Women are marching, but would they lead us to nuclear war?
By Linda Pentz Gunter
There is a widely held view that men have generally screwed up the planet with their wars and imperialism and their corporate malfeasance. Men, it is argued, should step aside and let women run the world. It is, frankly, self-evident, and it’s a view I have articulated myself more than once.
US senator, Elizabeth Warren, is making the case right now that a woman is not only more than capable — but actually ideal — as the next president of the United States. The squabble over whether or not Bernie Sanders told her differently only serves to accentuate that, appallingly, we are still, in the 21st century US, having this debate.
But declaring that it’s our turn to run things and men should step aside is also, I suspect, too simplistic an answer. It is good people who should run the world, not one gender over another. (I welcome the discussion — and dissent — this may provoke. And even as I write this, I am not convinced there is one right answer.)
Indeed, while women may be generally more nurturing and less aggressive than men, we don’t always get it right.
There are plenty of stories currently flying around about the implosion of the Women’s March as an organization. Its founding leadership made a series of questionable decisions, including issuing policy decrees and attempting to trademark the name, all of which alienated its base.
The leadership also drew widespread protest — and prompted an exodus of Jewish supporters — when it was slow to distance itself from Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and whose rally a Women’s March co-chair had attended.
Nevertheless, many of us — men and women — marched again on January 18, because President Trump is an insult not only to the rights of women but of humanity.
However, many progressive women preferred the candidacy of Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton during the previous presidential race. This was not inverse sexism — goodness knows we women desperately wanted a woman president! But we saw Clinton as dangerously hawkish. We did not trust her to choose nurture over nuclear war.
Indeed, sometimes we simply aren’t the gentler sex. For example, I would rather have Pope Francis making decisions than Margaret Thatcher.
It is reasonable to challenge — and attempt to overturn — as Lilly Adams recently advocated on these pages, the stranglehold men have on decision-making, especially in arenas traditionally held as “male” territory. This includes the “macho” world of war making. But again, it is Sanders who has positioned himself among current frontrunners in the race to challenge President Trump next November, as the candidate most strongly opposed to “endless war” and he has the voting record to prove it.
In February 2008 I attended a conference at Yale University entitled “Nuclear Weapons — The Greatest Peril to Civilization: A Conference To Imagine Our World Without Them.” The meeting was far more policy-driven than imaginative and all the speakers, bar one, were men. In fact, there were only two women in the room at all— Rebecca Johnson of the UK’s Acronym Institute, who presented — and me.
At some point I raised the question to the group as to why this was. I don’t now recall all the answers, but I remember one theory advanced as to why some women — like Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir — did rise to national leadership roles. To achieve that level of power, they had to foreswear their feminine side and become, in the words of Dr. Henry Higgins, “more like a man.” And therefore, like men, they led their countries into wars. Indeed, Former Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, labeled Meir “the best man in the government”. Thatcher, Gandhi and Meir were all at times referred to as the “Iron Lady.”
Perhaps it is not only the need for more women in positions of power that would change things. It’s also about changing the dynamic of what that power means and how we view leadership. If being “tough enough” to push the nuclear button — a question asked of the women presently contending for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party— is a criterion, then we won’t change anything by electing women to positions of power.
I thought Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s flat out rejection of the nuclear button was far “tougher,” the stance of a genuine leader with real moral courage. “It’s absurd that a willingness to kill millions is now seen as a virility test for leadership, and I want no part,” she said.
Changing the understanding of power and leadership is of course a far harder task than re-setting the gender balance, although certainly in our anti-nuclear world this still needs improvement, even as progress is made. But we must also upset the balance of qualities and values, as Sturgeon was making the case for in her article. We have to make empathy, love, humanitarianism, even diplomacy, equate to strength; war, aggression and hatred tantamount to weakness and cowardice.
Under these circumstances, the assets women bring will propel us more easily into positions of influence and leadership without the need to renounce them.
I think, however, that we will still always need at least “a few good men.” I was disappointed when, during the closing session of the June 2017 World Anti-Nuclear Social Forum in Paris, women from the audience invaded the stage to denounce the conference and its choice of an all male panel to close it. These latter sat pinned on the stage, enduring the raised fists and the pillorying.
The gender imbalance was indeed a mistake. But there were women on the planning committee who had helped to pick the panel. It was poor decision-making, borne no doubt of old, bad habit. It was wrong. But how it was handled felt worse. When we are on the same side, then we all have to emerge from that paradigm. Together.
Yes, the anti-nuclear movement — as many others — does need to move on from its hegemony of old, white men. ICAN has done this effectively. But that organization still honors its founders, all men. And a third of its current staff are white men. We need all voices, all genders, all ages and ethnicities. We are not there yet.
In many ancient cultures, the elders of a community are respected for their wisdom, traditional knowledge and experience. Nelson Mandela himself founded The Elders, “an independent group of global leaders working together for peace, justice and human rights.” In the anti-nuclear movement, many of our elder statesmen are more than are happy to pass the torch, to women, to younger people, to people of color. We just need to grasp it politely, not grab it from their hands and consign them to the trash heap.
Headline photo by Talya Adams for Shutterstock.