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Next "Wave" Peace Activists Pour Feminism into the Mix
by Jean Stevens
Rachel Gehringer-Wiar liked the sound of Nebraskans for Peace.
Before arriving on campus of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln nearly two years ago, she’d seen its bumper stickers, she’d heard about its rallies. Peace work made sense to her, she said, as she believed in fighting for equality and human rights. The United States’ wars abroad had upset her as a high school student, although, she admits, she didn’t know much context of the wars then.
So as a freshman, Gehringer-Wiar joined the campus chapter, compelled not only by the anti-war demonstrations and campus educational efforts around peace, but the group’s concurrent focus on national and state-centered social justice projects.
Gehringer-Wiar and other of today’s younger peace activists seem more likely to perceive feminism as a lens, a political analysis in which to view and critique the world and their own activist work.
"I began to see how all of these issues were intertwined, from health care access to our two wars right now, civilians deaths and our foreign policy," said Gehringer-Wiar, who served as president of the chapter and considers herself feminist.
But her feminist understanding forms a foundation to her peace work, rather than a focal point, Gehringer-Wiar said. Some of today’s young self-identified feminists, she said, might beeline to more explicitly feminist groups, such as those working on reproductive justice. "It’s easier to say, ‘I identify as feminist,’ and ‘oh, Planned Parenthood, sure, that’s feminist,’" Gehringer-Wiar said. "That’s awesome, they need people to work for them. But people need to step back and say, these issues are interrelated."
Connecting the Dots
Feminism seems the most appropriate lens to view war, said C.J. Minster, coordinator of the "Bring Our War Dollars Home" campaign of the women peace group’s Code Pink. Code Pink began in 2002 as a women-led protest to the Iraq war and has since expanded its mission to work for the end to all U.S. war and militarism abroad. The group has developed a reputation for its boisterous, pink-laden disruptions of Congressional hearings and political speeches by "war criminals," such as former vice-president Dick Cheney. The "Bring Our War Dollars" home campaign advocates for Congress to redirect resources domestically to health care, infrastructure, education and social services. This emphasis on redirection to funding human needs is inherently feminist, says Code Pink, as it emphasizes equality, justice and access.
"Pundits and politicians tell you, we’re too broke and we have to sacrifice social security to balance the budget, but the reality is, trillions are wasted in war," Minster said. "(I ask people), what are your priorities? As a citizen of this country, and the world? Do you prefer life-affirming activities or endless war?"
Although many of her feminist friends work on more explicitly identified feminist issues, such as domestic violence, rape prevention and reproductive justice, she feels that all of these issues relate to peace actions. "I see them all on a spectrum of violence," she said. "It’s all part of the same thing."
Minster said she naturally connects the dots between gender and global issues, including war and U.S. imperialism. She sought work in peace activism after graduating from Wellesley College in 2000 and has since served on the international and national boards of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, founded in 1915 amid
World War I.
Patriarchy has perpetuated a culture of fear and violence, Minster said. She believes that skillful diplomacy is needed to find the path to peace. Critics of Code Pink argue that the group fails to critique the broader, underlying causes of war, she said. "What we’re doing is recognizing that women don’t have a seat at the table in making these decisions on war and violence. We want women’s voices heard, we want a seat at the table of decision-making. Once that happens, then we can have a deeper discussion on root causes of war, patriarchy and militarism," she said. "Feminist theorists tend to travel into the deep recesses of structure of society, they look at things at the core level," said Minster. She and others acknowledged women’s presence hardly guarantees a feminist or progressive perspective; many woman represent much different viewpoints. But simply having greater representation increases the odds of challenging deeper causes of war, they believe.
Rebecca Griffin, political director of the peace and justice group Peace Action West based in Oakland, believes that some feminists are hesitant to oppose the war because of messages that the current U.S. military engagements are in the interest of women. "But based on everything I know and have learned, militarism is a destabilizing force rather than a stabilizing force," Griffin said. "If we want to ‘help’ women, this isn’t the way." When Griffin graduated from college, the Iraq war had just begun and she sought a job in the anti-war movement.
Slipping in Gender Consciousness
These peace activists see explicitly "feminist" groups taking on campaigns to fight domestic violence, the attacks on reproductive rights, rape in war-torn nations, but resist challenging the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
All organizers and activists must narrow in on certain issues, Griffin said. But they can find ways to weave other issues into their work even if they’re not at the forefront of concerns. "We would never do anything to undermine a feminist or anti-racist analysis," Griffin said, "and they’re something we should all be more conscious of."
