How Has the Peace Movement Helped Women Fight For Power?


Medea Benjamin’s “heckling” of President Obama during a press conference on national security may have faded quickly from the news in the days following the incident, but Benjamin’s actions drew attention, however briefly, to an organization most of us had likely never heard of: the antiwar and social justice organization dubbed “Code Pink” by its founders.

Code Pink has much in common with the numerous other organizations that cropped up in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq; founded in 2002, it aims “to end U.S. funded wars and occupations, to challenge militarism globally, and to redirect our resources into health care, education, green jobs and other life-affirming activities.” What sets the group apart is not its goals, but rather its demographics; although the group welcomes male participation, it primarily seeks to attract “mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters, female workers, students, teachers, healers, artists, writers, singers, poets and all outraged woman [sic].”

Female involvement in antiwar movements is, of course, nothing new, and much of that involvement has been either tacitly or openly feminist in tone; Code Pink, for example, has taken part in efforts to raise public awareness of rape and other forms of gender violence, most recently in the Valentine's Day "One Billion Rising" campaign. And second-wave feminism was, after all, born amidst the counterculture of the 1960s alongside one of the largest and most significant antiwar movements in U.S. history; interaction between the two movements was virtually inevitable.

As Ruth Rosen points out in her recent article, however, much of the initial outcry against the war followed a familiar and, where gender roles were concerned, rather conservative pattern. Groups such as the Jeanette Rankin Brigade, following in the footsteps of the female antiwar groups of World War I, claimed a particular privilege by virtue of women’s role as mothers; as the givers of life, these and later groups argued, women are the natural guardians of peace. Indeed, the “ecofeminism” of the 1980s would argue that women’s maternal responsibilities extended to protecting the earth from male industrialism and militarism.

Such tactics can be galling for feminists who see gender roles as partially, primarily, or entirely socially constructed, including those who “buried” a model of “Traditional Womanhood” during the Jeanette Rankin Brigade protest in 1968, much to the annoyance of demonstrators who saw the interlude as a misplaced intrusion of women’s issues into the more important question of the war. Certainly, though, there is something a bit odd about all of the emphasis placed on motherhood; after all, men also lose children to war. Pioneering feminist thinkers like Betty Friedan thus insisted that women should oppose the Vietnam War on broadly human rather than maternal grounds. Rosen is, however, likely right when she suggests that female antiwar movements are more successful when they mobilize women as mothers rather than as citizens.

Besides, even those women most committed to the latter may feel compelled to found or join female-friendly peace groups. The most progressive — even radical — movements have not always welcomed female membership; it was in 1964, after all, that Stokely Carmichael infamously responded to a question about the role of women in the Civil Rights Movement by quipping that their only proper “position” was “prone,” and the SNCC is far from the only group to have been plagued by such problems. Besides, as Rebecca Johnson notes in her defense of Code Pink, there are legitimate reasons to see a connection between antiwar and feminist movements — if not because of women’s “natural” role, then because of their historical one. Johnson points in particular to the widespread use of rape as a war tactic, but in reality such sexual violence is often part of a broader pattern of what the World Health Organization has identified as the frequent wartime “exacerbation” of gender inequality. And even women fortunate enough to live outside the combat zone are likely to be affected; wars mean increased military funding and corresponding cuts in domestic spending even when they’re fought overseas.

Still, I have to confess to finding some of the more touchy-feely language and tactics used by female antiwar organizations a bit cloying. Maybe I just don’t like hot pink.