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Peace Pledge Union
women and pacifism
Since the special Women's Section of the Peace Pledge Union was ended, many women members have been disturbed by the fear that their contribution to the pacifist movement would be undervalued and their special interests overlooked. I write this article to assure them that no such significance should be attached to the assumption of the work peculiar to the Women's Section by the movement as a whole.
The Women's Section was originally started in the autumn of 1939 to organise a series of meetings for women under the name of 'The Women's Peace Campaign'. Some of us who have worked for years on behalf of equal rights and opportunities between men and women felt misgivings about both this campaign and its perpetuation as a 'Women's Section', for we regarded its conception as reactionary and its methods out of date. The time is past when women, by organising themselves into separate groups, have to demonstrate their ability to work politically at all. The modern phase of the women's struggle is the much more difficult one of equal and friendly co-operation between the sexes - a co-operation in which, at its best, the feminist self-consciousness of the suffrage movement will totally disappear. But this does not mean that women pacifists need no longer be on their guard against obscurantism and reaction, which are sometimes found in the most unexpected quarters.
Pacifism, whatever else it may be, is a campaign for the triumph of human rationality. It is a struggle against that entrenched power and privilege whose base is force.
In the primitive world, where the survival of the fittest was the rule, and physical strength the source of authority, the usually superior physical strength of men automatically gave them domination over women. The women's movement, like the movements for class and race equality, began when civilization reached the point at which a sufficiently large enlightened minority perceived that the operation of reason was superior to force as a factor in human affairs.
That is why the struggle against war, which is the final and most vicious expression of force, is fundamentally inseparable from feminism, socialism, slave emancipation, and the liberation of subject races. The unity of this struggle is emphasized in the pioneer works of the South African writer Olive Schreiner. In Trooper Peter Halkett she identifies the women's struggle with the race struggle. In Woman and Labour, she similarly identifies the campaign for the liberation of women with the campaign against war.
Because it has always been similarly identified in my own thinking, I was recently horrified to hear an influential pacifist and socialist proclaim - as an axiom which he expected his women listeners to accept - his belief that social initiative lay entirely with men, and that women were merely auxiliaries.
This form of mystical irrational prejudice is as integral a part of Nazi doctrine - to which, since its ultimate objective is war, all pacifism is basically opposed - as the more bitterly publicised anti-Semitism of the Hitler movement. The fascist world, as we now know, reserves all interesting and creative occupations for men - attended by auxiliary groups of admiring subservient women, who are expected to do the dull routine work and refrain from thinking.
A socialism which merely substitutes a subject class of women for a subject class of workers is not, of course, democratic socialism at all. It is National Socialism - which began to 'solve' the unemployment problem in Germany by precisely this method.
Since I have lived much of the past fifteen years in America, where equality of status and opportunities between men and women is taken for granted, and women such as Dorothy Thompson and Eleanor Roosevelt exercise, through their newspaper columns, an influence second only to that of the President, the pre-judgement quoted above seemed an echo from the Middle Ages.
I realise that sex prejudice is as much a 'blind spot' in some minds as the similar prejudice against race or class equality in others. The repudiation of all such attempts to relegate large numbers of varied individuals to categories is part of the pacifist struggle against war, which labels whole nations in similar fashion.
Those who still regard women as a sub-species invariably buttress their theories with the argument that 'there have been no great women'. Even supposing that no outstanding women, such as Sappho, Joan of Arc, and Queen Elizabeth, had risen by sheer force of genius above the disabilities imposed upon women by their eras, that there had been no outstanding women writers such as Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, and no women leaders of great pioneer movements such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler, Mrs Eddy, and Dr Marie Stopes, the argument is merely one which applies to every subject class. What outstanding man emerged from the peasantry of a dozen countries during the centuries in which the working classes were submerged throughout medieval Europe?
All through those long ages, the leaders of thought and action were drawn from the ranks of the privileged and educated few. Even those who deliberately embrace poverty for Christ's sake, such as St Augustine and St Francis of Assisi, came originally from the privileged class. It was not until the nineteenth century, when universal education began, and some, if still limited, opportunities to rise were available to the working class, that men like Keir Hardie and George Lansbury became leaders of their day.
But even if this were not so, the argument against equal opportunities would remain specious. We do not demand evidence of supreme genius from men before we put them into positions of authority or offer them opportunities for influence, initiative and the dissemination of ideas.
It is as yet uncertain what the contribution of women - not as 'the sex', but as individual human beings of infinitely varied qualities and capacities - to civilisation may be. We only know that women suffer as much as men from the sense of frustration which Florence Nightingale, growing up in the protected security of a Victorian drawing-room, described as 'Death from Starvation'.
It is only since the end of the last century in this country that a few women began to receive anything like equal educational opportunities with men; only since 1928 that they have ranked politically as equal citizens. Their opportunity for making an impression upon their age has been even briefer than that of the working class; yet, despite the limited franchise, the constructive humanitarian influence of women was clearly visible in the social legislation of the nineteen-twenties.
The British are not, as a people, unduly conspicuous for the quality of their culture or the quantity of their intellectual contribution to human progress. At this critical hour of their history, they certainly cannot afford, by refusing to an entire sex the right to express its creative mental initiative, to halve the measure of that contribution.
The bankrupt civilisation now engaged in destroying itself is admittedly the creation of men. Realistic humility on their part might perhaps suggest that without the equal and unimpeded collaboration of women, there will be no remedy. A pacifist movement which denied the potentialities and the significance of that full contribution would rest upon as irrational and self-destructive basis as Nazism itself.