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Guerrilla woolfare

As knitter-activists plan to stretch a seven‑mile scarf between two atomic weapons plants, Cynthia Cockburn considers how women worldwide bring feminism to the fight against militarism

July 15, 2014
7 min read

wool-protestCampaigners with a peace scarf on a previous protest

When Trident Ploughshares organised its big blockade of the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment on a winter’s day in early 2010, the plan was to close every gate to inward traffic. Different groups blockaded the various gates: faith groups securing the Tadley gate, students the Falcon gate, Scots the Boilerhouse gate, cyclists the North gate, and women the Home Office gate. In the reports assembled afterwards only one categorisation was remarked on as being a ‘problem’ on account of its ‘exclusivity’: the women’s gate. The critic was, as it happens, a woman.

An assumption behind organising blockades in this way is that each group, to some degree, shares an interest, an affinity that could contribute to effectiveness and enjoyment in anti-militarist action. Is that true of women? The existence of many women-only anti-war organisations in the UK and internationally – including Women in Black against War, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the local Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp – suggests that it is.

In a succession of action-research projects into feminist anti-militarism between 1995 and now, my work has taken me to Japan, South Korea, India, Sierra Leone, Colombia, the US and other countries, where I’ve had the opportunity to carry out in-depth interviews with women activists in scores of women’s anti-war groups. I’ve repeatedly asked the questions: ‘Why women?’ ‘Why withdraw from mixed actions?’ The answers I’ve received suggested three reasons.

First, many women had had the experience of feeling silenced in mixed groups, where men spoke more readily and paid each other more attention. They favoured a women-only group as a space in which it was less of a struggle to play a full part.

Second, some valued the ability, in making decisions among women, to choose actions with which they felt entirely comfortable. Nonviolence and non-provocation were particularly important to them.

A feminist take on war

There was a third reason women in many countries gave me for women-only peace activism: their feminism led them to a distinctive gendered analysis of war that they wished to express in their actions. They viewed war not as an isolated phenomenon but as part of a continuum of violence, stretching from a slap of a hand through sexual assault, gang fights, inter-communal conflict, nationalist aggression and outright war between militarised states and alliances of states. They see a thread of gender power relations running through this continuum, from the interpersonal to the transnational. It seems more women than men perceive violence this way because they are particularly subject to interpersonal violence from men, in times of peace as of war.

Some years ago, I spent time with a group of remarkable women who call themselves the East Asia-US-Puerto Rico Women’s Network against Militarism. They taught me a lot about this.

Women of the Philippines, of Okinawa, of South Korea experience first-hand the damaging effects of US military force in the Pacific. They view ‘everyday’ violence against women by local men, rape by occupying soldiers and the harassment of entire communities by military bases and weaponry as a gender violence continuum. They see the prevailing construction of masculine gender identity, shaped and endorsed by societies, as its legitimation. Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, members of the Network, wrote, ‘We need a redefinition of masculinity, strength, power and adventure; an end to war toys and the glorification of war and warriors.’

Back at Aldermaston in 2010, gendered analysis of war was visibly the reason for a women-only gate at the Trident Ploughshares blockade. One banner evoked the gender-violence continuum. It read ‘No fists! No knives! No guns! No bombs! No to all violence.’ Other placards drew a link between militarism and violence by men. One read, ‘Security for women? Disarm masculinity. Disarm militaries.’ Another called for the diversion of public expenditure from Trident nuclear weapons to rape crisis centres.

On the face of it, a logical response to this perception of violence as gendered would be not to organise as women‑only, but rather to organise as men and women side by side, both groups making the same case. The difficulty is, few anti-militarist men share this analysis. Or, if some men do so (and some men in academia have indeed written and published to this effect), few actually work with each other to take responsibility for its implications, to develop it into a political movement, and express it explicitly through activism against violence in all its forms.

We have to wait awhile yet to see a gate at an Aldermaston blockade organised by men displaying comparable messages to those at the women’s gate – that is to say making explicit the connections between sexual violence in peace and war, and furthermore refusing standard-issue masculinity, and remodelling it in transgressive form.

Wool Against Weapons

On 9 August this year, Nagasaki day, a very different action is planned against the atomic weapons factory in Berkshire. Two years ago, some months after the Aldermaston blockade, Angie Zelter, the initiator of the current anti-nuclear programme Action AWE, happened upon Jaine Rose, who sat knitting while contributing to the blockade of Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset. They came up with Wool Against Weapons.

Using social media, they would mobilise knitters to generate more than 11,000 rectangles of knitting, one metre long by 60 centimetres wide, to stretch the seven miles between the AWE bases at Aldermaston and Burghfield. The knitting could be any colour as long as it was pink.

Production has gone on apace, needles clicking up and down the country. Now the ribbon is being assembled, sewn together in 40 metre lengths and wound on pinwheels. The organisers are hoping to gather thousands of demonstrators on 9 August to hold this ultra-long, positively pink scarf between the bases to attract media attention to the public’s rejection of the government’s plan to renew the UK’s nuclear arsenal. The fabric will be reassembled afterwards as blankets for war refugees.

Wool Against Weapons, it seems to me, poses some interesting questions around gender. Women at the Greenham Common women’s peace camp in the 1980s and elsewhere commonly used a ‘weaver and web’ trope in actions, and employed yarn in humorous but provocative mode to wrap up, tie up, impede and otherwise make life difficult for those attempting to preserve security at nuclear and military bases. More recently there has been a presence of women who define themselves as grannies knitting at AWE West gate under a banner that states, ‘We are witness to your war crimes.’ A spokeswoman says: ‘Women knitting while witnessing macabre and sinister happenings were made famous by Les Tricoteuses, the women who sat by the guillotine knitting while they watched the victims of the French Revolution being beheaded.’

The political meaning of this August’s wool action clearly pits ‘care’ against ‘weapons’. The notion of care as deployed in the women’s peace movement is transitioning (as it has been for decades) from an individual and feminine burden – the caring woman – to a collective and political aspiration, a caring society. The colour pink has been transitioning too, from girlish to queer. By implied contrast, weapons are stuck in the masculine.

Nobody can say Wool Against Weapons is ‘exclusive’ of men. People of any gender, adults and children alike, are welcome to become bearers of the knitting, united as activists in ‘guerrilla woolfare’. It will be a delight and a reassurance to see, as I hope, many men rising to this occasion, plying their needles, and transgressively embracing the feminine. By contributing their knitting, relishing pinkness and valorising care, they will be rewriting the masculine script.

Cynthia Cockburn’s research referred to here has been published in From Where We Stand: Women’s Activism, War and Feminist Analysis (Zed Books, 2007) and Antimilitarism: Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). www.cynthiacockburn.org

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