[Some of the more complex American histories and stories revolve around women and war. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy five such stories—but this is just the tip of the iceberg, for these stories and overall, and so as always I’d love to hear your responses and thoughts!]
On communities of protest and activism, and how we treat them.
Last week’s series on country music and society included a post on the extreme reaction to the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines and her March 2003 anti-Iraq War/George W. Bush comments. I made the case there that the reaction had at least something to do with gender, and with a sense of what kind of feisty independence is and is not appropriate for female artists. But another important context would have to be the way in which the entire anti-war movement was treated by a sizeable percentage of American media and society in and around March 2003: as, to put it bluntly, a bunch of crazy drug-addled kooks and hippies to whom the appropriate response would be (and much too frequently was) simply a combination of mockery, ridicule, and scorn. (The concurrent protests around the world were, it seems to me, taken much more seriously, whatever their nation’s stance on the Iraq War.)
Such dismissals of anti-war protesters were nothing new in American society, of course. Whereas the Vietnam War became so broadly unpopular that its anti-war movement garnered as much support as it did critique (although the aforementioned stereotyping of the protesters still occurred to be sure), the World War II and World War I anti-war movements were far more nationally unpopular and subject to the same kind of attacks. During both wars, many of the most prominent pacificists, both in America and around the world, were also women’s rights activists; a trend exemplified by Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, who opposed both world wars and who represented the sole Congressional “no” vote against declaring war on Japan on December 8th, 1941. Rankin’s political career survived her World War I pacifism, but her opposition to World War II proved not only politically costly but personally destructive, both in media coverage and in threats on her life. (She did not run for reelection, but did live to lead an anti-Vietnam War campaign in 1968!)
The virulent opposition to Rankin and her pacifist colleagues could be attributed solely to pro-war agitation and fever, and certainly that’s been a consistent part of such wartime historical moments and narratives. But I think it would also need to be analyzed in conjunction with the equally virulent and too-often forgotten opposition faced by suffragists and other women’s rights leaders. In that linked post I highlighted the shockingly nasty children’s book Ten Little Suffergets (c.1910), which offers a particularly vivid but far from isolated illustration (literally and figuratively) of such anti-women’s rights attitudes. If we have largely forgotten this kind of widespread anti-suffragist vitriol, one clear reason would be our collective recognition of just how fully those women’s rights activists were on the right side of history—a lesson that we perhaps have yet to learn when it comes to our anti-war movements, contemporary and historical.
Last war story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other war stories you'd highlight?
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