Waging Feminism: the other side of nonviolent struggle

Edited by Waging Nonviolence and posted on June 11, 2012 here.

May 17 marked Women Occupying Wall Street’s (WOW) First Feminist General Assembly in New York, along with similar assemblies in Chicago and other Occupy sites nationwide. It also happened to be my 30th birthday. Everyone knows that when you pass to a new decade, there is a comfort in nostalgia — 30 is no exception — and while Petaluma, Ca., had no such meeting, I held a GA of one in which I examined the relationship between my commitment to nonviolence and my feminism.

I was, after all, a self-identified feminist long before I was a nonviolent activist and educator, and I see the two identities as complementary and mutually reinforcing. It’s not surprising: Women’s rights have historically been won through nonviolent methods, although it’s also true that movements for women’s rights and feminism are not entirely the same. The various forms of feminism do not always share a common commitment to nonviolence or even an anti-militarist stance: The fact that women are now being trained to kill other women in the military is seen by some as a “victory” for women’s rights. Yet the separation between nonviolence and feminism feels inauthentic to me. This comes not from any essentialist belief about femininity in general, but because we are more aware today that violence is inequality, and, as the Second Wave feminists insisted, there is no such thing as equality for some.

Peace educator Betty Reardon, who attended the feminist GA in New York, struck a cautious note in an email to me:

My impression is that there is still some way to go before reaching the possibility that OWS would align with feminism. The fact that sexual violence occurred with the encampment attests to the depth of the problem. There is still insufficient understanding of the depth of both the psycho-social and structural holds that patriarchy has on our culture and politics. Nonetheless, this feminist initiative is a very positive development, and I hope it goes forward.

While WOW has been working on these issues since the beginning — including consciousness-raising about feminism and fostering safer spaces — the GA itself, according to Reardon was “the result of a long feminist process” that has been taking place for months and is still ongoing. But if only we could begin “a long feminist process” that is safe, inclusive and participatory into politics today, Reardon among others would maintain that it would ultimately take us to the patriarchal roots of the war system.

Arundhati Roy says it all in her 2002 lecture “Come September,” when she asks whether we can “bomb our way to a feminist paradise.” Certainly not; we can, however, build our way to a feminist paradise like the one that organizers of WOW’s Feminist General Assembly imagined, which “opposes domination, by anyone of anyone.”

In this light, we might notice that feminism has always contained an element of the nonviolent approach called “constructive program” — building the institutions we need without waiting for others to give them to us. This has been implemented in many aspects of the feminist movement, such as the Jane clinics before Roe v. Wade, or the way that Planned Parenthood has become a key health provider for women amidst an unequal healthcare system. But there is more to be desired. I’m optimistic that the new political space created by Occupy might offer an opportunity for even more innovation and creativity. In this movement, it was clear from the beginning that we are not just protesting what we don’t want; we are building a new culture from the grassroots up, from our experiences of gender, poverty and violence.

Let’s not forget poor Rosie the Riveter, an unhappy militarized symbol for feminists. We can let her rest in true peace when we finally recognize that her “strength” was manipulated to militarize women’s identities. Sure, “we can do it,” but we’ve learned that we have to be discriminating about what “it” is: We can resist the forces of violence and militarization. We can create more nonviolent alternatives to violent systems, lessening the power any system of oppression might hold over us.

Feminism may imply nonviolence, but what is particularly feminist about nonviolence, as it is often theorized today? There is generally thought to be a split between approaches to nonviolence that have been (poorly) labeled as “principled” and “strategic.” The strategic side does not want to touch emotions or ideals because they want to show that nonviolence is forceful and threatening to those in power — essentially,  masculine and strong. Advocates of the strategic approach make advocates of principled nonviolence out to be emotional, impractical, unrealistic, somewhat irrational and preoccupied with human well-being — effeminate and passive.

It is a gendered debate, and it has consequences that fall along gendered lines. The movement in Egypt took a “strategic” route in the Arab Spring, for example, but although it encouraged women’s participation for a strategic purpose, it did little to undermine patriarchy and militarism, and the “revolution” was immediately followed by abuses against women and by military rule.

Feminists insist on talking about the real needs of people, not about using them as means to some political end. Audrey Lorde, in her 1984 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” makes this clear: “The need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.” bell hooks also writes about feminism and love, about how love is no sign of weakness when expressed with integrity and intention — in other words, when it is an expression of authenticity. Kenneth Boulding (partner to the late feminist peace theorist Elise Boulding) developed a “three face” model for power that maintains that the power of nonviolence lies in its authenticity, in the willingness to experience suffering for the sake of personal integrity.

Feminism and the Occupy movement share other features as well, including in the way that both are stereotyped as being angry. A friend recently asked me what, as a feminist, I say when people crack sexist jokes. My reply was that I try not to laugh, never to laugh, because there is too much to be angry about. She quipped back, “Ah yes, cultivate anger.”

We were joking, of courseBut let’s face it: injustice is obnoxious and pervasive; anger is a sign that we are paying attention. Anger itself, though, can be a sign of impotence, a resignation to powerlessness. Anger is natural in movements for social justice — no complacent person will effect change in their lives or in others — but it’s only beneficial so long as it becomes transformed into something else. Anger is frustrated love, and when we can harness our anger through nonviolent discipline, it becomes an expression of that love.

Didn’t Martin Luther King Jr. call nonviolence “love in action?” Paraphrasing Booker T. Washington, King once wrote, “I will never allow any man [sic] to drag me so low as to make me hate him.” Why not? Because hatred is detrimental to our self-care as individuals. While King would not be considered a feminist in any strict sense of the term (though surrounded by a movement of women), those words evoke a feminist value.

I used to call myself a “radical feminist.” In many ways, nonviolence has made me more so. While radical feminism wants to get to the “root” of oppression, nonviolence is the seed we want to sow when we get there.

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