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Wimmin and Draft Resistance

By Liz Davidson

(8 June 1986)

Women Resist
[“Women Resist” graphic by Ruth Shields]

I originally sat down to write a complete account of my thoughts and experiences involving sexism and the anti-draft movement. Then I realized that this would fill several issues of Resistance News. In this article I have concentrated on exploring how different conceptions of what the Draft Resistance movement is all about influence the movement’s sexism.

As a womon engaged in draft resistance work, I am faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, I feel in my bones that this is my struggle. On the other hand, I have often seen no space within which I can continue to do this work without becoming enmeshed in a role which conforms so closely to the role forced on wimmin by the patriarchy that to accept it would be to work against my own freedom.

Of course, this dilemma has many roots. We are all trapped by the sexism of the culture. And there is outside pressure on the draft resistance movement (most obviously from the press) which pushes men and wimmin respectively into the roles of hero/actor and supporter/nurturer. But what I want to discuss here is how the dilemma is perpetuated by two contradictory images which the movement has of itself.

One is a conception of registration and the draft as issues that affect men alone, and of the function of the anti-draft movement as solely to work against registration, and to provide support for nonregistrants. If this is so, then there is no space for wimmin to work within this movement as whole people, and the only solution to the dilemma is for us to stop doing so. The other conception is that the draft and the patriarchy are institutions which support and uphold each other to such an extent that the struggles against them cannot be separated this perception demands a framework for the Draft Resistance movement in which wimmin are resisters as centrally as men.

I want to argue here for this second conception of the movement. This is not because I think the first is on the face of it sexist. The anti-draft movement as an all-male support network, working in coalition with wimmin on issues of militarism, is much less sexist than a movement in which men give lip service to the credo that the draft is a “womon’s issue” while at the same time expecting the wimmin to stand well back out of the limelight as we provide endless one-sided support. And this is what happens now when things are at their worst. But I do think that the perception of the draft as exclusively a man’s issue is in fact dangerous and destructive, and that this perception both stems from and perpetuates the most oppressive qualities in the relations between wimmin and men. What I want to talk about here is why I think this is so, and also about why draft resistance per se (and not just resistance to militarism) is a womon’s struggle. If we can start to see this clearly, perhaps it will help wimmin who choose to do draft resistance work to insist upon the centrality of our struggle to this issue. And men might find it harder to be blind to this centrality, and might be willing to accept responsibility to help make the anti-draft movement one in which wimmin can participate without being exploited.

I want to begin by discussing why I, personally, felt drawn to participation in the draft resistance movement. As an anarchist, I see the military is being an institution which upholds the coercive power of the state. I also put a high value on principled disobedience to the state, as a way of beginning to live in cooperation with each other and by our own consciences rather than being governed by their rule of force. I felt that by working in the draft resistance movement I could directly refuse my cooperation with the institution of the military, for the draft is an area in which the government demands the ritualistic cooperation of all its “citizens.” The working of the registration law makes this clear, for in the same sentence in which it demands that every eighteen year old man register, it also prohibits advocating or aiding nonregistration. The possible penalty for each of these offenses is the same.

However, although the draft law demands acquiescence from us all, it demands different forms of cooperation from men and wimmin. It is both a tool of the coercive state and of the patriarchal society; through its myth and its actuality it is one of the mechanisms which locks into place the power relationship between wimmin and men.

Every man in the society faces at least the possibility of being drafted. That is, he faces the possibility of, at best, several years of slavery and imprisonment, and, at worst, injury, disfigurement, or death. This is surely the greatest instance of men as a group being oppressed by the patriarchal state, for while the draft upholds the institution of the patriarchy, those men drafted are victims of that institution. A social injustice this huge cannot be maintained by brute force alone, and certainly cannot be imposed on a group of people who have power within the state. The state is able to impose the draft again and again (they haven’t quite managed it this time) because those men selected to be drafted do not have real power. Eighteen to twenty-two year old men are just emerging from membership in the most powerless group of all in this society, the young. Furthermore, the majority of those men actually drafted, and even more those sent into combat, are poor and nonwhite.

But the draft is also accepted because it is presented to the young man is a mythic initiation. The military promises to “make a man of” the conscript or registrant; the heart of this promise is that he will lose his fear of violence and become its master, and that this will give him power over and separate him from wimmin, who are excluded from the initiation. The myth of this society is that violence is the province of men. (This is not the reality, of course; the reality is that wimmin have to deal with violence all the time.) Think of all the images and descriptions in mainstream culture which associate men’s violence with courage and even beauty - and then think of how unarmed fights between a womon and a man or between two wimmin are depicted in, for instance, the movies. Almost always the wimmin’s violence is depicted as either pitiable or else ludicrous and somehow obscene. It is not presented as a serious threat. (A womon with a weapon can be threatening, because her strength is borrowed.)

