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Women on War

Women on War, An International Anthology of Writings from Antiquity to the Present

Edited with an Introduction by Daniela Gioseffi (Feminist Press, 2003)

In Pericles’s famous "Funeral Oration" of 430 B.C., delivered toward the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, he praised the bravery of the dead Athenian soldiers and prepared Athens for the certain deaths that were ahead. But toward the end of the speech, he also remarked on the role of women in war:
Perhaps I should say a word or two on the duties of women to those among you who are now widowed. I can say all I have to say in a short word of advice. Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you.

This is a fairly good elaboration of what became the traditional view of the role of women during war: support your men back home, make them proud, and do not dishonor them by becoming public spectacles. Anti-war activism, of course, was clearly out of the question. This, of course, is not what has really happened—ever. Women have always had an important role in both anti- and pro-war activities, fueling the protests against the Vietnam War with the same passion that brought us the "We Can Do It" support for World War II. With 15 percent of the current American military made up of women and an increasing number of women ascending to more powerful roles in the planning and implementation of war, it is clear that women’s attitudes toward war will need to receive more prominent exposure in the 21st century.

The second edition of Women on War offers a broad survey of views toward war held by a number of women, many of whom most Americans will have had little exposure to, either in history class or in the mainstream media. Including many entries written by prominent Americans such as anarchist Emma Goldman, author Louisa May Alcott, and poet Maya Angelou, the book also has a strong presence by women who have more recently brought their own struggles onto the international stage. Particularly valuable are excerpts from Balkan writers such as Vesna Parun, Jasmina Tesanovic, and Slavenka Drakulic, all of whom are little known to most American readers but who have become strong voices for their nations—which, in the last few centuries, have been ravaged by war. These authors have been for women in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina what Arundhati Roy is for India, Isabel Allende is for Chile, Daisy Zamora is for Nicaragua, and Simone de Beauvior was for France—tireless advocates who use their literary talents to document the struggle from oppression in their oft war-torn nations. As this collection makes clear, every nation has important feminists of this kind, and all deserve to be heard equally.
Women on War contains some particularly penetrating admonitions and reflections that Americans would be well advised to read at this particular moment of anti-terrorist frenzy. There are four poems by Mitsuye Yamada, a Japanese-American and victim of Roosevelt’s internment camps during World War II, that show the effect of war on the family, as well as the incongruities of a war supposedly for freedom that results in the imprisonment of innocents. Her poems remind us that hysterical racism in the name of national security often sweeps away the simplest of questions in a democracy: "What was the charge?"

An excerpt from Emma Goldman warns that patriotism may lead to a "spirit of militarism" that has "already permeated all walks of [American] life." Patriotism, Goldman argues, is "too narrow and limited a conception to meet the necessities of our time" and offers no vision for a world outside of conflict. An excerpt by Ann Druyan reminds us that the first "ground zero" was an expression of American military power in Hiroshima, and makes an immediate farce of the Holocaust mantra "never again"—the main victors of World War II immediately set out to build the biggest, most deadly weapons possible and subjected the world to an even more dire state of affairs.

Finally, June Jordan’s "The Bombing of Baghdad" compares Custer’s slaughter of Native Americans to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Jordan argues that most weapons are "terrorist tools" by their very nature, and she condemns piecemeal post-attack efforts offered by the U.S. government:
And in the aftermath of carnage

perpetrated in my name

how should I dare to offer you my hand

how shall I negotiate the implications

of my shame

For the most part, Women on War gives the impression that there were only a handful of pre-19th-century women who commented on war. This is quite the wrong picture, of course, since the real scoop of the story of women and war is that women have always been active in—and often against—war.

Perhaps the historical tendency of women to oppose war is derived from the marginalization of women from the political system that wages it. This is not unlike the South’s inability to mobilize slaves during the American Civil War, and leads one to the logical conclusion that the powerful nations of the future may be those who can successfully harness the strength of women in their wars, just as the North was able to arm its black population to defeat the South. Until more recently—and of course this process is still in its infancy—this marginalization has given women little to gain from supporting the wars started by men. This could conceivably change.

Women on War does give one the impression that the history of women is almost exclusively one of antiwar sentiment, and it would have been nice to see some entries by those historical figures who did not conform to this perspective. For better or for worse, Britain’s Thatcher, Russia’s Catherine the Great, and Israel’s fourth Prime Minister Golda Meir are examples of historically important women who, far from opposing wars, actually initiated them during their terms of office. There are many more examples of such behavior than Women on War lets on.

Similarly, the introduction by Daniela Gioseffi points out that the nuclear threat has only continued to get worse since the end of the cold war, but does not mention that it was the leadership of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that led India to develop its nuclear program. One wonders what the state of the Asian sub-continent would be today if Gandhi had shown the same moral clarity of many of the writers in Women on War.

And then there is the grim fact that some of the writers and heroes of this compendium ultimately fell victim to the "force of circumstances" and betrayed the ideals of their roles as pacifists. Particularly glaring was Simone de Beauvoir’s support for the executions of purported Nazi collaborators after the fall of the Third Republic in France, which exposed shortcomings in her platform as a critic of violence as a tool of political change.

Despite the collection’s decidedly international approach, Gioseffi’s introduction focuses heavily on the United States and its refusal to take part in international efforts—to keep children out of combat, participate in the U.N. conference on race in Durban, South Africa, or join the International Criminal Court, among other retreats. Unfortunately, Gioseffi doesn’t offer the reader even the officially-stated reasons— and there are reasons, whether one agrees with them or not—for doing so, which would have been a gesture toward objectivity. Instead, she chalks it all up to an unexplained and vague American refusal to play fairly, as though Machiavellian political tactics (and war) were not on some level rational. One can say much about war, and war is certainly an issue about which people have strong opinions, but it still remains true that the decisions of international politics are not simple.

This book also brings up (and leaves unanswered) the question of where we are today with women and their role in the proliferation of war. With female war hawks such as Condoleezza Rice in increasingly powerful positions, one might wonder exactly what kind of women we need in office and whether those who make it through the still male-dominated American political system must, by necessity, become part of the war machine themselves.

Nonetheless, the progress made thus far is clear, and those questions will continually be asked by progressives about all of our leaders, male or female. As gains are made toward access to higher positions of government, we will need to begin to ask the gender-insensitive question of how we get good people—the Barbara Ehrenreichs, the Doris Lessings, and the Molly Peacocks of the future—into office. This book is useful for explaining why we must find an answer to this question.
Progress by women in a system continually defined by corrupt men of power filters out both men and women of conscience, and this will be the major challenge after opportunity has been equalized. The question ahead seems to be this: now that women’s rights have gained traction and doors are opening, do we expect women in power to change the nature of the system, or do we merely want women to have a seat in the same war room next to future Bushes, Cheneys, and Rumsfelds? As Gioseffi says in her introduction, "Men have killed and maimed in the name of God," but one must now ask: In our political system, can women behave any differently?


Daniel Skinner


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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