includes both the Iroquois and the Navajo. (On the Cherokee the database has no data for this variable.)

In summary, I found nothing which suggests matriarchy, i.e, some variable that shows or implies in some society that women are more active or influential than men in making group decisions. This is consistent with my understanding of the evolution of human society: that once all of us lived in egalitarian band societies based upon a gathering and hunting subsistence, that this general form existed for at least a million years, and that as this stability began to break down about ten thousand years ago, and gender-equality was the first part of the egalitarianism which had hitherto been universal to break down; the rise of male dominance was simply a nuclear process in the terrible evolution of the injustice of rank, class and caste.

So I expect that we will never find evidence of despotic matriarchies, in which men lived without personal liberty, in complete subordination to their mothers, sisters and wives. And that, if you accept the idea that gender is something in which pride can be taken, is something women can be proud of.

Gender-dominance is not a simple issue. Japan is dramatically patriarchal, yet one finds sometimes (I have no means of determining how common this is) that father is like an indulged child, allowed to fritter away significant family resources and much of his time with his little vices, while it is the more-mature and responsible mother who actually controls the family finances and takes charge of family business. Come to think of it, I have seen this pattern quite often in the United States as well.

I have used the present tense here speaking of the organization of egalitarian societies, following the convention in anthropology of the "ethnographic present," but there may be not one egalitarian society which survives today in that form.

Egalitarian societies are a most important phenomenon to social science and one of the least understood; many people cannot conceive of a society without "bosses" and are skeptical that such societies ever existed or could exist. But exist they did until their sophisticated egalitarian social organization was disrupted, most often by a European invasion, and was replaced by a cruder mechanism: hierarchy. The Navajo and the Cherokee and many others knew how to organize themselves into tribes of thousands based upon the most complex and sophisticated organizing principle seen so far in the evolution of human culture: kinship and the behaviors called for by the various particular kinship systems. Thus they were organized effectively for the common good as well as for the freedom of the individual, without any person standing in a position of authority such that he (or she) could command another adult.

Now THERE was something to be proud of!

Thank you, Donna, for your most interesting and stimulating post.

Please help me keep our list focused on the H-MINERVA subject matter. If you reply, please make the connection of your comments to non-violence or to women in war explicit.

From Max Dashu maxdashu@lanminds.com 03 March 1998

Re: post from William Paulsen [see above]

...As you point out, the term "matriarchy" is misleading. Even those who use it usually don't mean a reversal of patriarchy, where women dominate men. It's a completely different paradigm. Egalitarian can be a useful word, but doesn't necessarily connote a complex of matrilineage and gynocentric culture, and we need a name for that. I use "matrix society," drawing on the root for "womb" and chucking the "archy" rule-over element. "Matrix" also implies a foundation in life-support and social (rather than individual/nuclear)motherhood that is of such societies, and the importance of the maternal blood tie, rather than legal ties of marriage or the problematics of establishing (and guaranteeing) paternity.