Sexism And Peace: Two Perspectives

By Helen Forsey, Tana Dineen, Lori A McElroy | 1986-12-01 12:00:00

Women, Men, Militarism

By Helen Forsey

In 1979 I attended a conference on the arms race at Grindstone Island. There were countless depressing facts about arms sales, military takeovers, megatonnage, and détente. My mind blurred over, and then I suddenly realized that the peace activists were talking the way the Department of National Defence talks.

Just then, the women in the group began to talk among themselves, and to express frustration with these point-scoring debates. The terms that made sense to us were ones we knew without having to refer to statistics and studies.

Our search for peace leads to the discovery that the violence that we seek to overcome is based on the power of men over women and children—patriarchy. Researchers in both the peace movement and the women’s movement study this aggression, competition, and authority.

WOMEN HAVE HISTORICALLY BEEN DEEPLY involved in peace movements. Even before the resurgence of the present wave of feminism, women were peace workers. During World War I, our suffragist sisters struggled to connect the “might is right” doctrine with women’s oppression, and worked to promote a peaceable international post-war order. This cannot be explained solely in romantic terms of motherhood. As victims of men’s violence in streets and homes, women have had to face such issues daily.

Not all women see the connections yet between war mentality and the system of male dominance that controls our daily lives. But the connections are becoming harder to ignore. A clipping shows the Swiss army target practicing at nude pin-ups of women. The United States Marines learn the jingle, “This is my rifle, this is my gun. (slapping their crotches) One is for killing, the other for fun.” Rape has always been one of the standard acts of invading armies, yet it is absent from the list of “war crimes” as defined for the Nuremberg trials. Pornography equates sex with violence and tells us that violence and domination are sexy.

Shulamith Firestone, in her book, The Dialectic of Sex, talks of what she calls the “male sexual sickness” — the identification of sexuality with power. She argues that this concept of male sexuality is internalized by both boys and girls from infancy onward. Such assumptions about “maleness” are reinforced in social interactions as we grow. In schoolyards, boys leans to compete, to conquer and possess, to repress their emotions, to fight, to win. Territoriality, property and aggression are defined and played out. Television, video arcades, war toys, and locker room jokes play a part in developing a boy’s “male” qualities, which are the traits that have been identified as prerequisites for making war.

One explanation offered for this is that competition and aggression are necessary to keep the wheels of international capitalism turning. This puts the cart before the horse. Economic structures do not exist by themselves. They have evolved in ways consistent with the social psychology of

the societies in which they developed. Domination and aggression on a grand scale are accepted because people have been conditioned to expect them in their personal lives.

Some theorists argue that to abuse another person, one must first come to see the victim as “Other” — less human, and thus a legitimate object for exploitation. Other examples of dehumanization of the Other can be seen in racism and class prejudice. Simone de Beauvoir pointed out that the original “Other,” from the dawn of time, has been Woman.

The other-ness of women is associated with fear and contempt for femaleness. Psychological research in the United States shows that both sexes see the female as weak, immature, ineffectual, and dependent. Attitudes in male-oriented societies simply exaggerate the same theme. Rape and battering are just ways of acting out this hatred against womanhood. Laws and customs have almost always legitimized and ritualized violence against women.

Once a group has been identified as the Other and the capacity for violence has been established, the patterns can be applied infinitely against others who are weak. The model of domination and submission is a versatile one, learned from the cradle on, in the father-led family.

Here we first learn the meaning of authority. “Just wait until your father gets home” is not an empty cliché’. A man may “let” his wife be “the boss” and may even believe that she is. But this arrangement is still his choice, and her power extends only as far as he is willing.

Patterns of authority lay the foundation for the rest of our lives. Trained to accept personal authority, we do not question it later in economic or political contexts.

Pornography is desensitization that prepares us for the horrors of war. “Soft” porn is the epitome of objectification, of portraying women as Other.” To this, “hard” porn adds actual violence against this other-than-human object.

Yet the possibilities for change are there, if all of us, men and women, look for them. if we refuse to deal with the truths that women have exposed about patriarchy, we cannot diagnose our ills or treat more than symptoms. Such a refusal is suicidal.

Blaming The Boys

By Tana Dineen and Lori A. McElroy

In the peace movement today, a dangerous message that men are warmakers and women are peacemakers is being delivered by some highly vocal women. As women psychologists concerned with peace issues, we encourage feminist peace activists to refrain from declaring men “the enemy.”

