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By Ellen Elster and Majken Jul Sørensen, War Resisters' International

Why this Anthology

Many women have been active in peace work, both in women-only groups and in mixed movements. There are still many stories to be told about their experiences. Very little, if any at all, attention has been given to the women who have become conscientious objectors as a protest against militarism in both wartime and peacetime, in many different places in the world. War Resisters’ International (WRI) decided to publish this book in order to give the women who declare themselves conscientious objectors a voice. Most of the texts in this book are written by women who have made a public declaration of conscientious objection or otherwise supported male conscientious objectors. “Public” should here be understood in a broad sense including statements made in courts, and letters to the authorities. Although the book can be read as a contribution to the debate on conscription for women, we would like to stress that it is a book about conscientious objection as resistance to militarism, not about resistance to conscription itself.

Most of the articles in this volume have been written especially for this book. A few of the contributions have been published before in the WRI publication The Broken Rifle or in other peace movement magazines — this is particularly the case for declarations and for material about the past. We have not tried to highlight all the cases of women’s conscientious objection in wartime. What we have tried to offer is an anthology which can illustrate the diversity among women conscientious objectors as to time (wartime or peacetime) and geography. WRI saw a need to collect these stories in order to show the span that these women cover in their working methods, their reasons for becoming conscientious objectors, and the challenges they face. This representation is yet another way of campaigning against militarism.
Some of the contributors were actually facing conscription; others had joined the military “voluntarily” and then developed their conscientious objection during military service. We also have a contribution from Korea reflecting on the role women have played in the movement for conscientious objection there without making any declarations themselves.

Through the years much has been written about women’s actions and campaigns for peace and against war and militarism. In modern times, the birth of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, when women from different parts of the world met in The Hague in 1915 to protest against the war and to find ways out of it [1], is a powerful showing of women’s strength against militarism. The experiences of women who faced military service directly through conscription during World War II have been less documented. With the women’s liberation movement from the beginning of the 1970s, much literature has appeared on women, militarism and feminism, women and war, victimisation of women during wars, women as soldiers. The years from 1970 to 1980 explored women’s actions against militarism [2], including marches, organisations such as Women for Peace, women’s peace camps of which Greenham Common was only one among many, creative nonviolent actions like the Women’s Pentagon Action, and Shibokusa women of Kita Fuji.

Towards the end of 1980 women expanded their actions by crossing the border and shaking hands with their sisters on the other side. Women in Black [3] appeared for the first time in December 1988 in Jerusalem as vigils consisting of Israeli and Palestinian women proclaimed the message of “ending occupation”. The idea was picked up by Italian feminists, who again inspired women in Belgrade in the early 1990's, where women gathered in silent protest every Wednesday against the war then being conducted and actively reached out to women in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. The idea spread worldwide. Through the network in the WRI, we see that women opposing militarism outside of Western Europe and North and South America have a more holistic approach to antimilitarism, and also include social empowerment and resistance to poverty and different forms of oppression and patriarchal structures [4]. Cynthia Cockburn [5], in her research of women against war and militarism around the world, has found that patriarchy is an important factor of militarism. For this reason, women sometimes prefer to organise as women. They need the room to voice women’s specific experience of war and women’s particular capacity and skills in surviving war and building peace.

When we set out to collect material for this anthology, we knew that we wanted to explore the theme of women’s conscientious objection to both military service and to militarism. But we were not sure where to draw the line between “women’s conscientious objection to militarism” and all the other peace work that women participate in. War Resisters’ International has for a long time had an understanding of conscientious objection as something much more than objection to obligatory military service, without being clear about where conscientious objection ends, and other peace work begins. We don’t think there is a definite answer to this question, but in the final chapter we will clarify what we mean when we talk about conscientious objection in both the broad and narrow sense.

The Contributions to the Anthology

In her contribution, Ferda Ülker from Turkey points to the fact that, most frequently, people consider conscientious objection as having to do only with men and their refusal to serve in the military, and this is something we find in several of the other contributions. However, we want to make it absolutely clear that our understanding of conscientious objection reaches far beyond the legal understanding of the concept as practised by military authorities around the world. Conscientious objection is something that concerns us all, no matter whether we are conscripted or not and no matter whether we are men or women.

