As the incoming administration of Joe Biden is celebrated for advancing women’s rights through the likely appointment of hawkish women to high-status positions, anti-war feminists are seeking to counter the broadly held assumption that putting a woman’s face on pro-war policy and empire is a mark of progress.
This concern has been brewing for some time. In February, two dozen women and gender-nonconforming people from anti-war and feminist organizations across the United States gathered at a meeting in New York to address two key problems: In the United States, the largest military empire in the world, a feminist analysis is sorely missing from public discourse about American war and militarism. And even worse, a shallow understanding of feminism is frequently used to justify violent U.S. interventions, as most clearly showcased in Afghanistan, where the call to “rescue” women from the Taliban has been used to justify a bloody U.S. invasion and protracted occupation that’s now more than 19 years old.
What emerged from this convergence was a new political effort to organize for a “feminist foreign policy,” an endeavor these organizers say requires an end to U.S. militarism — both abroad in the form of wars and meddling, and at home at the hands of police and prisons. The defunding of the Pentagon, these organizers say, should be accompanied by greater investment in public goods like childcare, healthcare, schools and a clean environment. The undertaking is led by Women Cross DMZ, MADRE and Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, but includes participation from Movement for Black Lives, About Face: Veterans Against The War, and other groups. It draws from an anti-imperialist feminist tradition, particularly one pioneered by Black women like Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, and is premised on the principle that the U.S. military is a fundamentally misogynist force that enacts gendered violence around the world. “We need feminist women, anti-militarist women, women with an internationalist lens,” says Christine Ahn, an organizer of the initiative and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a group that aims to end the Korean War. “I know those are big broad brushstrokes, but we are just getting started.”
With the incoming Biden administration, this group has its work cut out for it. During the primary, Biden stood out as one of the more pro-war candidates in the Democratic field. He infamously played an influential role building support for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as the chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has a career-long track record of backing Israel’s wars and aggression toward Palestinians, including “targeted killings” in the early 2000s. And under the Obama administration, he went along with the disastrous 2011 intervention in Libya (although he later claimed to have worked behind the scenes to oppose the Libya intervention, a claim for which there is no independently verifiable evidence). He also backed Obama’s occupation of Afghanistan, supported drone wars around the world, and pushed to expand the drug war in Central America. While Biden said on the campaign trail that he is against the Yemen war, he only took this position once he was no longer in the administration that initiated U.S. involvement in the war, and he did not make his opposition central to his campaign.
Yet, despite this record, Biden has already received glowing press coverage for his expected appointment of a woman, Michèle Flournoy, to lead the Pentagon as Defense Secretary. The Associated Press ran the headline, “Biden likely to break barriers, pick woman to lead Pentagon,” while Business Insider declared Biden “is expected to make history by appointing a woman to head the Pentagon for the first time.”
Anti-militarist feminists have a key objection: Flournoy embodies exactly the pro-war orientation they oppose. She sits on the board of military contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, and in 2007 co-founded the hawkish liberal think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which is funded by weapons contractors including Northrop Grumman Corporation, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Her pro-war track record dates back to the Bill Clinton administration, as Branko Marcetic reported, and helped shape the Obama years — when she served both in the administration as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012 and exerted influence afterward from her perch at CNAS. Flournoy strongly supported the 2011 military intervention in Libya, pushed for Obama’s strategy of protracted occupation of Afghanistan, and opposed the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq under Obama. She was also a fervent supporter of Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pro-corporate “free trade” deal, and she pressed Obama to lift the ban on exporting domestic oil, a move that has been a boon for domestic oil extraction and worsened the crisis of climate change.
Meanwhile, Biden is expected to appoint other women to powerful roles, including, possibly, Susan Rice, as his Secretary of State. As UN ambassador under Obama, Rice played a key role in the push for the 2011 intervention in Libya, alongside Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton (that disastrous intervention was cheered at the time as a war led by women). As U.S. National Security Advisor, Rice argued in favor of intervention in Syria and supported U.S. participation in the brutal war on Yemen (although she reportedly did oppose a proposed invasion of the port of Hodeidah by the United Arab Emirates, which later took place under Trump). Biden has already sought out a briefing from Power, who as UN ambassador played an important role in shielding Saudi Arabia from scrutiny for its atrocities in the Yemen war, although she later came out against that war once she was no longer in a position of power.
