Nonviolent Movements: Addressing Women’s Rights

The uplift of women and their increased participation in public policy is now widely viewed as fundamental to expanding economic growth, improving health status, reducing poverty, sustaining the environment, and consolidating democracy in societies long bowed to authoritarianism and tyranny.1

March is Women’s History Month, an annual declared month worldwide that highlights contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.

One short piece that is quite timely in terms of the nonviolent revolutions we’re witnessing in the Arab world and beyond was drafted in the 1960’s during the U.S. civil rights movement. It is a “rationale memo” written by two civil rights activists and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Both white, the authors, Mary Elizabeth King and Casey Hayden, raised their concerns on why it was important to highlight women’s issues as part of the movement’s strategy, and why opening up dialogue about women’s rights was important.

Such ideas and comments are illustrative of conversations that are likely taking place right now in nonviolent movements around the world, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, as women struggle to be recognized and have their issues addressed.

As we contemplate engaging in the post-revolution phases of some of the  countries that are currently experiencing democratic transition, the views and roles of women should be at the forefront of our planning.

Sex and Caste – A Kind of Memo
by Casey Hayden and Mary King

November 18, 1965

We’ve talked a lot, to each other and to some of you, about our own and other women’s problems in trying to live in our personal lives and in our work as independent and creative people. In these conversations we’ve found what seems to be recurrent ideas or themes. Maybe we can look at these things many of us perceive, often as a result of insights learned from the movement: Sex and Caste: There seems to be many parallels that can be drawn between treatment of Negroes and treatment of women in our society as a whole. But in particular, women we’ve talked to who work in the movement seem to be caught up in a common-law caste system that operates, sometimes subtly, forcing them to work around or outside hierarchical structures of power which may exclude them. Women seem to be places in the same position of assumed subordination in personal situations too. It is a caste system, which, at its worst, uses and exploits women. This is complicated by several facts, among them:

1) The caste system is not institutionalized by law (women have the right to vote, to sue for divorce, etc.);
2) Women can’t withdraw from the situation (a la nationalism) or overthrow it;
3) There are biological differences (even though those biological differences are usually discussed or accepted without taking present and future technology into account so we probably can’t be sure what these differences mean). Many people who are very hip to the implications of the racial caste system, and if the question is raised they respond with: “That’s the way it supposed to be. There are biological differences.” Or with other statements which recall a white segregationist confronted with integration.

Women and problems of work;

The caste-system perspective dictates the roles assigned to women in the movement and certainly even more to women outside the movement.

Within the movement, questions arise in situations ranging from relationships of women organizers to men in the community, to who cleans the freedom house, to who holds leadership positions, to who does secretarial work, and who acts as spokesman for groups. Other problems arise between women with varying degrees of awareness of themselves as being as capable as men but held back from full participation, or between women who see themselves as needing more control of their work than other women demand. And there are problems with relationships between white women and black women.

Women and personal relationships with men:

Having learn from the movement to think radically about the personal worth and abilities of people whose role in society had gone unchallenged before, a lot of women in the movement have begun trying to apply those lessons of their own relations with men.

Each of us probably has her own story of the various results, and of the internal struggle occasioned by trying to break out of very deeply learned fears, needs, and self-perceptions, and of what happens when we try to replace them with concepts of people and freedom learned from the movement and organizing.

Institutions: Nearly everyone has real question about those institutions which shape perspectives on men and women: marriage, child-rearing patterns, women’s (and men’s) magazines (etc.) People are beginning to think about and even to experiment with new forms in these areas.

Men’s reactions to the questions raised here: A very few men seem to feel, when they hear conversations involving these problems, that they have a right to be present and participate in them, since they are so deeply involved. At the same time, very few men can respond non-defensively, since the whole idea is either beyond their comprehension or threatens and exposes them. The usual response is laughter. The inability to see the whole issue as serious, as the strait-jacketing of both sexes, and as societally determined often shapes our own response so that we learn to think in their terms about ourselves and to feel silly rather than truth our own inner feelings. The problems we’re listing here, and what others have said about them, are therefore largely drawn from conversations among women only – and that difficulty in establishing dialogue with men is a recurring theme among people we’ve talked to.

Lack of communication for discussion: Nobody is writing or organizing or talking publicly about women, in any way that reflects the problems that various women in the movement came across and which we’ve tried to touch above. Consider this quote from an article in the centennial issue of The Nation:

. . . . However equally we consider men and women, the work plans for husbands and wives cannot be given equal weight. A woman should not aim for a “second-level career” because she is a woman; from girlhood on she should recognize that, if she is also going to be a wife and mother, she will not be able to give as much to her work as she would if single. That is, she should not feel that she cannot aspire to directing the laboratory simply because she is a woman, but rather because she is a wife and mother; as such, her work as a lab technician (or the equivalent in another field) should bring both satisfaction and the knowledge that, through it, she is fulfilling an additional role, making an additional contribution . . . .

And that’s about as deep as the analysis goes publicly, which is not nearly as deep as we’ve heard many of you go in chance conversations.

The reason we want to try to open up dialogue is mostly subjective. Working in the movement often intensifies personal problems, especially if we start trying to apply things we’re learning there to our personal lives. Perhaps we can start to talk with each other so we can deal with ourselves and others with integrity and can therefore keep working. Objectively, the chances seem nil that we could start a movement based on anything as distant to general American thought as a sex-caste system. Therefore, most of us will probably want to work full-time on the problems such as was, poverty, race. The very fact that the country can’t face, much less deal with, the questions we’re raising means that the movement is one place to look for some relief. Real efforts at dialogue within the movement and with whatever liberal groups, community women, or students listen are justified. That is, all the problems of women functioning in society as equal human beings are among the most basic that people face. We’ve talked in the movement about trying to build a society which would see basic human problems (which are now seen as private troubles), as public problems and would try to shape the institutions to meet human needs rather than shaping people to meet the needs of those with power. To raise questions like those above illustrates very directly that society hasn’t dealt with some of its deepest problems and opens discussion of why that is so. (In one sense, it is a radicalizing question that can take people beyond legalistic solutions into areas of personal and institutional change.)

The second objective reason we’d like to see discussion begin is that we’ve learned a great deal in the movement and perhaps this is one area where a determined attempt to apply ideas we’ve learned there can produce some new alternatives.

1.  Mary E. King, “What Difference Does It Make? Gender as a Tool in Building Peace,” in Gender and Peace Building in Africa, ed. Dina Rodriguez and Edith Natukunda-Togboa (Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica: University for Peace, 2005).

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