In Turkey, where women are not conscripted, the priority of the conscientious objection movement has been to support men who are in prison. But as Ferda Ülker writes, the reason why women are not conscripted is not because they have gained a right they have been fighting for. They don’t have to serve because the military leaders don’t consider them worthy of doing this “glorious duty”. But the women in Turkey who have declared themselves conscientious objectors (12 at the time of her writing) give many different reasons why they find it necessary to declare themselves as such.

The French women who in 1991 declared themselves conscientious objectors are using arguments similar to the Turkish women. They connect the army with patriarchy and hierarchy and refuse to support the militarisation of society. Only they among the contributors use arguments that reach out of their own society and connect militarism with sexual abuse happening in societies around the world where there are military bases.

Most people can understand why pacifist men facing conscription become conscientious objectors, even if they don’t agree with them. But women’s declarations do not receive the same understanding in Turkey, where they are considered incomprehensible and unnecessary since women are not conscripted. However, because people question women’s declarations, it also opens discussion in a different way from men’s declarations. In this way, the incomprehensibility becomes a “window of opportunity” for discussions about militarism.

Hilal Demir, also from Turkey, continues along the same line as Ferda Ülker. She explains how the independent group “Antimilitarist feminists” was organised by a group of women who had been active in the Izmir War Resisters’ Association. She wrote her own declaration in 2005, motivated to prevent patriarchy from “leaking into our movement”, arguing that fighting militarism is more than fighting military service. Within the antimilitarist movement in Turkey, the women who have declared themselves conscientious objectors have been criticised by other women, who feel that the use of the term “conscientious objection” plays into the hands of the military by acknowledging their rules. In Hilal Demir’s opinion, adopting the conscientious objection platform has proved useful, since it has helped bring attention to the situation of the women within the antimilitarist movement in a way that has never happened before. In addition, the declarations have encouraged the search for new perspectives on women’s antimilitarist activism.

On the other side of the globe, in Paraguay and Colombia, we find many parallels to Turkey. Both Paraguay and Colombia are militarised societies with no compulsory conscription for women. Colombia is still torn by a civil war that has been going on for more than 40 years. However, in these two countries a number of women have decided to declare themselves conscientious objectors, arguing that a militaristic society affects not just men, but everyone. They are frequently questioned as to why they as women declare themselves objectors when they are not forced to do military service. Their answer is that they are objecting to the prevailing culture of militarism that is affecting all aspects of life, the machismo culture which has deep roots in militarism, as well as the patriarchy which is upheld by the current power structures. The women in the conscientious objection movement in Paraguay have made a conscious decision to work in the same organisation as men, arguing that it is important to discuss the subject of feminism and militarism together with men.

In a joint declaration in 2002, the Paraguayan women argue that they object in conscience to the military as a system of economic, social and cultural oppression. We find almost the same expression in the declaration that Milena Romero Sanabaria from Colombia made. The Paraguayans also argue that the recent practice of letting women into the military is used as a justification for an increase in the military budget. Several of the Colombian declarations stress the objection to patriarchy, and the importance of declaring oneself a conscientious objector as an individual act.

In her article about conscientious objection in Colombia, Andrea Ochoa explains that the women decided to declare themselves conscientious objectors not just as an act of solidarity with men who become conscientious objectors, but in order to promote peace and nonviolence to a wider public. She explains that the work on conscientious objection has especially spread to children and young people through the use of alternative pedagogy. The guerillas and the paramilitaries recruit women into their service (both voluntarily and forcefully) in the name of gender equality. This is one reason why Colombian women have found it useful to declare themselves conscientious objectors. In addition it has been a way to create public discussions about alternatives to the war, and to give women an equal position to men in the conscientious objection movement.

