James Lawson Institute

Women in Civil Resistance

August 1, 2017 Recovering History 0

By Anne-Marie Codur and Mary Elizabeth King.

Recent scholarship has revealed contributions of women throughout the ages to the development of nonviolent methods for waging conficts. The fndings are unearthing a version of history in which women’s involvement has been conducive to the use and expansion of civil resistance and nonviolent struggle. With women, until recently, customarily excluded from the jurisdictions in which societies decide to exercise political violence, because they were considered inadequate for military service, and as they were generally untrained in the use of weaponry, it should come as no surprise that women’s choice of action strategies has been concentrated in waging conficts through means other than armed confrontation. Women have tended by necessity and choice to explore the vast area of strategic nonviolent action, and did so centuries before the terminology was coined and its study and building of theory and practice had commenced.

Indeed, political behaviors and thinking in general were the most explicitly masculine endeavors of all human activity (Brown, 1988, p. 4). With women omitted from the classic studies, gender bias was incorporated into the defnitions and theories of knowledge. Although the discipline of international relations, for example, began with a search for a better understanding of war, confict, and anarchy, it became concerned primarily with the Great Powers. Early disputes occurred between realists and idealists, and over whether international cooperation could be pursued, which until recently kept women invisible in the feld. The high politics of state policy, security, and macroeconomic management have functioned as Kurtz_Women War and Violence_Volume II.indb 401 7/23/15 7:07 AM 402 Women, War, and Violence a male preserve. According to political scientist Fred Halliday, “In conventional ideology, women are not suited for such responsibilities and cannot be relied on in matters of security and crisis” (Halliday, 1988, p. 159). Part of the reason for the downplaying of the participation of women in the recording of history is the predilection of patriarchal societies to view all human activity through the aperture of male interests. Until comparatively recently, with women largely excluded from the institutions of decision making at the core structures of power, they were viewed as peripheral in the making of history, as most leaders were male. Women were barely considered actors of signifcance, unless they had risen to leadership in anomalous fashion—such as, for example, Cleopatra, the Queen of Sheba, Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, or Joan of Arc. Otherwise, women were assumed to play marginal roles or to be powerless spectators to the drama being enacted by the male leaders at center stage. The role that women had played in shaping social history, and in particular the way they may have been involved or infuential in addressing conficts, was not viewed as creditable or worthy of being chronicled. That women’s contributions to social and political change have been ignored, perhaps deliberately erased from human history, is now generally accepted, and this in all probability includes their participation and efforts in nonviolent civil resistance. The phenomenon of civil resistance as a technique of political action has deep roots, is applicable in a broad range of situations, and fascinates an expanding body of proponents and scholars. It has sometimes resulted in major historic alterations. What makes a nonviolent movement or campaign different from institutionalized politics? Revolts and uprisings have occurred without violence throughout history, although more often than not nonviolent struggles have themselves gone unrecorded. Gandhi often said that “nonviolence is as old as the hills,” referring to orally transmitted accounts of customary forms of noncooperation in his native Gujarat from centuries past. By the latter part of the 18th century in North America and Western Europe social movements were congealing, such that the contours of the phenomenon can be briefy summarized. A nonviolent movement is a civilianbased form of struggle that exerts social, political, economic, and cultural forms of power. It works by organizing mobilizations or campaigns that are constructed with the intentional abstention from violence, or the threat of violence, while making a conscious and group determination to fght with sustained collective actions that are nonviolent. Often called by Gandhi’s term “civil resistance,” it is enacted and expressed through a panoply of nonviolent methods, such as marches, strikes, boycotts, and vigils. It applies its unarmed power outside the standard institutionalized processes of politics. Rather than working through agencies or representatives, with nonviolent direct action the “people power” is applied to the source of the grievance.

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