The Powerful Outsiders
by Amelia Ramsey-Lefevre
While most people would agree that there are differences between women and men, there is much less agreement on what those differences are. One observation that cannot be argued is that today in many parts of the world, and until quite recently in the United States and some other industrialized countries, women are denied access to many of the public arenas of society. Far from the least of these is politics. This "outsider" position has shaped the way women agitate for change, including their advocacy for peace and justice.
Women's history as peace activists probably goes back to the beginning of the history of war, but for most historians it seems to begin at the end of the 19th century. This was a time when affluent white women, who had sufficient financial assets and societal privilege not to be relegated solely to domestic pursuits, began publicly advocating for peace. But because the men's peace associations would not allow women to speak at their meetings, they were forced to find other outlets for activism. Their groups often lobbied, petitioned, or demonstrated, but their members never held the positions of policymakers or spokespeople. Women's peace groups consequently took on a grassroots form, and this legacy continues. Today, women's peace organizations are often organized nonhierarchically and make it a matter of policy to share power and leadership responsibilities. These groups see the value and power of the individual over institutional agreements and promises.
Another similarity among women's peace efforts is their strong focus on the importance of social and domestic needs over military strength. Perhaps due to the physical aspect of a mother's bond to her children, there is a popular perception that "the mother half of humanity" is more nurturing or caring towards children and other people than men. Regardless of the truth of that perception, women's peace and justice groups do show a preference for social priorities, such as equal rights and education. Before WWI, Jane Addams, founder of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), expressed something quite maternal when she said, "I believe that peace is not merely an absence of war but the nurture of human life, and that in time this nurture would do away with war as a natural process." Today, Global Women's Strike advocates for all governments to end military spending and instead pay women for their unpaid work, including raising children and taking care of the household. Another example is the January 15, 1968 protest outside of the opening day of the Ninetieth Congress on Capitol Hill which demanded that taxpayers' money not be used to support the military-industrial complex but instead be used to mend the many social problems within the US.
Despite their focus on social needs, the women protesting the Ninetieth Congress did not want to be recognized as "merely" mothers, wives, and sisters. They demanded attention and respect as full citizens and taxpayers. To be recognized as the mother of a dead soldier is powerful and moving to the public, but it defines the woman in question in terms of the men around her. It does not grant her respect and power as a person with her own struggles and beliefs. The women of the Ninetieth Congress protest argued that the cultural construct of "men make war and women weep" does not allow women the power to stop war. These women resisted attempts by some to pigeonhole their interests as part of the larger oppressive system of gender roles.
A third commonality between women's peace and justice movements is their likeliness to draw connections between social problems. Many of the earliest female peace organizers were also abolitionists. WILPF says of its founders in 1915 in the Hague, Netherlands (during their protest of World War I), "The organizers of the [International] Congress were prominent women in the International Suffrage Alliance who saw the connection between their struggle for equal rights and the struggle for peace." The women at the Ninetieth Congress stressed the connection from racism and sexism to domestic and state violence. While some might say the propensity for seeing common roots and connections in the "big picture" is one difference between the female and male minds, I would suggest that women's historical oppression puts them in a position to empathize with other people that are being oppressed, regardless of gender. Just as their "outsider" position led women to do grassroots organizing around peace, it strengthened their ability to see others forced into the role of outsider and led them to share their efforts with other causes.
Though often devalued, the voices of women agitating for peace
and justice continue to be significant around the world. Women build on their
history of oppression and inequality. The grassroots structures of their groups,
focus on social needs and ability to see common causes of societal problems-these
are the strengths needed to reach the goals of sustainable peace and justice.