While Trump and Kim Jong-un plan to compare button sizes, female activists are working to erase nuclear threat. But will it be enough?
Today, experts say, we are inching ever closer to nuclear catastrophe. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists defines how close we are to nuclear war with their metaphorical Doomsday Clock. Earlier this year, on January 25, the Bulletin moved the minute hand to two minutes to midnight. North Korea has a greater capacity than ever to harm other countries, including the U.S.—and apparently so does Russia. The hypermasculine violent language between the U.S. and North Korea has provoked international tensions. Russia and the U.S. are at odds. South-Asia, Pakistan and other nations are increasing their arsenals, tensions over the Iran nuclear deal are mounting, and weakened U.S. international diplomacy under President Trump has advanced nuclear dangers worldwide. Expert nuclear war planner, Daniel Ellsberg, author of The Pentagon Papers and The Doomsday Machine, says he is terrified. So am I.
During this dangerous time, women are leading the charge to eradicate weapons of mass destruction and forestall nuclear war. We saw this most recently in the 2017 U.N. Treaty to Prohibit the Use of Nuclear Weapons. Approved with 122 states voting for, and one against, it is the first legally binding global ban on nuclear weapons, with the intention of moving toward their complete elimination. The preamble to the treaty recognizes the maltreatment suffered as a result of nuclear weapons, including the disproportionate impact on women and girls, and on indigenous peoples around the world. The treaty has been predominantly championed and promoted by women.
My interest in nuclear issues began nearly 10 years ago when I first uncovered my mother’s work as an antinuclear activist with a group called Women Strike for Peace. I have been following women doing nuclear activism all over the world—writing about them, protesting with them, teaching about them in my university classes—and I often bring my daughter with me. My mother’s story is being passed down through an intergenerational maternal line, and with it, the activism that may help save the world, or at least help shift its view on disastrous weapons. Learning about my mother’s work radically changed my perception of her. It also changed my life.
Between 1945 and 1963, more than 200 atmospheric, underwater, and space nuclear bomb tests were conducted by the U.S., primarily in the Nevada desert and the Marshall Islands. Hundreds more took place around the world. In many instances citizens were not informed of the tests, nor were they warned of their effects. The negative health impacts of the testing and exposure to ionizing radiation turned out to be vast: early death, cancer, heart disease, and a range of other incurable illnesses, including neurological disabilities, weakened immune systems, infertility, and miscarriage. Ionizing radiation damages genes (it is mutagenic), so the health ramifications of exposures are passed down through the generations.
In the 1950s, scientists concerned with the health impacts of bomb testing and the spread of ionizing radiation conducted the St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey. The survey showed that radioactive fallout had traveled far and wide. Cow and breast milk contaminated with the isotope strontium 90 had entered children’s teeth. Strontium 90 metabolizes as calcium and these isotopes remain active in the body for many years. When Dagmar Wilson and Bella Abzug—who went on to become a Congresswoman and co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan—learned the results of the Baby Tooth Survey, they formed Women Strike for Peace. The group brought together concerned mothers from across the U.S. The women organized. First within their communities. And then, 50,000 mothers protested across the country, and 15,000 descended on Washington, D.C. for Women’s Strike for Peace Lobbying Day on November 1, 1961. My mother was one of those 15,000 protestors. The group’s efforts brought vast political attention to the dire health consequences of radioactive fallout and led to the banning of atmospheric bomb testing by the U.S., Great Britain, and the former Soviet Union in 1963, with the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Women Strike for Peace reflects a cultural nuclear gender binary—with women constructed as peaceful antinuclear protectors of children and the nation, and men positioned as perpetrators of nuclear war—the designers, planners, and regulators of weapons of mass destruction.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age men have dominated and controlled nuclear weapons design and policy. As Benjamin A. Valentino, Associate Professor of Government, and Coordinator, War and Peace Studies Program, Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College says, it is only recently that women have had access to positions of power in the military sphere. This is true in weapons’ sciences and engineering as well. While many women worked on the Manhattan Project, most held administrative roles. Has this exclusion of women from nuclear decision-making led to our current crisis—a host of locations worldwide contaminated with radioactive waste, and the great potential for nuclear war? Leading anti-nuclear activists seem to think so.
Carol Cohn, founding director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights at the University of Massachusetts-Boston suggests that nuclear-weapons discourse is deeply rooted in hegemonic patriarchy. In nuclear techno-language metaphors of male sexual activity are used to describe nuclear violence. Nuclear missiles are referred to in phallic terms. The violence of nuclear war is described in abstract and impersonal terms, such as “collateral damage.” In her recent New York Times op-ed, Cohn finds it unsurprising that hypermasculine nuclear language has surfaced so blatantly today with Trump’s tweets about the size of his nuclear button and his overall muscular championing of expanding the nuclear weapons complex.
