2020 - 2021 Modern Volume 14

Feminist Anti-War Activism in the Twentieth Century

By Jade Burnett

Set against the backdrop of war in Vietnam, the aftermath of two World Wars, and the looming possibility of global nuclear war, the twentieth century was the point at which women solidified their place as political actors. Women had previously had little formal representation in politics, and were restrained by the existing narratives surrounding women’s social role, but as the Women’s Liberation Movement took hold, spreading into anti-war activism, feminist activists found a way to set out a clear political space. One particular way in which this was done, was through feminist anti-war activism, which was crucial in establishing a role for women within traditionally male dominated political spaces.

The November of 1961 saw 50,000 women protest in 60 cities across the United States, resulting in the largest peace protest of the twentieth century. The protest was organised by Women Strike for Peace (WSP). This group of largely middle class women were demanding an end to the Vietnam War, a negotiated settlement between the US and USSR, military withdrawal from Southeast Asia, and a ban on nuclear testing. WSP weaponised the rhetoric of traditional femininity, drawing on images of motherhood in particular, with the intention of linking matters of military and security, to matters of motherhood. This framing meant that WSP were able to avoid much of the ‘red-baiting’ that had been used to stop radical activism during the McCarthy era. An example of this weaponization of femininity was the WSP’s framing of nuclear testing as a motherhood issue, addressing the fact that fallout from Strontium-90 was evident in both mother’s milk and commercially sold cow’s milk. In this sense, WSP were able to develop a political role for women, focusing on the way that military and security issues could be addressed as ‘women’s issues’.

The protests at Greenham Common were another example of activists weaponizing the rhetoric of femininity in order to find space in traditionally male political spaces. In September 1981, 36 women chained themselves to the fence of Greenham Common military base in Berkshire, having marched from Cardiff. The protestors sought to challenge the decision of the British government to store 96 cruise nuclear missiles within the base, in a protest which lasted for 19 years in the form of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camps. These activists took an eco-feminist approach towards nuclear issues, wearing black to mourn the children who would be lost to nuclear war, hanging pictures of their children on the fences around the base, and using the symbol of the spider’s web to represent resilience and fragility. Thus, the women of the Greenham Common Peace Camps sought to legitimise their protest against nuclear war by contextualising the relationship between women and their children alongside their relationship with the planet, emphasising the social role of women as mothers and protectors.

The burial of ‘Traditional Womanhood’ by feminist anti-war protestors in January 1968, took a more radically feminist approach to activism. Angered by the approach taken by feminists who protested as mothers, wives and daughters, 500 young women took part in the symbolic burial of a dummy named ‘Traditional Womanhood’ at a protest against war in Southeast Asia. This event represented a breakthrough within the US anti-war feminist movement – the moment when young women took hold of their own political agency, demanding their right to agitate as citizens, rather than as representations of their relationships with men. Here we can see the impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement, addressing the idea that women had to conform to an ideal of social and political femininity in order to be worthy of a political voice.

These examples of feminist anti-war activism, whilst representing starkly different approaches, provide us with a positive framework with which to consider contemporary activism. The feminist protest of the twentieth century, in all cases, demonstrated the power of collective action, presenting examples of non-violent disruption, aimed at ending political, military and social oppression. Here, we can clearly observe a moment at which a better future, and a better present, are tangible. In all of these instances, we can see examples of the fight against the accepted norms of violence and war, and witness activists rejecting the notion that there is no alternative. At a contemporary point at which many look to fight such oppressions, these examples of optimistic and resilient activism help us to build a hopeful vision of the future.