But presently I would come to know you had arrived at some fresh decision more fatally foolish than ever. ‘Ah! My dear man,’ I would say, ‘what madness next!’ But he would only look at me askance and say: ‘Just weave your web, please; else your cheeks will smart for hours. War is men’s business!’
From the play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, Athens, 411 BCE.
Men and war, women and peace – these gendered ideas have endured over the centuries, and continue to resonate in our world today. War frequently has been depicted as the quintessential male activity; one that offers confirmation of manhood and proof of first class citizenship. Human responses that have been viewed to be problematic for the warrior – fear, uncertainty, guilt, grief, empathy, compassion, and nonviolence have been feminized, and women linked to war’s opposite. In Aristophanes’ famous play, women actually prevail, exasperated by their men’s continuous warring, the women from all sides decide to take action by banning their men from the bedrooms; all it takes is one night for the men to lay down their arms. If only it were that easy!
But these ideas of warring men and peaceful women are far from accurate representations of the real world. In surveys of US riflemen immediately after close combat with German or Japanese troops during WW2, only 15 to 20% admitted to firing their rifle at the enemy (Grossman 1995, 3-4). The most decorated British soldier of the First World War was a stretcher bearer, a man who would rather die than kill (Elshtain 1987: 204). And, of course, the extent to which warring does not come naturally to men is demonstrated over and over through the significant number of veterans of modern war who return home physically intact, but psychologically broken. Similarly, women have diverse relationships to war; during wartime most have provided important support and they are in recent years increasingly crossing the ultimate barrier of combat.
However, the image of the peaceful woman, or the outsider to war when her essential support becomes visible, is deeply rooted. The traditional feminine counterpart to the warrior’s sacrifice is the mother’s sacrifice; a British bishop in WWI made it starkly clear what was expected: she was a woman who saw “neither sense nor reason in the slaying or maiming of those whom she has brought into the world”, but who gave her sons “without a word,” with “no reproach,” and with “noble endurance.” (Grayzel 1999: 227-228) And, still today, a military mother who has lost a child to war is asked to lay a wreath on Remembrance Day; no such gesture is offered to a father whose son or daughter has died in war.
During WWI, though, women were also demanding their right to express their views on war. As Cynthia Cockburn’s article, “Women’s Power to Stop War: Hubris or Hope,” notes, in the midst of WWI, more than a thousand women from 12 countries travelled to The Hague to talk peace, dispatching women envoys to speak to the heads of state in belligerent and neutral countries. These women later strongly opposed the Versailles Treaty, arguing that it was simply creating the foundations for more war.
Many women’s peace actions that followed have sought to transform the culturally-devalued symbols of the “feminine”. In the early 1980s, women from all over the United Kingdom came to Greenham Common to establish a permanent peace camp outside an American military base in Britain to protest the deploying of US nuclear weapons on British soil; in one action they stripped naked, covered themselves in ash to commemorate the victims of Nagasaki, and laid down on the main road, successfully blockaded the base, turning a symbol of physical vulnerability into strength (Jones 1987: 201). In 1988, Israeli women formed Women in Black, a group that uses the image of the silent, grieving woman to demonstrate their outrage over their country’s policies in the occupied territories; it has since become an international movement against war. More recently, Liberian Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee bridged religious and ethnic divides to unite women into becoming a powerful voice for peace, and in one key moment prevented the security forces from arresting the protesting women during a tense standoff outside ongoing peace talks by threatening to disrobe; in African culture, such an act by a married or elderly woman represented a powerful curse on the man.
In their diverse struggles, women have shaped a particular critique of war. They have illustrated that war is at the extreme end of a continuum of violence, pointing out that the struggle against war must involve efforts to end all violence. Over and over again, they have revealed the extent to which the violence of war results in an increase in other forms of societal violence, including the sexual abuse of women, that peace must mean more than the absence of war and that it will only endure if it focuses on meeting the basic needs of individuals and communities. They have also offered a powerful critique of militarized security, demonstrating how so-called protectors can all too easily become threats; the frequent sexual abuse committed by UN peacekeepers is a disheartening example (Wolfe).
In the official world of international and national peace negotiations, however, women’s voices are still silenced. Ironically, it tends to be those who did the fighting who are expected to become their country’s peacemakers. Last month marked the 15th anniversary of the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. This resolution, passed unanimously on October 31, 2000 after years of feminist campaigning, calls for the equal participation and full involvement of women in all initiatives to maintain and promote peace and security. The resolution was historic, seen by feminist activists as confirming recognition that leaving women on the sidelines leads to the failure of peace efforts.
Unfortunately, too little has changed. Bringing a gender perspective into UN peace and security efforts has kept attention on the widespread sexual abuse that is so often a part of war, but it has continued to keep women in the primary role of victims. Women were signatories in only two out of 61 peace agreements between August 2008 and March 2012 and represented less than 3% of chief mediators and 9% of negotiators in 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011. Moreover, the issue of women’s lack of security in post-conflict situations – and relatedly the needs of civilians and communities – continue to be ignored: in a review of 585 peace agreements signed between 1990 and 2010 only 92 contained references to women (O’Gorman).
Our latest collection of articles draws attention to the need to listen to women’s voices on war and peace, but also on the extent to which women themselves refuse to be pushed to the sidelines. While the violence against women both during war and so-called times of peace remains at epidemic levels, many women’s responses are inspiring, and point to the extent to which the traditional gendered ideas of rational male agency and women’s passivity, or naiveté about the serious issues facing our world, are not only inherently flawed, but fundamentally damaging to our construction of a more peaceful world.
In addition to Cynthia Cockburn’s questioning of whether women really have the power to end war, we invite you to read her account of an important meeting that brought Bosnian and Syrian women together to confer about what happens when women are excluded from peace negotiations. We offer, however, an important reminder that women’s peacemaking role should not be taken for granted by examining the diverse motives that have led women to leave their homes to offer their support to the Islamic State. Women, though, are also asserting their agency in trying to protect the women suffering under the violence of ISIS, as illustrated in an interview with Iraqi women’s rights activist Yanar Mohammed. Finally, this collection includes two articles addressing women’s efforts to respond to the worldwide problem of rape, including one by Dawson student Catherine Duret on the value of a transformative justice approach for many victims of sexual assault, and then ends with a passionate call by Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, given on the launching of a major women’s international peace initiative, to focus attention on the need for a peace treaty to finally bring the Korean War, the longest unresolved war in modern history, to an end.
Humanities, Dawson College
For an award-winning film on the women of Liberia’s struggle for peace,
watch the film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, from the wonderful PBS series Women, War and Peace.
For a picture of women’s varied peace efforts over the years, have a look at the following:
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Women and War. New York: Basic Books, 1987.
Grayzel, Susan A. Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1995.
Jones, Lynne. “Perceptions of ‘Peace Women’ at Greenham Common 1981-85: A Participant’s View.” Images of Women in Peace and War: Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives. Eds. Sharon MacDonald, Pat Holden and Shirley Ardener. London, Macmillan, 1987. 179-204
O’Gorman, Eleanor. “On the Frontline: Women Building Peace.” OpenDemcracy 50/50. 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.
Wolfe, Lauren. “The UN Is Not Serious About Its Peacekeeper Rape Problem.” Foreign Policy. 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.