Following the Women Strike for Peace model, legions of anti-nuclear NGOs worldwide are predominantly led by women, including Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Reaching Critical Will, the German Green Party, Mothers for Peace, Just Moms (St. Louis), International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, Green Action Japan, the women of Koondakulam in India, the antinuclear nuns Megan Rice, Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert, and many more.
At the U.N. conference to ban nuclear weapons in 2017, I asked Civil Society experts and participants about the importance of women as leaders in the antinuclear movement, and about the hegemony of masculinity in the nuclear weapons complex.
“Of course many men support disarmament and have participated in the treaty and current anti-nuclear efforts in general, but women overwhelmingly lead,” said Tim Wright, of the Australian branch of ICAN. ICAN won the 2017 Nobel Prize for their work on The Treaty to Prohibit the Use of Nuclear Weapons.
Ray Acheson, of Reaching Critical Will, said the proliferation of nuclear weapons is deeply embedded in “a misogynist and hegemonic culture of violence.” She stated this culture is oppressive to women, LGBTQ, the poor, and people of color, and, “we must smash patriarchy.” Such is the feminist cry heard around the world, but in this case, it might actually save us.
Beatrice Fihn, director of ICAN, explained that men are raised to be violent, to think it’s necessary to resolve differences through force, while “women, conversely, are socially trained to negotiate and compromise.”
According to Fihn, the problem in a patriarchal world is that peaceful negotiations are viewed as weak. The U.S. misogynist-in-chief feels we must drop nuclear bombs, expand our nuclear arsenal, and strong-arm competing nations, such as North Korea and Russia. The very act of supporting disarmament efforts in a patriarchal framework places “you in a feminine category,” Fihn stressed. “Those in favor of abolishing nuclear weapons, whether male or female, are characterized in negative, feminized terms. This characterization must be changed. It is not weak to abolish weapons of mass destruction. It is life-affirming.”
Women better understand this because they are the ones in charge of improving quality of life for all. Women most often function as caretakers of children and the elderly, they are aware of the human cost of war and radioactive disaster. When thinking about nuclear war, they wonder, if war breaks out, “How will we feed our children, how will we feed our sick? What will happen to our communities?” Fihn says she fears nuclear violence in respect to the safety of her own children. Fihn’s concern for her children echoes the concerns of my mother and her antinuclear cohort in the 1950s and ’60s. Like Fihn, they worked to save their children—all children—from radiation contamination and nuclear war. I hope I can carry on that legacy, and that my daughter chooses to pick up the cause as well.
For the 2017 UN Treaty to Prohibit the Use of Nuclear Weapons, women helped prepare key elements of the document and gave vital health testimony. Particularly poignant were tales from Australian Indigenous, Marshallese, and Hibakusha (Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors) women. I interviewed many of these women. Abacca Anjain-Madison, a former Senator of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, told me that between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. conducted 67 nuclear bomb tests on the Atoll Islands. Many babies born during the testing period resembled jellyfish and died quickly after their births. The Marshallese developed very high rates of cancer (and other diseases) as a result of ionizing radiation exposures. Now, with climate change, the radioactive dangers persist. Rising sea levels threaten the Runit Dome—a sealed space that contains large amounts of radioactive contamination. The dome has also begun to crack, and the U.S. has no plans to assist Marshallese with this crisis. They finished the cleanup and sealed the dome in 1979. Abacca Anjain-Madison asserts the clean up was not sufficient and the dome was never meant to be permanent. The Marshallese to do not have the means to protect themselves from the impending disaster.
Mary Olson, Southeast Director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, gave a presentation at the UN on the unequal health impacts of radiation exposures. Women remain unaccounted for in nuclear regulatory safety standards. Based on the data set from the BEIR VII report that both Olson and Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research have studied, women are twice as likely to get cancer, and nearly twice as likely than men to die from cancer associated with ionizing radiation exposures. Children are five to 10 times more likely to develop cancer in their lifetimes from radiation exposures than adult males, and girls are most vulnerable of all. Scientists do not yet understand why there is an age and gender disparity. The standard “reference man” by which radiation safety regulations are set are based on a white adult male. Olson and Makhijani argue that safety regulations must change to account for age and gender disparities. Further studies are needed to assess how people of different races are impacted by radiation exposures. To date, no such completed studies exist.
At the closing of the conference and signing of the 2017 UN Treaty to Prohibit the Use of Nuclear Weapons, two speeches were made—one by Setsuko Thurlow, a Hiroshima survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and leading campaigner for the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Abacca Anjain-Madison of the Marshall Islands also spoke.
Setsuko Thurlow told her story of beholding the bomb dropping on her city in 1945. She described how, as an 13-year-old child, she witnessed the death of her brother, and “unthinkable” violence thrust upon on her people. For Thurlow, the signing of the UN Treaty to ban nuclear weapons is a miracle, but she believes we must rid the world of weapons entirely. She will not give up her efforts until that day comes. Neither will I.
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