At the time of writing, there are two countries in the world that conscript women, Israel and Eritrea. Both have recently been involved in wars, and both of them have introduced military service for women in the name of gender equality. But there are also many differences. In Eritrea, there is no recognition of conscientious objection at all, forcing all objectors to flee the country. We include the stories of two of these women. Ruta Yosef-Tudla is against war on principle, and managed to flee Eritrea before she was forced into the military. Bisrat Habte Micael tells about the terrible conditions, including sexual abuses, that she and other women have experienced in the military.

In Israel, pacifists can obtain exemption from military service because of their beliefs and, although marginalised, conscientious objectors raise a voice in the public debate. Idan Halili and Tali Lerner give us an introduction to women’s considerations about conscription and refusal in Israel. Idan Halili describes her own refusal on feminist grounds, and we follow the transformation she goes through within a short period of time from a girl who wants to use the military as a place to work for equal rights, to a woman using feminism as her argument for becoming a conscientious objector. She was the first woman in Israel to apply to the so-called conscientious committee for an exemption from military service because she is a feminist. At that time she did not consider herself a pacifist, but she refused to participate in all armies because they conflicted with her feminist values. As Idan Halili says, an army which is nonviolent, non-aggressive and non-hierarchical would not be an army.

Both Idan Halili and Tali Lerner point out that this understanding of feminism is far removed from the usual perception of feminism in Israel. From the mainstream perspective, feminists are the women who become fighter pilots. They both argue that these women are only accepted into these positions when they adopt masculine identities.

Tali Lerner gives us a glimpse of how militarised Israeli society is, and how closely military service is connected to citizenship. Many marginalised groups like Bedouins and homosexuals use military service as their “entry ticket” into society. She also describes how it has recently become more difficult for women to get an exemption from military service, since women objectors are now facing the same hard conditions that male objectors have experienced over the years.

From the United States Stephanie Atkinson and Diedra Cobb give us their personal stories of how they got recruited into the military, and how they developed their refusal. Both of them realised that something was not quite right soon after their entry into the military, but getting out of the US military is much more difficult than joining it. Although Stephanie Atkinson points out very clearly that she does not consider herself a conscientious objector, she left the service for reasons of conscience by going absent without leave (AWOL). We also present three short statements from three other American women, Tina Garnaez, Anita Cole and Katherine Jashinski. Tina Garnaez points out that military recruiters in US high schools especially target minority students who see the military as the only way out of poverty. They also recruit aggressively among the working class, religious groups, agrarian and conservative communities. Stephanie Atkinson tells us that she speaks on behalf of young people who have no direction in life and limited economic opportunity, who experience emotional problems and who are in homes with a single parent or with stepfathers or stepmothers. The five women’s paths to conscientious objection are very personal. Anita Cole joined the military because she wanted to serve her country and not for economic reasons. Her refusal developed over time, but the turning point was when she was urged on during weapons practice by an officer saying, “Come on, you’re a killer”.
Female conscientious objectors actually faced conscription in Britain during Word War II. This story is told by Mitzi Bales. Some of these women were called “absolutists”, what we today would call total objectors, since they refused to accept alternative service as well. Kathleen Lonsdale was a Quaker and well-known scientist, who did not even have to register for service since she had three children under 14 years old. But she decided to register in order to be able to refuse. There are probably as many reasons for refusal as there are women who refused, but from the papers and interviews that are available today, we do not get the impression of feminist reasons for refusal that we find many years later in Israel. Nora Page gave as her reason that she did not want to do anything in wartime that she would not be asked to do in peacetime. Joan Williams chose a different path from the absolutists and refused to register at all. Some of these women conscientious objectors were fined or imprisoned repeatedly, a tactic also frequently used today, for example, in Turkey (for men) and in Israel.

In the US during Word War II, women also refused to participate in the war effort, and supported the men who became conscientious objectors. Erna Harris tells about the different kind of tasks she would do to support the men who were in camps. Whereas the British women were facing demands to register and be appointed to work to support the war effort, women in the US were facing less direct demands. However, women who refused to perform duties they associated with supporting the war effort risked losing their job, something which happened to Jean Zwickel when she refused to help register soldiers.

