Reconstructing the Peace Movement



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Guest Post by Lilian Calles Barger

Lilian Calles Barger is an independent intellectual, cultural and gender historian and frequent podcast host for New Books Network. Her book tentatively titled The World Come of Age: Religion, Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.


At the 2017 meeting of the AHA/ASCH, I presented a paper entitled “Rosemary Radford Ruether:
The ‘Megamachine’ and the Construction of an Eco-feminist Pacifism.”  Ruether is a pioneering feminist Catholic theologian and part of the vanguard of feminist theology that took shape in the 1970s. A prolific writer, her work reflects the radicalization of feminism, the new ecology, the resurgence of pacifism brought on by Vietnam, and the emergent liberation theologies. She intervened at a time when feminism’s relationship to pacifism was changing and under threat of a complete severing.

Ruether noted that the peace movement had moved away from the non-duality of virtue that had characterized nineteenth-century Christian radicalism. She summarized her ideas in a 1983 essay “Feminism and Peace” published in the Christian Century where she offered a historical foundation for what I am calling “eco-feminist pacifism.”  In the essay, she ties peace to both ecology and the liberation of women and turns to the Garrisonian tradition which called on both men and women to oppose slavery, the subordination of women and to promote peace and arbitration. Ruether noted how this radical tradition expressed no bifurcation of virtue between men and women but rather called a common humanity to peacemaking.  [1]


Subsequently, the suffrage movement of the late nineteenth century linked women to peacemaking and receptivity. To those who opposed votes for women due to physical incapacity or a feminine sensibility, the martial virtues of a self-sufficient duty bound male warrior embodied citizenship.  Even as Jane Addams offered a new basis for citizenship linking peace, feminism, and internationalism in her book The Newer Ideals of Peace (1906) suffragists continued to depend on a Victorian ideal of female virtue of sympathetic cooperation and maternalism. 

While peace groups moved away from an imperial notion of worldwide Christianity to a more inclusive humanitarian secularism, they retained a gender dualism in which women were seen as peace loving mothers counteracting masculine warring tendencies. For Ruether, this historical gender dualism “left an implied doctrine of split natures and split ethics between men and women,” and departed from the unitary vision of humanity espoused by the radical tradition. (F&P 773).

Marian Mollin demonstrates in Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Equalitarianism and Protest (2006) how male peace workers attempted a counter-argument against the idea that they had lost their manly citizenship by exhibiting a militant pacifism with a “rough and rugged style” of protest as a display of heroic manhood. Women in the radical peace movements of the post-WWII era, exhibiting risk-taking, continued to serve as support for the heroics of male members. Resistance to the draft cultivated a macho image in which women took an adoring supporting role express in the slogan “Girls say yes, to men who say no.” The gendered ideas of manly martial virtue and feminine receptivity remained at the heart of pacifism.

Meanwhile, a radicalized feminist movement began to question the connection between women and peace. The rhetoric of peace and nonviolence appeared as a tool to pacify women encountering male violence. Ruether noted how some feminists such as Florynce Kennedy, Robin Morgan, and Ti-Grace Atkinson espoused the need to oppose male violence with counter-violence launching the women’s self-defense movement.

The feminist reaction against pacifism was broad. In a 1984 issue of Off Our Backs, The Radical Feminist Organizing Committee challenged the maternalism of women in the peace movement and rejected the idea that women had a special interest in preserving life or that they were especially suited for peacemaking. Overcoming the patriarchy, they concluded, may very well involved violent confrontation. There was no essential link between women and peace. [2]

Women in the peace movement, Ruether argued, needed to find a higher synthesis between denouncing patriarchal violence and militarism and an advocacy of feminist militancy not reliant on traditional views of female virtue. Making the connection between women’s subordination and war some women felt compelled to choose between a male-dominated peace movement and feminism. Both militarism and the peace movement’s rhetoric drew from the martial virtues founded on the subordination of women. Ruether asserted, “women were the currency of male prowess, to be protected and displayed on the one hand; to be ravished and “blown away” on the other. The linking of male sexuality to aggression is the root of both patriarchy and war”(F&P 775). The future of feminist pacifism lay in overcoming the chauvinism lodged in the peace movement.

Ruether turned to Lewis Mumford’s theme of the Megamachine offered in his two-volume study The Myth of the Machine (1967-1970) as a metaphor for the hierarchal complex of technological, scientific and political power that enables the dehumanized control of society. The war of opposing Megamachines, as in nation against nation, was the means to justify its own existence. For Ruether, the underlying alienating power dynamic of the Megamachine was The subjugation of the female to male is the primary psychic model for this chauvinism and its parallel expressions in the oppressor-oppressed relationships between social classes, races and nations…” [3] War, as part of the machinery of power, thus reflected a drive to bring women into subjection.

Ruther tied the subordination of women to man’s domination of nature justified by an erroneous reading of the Genesis mandate to “subdue the earth.”  She proposed an integrated view of society, nature, man and woman understood as part of a “single socionatural covenant.”  Sexism and ecological destruction went hand in hand with the domination expressed in the Megamachine of industrial society and war. [4]

For women, the feminine values of love and sympathetic compliance in the name of peace quickly became timidity and vulnerability that acquiesced to male violence in the home and society. A feminist pacifism, Ruether contended, must be based on a fundamental rejection of “domination and subjugation” between men and women and between nations to a recognition of the interconnected of all life on earth. The radical religion of the nineteenth-century provided an alternative vision of authentic co-existence between the self and the community toward a final “peaceable kingdom.” This alternative vision,“ must be clear that we are children of one mother, the earth, part of one interdependent community of life,” (F&P, 776).

Throughout her many writings, Ruether tied her commitment to pacifism, women’s liberation and ecology together and offered a new foundation for pacifism. Writing in The National Catholic Reporter in 2002 she reiterated her thinking, “feminism is integrally linked to anti-racism, ecology and peace because all these movements have to do with changing the patterns of relationship from exploitative abuse of some by others to just and harmonious mutuality.” [5] An effective pacifism that recovered the widely egalitarian sensibility of radical religion, and went beyond opposing hot wars, required confronting the sexism that had infiltrated its heart. Ruether is one of many feminist theologians in the late twentieth century whose thought and influence remained under examined by historians.




[1] Rosemary Radford Ruether “Feminism and Peace” The Christian Century (August 31-September 7, 1983): 771-776.
[2] Radical Feminist Organizing Committee, “Obliteration is a Feminist Issue” Off Our Backs (March 1984): 16-17.
[3] Rosemary Radford Ruther, “Mother Earth and the Megamachine: A Theology of Liberation in a Feminine, Somatic, and Ecological Perspective” in Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power (New York: Paulist Press, 1972), 118.
[4] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “New Woman and New Earth: Women, Ecology and Social Revolution” in New Women New Earth: Sexist Ideologies & Human Liberation (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 186.
[5] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Feminism Must Recover its Pacifist Roots” National Catholic Reporter (December 20, 2002): 2-3.

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