In 2002, when the Afghanistan war began,the National Organization of Women launched a campaign against the war, trumpeting "Peace is a feminist issue" on its homepage and calling for withdrawal, said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization of Women. But it will likely not renew such a campaign. It has its hands full.
Probing A Dichotomy
As a feminist thinker, advocate and activist, I’ve long felt organizing against war and militarism was a no-brainer. But as a journalist and the national media coordinator for the women’s peace group Code Pink for several years before returning to school, I found myself having separate conversations with my feminist and peace activist friends, marveling at how they seemed mutually exclusive. The peace activists read The Nation. The feminists read Bust. Peace activists gush over Noam Chomsky; feminists over bell hooks. They hold different rallies and belong to different listservs. I wondered if young feminists recognize, or reject, this dichotomy. Do feminists fight for peace? Is peace a feminist issue? I found exploring these questions in this story surprising, and more importantly, promising for the future of social change. ~Jean Stevens
"What’s currently taking up all the political oxygen is the assault on reproductive rights and the economy," O’Neill said. "In 24 hours, that’s all we have time to do."
On the flip side, peace organizations may find it difficult to explicitly state a feminist perspective to their work. "They’re still squeamish about the "F-word," Griffin said. "When you call anything a feminist issue, men feel they’re about to be attacked and go on the defensive," O’Neill said. "It happens in every movement."
Younger women attracted to the peace movement, however, are helping to provide an everyday feminist perspective on race, class and gender to the work. Peace Action West has worked to hire and cultivate women organizers and leaders, to host social and educational events, and to create networks to embrace women and empower their roles. When Griffin first began, Peace Action West offered a reading group for canvassers like her, dialoguing on race, gender and class. Organizers today often discuss the gender and racial implications of peace.
"Sometime it seems so basic in a way, we don’t even think about it," Griffin said. "But a lot of the same reasons I could easily be working for a feminist organization or anti-racist group, something about this work that connects us to all these issues."
That approach may prove vital to success. "I don’t know why (peace and feminist issues) occupy different arenas," Leslie Cagan, former national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice and leading organizer within the LGBT, anti-nuclear and peace movements for the past several decades, "besides the fact that you can’t focus on everything with just 24 hours in a day. But war is not just about submarines and aircraft carriers. It comes down on a very personal level, too."
Within the peace movement, activists must employ a feminist analysis or else war will never end, said Cagan. Much of the predominately-male antiwar activist left has historically failed to take feminism seriously. Since the height of the second-wave in the ‘70s, only some men and parts of the left have integrated feminist analysis, Cagan said. "To me, feminist analysis is the breakdown of male domination, the takedown of difference, of power, and that gender has a role to play in shaping other issues, issues of class, race and how other power dynamics play out. To think about how to end wars, we need to have this analysis."
Twenty and 30-something feminists in the peace movement get it -- this wave’s working to take down the wars, too.
Jean Stevens is a freelance writer, organizer and law student at the City University of New York School of Law whose work focuses on issues relating to gender, race, class,labor, food systems and peace. A graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, Jean has reported at several daily newspapers including the Herald News/Record of Northern New Jersey and The Telegram and Gazette of Worcester, Mass. As the national media coordinator of the women’s peace and justice non-profit, Code Pink, Jean attracted widespread media coverage to the organization’s work. She most recently blogged for Change.org on sustainable food systems. She lives in New York City.
Also see Gender Values: The Costs of War by Susan Feiner in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Fighting to Gratify a Sex Instinct? War Attitudes Vary by Gender by Lori Adelman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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Janet Weil posted: 2011-06-17 14:40:50
The young(ish) feminists working in Code Pink and other peace orgs are some of the most brilliant, caring people I know! Thanks for capturing these stories, Jean.
Wilhelmina posted: 2013-01-02 15:35:26
I didn't vote b/c I don't fit any of the categories. I am famele and identify as a moderate feminist . I generally agree w/ feminists, but I don't always agree with the thinking in feminist circles. I suppose I'm also uncomfortable w/ the image that is evoked by calling oneself a feminist , so I connsider myself a moderate feminist .
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