Gloria Steinem leads Women Cross DMZ, an international group of women peace activists crossing the border between North and South Korea in 2015. Photo: Niana Liu
Gloria Steinem’s name has become synonymous with feminism, but it’s also true to say her life has been devoted to the cause of peace. In her 81st year, Steinem joined a group of 30 women peacemakers who marched (or attempted to march) across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, to highlight the political-military stalemate there. Two Nobel laureates, Mairead Maguire and Leymah Gbowee, also marched. This was no orchestrated photo op. Steinem explained that they’d arrived not knowing if they’d actually be allowed to cross or not, and that it was “remarkable” that they were given permission to do so by the two opposed governments. “North and South Korean women can’t walk across the DMZ legally,” she said. “We from other countries can. So I feel we are walking on their behalf.”
To dare to envision peace is a profoundly subversive act, and always has been. While Steinem has contributed toward the building of a more peaceful world in many ways, such as the DMZ walk, one of her foremost contributions has been to envision, articulate, and help realize a world where the global war against women has an end.
Ending the war against women is not some add-on or tangent to the cause of peace between races, peoples, and nations—it is the precondition for such peace. There cannot be peace between nations until there is peace between the two halves of humanity, the mothers and fathers of all living and all yet to live. This understanding is the great gift Steinem has given to three generations of humankind now—a gift we will pass on to our own daughters and sons.
Steinem sees a connection between what we have chosen to normalize in male-female relations, and what we see at the level of state and society. “The family is the basic cell of the government,” she explains, “it is where we are trained to believe that we are human beings or that we are chattel, it is where we are trained to see the sex and race divisions and become callous to injustice even if it is done to ourselves, to accept as biological a full system of authoritarian government.”
Truly, then, we should not be surprised that societies rooted in male dominance over females are not peaceful or democratic; as Steinem notes, “We’re never going to have democratic countries or peaceful countries until we have democratic or peaceful families.” Why? Because you must teach men to dominate in order to maintain a male-dominated system. And that is a very ugly education, indeed, where the first to be dominated are those within men’s own families who are different from them: women. Domestic violence is the seedbed of all other violence based on difference. “This is the first form of violence, domination, power we see as children,” explains Steinem. “It normalizes every other form.”
This education in domination not only harms women—it harms men as well. Steinem says that when she talks to groups of men they often bring up how masculine roles have limited them, and how they missed having real, present loving fathers, as their dads were always trying to fit an ideal of masculinity, which did not include that. Because men have been taught that they have to “prove” their masculinity in a way women do not, and because masculinity has been constructed upon notions of domination and control, men’s lives can easily become inhumane. It’s a life that brings no lasting happiness. In a way, then, feminism is humanism, for it seeks to liberate both men and women from destructively contorted sex roles.
Steinem maintains that women will tend to be much better peacemakers until the masculine role is humanized. Women are integral to peacebuilding, for they have not been sidelined by the need to prove their sex role through conflict and aggression. Steinem points out that people thought achieving peace in Ireland and in Liberia would be impossible, but in both countries women from both sides started working together and did the impossible—achieved peace.
If peace cannot be built without women then one of the most important steps that could be taken to ensure a more peaceful world would be empowering women globally:
The worldwide reduction of violence against females should be a core goal of our foreign policy. It should be, given its outcome, its demonstrable outcome in every major country in the world ... Instead, what happens is the “it would be nice” principle—“It would be nice if women were more equal in Afghanistan, but it’s not important.” And many of our officials have said specifically that women’s rights have nothing to do with nationalism, peace conferences, peace processes, all kinds of things. We could, for instance, actually put some teeth into UNSCR 1325 ... We have the principle, but it is on paper only, it is not enacted.
In an interview I did with Steinem in 2013, she opened my eyes to just how vastly different our foreign policy would be if we took the cause of women seriously. She recounted an incident that happened just after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. She attended a briefing of women’s organizations in a State Department auditorium toward the end of President Jimmy Carter’s tenure. Although the subject was an upcoming U.N. women’s conference and Afghanistan wasn’t mentioned, the Soviets had rolled into Kabul that very day. Newspapers were full of articles about the mujahideen—the Islamist guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan—and their declaration of war against their own Soviet-supported government. Their leaders gave three reasons for why they wanted to drive the Soviets out: girls were permitted to go to school; girls and women could no longer be married off without their consent; and women were being invited to political meetings.
During the discussion that followed the meeting, Steinem stood up and posed an obvious question to her State Department hosts: Given what the mujahideen themselves had said that day, wasn’t the United States supporting the wrong side? Steinem remembers the question falling into that particular hush reserved for the ridiculous. She doesn’t remember the exact answer, but the State Department made it clear the United States opposed anything the Soviets supported—the government spokesman made no mention that the United States was arming violent, antidemocratic, misogynist religious extremists.
It was clear that matters of war and peace were about realpolitik and oil pipelines—and not about honoring the human rights of the more peaceful female half of the human race. And so it happened that the mujahideen waged their brutal war with weapons supplied by the United States and, of course, Saudi Arabia—the birthplace of the doctrinaire interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. Together, they gave birth to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other affiliated terror networks that now reach far beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Steinem says she has never stopped regretting that she didn’t chain herself to the seats of that State Department auditorium in public protest.
Feminism, then, when you look at it as Steinem does, as the recognition of the full humanity and full equality of both men and women, is peace work. When U.S. President Barack Obama presented Steinem with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 for her work advancing women’s rights and civil rights, she made the connection between the two explicit by saying the medal meant so much because it was, in a way, for waging peace. She explained that the gender division, in which there is a subject and an object, a masculine and feminine, a dominant and passive, is what normalizes other violence that has to do with race and class and ethnicity and sexuality. Men’s idea that they must defeat each other in order to be masculine, she explained, “is the root of the false idea that we are ranked as human beings rather than linked.”
Steinem argues there is a better vision—an embrace of difference without hierarchy. When we encounter that first difference between male and female, a profound choice is placed before us: we can rank those who are different, or we can link them. Steinem urges us to choose the latter: “Difference is the source of learning ... Difference is a gift, so that we understand and don’t fear ... We live in a world of ‘either/or.’ We’re trying to make a world of ‘and.’ So it is about shared humanity in perfect balance with difference.”
Steinem once described herself as a “hope-aholic,” which seems like a very good way to describe peacemakers. It is a life filled with incorrigible aspiration for a better world, and the tenacity to work for its realization. Part of this hope is that one day the vision you see will seem obvious to everyone: “I think that being a feminist means that you see the world whole instead of half. It shouldn’t need a name, and one day it won’t.”
And as for Steinem herself? “I hope to live to 100. There is so much to do.”
This essay is one of 28 stories by notable women about remarkable women peacemakers brought together in a collection to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upsidedown World Right! Editor, Rachel Vincent, September 27, Mapalé.
Read more articles in the 50.50 series celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nobel Women's Initiative