Using a case from Sweden, we also introduce the theme of refusing compulsory civil defence duties that do not involve carrying arms or participating in combat training. Majken Jul Sørensen writes about Barbro Alving, who served a one-month prison sentence in 1956 for refusing her obligatory civil defence training. Her refusal was a reaction to the madness of a possible nuclear war, and the authorities’ “double speak” on the issue. She grounded her refusal in both feminism and a radical pacifist stand which she developed when she participated in a big campaign against civil defence training as a young woman in 1935. Refusal to perform civil defence duties is a subject that deserves more attention.

We find a similar sort of resistance in Germany in the late 1970s. For over a decade, women had been “offered” the opportunity of receiving nursing training with the enticement that it would help them get jobs in hospitals in peacetime. Over the years there was a growing awareness that the training was intended as a preparation for war, and linked to the military system. Women who participated in the training started to send letters protesting against this link and indicating that they would refuse wartime service.

In the statement “Total Resistance to Military Service” from 1980, women who signed this statement argue that feminists need to resist not just conscription, but also alternative service. They echo the British absolutists from WWII and Barbro Alving from Sweden when they write: “Recognition of an alternative service implies the recognition of the structure and purpose of the military…”. It is the same argument made 25 years later by Turkish women conscientious objectors. This statement uses a line of argument for women’s conscientious objection grounded in feminism. It clearly illustrates the broad definition of conscientious objection which is the focus of this book. The women are making a clear condemnation of militarism from a feminist perspective of rejecting patriarchy and refusing to be part of a system which is oppressively damaging to women.

In order to explore all aspects of women’s conscientious objection, we have also included an example where the term is used in its traditional narrow sense. In 1985 in Belgium, women demanded that everybody who shares the philosophy of conscientious objection should also have the right to the status. Their argument was that male conscientious objectors had the right not to accept work in the defence industry, a right that was denied to women. This case is a clear example of the old argument that “we want the same rights as men”. It also makes this case differently from most of the other stories in this book. The Belgian women were aware that, by demanding a right for conscientious objection status, they indirectly support the system of conscription and alternative service. However, they still argue that it is important for women to have the same rights as men.

We hope that this anthology will be interesting for both men and women as an illustration of how militarism affects both sexes. We also hope that it will inspire activism and encourage more women to become conscientious objectors and more men to support them. We believe that the broader peace movement will find the reflections on how conscientious objection can be used as a challenge to militarism informative and thought provoking. Finally, we hope it can be useful for feminists who are not at the moment concerned with antimilitarism, to see how closely feminism and antimilitarism are linked.


[1] Bussey & Tims: Pioneers for Peace. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom 1915–1965. WILPF 1980. Anne Wiltsher: Most Dangerous Women. Feminist Peace campaigners of the great war. Pandora 1985. Jill Liddington: The long road to Greenham. Feminism and anti-militarism in Britain since 1820. Virago Press 1989.
[2] Lynne Jones (ed): Keeping the Peace. A Women’s Peace Handbook. The Women’s Press 1983. Cook & Kirk: Greenham Women Everywhere. Dreams, Ideas and Actions from the Women’s Peace Movement. Pluto Press 1983. Pam McAllister (ed): Reweaving the Web of Life. Feminism and Nonviolence. New Society Publishers 1982.
[3] Living reconciliation – Making Peace. Women’s strategies against oppression, war and armament. International Women’s Congress in Nürnberg 1992. Women for Peace. Women in Black, Belgrade 1997. Cynthia Cockburn: From Where We Stand: War, Women’s Activism and Feminist Analysis. Zed Books 2007.
[4] Raj & Roy Choudhury (ed): Contemporary Social Movements in India: Achievements and Hurdles. Indian Social Institute1998.
[5] Cynthia Cockburn: From Where We Stand: War, Women’s Activism and Feminist Analysis. Zed Books 2007.

Published in: Women and Conscientious Objection - An Anthology


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