“As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” (Virginia Woolf )
On Monday, the British Library hosted a meeting on “Sisterhood: Greenham in Common”. This brought together film director Beeban Kidron (now a baroness in the House of ‘Lords’); Labour MP Dame Joan Ruddock, former Chair of CND; Sasha Roseneil, Professor of Sociology and Social Theory at the University of London’s Birkbeck Institute, and me. Each of us was involved with the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the 1980s – in rather different ways. The panellists and several audience members commented how Greenham – “the largest feminist social movement in recent times” has been almost completely left out of mainstream histories and retrospective programmes on the 20th century. That got me thinking.
Feminist campaigning gets acknowledged (mostly) when we focus specifically on issues viewed as female – equal pay, reproductive rights, and so on – but not when we mobilise on the broader, human issues like militarism, weapons, war, security, poverty and peacebuilding. As male commentators line up to present anniversary programmes on the patriotic men who followed their leaders into the trenches of the First World War, few mention the courageous intelligence of the 1,136 women from Europe and North America, who met in the Hague in April 1915 to challenge the militaristic stupidities that were engulfing Europe in yet another bloodbath.
The 1915 Congress of Women was the start of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which continues to be at the forefront of international initiatives on peace and security 99 years later. With participants from all the nations involved in destroying those hundreds of thousands of dutiful young men, the Congress formulated some 20 resolutions with practical proposals that ranged from the immediate – to halt the carnage and mediate between the warring governments – to longer term solutions, including establishing “a world institution that would provide continuous machinery to mediate arising conflicts [and] prevent them from growing into wars”. Some met with US President Woodrow Wilson, who reportedly “borrowed” and applied many of the women’s proposals. Prophetically, WILPF later critiqued the Versailles Treaty, recognising how its punitive approach towards defeated Germany would pave the way for later, even bloodier wars.
Nearly a hundred years later, WILPF is going stronger than ever. Headed now by human rights lawyer Madeleine Rees, WILPF is at the forefront of proposals to involve women in the peace processes of Syria and Afghanistan, together with the Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI), Code Pink and Madre. Closer ties between these feminist peacebuilders have been forged over years of campaigning, organising separately and together, developing feminist strategies through gatherings such as last year’s Belfast Conference on Moving Beyond Militarism and War, hosted by several NWI Nobel laureates, to learn from our different experiences and plan joint actions and ways to support each other. These links amplified all our work, from banning nuclear weapons and killer robots, to dealing with the pervasive violence that blights women’s lives and development in places ravaged by rape gangs, drug warlords and religious militias, with leadership from the African and Latin American laureates.
In the Cold War, WILPF was largely dismissed – at least in the United States –as a communist front. Once the Cold War was over, WILPF had a difficult transition, but came back stronger and more relevant than ever. With help and encouragement, it was ideally placed (with offices close to the United Nations in Geneva and New York) to expand the cutting edge reporting and analysis of UN disarmament talks that Acronym initiated in the 1990s on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Conference on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As it brought a new generation of bright young women into civil society diplomacy through Reaching Critical Will, WILPF also founded Peacewomen.org, and has continued to play an important role in many disarmament networks, most recently the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), providing thought-provoking analyses on the humanitarian consequences – and imperative – to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.
There are patriarchal reasons why women are disproportionately made to suffer in wars. It should not be surprising that women have also been disproportionately active in resisting and challenging violence, wars and armed oppression. But you wouldn’t think so by looking at mainstream media or the ‘peace negotiations’ led by the UN and nations wielding vetoes in the Security Council. Lip service to involving women may be paid, as that is regarded these days as a necessary nod to UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000). In fact, women continue to be silenced and excluded – mainly because we don’t fit into the ‘sides’ or ‘categories’ that political men use to frame who and what are important in the world.
Feminist work on peace and security doesn’t ‘fit’ the patriarchal narratives of women’s work and men’s importance, or of ‘good’ and bad’ sides with strength and power. Mainstream historians just fail to comprehend the many ways in which our multifaceted challenges have changed history. We don’t fit into limited histories that are embedded in misogyny, racism and the limitations of military-industrial propaganda, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t there.
War is never simple or reducible to ‘people like us’ versus ‘evil enemies’. No matter what the messy causes, corrupt and stupid leaders, ideological justifications and money made by weapons profiteers, it makes a difference if you choose to be on the multiple sides of the women, civilians, duped cannon fodder and displaced. Feminist peacebuilding promotes the security needs of all the vulnerable people who get trapped in the middle of violence perpetrated by militias, militaries, terrorists and gangs that are barely distinguishable apart from some uniforms and nationalistic insignia.
As women we’ve understood that military victories are generally transient and pyrrhic. Peace requires disarmament, justice, and the longer term creation of responsive institutions and shared decision-making, to support the needs and aspirations of all ‘sides’. Sustainable peace requires paying attention to what women say are the causes and solutions to conflict in our communities and countries. Women don’t speak with one voice any more than men do, so putting a token woman on a delegation changes little. Sustainable security requires putting at least 50 percent women – from all backgrounds – front and centre of negotiations for peace and disarmament, not just occasionally but in every significant meeting and negotiating forum.
As I write this I have just heard that Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin was beaten up, detained and deported from Egypt this week, and Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire and Irish peace activist Ann Patterson were among peace-women who were arrested and deported for trying to take food and medicines to Gaza. Having spent time blockading the UK’s Faslane and Aldermaston nuclear bases with Mairead and Ann, I wasn’t surprised to hear they had chosen to become personally involved to bring practical aid and support for the Palestinian women and families, trapped between the manipulations and injustices of warring patriarchal factions and nuclear-armed Israel’s Occupation policies. Peace-making isn’t just about talk or diplomatic resolutions, but about practical action to help the vulnerable and promote fundamental change. From Egypt, Libya and Syria – and now Ukraine – what started as civil society ‘awakenings’ have been distorted by militarised factions seeking control. Unsurprisingly, most of these appear to be dominated by men who condone violence against women and the suppression of dissent, including arrests and brutality to silence journalists and citizen bloggers.
Virginia Woolf wrote “As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” This is our feminist credo: from Women in Black (founded in Jerusalem in 1989, taken up in Belgrade in 1992, and now a worldwide feminist network against militarism and war) to Million Women Rise, who march on International Women’s Day opposing violence against women and linking with campaigns against racist tolerance of violence perpetrated in the name of ‘culture’; from forced marriages to the rape of lesbians, from the genital mutilation of little girls to the maiming of everyone’s minds through pornography, sexual trafficking and the peculiarly British Page 3 displays of young women’s semi-naked bodies in daily newspapers.
As a woman, my country is still being formed: by millions of feminist peacebuilders, sharing power and working for disarmament, peace, justice and – yes – control over our fertility and our sexuality, and over our minds and bodies.
Read more articles by Rebecca Johnson on 50.50's dialogue: Towards nuclear non-proliferation