Begin everywhere: gender and peace studies

By Janet Gray


Gender and peace studies: where do I even begin?

Begin anywhere. Everywhere. Begin where you are.

Find out where others are. Begin again.

Anywhere—everywhere—where you are is a very particular place, with its own blind spots and resources, audiences and intentions, boxes and breezeways, roadblocks and visions.

I’ll start where I was in 2010 as I strayed from my teaching in Women’s and Gender Studies at The College of New Jersey to design an introductory course in peace studies, responding to a request from the director of our new Holocaust and Genocide Studies program. (So far, we have no Peace Studies program.)

While the number of graduate programs in Peace Studies has expanded considerably over the years, I suspect many instructors still begin to teach peace with informal preparation similar to mine: a lifelong commitment to nonviolence and social justice, some activist experience, a few workshops and seminars, a strong desire to share peace learning with students, and a good deal of uncertainty about where to begin.

In preparing the course, I canvassed members of the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA) for suggestions. They responded generously, but to my distress, I found that introductory syllabi, textbooks, and readers included few women authors or actors, and gender analysis was simplistic at best.

The problem is all too familiar. In the 1990s, feminist researchers developed a scheme that describes roughly sequential phases in the incorporation of women’s knowledge and knowledge about women into traditional academic fields. (1)

The baseline phase is “womanless” scholarship, which perpetuates the assumption that the standards of the dominant, white western male tradition are universal and unquestionable. Without saying so, all sanctioned disciplines of knowledge are about men—with a little attention given to unavoidable women, such as queens.

The second phase is wryly labeled “add women and stir.” More women are found and given added attention, but in roles determined by the dominant tradition. This is tokenism; in itself it does nothing to challenge the male dominance of a field of knowledge. But it can lay groundwork for further developments.

Phase three, the “bifocal phase,” gives attention to how women are split off from the dominant society–their marginalization, exclusion, and invisibility. Roused by a sense of injustice, researchers begin to challenge traditional canons and accepted paradigms. Course and catalog topics such as “women in” and “women and” belong to this phase.

Phase four applies new questions and methods to gathering knowledge about women’s experiences and cultures. The potential of this phase is to generate new critical paradigms for the whole body of knowledge, such as a systemic approach to gender and its intersections with other categories of privilege and oppression.

In the fifth phase, disciplines of knowledge would be fully transformed through the incorporation of knowledge about women. This phase remains unachieved. While gender analysis is widely accepted in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, “Women or Gender in…” courses are still widespread, and secondary school and introductory college courses very largely remain stuck in “womanless” or “add women and stir.” This is true also of Peace Studies, despite a growing body of scholarship on women and gender and a visible impetus toward mainstreaming gender in peace education, policy, and practice.

When I taught my course in 2011, as a novice, I followed experienced instructors’ advice that I adopt the most commonly used textbook and reader for the first run. Vexed by the shortcomings of these texts, I invited students to write about gender and peace studies as an option for their mid-semester essays. Four of the 26 students—Remy, Laura, Jeff, and Arielle–took up the challenge.

Remy, a sophomore Women’s and Gender Studies major, did the math on the gender gap in our assigned texts. He pointed out that both were authored or edited by men, and that of the authors represented in our reader, David Barash’s Approaches to Peace, 85% were male. He found that the index for the textbook, Peace and Conflict Studies by Barash and Webel, included only six references to women—and none to men. References to men, he pointed out, are unnecessary because the texts are based on the assumption that people who count are male. Remy argued that the underrepresentation of women in these texts replicates the structural violence that is characteristic of what peace scholars call “negative peace”: open conflict may be absent, but there is no justice. He also argued that the gendering of peace knowledge needs to go beyond including women and deconstructing masculinities, to recognizing LGBTQ peace activists and including nonviolent movements for LGBTQ equal rights as part of the peace movement.

Laura, a first-year education major, did the math on the Nobel Peace Prize and found that only 12 of the 121 laureates had been women, a ratio that replicates the gender imbalance in other disciplines that the Nobel Foundation awards. Laura pointed out promising directions for gendering peace studies in our texts, referring to stories of women’s grassroots peace activism, to CEDAW, and to research which concludes that the empowerment of women and gender equality help to create more peaceful societies. She went on to critique glaring omissions, reserving her fiercest critique for the failure of definitions of terrorism to include gender-based terror such as mass rape as a weapon of war.

Jeff, a first-year physics major, asserted in his essay that “the absence of women in most peacemaking efforts…causes them to fail” because patriarchal approaches to peace simply perpetuate cycles of violence. He explained that official forms of diplomacy, dominated by affluent males, use military pressure for short-term results and disregard the feminized spiritual, social, and psychological practices necessary for cycles of violence. But it is precisely in these practices of healing and reconciliation at the community level that women are prominently active in effective peacemaking. For the future of Peace Studies, Jeff called for wider education about how “the cycle of patriarchy … can be broken,” as well as the integration of compassionate practices at all levels of diplomacy and continued grassroots efforts to change gendered social conventions.

Students who did not have the benefit of previous education about gender tended to fumble the difference between essential and socially constructed gender differences. But Arielle, a senior English and Gender Studies major, centralized the binary construction of masculinity and femininity as a problem for peace, opening with a discussion of how gender essentialism has shaped “a violent language and thus a violent society.” While gender essentialism opens roles for women as peacemakers because of their supposedly innate compassionate nature, it also masks structural violence. Arielle focused on domestic violence against women: “complete peace,” she argued, “is not possible until the cycle of domestic violence is broken on a global scale.”

Through their thoughtful research and analysis, these students discovered an array of beginnings that scholars and international activists have made in the gendering of peace studies, and they made their own beginnings. They also showed me that the uncomfortable clash between the textbooks and my home discipline did not mean I could not teach peace. Instead, it meant that my location within a women’s and gender studies department could be an asset not just for the course, but also in some small way for advancing the field of peace studies.

An underlying thread for my contributions to Gender Eyes will be a call to Women’s Studies programs (and their Gender, Sexuality, Feminist, Queer, and Intersectional Studies kin) to entangle themselves with Peace Studies, serving as a resource for advancing the mainstreaming of gender in Peace Studies curricula, research, and practice.

A central assumption behind this call is that the institutional locations of peace studies programs vary widely in ways that shape how the practitioners in any particular location are able to construct the curriculum, and thus in what constitutes a sufficiently comprehensive approach to the field. I’ll expand on this observation and its implications for gendering peace studies in my next post.

And thanks to Laura Ng for getting me started thinking in terms of where.


NOTE 1. Sarah M. Pritchard summarizes these phases from the standpoint of librarianship in “Women’s Studies Scholarship: Its Impact on the Information World.” The Feminist Task Force of the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table.