Opinion: Basic Instinct? | Poli Psy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Opinion: Basic Instinct? 

Poli Psy

Published May 10, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.


Say the word and emotions rush forth. I'm not just talking about the love and guilt that moved 152 million Mother's Day cards off the shelves last year. As an email from Jane Williamson of Ferrisburgh's Rokeby Museum reminded me, motherhood is more than personal. It's symbolic, religious . . . and political.

"The original call for Mothers Day was as a day of peace," Williamson wrote. Its founder was the suffragist and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, who broadcast her "Proclamation for Mother's Day" in 1870.

"Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage / For caresses and applause," declared Howe. "Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn / All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. / We, the women of one country, / Will be too tender of those of another country / To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

Women's peace movements still echo these sentiments. Anti-Vietnam War women reprised the Lysistratan refusal to make love with warriors, with a more sex-positive spin: "Girls say yes to boys who say no" (to the draft). Earlier, in 1961, Women Strike for Peace assumed the mantle of child-savers in calling for a nuclear test ban. Their "Pure Milk, Not Poison" campaign publicized the radioactive element Strontium 90, which would be released by nuke tests into soil, and then grass, cows, milk and children.

This Mother's Day, Code Pink is evoking a sisterhood of mothers, beyond nation or ideology, whose breasts beat as one in resistance to violence. The Pinks are writing letters to Laura Bush, "to appeal to her own mother-heart" to ask Hubby to bring the troops home from Iraq.


If your response to Code Pink's tactic is, As if, you have located the crack in the theory that women have a special instinct, and therefore a special responsibility, for peacemaking.

Back in Howe's Day, this idea was unproblematic. Everyone, including women, considered the two sexes to be different species. A female body, they thought, rendered every woman naturally nurturing and home-loving: potentially a peacemaker.

Modern feminism, or one strain thereof, smashed that assumption. This strain -- cultural critic Kate Stimpson called us the "minimizers" of gender -- insist that men and women are more alike than different, and biology isn't destiny. If woman is not born but made, then woman and man can be remade, by history.

On the other side of the divide are the "maximizers," who argue that women are essentially, and extensively, different from men. What to do with the difference? Reclaim it from denigration, celebrate and use it in activism, art, spirituality or sex, often separate from men.

Now, minimizers know, too, that women's social position does make us different. With rare exceptions, such as Condi Rice, we're barred from the rooms in which foreign policies are crafted and wars prosecuted. Meanwhile, we're stuck with all things domestic, from laundry to education. You don't have to be a fan of wymmin's music festivals to want to promote the homely values that are trampled at the front lines. Besides, there's fine antiwar imagery to be found around the house: In 1981, women protesting the installation of U.S. cruise missiles at England's Greenham Common disabled a military vehicle by sticking a potato in its tailpipe.

You can also reject the idea that having a womb makes you peaceful -- or assigns you the job of peacemaker -- while recognizing that doing motherhood may teach peacemaking skills. The feminist Sarah Ruddick argued that mothers' daily resistance to hurting the small, powerless and often annoying creatures in their care constitutes a practice of nonviolence. Mom could teach the U.N. a thing or two, Ruddick suggested.


Julia Howe's "The Proclamation for Mother's Day" may seem a curious emanation from the pen that produced "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" only eight years earlier. With its "fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel," its "Hero, born of woman, crush[ing] the serpent with his heel," and the rest, the Hymn is hardly "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

But Howe's life was long; she joined nearly every monumental political struggle of America's 19th century. The wife of a man who may have helped finance John Brown's insurrection, she wrote the Hymn to embolden Union soldiers to "die to make men free." Then, surveying the post-war devastation, she disavowed violence as a political solution.

In the 1890s, Howe abandoned pacifism to support the Armenians, who were being slaughtered by the Turks. She died in 1910. Perhaps World War I would have changed her heart again, as that imperialist bloodbath birthed a new internationalist pacifism.

Howe, incidentally, had six children. Motherhood made her neither belligerent nor pacific. Or maybe it made her both.

Other cultures embrace this contradiction. Kali, the Hindu mother goddess, is both life-giver and destroyer; she wears a necklace of skulls on her blood-smeared breasts. The Aztec Earth goddess Coatlicue, about to be slain by her progeny, popped another son from her womb to whack his wicked siblings. Cybele, the incestuous Greek deification of Mother Earth, had an all-male cult that culminated its rituals of dancing, drumming and sword-clanging with self-castration, cross-dressing and the assumption of female identities.

I leave you to deconstruct that last one. But if Cybele's pagan trannies were trying to get into a peace group, they needn't have removed their testicles at the door. Men, said Ruddick, can "mother," and end wars, too.

So let's find another date for Julia Howe's day of peacemaking. After all, isn't Mother's Day supposed to mean less work for mother?

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. She was also the author of "Poli Psy," a column that appeared in Seven Days from 2005-2016.


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