Of canaries and coal mines

Are women the canaries in the coal mine, their ill treatment signalling larger problems within a society?  Or is there something deeper going on?  Might male-female relations actually be the coal mine itself?

Valerie Hudson
10 December 2014

When the celebrated feminist writer Robin Morgan heard that I was co-authoring a new book called The Hillary Doctrine, she asked me what it was about. I told her it was the story of how women’s issues came to matter in US foreign policy, and also the implementation of that vision while Hillary Clinton was US secretary of state. She made only two requests of me. The first, which made me chuckle, was to make sure the book did not contain the word “disseminate.” Easily done with a global search and replace!

The second request was a far more difficult one. Robin asked me not to use the phrase “women’s issues.” Taken aback, I asked why. She explained that if I used that term, I would be signaling that these issues were only of concern to women and not to men, and that certainly was not true. At the time, I remember thinking that was a good point taken a bit too far.

Now, with the book finished and reflecting on all I learned through the experience, I see more clearly why Robin made that request. In the course of doing research for the book, my co-author Pat Leidl interviewed journalist Charles Bowden, who asked her pointedly, “Isn’t focusing on women just putting a gas mask on the canary, when you really should be fixing the coal mine?”

When I heard that, all my years of collecting and analyzing data on women’s situation in the world rose up in me like an unstoppable wave.  After almost two decades of intensive research I find it impossible to see women as canaries. Rather, women, or more precisely male-female relations, are the coal mine, and the canary that keels over in response does so in the form of explosive national instability. If true, then in the US case, foreign policy has only ever been in the business of putting gas masks on that canary and, until the advent of the Hillary Doctrine, hadn’t even considered tackling the coal mine.

Hillary Clinton proposed that, “The subjugation of women is . . . a direct threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.”  In an interview with Donald Steinberg, former deputy administrator of USAID, he explained to me, “Compare those societies that respect women and those who don’t. Who’s trafficking in weapons, drugs? Who’s harboring terrorists and starting pandemics? Whose problems require US troops on the ground? There’s a one-to-one correspondence. Don’t tell me there’s no relationship between national security and the empowerment of women.”

Steinberg is inviting us to see how “women’s issues” are not small, soft, dismissable issues, but rather some of the most central to national and international security.  If the security of women is integrally linked to the security of the states in which they live, then nations are insecure and unstable to the degree to which women’s security is compromised. And the degree to which the international system or its regional subsystems are dominated by states in which women are insecure, so too do those systems become insecure and unstable. Is it really possible, for example, for China to “rise peacefully” while culling almost fifteen percent of its daughters from the birth population and continuing the practice of government-mandated forced abortions and sterilizations of women? Using the lens of the Hillary Doctrine, I think not.

It’s ironic, then that the Realpolitik of diplomats and soldiers is set up as the foil to the Hillary Doctrine, for there is copious empirical evidence that the security of women and the security of the states in which they lived are closely linked. For example, research reveals that the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is the security of its women. What’s more, democracies with higher levels of violence against women are as insecure and unstable as non-democracies.  The “Fempolitik” encoded in the Hillary Doctrine is a central pillar of clear-eyed Realpolitik.

So Robin Morgan was right.  To the extent that we use the phrase “women’s issues,” we are helping to perpetuate this blindness.  When we want to talk about women, we must underscore that what affects women affects men simultaneously - affects humanity as a whole.

The most poignant statement on this, I think, came not from policymakers or pundits, but rather from a source who was living it in the trenches in the failed 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. Many of the male dissidents began to appear in women’s headscarves, the rusari, in their photos and public appearances. While the back story on this was complex, one dissident stated something remarkable. He said, “We Iranian men are late doing this. . . . If we did this when rusari was forced on those among our sisters who did not wish to wear it 30 years ago, we would have perhaps not been here today.”

This is the clear vision needed on “women’s issues” if we hope for a better world.  No canary, then, but the coal mine itself.

The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy, co-authored by Valerie M. Hudson and journalist Patricia Leidl, will be published by Columbia University Press, June 2015. 

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