Peacebuilders Need the Concept of “the Militarist-Sexist Symbiosis” to Change the Militarized Security System

Editors’ Introduction.  The entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons this week, the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 this month, and the 75th anniversary of the UN established to “end the scourge of war” this year are all reminders of one of the ultimate purposes of peace learning: the abolition of war. Yuuka Kageyama’s essay on the “sexist-militarist symbiosis” presents some ideas about what is to be learned to achieve that purpose.

By Yuuka Kageyama, Ph.D. Student, Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan

“Those of us who developed and lobbied for the adoption UNSCR1325 believed at the time that we were lobbying not only for women’s full and equal participation in peace and security policy making but, for the ultimate substitution of war with a non-violent security system”[1]

On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the publication of Sexism and the War System, and the 20th anniversary of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, an outcome of women’s struggles for peace, I think it appropriate to discuss the significance and relevance of Betty Reardon’s concept of “the militarist-sexist symbiosis,” in confronting the peace problematique as we experience it today.

I find the most distinctive feature of her work is its systemic perspective on war and the symbiotic relations between militarism and sexism. The term, “the militarist-sexist symbiosis” first appears in her monograph, Sexism and the War System (Teachers College Press, 1985.) In her monograph, Reardon uses the framework of “the war system,” viewing war as a continuum of violence based on a presumption of inequality among human beings and the legitimation of coercive force as a tool of state, exerting extensive influence over most aspects of politics, economics, society and human relations.[2] She conceptualizes the war system, as upheld by a symbiotic relationship between militarism and sexism. Militarism assumes that military force is necessary for protection from enemies and the maintenance of order. It reinforces dominance and submission in human relations, male dominance and female subordination. Sexism based on disdain for women or feminine characteristics strengthens the predominance of masculine and militaristic values in the social order. In addition to the structural interplay of militarism and sexism, Reardon explains their common emotional roots in misogyny and the fear of “being defenseless in the face of an attacker or an antagonist.”[3] She further identifies both militarism and sexism as twin manifestations of patriarchy, the conceptual structure and worldviews of male-dominant hierarchical human relations.[4] Accordingly, through the mutual reinforcement of patriarchy and the war system, coercive force for social and political purposes is legitimized. Patriarchy assigns unequal gender roles that perpetuate war and oppression of women. This observation of the interplay of militarism and sexism in social structures and interpersonal relations leads to the assertion that the elimination of one depends on elimination of the other, that is to approaching the two simultaneously.[5] She further argues that the war system pervades all psychological and social aspects of our lives, our socialization, and our learning. She asserts that the transformation of the war system is possible through learning toward changes in social and political institutions and interpersonal relations.[6]

Having participated in such feminist peace movements as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the International Women’s Network Against Militarism (IWNAM) myself, I have met many feminist peace activists who address issues of violence against women committed by the military. These activists argue that people’s lives are not protected by the militarized national security. I have observed that their activities challenging militarized security system derive from their own empirical analyses that place great importance on the experiences of those whose lives were made insecure by the military or by our notions and policies of security that prioritize militaristic values.

Although international society perceives violence against women in armed conflict as a critical peace issue, the core problem raised by feminist peace activists and scholars has yet to be fully recognized; “violence against women is not incidental and avoidable in armed conflict, but intentional and integral to war itself.”[7] Neither is military violence against women in “peace time” sufficiently addressed either by the UN or member states.[8] Women’s participation in the military is sometimes encouraged, rather than questioning militarism itself. This situation made me feel the need of elaborating Reardon’s concept of “the militarist-sexist symbiosis.” Her concept provides vital grounds for systemic understanding of the war system, as well as for development of strategies to abolish armed conflict and eliminate the war system as the most effective way to end military violence against women.[9]

Over 40 years of her work on gender and peace, Reardon’s gender analysis of the war system has developed to make various forms of violence in our global patriarchal order recognizable so as to be diagnosed and transformed. The figure below summarizes three evolutional stages of Reardon’s approach to issues of gender and peace, which can be categorized in three stages: “world order normative approach”[10]; “reciprocal causation approach”[11]; and “holistic and systemic approach.”[12]

Overview of Betty Reardon’s three evolutional stages of approaches to issues of gender and peace

Throughout Reardon’s comprehensive analysis of the war system and patriarchy, I found four key common threads of thought that characterize her feminist perspective of peace: holism, feminism, futurism, and learning.

First, Reardon’s perspective on the issues of peace is based on holism, the way to see the world as a single system sharing a common future, where all people are interdependent and interconnected and have innate and equal dignity to be respected regardless of their differences.[13] She argues that, “a web of human relationships… is a reminder of the fundamentally organic nature of most processes of viable change, wrought by the people by themselves, derived from their lived experience of the harms they seek to overcome.”[14] Accordingly, the antithesis to the world based on this notion of holism is patriarchy and the militarized security system, where one’s own values and interests are pursued at the expense of others.

The second element is feminism, which according to Reardon, espouses “the belief that men and women, though different, are equal in value, that feminine, as well as masculine values, must receive equal weight” [15] as an instrument to achieve equality of all. The equality of men and women requires a change of “sexist social structures as well as discriminatory behavior and the systems that uphold them.”[16] Feminism calls for the full and equitable integration of women into all spheres of human activity to achieve such change and to abolish the war system.[17] In this way, feminism is profoundly transformational, seeking fundamental changes in thought and human relationships, as well as, in structures and systems.[18]

Third, Reardon’s belief in the possibility of imagining and actualizing a more peaceful world is based on futurism, “a set of values that underlines the belief that the human family can achieve a preferred future.”[19] The achievement of a preferred world requires “system change”, drastic changes in both the global system and in interpersonal relations.

