Friday, 15 August 2008

Friday Feminist - Olive Schreiner


There is, perhaps, no woman, whether she have borne children, or be merely potentially a childbearer, who could look down upon a battlefield covered with slain, but the though would rise in her, 'So many mothers' sons! So many bodies brought into the world to lie there! So many months of weariness and pain while bones and muscles were shaped within; so many hours of anguish and struggle that breath might be; so many baby mouths drawing life at woman's breast; - all this, that men might lie with glazed eyeballs, and swollen bodies, and fixed blue, unclosed mouths, and great limbs tossed - this, that an acre of ground might be manured with human flesh, that next year's grass or poppies or karoo bushes may spring up greener and redder, where they have lain, or that the sand of a plain may have a glint of white bones!' And we cry, 'Without an inexorable cause, this should not be!' No woman who is a woman says of a human body, 'It is nothing.'

On that day, when the woman takes her place beside the man in the governance and arrangement of external affairs of her race will also be that day that heralds the death of war as a means of arranging human differences.

Olive Schreiner, Women and Labour, 1911


artandmylife said...

I agree in theory but what about Thatcher and the Falklands?

Linuxluver said...

I'd be interested in testing the thesis that war would end when women rule. But to rule, they would have to give in to ambition that does not accept bounds. Danger lies there.

Hugh said...

It could be argued that simply plopping a single woman on top of a male dominated power structure - like Thatcher in the UK, or Gandhi in India, or Kumaratanga in Sri Lanka, or even our own Helen - doesn't constitute the 'the governance and arrangement of external affairs' that Schreiner is talking about here.

But I think Schreiner is making some unpleasant assumptions here that I can't agree with. As a first impression, some of them are these:

1) That most violence done by states is in their conduct of 'external affairs'
2) That a woman's views on politics will be dominated by her motherhood
3) That it's worse for a mother when a son dies than it is for the son himself

It may be true that currently policy-making decisions take place in an environment that undervalues human life and overvalues other concepts (efficiency, stability, national integrity, etc). But I think it is difficult to argue that the values that are lacking are intrinsically female. They might be female in some abstract sense, but females don't seem more disposed to hold them than men. And while that could be attributed to socialisation, I'd argue that if getting female values recognised is an entirely separate matter from getting women into positions of power, talking about 'female values' is just confusing, at least in the short-term.

Certainly as a man, both in the workplace and in my private life, I frequently find myself arguing with women who are extremely dismissive of what Schreiner seems to call female values.

Hugh said...

As an aside, I've long been involved with several play by email geo-strategic games where players take on the role of world leaders in times of global tension such as he 1930s or 1980s. The players are almost invariably men. Although there are a lot of other factors at work (the fact that it's only a game, different ideas of what winning constitutes, etc etc), and I've long since come to accept that this particular hobby of mine is likely to remain male-dominated for the forseeable future, I have often wondered what would happen if all the players were women.

Deborah said...

It's worth noticing when that piece was written - 1911.

She goes on to say that women are not morally superior to men, nor do they have less courage or less physical capacity to wage war (given technology - in her day the Maxim gun), but "It is not because of women's cowardice, incapacity, nor, above all, because of her general superior virtue, that she will end war when her voice is fully, finally, and clearly heard in the governance of states - it is because, on this one point, and on this point almost alone, the knowledge of woman, simply as woman, is superior to that of man; she knows the history of human flesh; she knows its cost; he does not."

I don't agree with her. But I do think the piece is interesting, and raises interesting questions, for those of us thinking about it nearly 100 years later.

Anna McM said...

Great comments Hugh.

I actually do to some extent agree with Schreiner. Since having kids, I do tend to look at tragedies around the world a bit differently, and it has affected my ethical outlook. It would be a bridge too far to say that motherhood necessarily translates into peaceful leadership. There are lots of women about - eg Deborah Coddington - who genuinely feel strongly about protecting children, but still have utterly nutty politics.

I do think that the experience of motherhood (or perhaps parenthood more generally) can lend itself to a different kind of politics, but doesn't necessarily.