Thursday, November 19, 2009

On War and the Failure of Feminism

You can point to great strides made for women in America. But in many ways time has failed to bring about the changes some of us wanted most. By "us" I mean those women who were involved in the feminist movement, in consciousness-raising groups, in NOW, embracing not just a bigger paycheck, but radical ideas. Radical. The word is derived from radix, meaning "root." A radical idea is one that upsets society by digging at its roots, or tries. An idea like equality or non-violence.

I thought about this last night as I watched a segment of the evening news about Alexis Hutchinson, a young Army soldier and mother who refused to be deployed to Afghanistan because she doesn't have anyone who can watch her baby. The Army, in a brilliant display of bureaucracy, imprisoned her. Hutchinson was slated to be a cook.

I believe that if war is ever ended, it will be by women, so I am sad whenever women have anything to do with war. It is a men's game; many of them love it fiercely. It is fueled by testoserone and ideas of winning that are not exclusive to our maniacally competitive culture. One of the attractions of Buddhism to me that it stands for acting in such a way that we increase peace and harmony in the world, which is to say, it stands for peace. And this has almost always been true throughout its long history.

I do understand that the military is for so many young people the only way out of a bleak environment. It was so for my father, who joined the Army at the end of the Great Depression and ended up in the trenches for the whole of World War II; and didn't want his son going to Vietnam. For a lot of kids like Ms. Hutchinson, who is African-American, it's a job with a paycheck, a life with saving structure.

Back in the early seventies, we feminists wanted women to have the freedom to choose work that suited them, and you can see that some of that has come to pass. NBC news, for instance, uses Dr. Nancy Snyderman to talk about health issues - wow, a woman doctor. There are more and more of them around. This woman is an expert on the national news, and not showing cleavage, either.

I have known women who chose the military. One high school girlfriend went into the Air Force. I never detected in her the slightest interest in killing people. She loved the uniform, the neatness of regulation, and pilots. Another woman, of another generation, found herself crouched down under the rockets in the Gulf War. Nothing can prepare you for that.

Back in the day we wanted women to have the right to work, and to choose all sorts of work beyond nursing, teaching, and serving as a secretary. Opening up career choice made total sense as a fundamental building block of the freedom to give your best gift to the world. But Ms. Hutchinson is just one obvious case of being forced to choose between family and career. She was not going to abandon her ten-month-old son to foster care. Because her job is in the military, the choice made the national news. Other women give up careers more quietly.

If feminism failed to see something, it was the same thing we always fail to see, can't see, in fact, and that is the outcome of what we do today. There are too many factors coming together to make the future. For this reason it seems good to be careful. I am reminded of a Basuot proverb, which came to me worded in traditional masculine gender by way of author Robert Ruark:
If a man does away with his traditional way of living and throws away his good customs, he had better first make certain that he has something of value to replace them.
The Army is backing and filling as fast as it can to figure out why nobody heard Ms. Hutchinson's plea to be kept stateside, and to relieve itself of blame. For my part, I bow to her. She has struck a blow for that wonderful thing, mother love. My own mother love extends to her, and to a deep wish that no other boy - or girl - will be lost to the insanity of war as our young friend Nicky Kim, was not long ago.

I don't have any grand ideas about what to do about war. I think about how to help my ten-year-old grandson see that it is not really exciting and triumphant at all. He's in fourth grade. He would have to become different than the other boys. I know that the ferment of the sixties and fifties has led to many different organizations working for peace. Just now I am going to settle for writing President Obama again about the war in Afghanistan, reminding him that we really don't have to keep letting our sons and daughters die in these insanely cruel ways; that he was elected to bring about change.

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