New Internationalist

Beyond Greenham

Issue 136

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VIOLENCE [image, unknown] Feminist change

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Beyond Greenham
Feminism and nonviolence are both important movements
in their own right Together they should be even more powerful.
Lesley Merryfinch explains why.

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SIR CLIVE SINCLAIR, knighted in this year’s Honour’s List, has revealed that his group, Sinclair Research, where he retains a 90 per cent interest, made a £5000 donation to Conservative funds during its last financial year.

The London Guardian, September, 1983

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You might think this news item has no connection with feminist nonviolence. But look. Behind Sir Clive I see thousands of women in this country and in South East Asia working up to 84-hour weeks for trifling wages assembling the microchips upon which Sinclair’s empire is founded. I see the invisible women. I see the new technology revolution having its most dire effects on women: the areas in which women are employed in the sexually-segregated labour market are those where the jobs are most likely to be threatened by computers; moreover, it is new technology that makes modern weapons so certainly deadly.

According to a Pentagon spokesman, ‘…we are going to have to come up with smart weapons, smart communications systems and so on. The electronic processing of those systems is going to be extremely important and the integrated circuit will be at its heart.’ And at the heart of integrated circuit assembly are - women.

To put it another way, women are being used to further the aims and increase the effectiveness of our oppressors, be that oppressor a computerized conveyor belt, the controller of a modern guided missile or the Conservative Party with its less-than-admirable record on women’s concerns and its £5000 windfall from Mr Sinclair. In this, as in so many things, feminism and nonviolence are linked.

Nonviolence, as it is traditionally understood, is often woolly and poorly defined, frequently naive. But it is strongly characterized by three points. First, it persistently maintains that means must be consistent with ends. Thus the new society for which we are working is not to be attained through terror and deceit. Some purists would even exclude any reliance on armed struggle. ‘There is no way to peace, peace is the way’ runs the saying. Theorists of nonviolence use different arguments for insisting on the continuity of means and ends - violence only breeds further violence’ being the most simple - but on this at least they are agreed. Second, ‘traditional nonviolence’ is founded on a particular vision of power. It puts real power in the hands of the mass of ordinary people, not in hierarchical structures; it insists that people collectively have power to shape their own lives; it strives to find structures for living together which do not rely on or create powerful leaders or oppressors. This alternative vision of power is the key to the eradication of oppression in all its forms, whether expressed by physical or structural violence.

Third, and less well known perhaps, is the value which traditional nonviolence puts on personal suffering and risk-taking. It is never claimed that by nonviolent methods ‘nobody will get hurt’. It is essential that those practising nonviolence are fully aware that they are confronting those with more physical force at their disposal and that they are prepared to suffer that force if need be. Nonviolence is not avoiding conflict at all costs: it is going into situations of conflict determined to de-escalate the violence. It is activity, not passivity. As a theory of radical social change traditional nonviolence puts many things in question: nuclear weapons, nuclear power, guerilla armies, abuse of animals, troops in Northern Ireland... the list is endless. Or almost.

Traditional nonviolence has failed to put in question institutions which are at the centre of feminist struggle - the family and marriage, heterosexuality as the norm, women’s role and domestic labour and, significantly, male violence to women. The sad fact is that women’s oppression is still not regarded as a legitimate concern of the average peace activist. The ‘invisibility’ of women’s oppression is taken as evidence not of its all-pervasiveness but of its triviality, or indeed nonexistence. Take one quick. example: rape is accepted as one of the most humiliating experiences. ‘The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating’ wrote Gandhi. Yet did anyone say that the founding of Rape Crisis Centres had anything to do with the peace movement?

Feminism is not merely a gloss on existing theories of revolutionary social change. It is not sufficient to add a hasty’ ...and women’s liberation while we’re about it’ to a shopping list of revolutionary goals. And it is not sufficient to convince the traditional peace movement that it should develop its analysis of violence to recognise that nuclear war is simply one end of a spectrum of violence which begins with the socializing of little boys into mini-machomen and progresses through wife-battering and rape to war and holocaust. Although to gain general acceptance of this point would be in itself no mean thing, it still implies that feminism can bring refinements and new insights to an existing established theory of social change. Those who espouse this view fail to recognise that the women’s liberation movement has its own theories of revolutionary social change, its own philosophical basis, its own demands, its own dreams.

That feminist analysis has traditionally fallen short of pushing the revolt against male violence to include militarism and nuclear weapons - or even conventional weapons, come to that. It was possible in the late Seventies, for example, for many feminists to feel that a woman’s achievements were above question if they broke new ground for her sex. Applause then for the first woman to command an Army regiment. Reflected pride at the ‘heroic deeds of the munitionettes’ of the First World War. A warm feeling of vicarious strength watching newsreels of women welders in the naval shipyards of the Forties. Now that we have finally arrived at a Cruise - accursed 1984, with three years of Greenham Common’s consciousness - raising still fresh in mind, it’s a lot easier to express doubts about the value of the achievements of these women. The women’s liberation movement is now beginning to address itself in a new way to violence.

The debate now runs, ‘Are nuclear weapons a feminist issue?’ It’s a valid and long overdue debate but if limited to those terms it will still leave questions unaired. What should we think about the women who fight in liberation struggles or to defend their people’s revolution? By pushing to its limits the analysis of violence as a spectrum from the nursery to nukes and rejecting all manifestations of violence we find along the way, we may soon find ourselves in company with those purists of nonviolence, rejecting armed resistance.

The question I ask is this: how far is it liberating to fight for one’s freedom with guns and at what point does that sort of struggle simply enmesh us in the spectrum of violence? It’s a matter of applying that old favourite of nonviolence, the question of means and ends, but making sure that the declared end is a feminist one, women’s liberation in its fullest sense.

The Women’s Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam war and antinuclear power movements have brought radical changes to Western society. Feminism and nonviolence are in their own right both immensely powerful. And now it seems they are beginning to overcome their previous limitations by learning from each other. They have begun to recognize each other although there is still a long way to go. The old labels will doubtless persist for some time: actions on Northern Ireland don’t get labelled part of the women’s liberation movement even if they do involve hundreds of women outside Armargh Gaol; women’s refuges and rape crisis centres won’t be labelled as part of the peace movement until one is set up at Greenham.

But it doesn’t really matter what the labels say. We know that the issues are profoundly linked. Who knows where that knowledge will lead? Clive Sinclair had better look out.

Lesley Merryfinch is a member of the Feminism and Violence Study Group
which published
Piecing it together: Feminism and Nonviolence in March 1983.


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