Women That Make for Peace

Culture Watch

Women That Make for Peace
A history of organizing against militarism and sexism.
By Patrick G. Coy

The literature on social movements is blessed with good histories of the U.S. peace movement and with histories of a number of major U.S. peace movement organizations. Sadly, but all too predictably, nearly all of these histories have focused on the contributions of men and on male-dominated organizations and movements. Only in the past few years was this pattern breached. Now Harriet Hyman Alonso breaks it decisively with Peace As a Women’s Issue.

In this work the myriad of activities of U.S. feminist women whose organizations worked for peace between 1820 and 1992 are brought to life with vivid detail. This depth of detail is the fruit of good interviews and painstaking archival research. Alonso’s connecting theme in this often unwieldy topic is the relationship between institutionalized violence and violence against women. It provides a useful theoretical framework for parts of the study.

Alonso does not shy away from an honest examination of problems that historically afflict feminist women’s peace organizations, including the difficulty of attracting and empowering younger women and the largely failed efforts of groups like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Women Strike for Peace to reach out to women of color.

Occasionally the author overreaches, making claims of effectiveness for women’s peace actions without providing data or documentation to substantiate the claim. An example: "WILPF had done a great deal to contribute to the demise of popular support for the [Vietnam] war. In fact, membership actually rose during that period." A simple rise in WILPF membership cannot be taken as proof that the group did a great deal to erode support for the war. And since Alonso presents only a very limited view of WILPF’s anti-Viet-nam War activities, the reader is left with an insufficient basis for assessing the assertion.

The book is wonderfully illustrated with copious photographs and with reproductions of flyers and leaflets used by the groups under study. Alonso succeeds famously in establishing the depth and breadth of U.S. women’s action on behalf of peace and a violence-free world.

The women who have gone before us clearly showed the nation—over and over again—the connections between militarism, sexism, and racism. That we have yet to overcome these social and personal ills means that we still have much work to do. Peace As a Women’s Issue provides us with models of human courage and faithfulness. We need not walk alone. As Alonso might say, we are graced with the company of our foremothers.

PATRICK G. COY is a fellow with the Albert Einstein Institution. He is currently serving on the Peace Brigades International team in Sri Lanka, studying their nonviolent protective accompaniment programs.

Peace As a Women's Issue: A History of the U.S. Movement for World Peace and Women's Rights. Harriet Hyman Alonso. Syracuse University Press, 1993.

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