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  • From Essentialism to Constructivism?The Gender of Peace and War—Gilman, Woolf, Freud
  • Yael S. Feldman

Is there a "natural" fit between gender and the pacifist or military impulse?

History seems to offer an answer to this question, even though general historiography of pacifism ignores it.1 Only in recent histories of women in the peace movements has the discourse on this subject been initiated. Despite its antecedents in nineteenth-century Europe, this discourse gained momentum on both sides of the Atlantic around the two World Wars, persisted in the protest movements of the 1960s and 70s, and reached theoretical maturity in the post-gender heyday of the 1980s and 90s.2

This continuity notwithstanding, thinking on this issue has noticeably changed throughout the last century. Moreover, a close look at the early stages of the European peace movements reveals a complex [End Page 113] international picture in which diametrically opposite positions partially overlap almost from the start. This multifaceted scene has been described and analyzed by Jill Liddington, in her 1989 study The Road to Greenham Common: Feminism and Anti-Militarism in Britain Since 1820, where an attempt to disentangle the multiplicity of voices led to distinguishing three traditions of feminism, each with its own stance (1991: 6-8; 13-22).

The first and the oldest tradition, espoused by Victorian women as early as in the 1820s, is "maternalist" feminism. Having its modest beginnings in small Quaker-led "Female Auxiliary Peace Societies" (Liddington 14), the offshoots of the London Peace Society (established in 1816; see Brock 1972: 378), it adhered to a philosophy of "separate spheres" for the sexes, holding that pacifism was a natural effect of the maternal instinct and therefore part of women's duties as mothers and nurturers. In 1865, this position was "powerfully codified" (Liddington 19) by the eminent art critic John Ruskin, who decreed that "the woman's power is for rule, not for battle." Characteristically, he limited this rule—perhaps in the spirit of the Psalms (45: 14)—to "Within his house, as ruled by her" (emphasis added). His conclusion—"This is the true nature of home—it is the place of Peace" (ibid.)—served the maternalist peace feminists. However, on another occasion, the same year, Ruskin carried this concept to its logical conclusion, actually blaming European women, qua mothers, for not caring enough to prevent war . . . One can well imagine the consternation and conflicting reactions that this judgment aroused.3 Curiously, he also encouraged women to wear black in protest: "a mute's black—with no jewel, no ornament" (Liddington 21)—an idea that materialized for the first time about half a century later, when 1500 women "dressed in mourning garb" gathered in New York for an anti-war parade in August 1914 (Alonso 56). More recently, this tactic has been revived in the vigils of the Israeli "Women in Black" and their international followers.4

On the diametrically opposite side of the spectrum Liddington identifies "equal-rights" or "liberalist" feminism, wherein peace was [End Page 114] linked with political rights for women (the suffrage campaign) but not with any "natural" sex-specific proclivity. Inspired by John Stuart Mill's Liberalism, this tradition sought to erase the age-old restrictive and demeaning perceptions that had been imposed on women's intellect and moral judgment. By the late nineteenth century it found itself estranged from the maternalist peace movements, believing, instead, that only the vote would enable women to gain political power and moral influence.

The third tradition, "radical" feminism, is more recent, suggests Liddington, a product of the early twentieth century. Stressing sexual differences, it attacks war and militarism as the expression of male natural proclivity for aggression, which it perceives as the public face of male violence in the domestic sphere. Accordingly, the radical tradition seeks to achieve peace by eradicating male dominance and subverting the existing social order.

Although this third, ostensibly newer tradition emphasizes a different aspect of the sexual-difference equation, it seems that it is closely related to its grandmother, or perhaps godmother, antecedent—namely, maternalist feminism. The proximity comes through clearly when we consider both the generational location and the overlapping of ideas between the authors...


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