Protests and Peace
COVID-19 has impacted each of our lives recently. Maybe some of you have been more impacted than others, but it's clear that aspects of our daily lives feel and look different. Unfortunately, in the wake of that crisis, another tragedy occurred.
George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25th. This is sadly not the first instance of police brutality resulting in the death of an unarmed African-American man, and it is not an uncommon or unfamiliar assault on the rights of people of color. As a feminist, I believe first and foremost in the equality of all people, and, though I will never fully comprehend the complete struggle of people of color, I can and do empathize, sympathize, and stand with all those who are discriminated against and treated as less than equal in any way. As a result of this terrible event, Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life have taken to the streets, fighting to end these kinds of injustices, and I stand in solidarity with them.
In light of these protests taking place all over the country and all over the world, I wanted to look at women's history to provide some context about the violent past in the fight for women's rights and to look to some of the writings about peace and nonviolence by some of the core feminist thinkers in history.
PROTESTS & MILITANCY
The women's suffrage movement, particularly in Great Britain, reached the point of violent protest in their efforts to bring injustices to the fore and to stress the need for change. The women took to the streets, sparred with police, were arrested, participated in hunger strikes in prison, and then were forcibly fed, often injuring women severely. Emmeline Pankhurst, the undisputed leader of the British women's suffrage movement who is getting arrested in the photo to the right, described the need for this violence in her 1913 speech to women of the United States, "Why We Are Militant." I cannot do justice in paraphrasing, so I'll include a somewhat long excerpt here:
"I know that in your minds there are questions like these; you are saying, 'Woman Suffrage is sure to come; the emancipation of humanity is an evolutionary process, and how is it that some women, instead of trusting to that evolution, instead of educating the masses of people of their country, instead of educating their own sex to prepare them for citizenship, how is it that these militant women are using violence and upsetting the business arrangements of the country in their undue impatience to attain their end?' Let me try to explain to you the situation…. The extensions of the franchise to the men of my country have been preceded by very great violence, by something like a revolution, by something like civil war. In 1832, you know we were on the edge of a civil war and on the edge of revolution, and it was at the point of the sword-no, not at the point of the sword-it was after the practice of arson on so large a scale that half the city of Bristol was burned down in a single night, it was because more and greater violence and arson were feared that the Reform Bill of 1832 [which gave the vote to the middle class] was allowed to pass into law. In 1867, . . . rioting went on all over the country, and as the result of that rioting, as the result of that unrest, . . . as a result of the fear of more rioting and violence the Reform Act of 1867 [which gave workers the vote] was put upon the statute books. In 1884 ... rioting was threatened and feared, and so the agricultural labourers got the vote. Meanwhile, during the ‘80's, women, like men, were asking for the franchise. Appeals, larger and more numerous than for any other reform, were presented in support of Woman's Suffrage. Meetings of the great corporations [group of principal officials in a town or city government], great town councils, and city councils, passed resolutions asking that women should have the vote. More meetings were held, and larger, for Woman Suffrage than were held for votes for men, and yet the women did not get it. Men got the vote because they were and would be violent. The women did not get it because they were constitutional and law abiding…."
I highly encourage you to read the entire thing, but the punchline here is that men got their rights through violence, through war, so women should be willing to give their lives, destroy property, and break the law in order to fight for their own rights.
In so-called democratic and free societies, such violence shouldn't be necessary, but that stated or even legal equality is not always put into practice. So, it makes sense that people of color, who are not granted the same freedoms as others when put into practice, would feel the need to take to the streets in a destructive manner to exert force and enact change. It is also important to note that all oppressed people fighting for their rights, in order to be effective, need advocates who are not part of the oppressed. Therefore, it's important for all people who believe in the cause to take steps to help.
PEACE & NONVIOLENCE
Not long after Pankhurst's call to militant action, World War I broke out, and feminist pacifism came into existence. They were a minority group within the women's movement, but they made a distinct impact on the world from that point on. They founded a series of organizations that culminated in the creation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919, which is still active today.
From my studies in feminist thought, Virginia Woolf has been the most prominent pacifist I've come across. I am a particular fan of her Three Guineas. It addresses 3 main questions, but the first is "How should war be prevented?" Many people argue that her argument was more about nonviolence than pacifism, which I happen to agree with. She writes, "For though many instincts are held more or less in common by both sexes, to fight has always been the man's habit, not the woman's. Scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman's rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us; and it is difficult to judge what we do not share" (9). Many things have changed in the world that make some of this argument fallacious in today's context. However, at the time, this was highly accurate. (There have been over the course of time, civilizations in which women are warriors, etc., but from Woolf's perspective and experience, this was in many ways accurate.) Nonviolence was a priority of Gandhi and is prevalent in different Vedic traditions as ahimsa. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his 1964 Nobel lecture, "Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it." There is a place, too, in the fight for rights and equality for nonviolence. It can be as persuasive as violence. It is often referred to as nonviolent resistance.
Then, there is something in between: peace activism. Today, I think of CODEPINK, an NGO which calls itself a "grassroots peace and social justice movement working 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." Its founders, Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans have also been arrested for their demonstrations. At left, you can see Benjamin getting arrested in 2013.
As with everything, I look to the past for inspiration, insight, and guidance, and I encourage the same thirst for knowledge. Knowledge is power and helps inform our decisions about how we react to things, how we plan and organize our efforts, and what we each believe is the best way to enact change. Needless to say, many, including myself, have heavy hearts. And I hope that, as with everything, you find your place in today's issues and that we find a path to a better world for people of color and other oppressed peoples.