Still, Biden has been celebrated for his “diverse” cabinet, and some have even suggested that it’s anti-feminist to criticize his foreign policy picks. Mieke Eoyang, an MSNBC contributor and senior vice president of Third Way National Security, a Wall Street-backed militaristic think tank, said on Twitter on November 13, “White progressives training their fire on women and women of color who are under consideration to lead the nat sec departments makes me deeply uncomfortable about their allyship for those communities. Especially when the nat sec community is dominated by white men.”
But Ahn tells In These Times that, given these women’s track records, representation alone is insufficient: The operative question for feminists should be, How will these appointments materially impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people, including women? “Tropes of humanitarian intervention that crystallized during the Obama administration by people like Samantha Power really need challenging,” she says. “It’s going to take feminists to do that. Flournoy, Rice and Power are not advancements: They’re the very women who greenlighted the U.S. invasion of Libya.”
“It’s not enough to have these women in positions of power,” Ahn adds. “What kind of women are we advocating?”
Cindy Wiesner, the executive director of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, a network of community groups, agrees. “We must be wary of the diversity of neoliberalism,” she tells In These Times. “Just because a cisgender woman is put in leadership to lead the Pentagon, that does not mean it is a win for the women’s movement.”
Shireen Al-Adeimi is a Yemeni-American activist against the war in Yemen who is not involved in this particular feminist formation but is sympathetic with its critiques. “To think about feminism as a movement that secures the rights of women, but then disregard the rights of women who shouldn’t be bombed, shouldn’t be living under the consequences of U.S. interventionism, to negate their experiences — it isn’t really feminism,” she says.
While this new feminist formation is sober about the challenges ahead, it did not hesitate to celebrate Trump’s loss of both the Electoral College and popular vote. At a November 11 discussion about foreign policy under Biden, Wiesner lauded the ousting of a “misogynist, racist authoritarian.” Indeed, Trump oversaw bloated military budgets, escalated the war in Yemen and moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in a clear provocation toward Palestinians. He brought the United States within a hair’s breadth of war with Iran, and brutally ratcheted up sanctions on the country as it was hit hard by the pandemic. And he placed people with arms industry connections in powerful positions, among them Mark Esper, a former lobbyist for Raytheon. (Trump recently fired Esper from his role as secretary of defense, along with a number of other senior military officials.)
But at the November 11 discussion, speakers emphasized that anti-militarist feminists have a long path ahead. “In this Biden-Harris victory, we need to be able to put pressure to force the administration away from austerity measures or from beefing up the military budget and really pushing, continuing to push, the movement demands around divestment, defunding of police, the divestment out of ICE, out of the military.” Wiesner underscored the importance, instead, of investing in a “regenerative, anti-racist, feminist economy.”
According to Ahn, there are a number of high-priority demands that Biden needs to immediately address: “He needs to be pushed on ending the war on Yemen, the war on North Korea, the war on Afghanistan. I feel that we need to be taking on the issue of sanctions, a bipartisan tool that is widely accepted — and a really important policy area feminists could bring some voice to.” But beyond that, Ahn says there is a need for a “totally new framework” — one premised in undoing the harm wrought by U.S. militarism.
One key challenge is to do basic education about how the U.S. military apparatus, including its 800 military bases around the world, is antithetical to feminism. Toward this end, Ahn, Wiesner, and their collaborator Yifat Susskind of the feminist organization MADRE, published a Newsweek op-ed on November 17 that notes, “The brunt of U.S. militarism is deeply misogynistic. In the U.S., Navajo women and their children have high levels of uranium in their bloodstreams as a result of nuclear weapons testing from decades ago. And in Fallujah, Iraq, women are still dealing with the legacy of U.S. bombings that took place nearly 20 years earlier, giving birth to babies with congenital disabilities who often cannot survive.”
The feminist initiative’s position paper, meanwhile, adds to the growing body of feminist critique of war, and concerns about the cynical use of feminist branding to advance the pro-war politics of politicians, including 2016 presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. In an In These Times article published in 2018, writer Roqayah Chamseddine criticized an imperialist orientation to feminism that “tells women that they too can take part in this violence if they would only develop their own cruel and militarized girl’s club.”
Activists hope that, through organizing, anti-militarist feminism can carry the day. “If we are truly feminist,” says Ahn, “we should be trying to build a more just and equitable world.”
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.