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The myth of the pacific woman

The flow of girls in particular from the safety of Britain into the war zones of the Middle East causes much hand-wringing. A report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue says one in six of foreigners going to Syria and Iraq are women or girls.

The march of women warriors into the Al-Khansaa brigade and other military groupings goes against a deep seated myth: that women as a gender are anti-war to a far greater extent than men. This remains to be demonstrated, though the notion has a long history.

One of the principal reasons in the nineteenth century for the opposition to women’s getting the vote was their presumed weak and pacific nature. A nation where women had political power would be at the mercy of more martial nations, it was said, as women would not go to war.

The supposed peace-spreading effect of the women’s ballot was also a profound belief of the suffragists themselves. It was promoted as a reason why women should have the vote, for they would end wars. Mary Stritt, president of the German Woman Suffrage Society, wrote to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in February 1918, near the end of the First World War: “When responsibility for the welfare of the people and humanity is in our hands, in the hands of the mothers, there can be no return to the horrors we have had to experience.” It was a statement markedly deficient in predictive power, as demonstrated by the history of Germany after the enfranchisement of women later that year.

The pacifism of most suffragists – or at least of their leaders – really should have been an overwhelming problem for gaining women’s suffrage once the First World War started. In fact it became a problem for the suffrage organisations, causing divisions in the US and UK movements. As soon as danger threatened, support for the war became stronger than any principles most suffragists held for pacifism. Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1917, became a supporter of the war against her previous conviction, for she had been a lifelong pacifist.

Allied women in Paris to plead for international suffrage. Underwood &Underwood, Photographer War Department. US National Archives and Records Administration. 27 February 1919. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Allied women in Paris to plead for international suffrage. Underwood & Underwood, Photographer War Department. US National Archives and Records Administration. 27 February 1919. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

War work was eagerly sought out by suffrage women who could thereby respond to the argument that women should not vote as they did not bear arms. In a modern war far more needed to be done to maintain forces in combat than bearing arms. Catt pledged that the NAWSA would stand by the government and she served on the Women’s Committee of the Council on National Defence.

On the other hand, Jeanette Rankin from Wyoming, the first woman senator, felt obliged as a strong pacifist to vote against US entry into the war, which led to suggestions that women were unpatriotic. A least she had the courage of her convictions. It is good to see a politician stand by the principles by which they have risen, and not jettison their values when it becomes challenging to hold them.

In the UK pacifism wasn’t just dropped by the women’s suffrage leaders, pacifists were purged and expunged from history. Millicent Fawcett worked to expel the “poisonous pacifists” from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies which she led. In 1915 pacifists had been in the majority on the NUWSS executive but even their names were excluded from the official history, The Cause. Emmeline Pankhurst was such an enthusiastic supporter of the war that the government that had previously imprisoned her now paid the bill for a ‘Call to Women’ demonstration organised by the suffragettes.

As time passed and women took positions of political power previously held exclusively by men, the question of women as war leaders was put to the test. It emerged that when they had the opportunity to wage war, women leaders did so with no less reservation than men. The first women leaders of nations: Sirimavo Bandaranaika of Ceylon, Golda Meir of Israel, Indira Gandhi of India, and Margaret Thatcher of Britain were not notably pacific; their governments directed the armed forces as they felt necessary. Gandhi and Thatcher were markedly decisive war leaders.

It may be that the schoolgirl jihadists are not a terrifying manifestation of a new horror of modernity, but a realisation, a long time in coming, that women are no more pacific than men, whatever their culture. Perhaps we should not be surprised, when looking at any playground: mean girls don’t get any less mean because they wear a yashmak.

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