By focusing on patriarchy and on aggression as biologically-based male characteristics, we absolve women (us) and blame men (them). In so doing, we could be trapping ourselves in the type of mirror image misperceptions which underlie the superpower conflict. Misperceptions may fuel the battle of the sexes just as they do the arms race.

To find examples of blaming men we need not look far. One example is in the article about respected Canadian peace activist, Dorothy Rosenberg. It describes her as “a staunch feminist” who claims that “We are victims of ‘patriarchal values’: She blames most of the world’s evils—hierarchy, militarism, and competitiveness—on patriarchy. Women’s values, she thinks, are nicer and could make short work of the planet’s worst problems if given a chance.” (from “Profile of an Activist: Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg,” PEACE Magazine, February 1986).

A second recent example is the uncritically acclaimed film, “Speaking Our Peace.” As the co-directors Terri Nash and Bonnie Sherr Klein stated in their interview with PEACE Magazine, the film expresses the premise that women are the peacemakers because of their experience in the role of nurturer. (PEACE Magazine, June 1985). We were shocked by the film’s portrayal of men as the problem and women as the solution. A third example is the latest book by Helen Caldicott. In Missile Envy, she states that “a typical woman.. innately understands the basic principles of conflict resolution.” (pg. 316). Quite an assumption!

Although the women we have cited above have been labelled “feminists,” not all women in the peace movement, including many feminists, fall into the trap of blaming men. Many emphasize that both women and men have something positive to offer in the peacemaking process. Unfortunately, these women often speak in softer voices and thus are not heard by as large an audience. We must listen to these softer voices and to start questioning some of the assumptions in the messages presented by the louder ones.

WHILE MANY MOTHERS DO LOVINGLY CARE FOR their children, others batter their children. While some feminists have endorsed peaceful means to achieve desired goals, others, notably suffragettes who used militant tactics in their fight to win the vote, have behaved violently.

As Gwynne Dyer points out in his 1985 book War, the argument connecting feminism and nonviolence is rather simplistic. Men have a long history of both waging and opposing war. History offers many examples of women in positions of power who have adopted violent responses to conflict situations. Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi are modem examples. Currently, while some women are marching for peace, others are fighting in combat—and reportedly performing as well in battle as male soldiers. Modern technology has decreased the importance of physical strength in battle, and nuclear weapons have made it irrelevant. Women today can be as violent as men. Men today are clearly as vulnerable as women. Many men, including ex-military people, are increasingly questioning the use of military force to resolve conflict. (For examples, see the September and December, 1985 issues of PEACE Magazine.) And some men, such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi died trying to resolve conflict through nonviolent means. Helen Caldicott has tried to discount women who endorse violence by claiming that “Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi became, in fact, men.” (Missile Envy, p.322.) Using this logic we must conclude that men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi became women. Even in a unisex world, this type of thinking is too confusing for us.

Perhaps our problem is a confusion between external characteristics as men or women and the internal traits traditionally viewed as masculine or feminine. We should consistently focus on the internal, especially on the development of the desired traits in both men and women. Both men and women are being challenged to change. A recent article by Erik Erikson in Political Psychology gives an optimistic view of this change process. He writes,
men and women of many diverse cultures are becoming more responsive to the universal nature of childhood as a binding all-human phenomenon. And as the fathers become more receptive to the experience of relating to infants, they (as well as the mothers) may learn to use man’s technological genius for the development rather than the destruction of mankind. At the same time, it is to be hoped that the mothers (as well as the fathers) will give a more universal chance to what has been basic to evolution and has come first in every one of our lives, namely, the powerful potential of protective mothering.
(Political Psychology, 1985, p.217.)

In a period of change, people may enter a phase of radical polarization in which we project those characteristics we most dislike inside ourselves onto someone or something outside ourselves. Right now, many men and women are doing so. A dangerously related scenario is being played out in the peace movement where militant female peace activists confront militant macho males. Such destructive social energy could tear our movement apart.

However, if we become aware of the phase we are in, we can quickly grow out of it. If we let fade away the image of female “peacemongers” battering male “warmongers,” we can envision instead a reality in which men and women nurture each other and our planet.

if we move beyond blaming, whether the object of blame be a person, a country, an ideology, or “men,” we can assume responsibility for our lives and for the state of the world. The peace movement will become healthier and stronger and our species will have earned its future.

Peace Magazine Dec 1986-Jan 1987

Peace Magazine Dec 1986-Jan 1987, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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