Forth, Reardon puts great importance on a continuous learning process in actualizing such a world where dignity and wellbeing of all people are respected and enhanced.[20] She maintains that the maturity of peace system “would be indicated by continuous reflection on and challenge to its rules and structures and by its capacity to change in response to new conditions leading to new stages of human maturation.”[21] While she admits that even what she calls a preferred future will produce its own problems, she emphasizes our capacity to learn further “to solve problems and achieve changes that do not invoke violence or denial of human dignity.”[22]

These four key elements of holism, feminism, futurism and learning seem to support each other, and are integral each to all in Reardon’s critical inquiry into issues of peace, as well as, the development and praxis of concrete strategies for the transformation the war system and patriarchy.

In light of these key elements, the significance and relevance of the militarism-sexism symbiosis concept in confronting the peace problematique we face today is in its systemic approach to analyzing the interconnectedness of the causes and processes of various forms of violence in the war system as a whole. The concept invites global citizens to critically inquire into the harm brought by patriarchy, through our thinking, our interpersonal relationships and our social structures. By demonstrating that patriarchy infuses the militarized security system, and gives rise to various forms of violence, including oppression based on race, class and gender. Equally important is that her development of a holistic perspective on the “peace problematique,”[23] as a set of interrelated problems also helps to connect various strategies, methods and actions derived from specific issues, to bring together multiple global movements to transform the patriarchal gender order, sustained by the militarized security system into a system of non-violence and peace.

In celebrating such a landmark achievement as UNSCR 1325 which recognizes the significance of women’s full participation in peace and security as a means to reduce military violence against women, we might now take another step forward in acknowledging the need of system change; and through our continuous inquiry into the complexities of the patriarchal war system, and in the development of comprehensive strategies for transformation of the whole system. Reardon’s concept of “the militarist-sexist symbiosis” invites all potential peacebuilders to practice daily learning, research and policy making in our own communities toward the demilitarization of the global security system and ending the global patriarchal order.[24] Such practice would be a continuous process of learning and becoming a world of respecting dignity and enhancing wellbeing of all people.[25]

Notes & References

[1] Betty A. Reardon and Dale T. Snauwaert,. Betty A. Reardon: Key Texts in Gender and Peace (NY: Springer. 2015), 131.

[2] Betty A. Reardon, Sexism and the War System (NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 10,11

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 2:5:57. On patriarchy, see also 15:37-38.

[5] Ibid., 1-2:36.

[6] Ibid., 1:5-6. The transformation of the war system is extensively discussed in chap.5, 83-97.

See also Betty A. Reardon. “Toward a Paradigm of Peace” in Betty A. Reardon and Dale T. Snauwaert, Betty A. Reardon: A Pioneer in Education for Peace and Human Rights (NY: Springer. 2014), 113.

[7] Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 131.

[8] Kozue Akibayashi, “War Time Violence and Women: ‘Long-Term Military Station and Sexual Violence’ and Northeast Asia.” Kenpou kenkyu no.3 (2018): 94.

[9] Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 110.

Reardon emphasizes that in militarized security, violence against women occurs both in “peace time” as well as during armed conflict. See also Reardon, “Gender and Global Security: A Feminist Challenges to the United Nations and Peace Research.” Journal of International Cooperation Studies 6, no.1 (1998):54-55.

See also Suzuyo Takazato. “Report from Okinawa: Long-Term U.S. Military Presence and Violence Against Women.” Canadian Woman Studies 19, no. 4 (2000): 42. See also Betty A. Reardon “A Statement on Military Violence Against Women” in Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 129-139.

[10] Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 5. See also Reardon, “Women’s Movements and Human Futures” in Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts 15-16.

[11] Reardon, Sexism and the War System, 1:36. See also, Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 111.

[12] Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 88-89: 110-111.

[13] Reardon, Women and Peace, 5:25-6. See also Betty A. Reardon. Educating for human dignity: learning about rights and responsibilities (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 1-7.

[14] Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 145.

[15] Betty A. Reardon, “Moving to the Future” In Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 23.

[16] Reardon, “Gender and Global Security,” 34.

[17] Reardon, Sexism and the War System, 25-26.

[18] Reardon “Moving to the Future” In Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 23.

[19] Ibid., 22.

[20] Betty A. Reardon, “Toward a Paradigm of Peace” in Reardon and Snauwaert, A Pioneer in Education, 116-120.

[21] Reardon, Sexism and the War System, 97.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Reardon and Snauwaert, A Pioneer in Education, 108.

[24] Betty A. Reardon, “Women and Human Security: A Feminist Framework and Critique of the Prevailing Patriarchal Security System” in Betty A. Reardon, and Asha Hans, eds., The Gender Imperative: Human Security vs. State Security (New Delhi, India: Routledge, 2010), 33.

See also Reardon, “A Statement on Military Violence Against Women” in Reardon and Snauwaert, Key Texts, 138.: Reardon, “Gender and Global Security,” 55.

[25] Betty A. Reardon, “Toward a Paradigm of Peace” in Reardon and Snauwaert, A Pioneer in Education, 116-120: Reardon, Sexism and the war system, 97.


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