Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Understanding Antiwar Activism as a Gendering Activity: A Look at the U.S.'S Anti-Vietnam War Movement

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Understanding Antiwar Activism as a Gendering Activity: A Look at the U.S.'S Anti-Vietnam War Movement

Article excerpt


Research into the gendered nature of war experiences has provided rich ways of understanding how gender constructs society and the nation. Scholarship on peace activism and gender has deepened our knowledge of women's roles within warring societies and the ways women have understood themselves as promoters of peace. While much of this research asks how antiwar activities and war are predicated upon dominant gender ideals and focuses in particular on women's experiences, this article aims to explore how some wartime events, specifically antiwar activism, constitutes or reconstitutes gender. Focusing on the United States' anti-Vietnam War history, I examine how activists cemented, challenged and made anew notions of femininity and masculinity within and through this antiwar arena. I argue that both women and men activists created opportunities within the anti-Vietnam War movement to reconceptualise links between war and gender. Though feminist scholars have elucidated the splits that occurred amongst these women activists, this article seeks to situate these divisions within contested understandings of femininity, as well as to extend scholarly exploration into competing notions of antiwar masculinities.

Keywords: anti-Vietnam War movement, masculinity, femininity


That war constitutes a gendered and gendering experience is a theme that scholars from a range of disciplines have developed. It is taken for granted that war generally provides a dichotomous experience in relation to gender: men fight the wars, while women remain 'at home' to be 'protected' by the men. A variation on this basic notion that has garnered extensive research holds that while men make war women make peace (Yuval-Davis, 1997; York, 2004). Scholars Conover and Sapiro (1993) have shown that many female populations support war less than their male counterparts, and these scholars engage in the robust debate that attempts to explain this dynamic. Two key strands in this debate regard, in the first place, the degree to which women's essential or constructed femininity affect their collective propensity towards peace and, in the second instance, the place of motherhood in women's notions of peace (York, 2004; Conover and Sapiro, 1993).

Indeed, much of the scholarship on the intersection of gender, war and investigates how women have conceptualised their place as women or mothers in peace-making efforts. As a former activist in the organisation Women Strike for Peace, about which she has written extensively, Swerdlow (1993) has historicised this women's antiwar organisation of the 1960s United States. She argues that the women active in this organisation 'built on the postwar cultural construction of motherhood to organize a militant female opposition to the draft for Vietnam' (1992, p. 159). Ruddick's work (1989), which draws connections between 'maternal thinking' and peace, has drawn much attention. Historians (Gilbert, 1983; Cock, 1991) looking into questions of gender and peace find much from which to draw theories of women's pacifism in works like South African author Olive Schreiner's 1911 writing, Women and Labour, wherein Schreiner explains that, as mothers or potential mothers, women are essentially peaceful and abhor war: '[O]n this point, and on this point almost alone, the knowledge of woman, simply as woman, is superior to that of man; she knows the history of human flesh; she knows its cost; he does not' (p. 173).

In this essay, I offer a different way of thinking through antiwar activism and gender. I am interested in uncovering ways in which war experiences shift through changing gendered relations. I follow Scott's counsel to ask questions that divulge more than 'the impact of events on women' in wartime by interrogating 'the process of politics ... and the meanings of social experiences' that arise through men's and women's wartime experiences (Scott 1987, p. 25). …

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