Feminists vs. the War Machine

An abstract illustration showing shapes like the outlines of bodies flowing downwards; two ribbons weave around them
A new age of international solidarity

We’re writing this note amid Vladimir Putin’s horrific ongoing bombardment of Ukraine. Negotiations have gone nowhere, weapons are flooding the country, and sanctions are being implemented which will undoubtedly hurt ordinary, working-class people most. The endgame for U.S. and European involvement remains unclear.

We know that the left’s strength lies not in its ability to make proclamations or play powerlessly at statecraft but to build solidarity with people on the ground in places that are affected by war: the Ukrainians who are resisting the brutal occupation, and the Russian dissidents risking incarceration to protest the war. Some folks in the U.S. have been building these connections with leftists in Eastern Europe and Russia for years. But for many on the young organized left, this is new terrain.

Feminists know a lot about the importance of building international connections. “Liberating women” has been a popular pretext for war and occupation in our lifetimes. Without authentic relationships it’s impossible to elevate the voices of women who see American invasions as anything but liberating (more on that below). And, if the anti-imperialist left speaks in isolation, it’s too easy to slip into exaggerating America’s power and erasing other sources of oppression. The current crisis presents a challenge to the international left, one that feminism can help us tackle. This issue of Lux pursues deeper international solidarity. 

Looking to our history, it wasn’t so long ago that feminism was strongly associated with pacifism. Women, it was supposed, were inherently nonviolent and nurturing, inclined to talk where men would fight. (“Law and practice have developed that difference,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “whether innate or accidental.”) 

Women also entered the modern political sphere in response to war, like Bertha von Suttner, the Austrian pacifist whose novel Lay Down Your Arms the historian Samuel Moyn credits with birthing a trans-Atlantic peace movement at the turn of the 20th century. By World War I, women-led groups were at the forefront of pacifism, including many mothers. That association persisted in protests against the Vietnam War and in the anti-nuclear movement. In 1984, the feminist writer and activist Ann Snitow wrote that on arriving at an encampment outside Greenham Common, a nuclear weapons facility in England, her “feminist reaction was: not again. I had joined the women’s liberation movement to escape this very myth of the special altruism of women, our innate peacefulness, our handy patience for repetitive tasks, our peculiar endurance — no doubt perfect for sitting numbly in the Greenham mud, babies and arms outstretched, begging men to keep our children safe from nuclear war.”

That myth, aside from its gender-essentialist reductionism, also ignores the ignoble adventures of imperialist women. As Rafia Zakaria writes in Against White Feminism, many British women found their own freedom in the subjugation of women in the colonies and argued for women’s suffrage at home on the basis that they should not be treated so poorly as women over there. Suttner, Moyn notes, omitted any mention of recent U.S. military occupations in Hawai’i and the Philippines when celebrating America as “an example of peace.”

Most of us grew up witnessing powerful and prominent American women throwing their support behind the invasion of Afghanistan — including the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. We watched power suits like Hillary Clinton or Samantha Power insist that, as Zakaria puts it, “since terror groups wanted to limit women’s rights, women should be enlisted in fighting them. Feminism was thus fighting terrorism.” 

Who has been fooled by the hypocrisy of U.S. support for the rights of women under the Taliban? Not the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), one of whose members tells Sarah Aziza in this issue that “the outside powers came in with their own interests and goals, and they used Afghan women as an excuse. … We have had progressive democratic activists working for human rights for decades, but these outside powers continue to support puppet regimes and fanatics who push us back.” 

At a point in history where feminism has been tarnished by its association with empire, what does feminism have to offer anti-war and anti-imperial struggles?

For one thing, instead of pretending that women are inherently peaceful, a modern feminism looks at why women and queer folks have been at the forefront of many of the struggles for justice both in the U.S. and abroad — and unite those struggles. In our age of crumbling social support and rising fascism, the burden of sustaining communities through child care, elder care, and health care has largely fallen on women, who are now at a breaking point and have a unique view of what communities need. 

Everywhere, feminists are calling for defunding the police and the military, and for returning that money to communities. Maia Hibbett, in her piece about the movement against U.S. military bases in Okinawa in this issue, notes that activists there are demanding a “feminist spending spree” on social programs. Other feminist groups, like MADRE, recently called for paying reparations for Afghanistan, putting Pentagon funds toward domestic priorities, lifting economic sanctions on countries like Cuba and North Korea, and ending military support for authoritarian governments. By contrast, as reported by Shreya Chattopadhyay in The Nation, the International Center for Research on Women “gave Biden’s foreign policy in his first 100 days an A rating, evaluating it on process-based categories like policy articulation, funding, and accountability, rather than particular foreign policy interventions.”

In recognizing our commonalities, we enhance our ability to confront empire together. Margo Okazawa-Rey, a member of the Black socialist feminist group the Combahee River Collective who has worked with activists in Okinawa, told Hibbett that one reason it’s a tough time to be doing anti-base organizing is because of “dualistic thinking” that insists that U.S. empire is better than China, or for some, the reverse. (There are parallels here with Ukraine, where leftists have to state the obvious — that they don’t support Putin — and with Afghanistan, where RAWA insists that opposing the U.S. occupation should not have to mean submitting to the Taliban.) That thinking can be set aside by focusing on solidarity with socialist organizers on the ground who are often resisting complicated layers of oppression.

The war in Ukraine is already leading to a new era of military build-up, and the sidelining of movements for climate and economic justice. It is a particularly difficult moment to organize for peace. What’s more, the kind of direct action Snitow was involved in has only gotten scarier, with draconian charges imposed on direct action of any sort in the U.S., from document-leakers to protesters outside military facilities. That will also be our challenge.

But back in the ’80s, Snitow noted that the women of Greenham Common were “trying to imagine their country as smaller and its cooperative connection with the world beyond as larger.” The protesters were called utopian, impractical, not unlike the charges leveled against socialists today. To which Snitow responded that the women were “very hardheaded, very pragmatic …

They see a big war machine, the biggest the world has known; and, rather than sitting in the cannon’s mouth hypnotized, catatonic with fear or denial, they are trying to back away from the danger, step by step. They refuse to be awed or silenced by the scale of modern war. … Where is it written, they ask, that we must destroy ourselves?”

See you out there,

The Editors

Illustration by Colleen Tighe.