Peace and Feminism: Understanding the Connection

By Erin Niemela

About a week ago I had the unfortunate experience of being followed off a bus on a dark corner.  The man who followed me made it clear that he intended harm – even growling at me as I hastened into a nearby open market.  The experience was benign compared to many others I’ve had, but it compelled me to revisit my understanding of and beliefs in feminism.


Sure Predictor

This is not uncommon – Joan K. Buschman and Silvo Lenart published a 1996 study in Political Psychology on attitudes of women college students towards feminism that indicated that the “one sure predictor” for support of feminism is the negative experience of individual women.  In the wake of my own negative experience, I turned to family and friends for support and affirmation of my feminist values; however, I quickly realized I would get neither.  Anti-feminist sentiment identified my feminist leanings with bra-burning, man-eating, lesbian “feminazis,” and from the mouths of liberal, democrat Portlanders no less. This misguided understanding of feminism is disheartening, not just because feminism is still relevant and necessary in regards to social justice issues and gender equality, but because feminism is a crucial, guiding force in the American peace movement.

Feminists: Hairy, Butch, and Hungry?

Feminists have been enmified and they are hairy, butch, and hungry. Feminism is so widely misperceived that, in the study mentioned above, only 30 out of 356 study participants could identify feminism as the term defined by its actual dictionary entry.  The authors of the study noted that the label “feminism” evoked more negative responses than “women’s movement” across several cluster groups.  Recently, Marissa Mayer, new CEO of Yahoo!, emphasized her reluctance to take on the label feminist in an interview with Fortune in July 2012.  Feminism, she said, “has become in many ways a negative word.”

The Merriam-Webster official dictionary entry for “feminism” is: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes; organized activity on behalf of women.”

In an era of Daniel Tosh rape jokes, the so-called “War on Women,” the raging and intractable abortion debate, and the increasing occurrence of sexual assaults on women in the military, undoubtedly feminism is still a viable movement, if not a necessary one.  In addition, consider that according to the Center for American Women and Politics, American women hold an average of 16.9 percent of political seats.  According to the United States Census Bureau, the percent of persons identifying as women in America is at 50.8 percent.  This percentage gap demonstrates an inadequate voice in politics for women’s rights.  However, a more serious and inclusive consequence of this inequality – and of the enmification of feminists everywhere – has been felt over the last decade as our government continues its maintenance of overseas warfare.  We need gender equality in politics to help restrain our government’s use of military means to solve conflict.

Women in Politics = More Peace

In their 2003 study “Women’s Access to Politics and Peaceful States, ” Patrick M. Regan and Aida Paskeviciute find affirmative evidence that women’s access to the legislative branch of government “appears to reduce the prospects of observing a dyadic [militarized interstate dispute]…”  Empowering women and facilitating access to political processes, along with giving women sovereign control of reproductive rights, they conclude, contributes positively to peaceful interstate relations.  American women are needed in government, if not for adequate representation, then to assure the restriction on the use of violent force in addressing conflict.

Not only is the risk of interstate violence decreased by the presence of more women in politics, there is strong correlation to suggest that intrastate violence is also decreased by higher levels of gender equality. In a paper presented this April 2012 at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, authors Erik Melander and Elin Bjarnegård explain, “More democratic political institutions are associated with higher risk of armed conflict in the societies with the very lowest level of respect for women’s social rights.” Moreover, there are countless studies that conclude that the more pervasive militarized masculinity is, addressing conflict will more likely involve an escalation of violence. As we reclaim and reframe our understanding of feminism, let us see this movement not in terms of its opposition to masculinity, motherhood or uncomfortable undergarments. Let us look at feminism for what it really is: the opposition to militarism.

When we consider that nations with greater gender equality show less inclination towards war-making, feminism becomes remarkably palatable as a quintessential piece of a larger peace strategy. According to David Cortright (2008), author of Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas, there exists empirical evidence that “the political, economic, and social empowerment of women is a significant influence in reducing the tendency of governments to utilize military force.” Reframing the feminist movement should involve the understanding that, as British pacifist Helena Swanwick argued, war-making and the subjugation of women are constructed by the same standard: the use of force. By reclaiming feminism as an essential tool for preventing war and confronting militarism, we are fulfilling its more grandiose purpose. Cortright reclaims feminism from the depths of hairy, bra-burning purgatory when he explains, “Feminism rejects the personal violence that subjugates women and the political violence that oppresses society. Feminism seeks to break the social conditioning that sustains violence against women and perpetuates institutionalized warmaking.”

Reframing Feminism

Reframing feminism as a movement intrinsically linked to peace through gender equality is not a radical concept; Cortright admits that even the earliest suffragists acknowledged the empowerment of women as the antithesis of war. Enmifying feminists as uncomplimentary, sex-starved Communists, as the Cold War era Hearst publications managed to do, simply contributes to the sustenance and continuity of violent conflict.

There is a logical imperative to support feminism that extends to us all. We can continue to enmify feminists and distance ourselves from the movement by calling ourselves humanists or post-feminists, or we can embrace feminism as a necessary part of a greater strategy of peace.  After a decade at war, there is no U.S. citizen unaffected by militarism today. If it takes a negative experience, much like my own, to pull people closer to feminism, then we should all reclaim this urgently needed movement as a result of our experiences with war and our collective desire for peace. Together, feminists, post-feminists and humanists, we must reclaim and reframe feminism as an antidote to modern warfare. We must recognize that gender equality is vital to the development of peaceful governments and peaceful societies. If peace is the path, as Mahatma Gandhi said, then feminism is the compass that guides us.   Φ

Erin Niemela is a graduate student at Portland State University in the Conflict Resolution program, core volunteer with Global Days of Listening, and is proud to call herself a feminist.

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