This myth of conscription as power-bestowing initiation is not effective in that it gets rid of all the rage and resentment that a man feels who is faced with the persecution of the draft and military “service.” It is effective in that it confuses his anger. In the time-honored tradition of oppressors, the state can then deflect that anger from itself towards two convenient groups: “the enemy” and wimmin in general. It is, though, to the advantage of the patriarchy that, within the boundaries of its own state, the rage against wimmin, in contrast to the rage against the enemy, be controlled: they keep wimmin in our place rather than murdering us, in general at any rate. Against the wimmin of “the enemy,” the rage need not be controlled. Witness the traditional rite of a victorious army to rape or slaughter wimmin as “spoils of war.”

The myth which is inflicted on all of us, wimmin and men, from our earliest childhood, is thus fashioned to achieve this end. The man learns that he has a duty to defend helpless womanhood. Lurking beneath this altruistic sentiment is the assumption that wimmin are to be resented not only because we do not share the burden of military service but because our helplessness is at best the partial cause of its necessity. Furthermore, the man is taught that, in exchange for his protection, wimmin over him gratitude and obedience. How dare she refuse him nurturance, or sexual submission, when he may be asked at any moment to give his life to preserve her honour and that of his country? And how can she refuse, when the power of violence is his alone? Wimmin learn this myth from the other side: learn to stand in awe of men because of their casual familiarity with violence; learn that we can’t survive outside of their protection; learn that the man’s role of sacrificial warrior gives him irresistible moral leverage over us, which justifies his social and political dominance.

It is significant that virtually no established government of western society has put wimmin into positions of combat. Wimmin have, however, often fought side-by-side with men in revolutionary struggles. I believe that one reason patriarchal societies do not use wimmin in combat roles is that to do so would disturb the status quo. When people are truly engaged in revolutionary struggle they are, at least for the moment and in some measure, breaking out of the status quo into freedom. However, once (as has always happened so far) the struggle towards a free society has been swallowed up again by the imposition of centralized control, wimmin can no longer be tolerated as fighters.

It certainly follows from this that some sort of sizable changes between wimmin and men might occur if wimmin were to be drafted into combat. But I do not see that anything good can come out of twisting wimmin as men have been twisted. And supporting an increase in injustice can never be justified, whatever might result from it. Neither do I want wimmin to seize the power of violence for our own, using it to coerce men as men have used it to coerce wimmin. What I want is to break apart entirely the power structure by means of which men dominate wimmin.

Those of us in the anti-draft movement confront one of the focal points of this power structure, and this presents us with both an opportunity and a danger. We have the opportunity of making a real dent in the power structure if we have this as a conscious goal and if we work to create an alternative structure for the draft-resistance movement - one which is not patriarchal and within which wimmin and men can work together free and whole. We face the danger that, if we do not acknowledge or comprehend the nature of the myth which is embodied in the institution of the draft, if we do not admit how deep its poison is in us all, then our struggle against the institution will not free us of the myth but will become in some ways a mirror image of it, incorporating many of its destructive elements.

I think that the present anti-draft movement has aspects of both these possibilities. To conceive of draft resistance as an issue which affects only men contributes towards a movement which mirrors the patriarchal myth with eerie precision. To replace the image of the heroic young soldier going off to war while wimmin weep in the background with the image of the young resister going off to prison while wimmin weep in the background doesn’t get you all that far in terms of fundamental change between wimmin and men.

Again the young man faces an initiation which excludes wimmin. Again the focus is on his actions and his danger - with the possibility of action or risk taking for wimmin seen as nonexistent or unimportant. Again there is the possibility of resentment against wimmin, who were not seen as sharing in the risk, and the assumption that men, who face the risk, have the right to make the decisions and the right to demand unqualified support from the wimmin. And, not least, the resister (like the soldier) is sacrificed to the myth, not just by the government but by those who offer not support but hero worship while denying their own ability to act, or who try to use the resister for his symbolic value to advance their cause, rather than acting for themselves, and who become indignant if he refuses to be so used.

I’m not saying that this perception of draft resistance is one which dominates the movement consciously or consistently. And even less semi-saying that it dominates the perception that nonregistrants have of the movement, or of their own actions. Nonregistrants in general seem to me to be freer of the myth than many men in the movement, perhaps because they have had to confront the reality behind it more closely. But I am saying fragments of the dominant myth why deep in all of us, and it fragments of this ugly mirror image of the myth are submerged in all of us too. They lie sullenly below the surface of today’s anti-draft movement, consistently tripping up wimmin who try to do draft resistance work without becoming silent supporters. In the draft resistance movement of twenty years ago, the myth was neither fragmented nor submerged, and was openly used to keep wimmin disempowered. The slogan, “wimmin say yes to men who say no” expresses it succinctly. Such overt sexism is no longer espoused, but it would be foolish to believe that it could have vanished completely.

This is the danger. But for me, in the end, the draft resistance movement exists more strongly as a chance to create a free alternative to the patriarchy that it does is a part of the patriarchal myth. But it’s only possible to bring about this alternative if we consider it important to do so. It’s difficult to think of how to bring about deep changes. But too often the men in the movement do not seem to think about it at all. The following suggestions are not new, and it seems to me also that they do not go deep enough. But they are a starting place.

Despite the pressure from government and press, the movement needs to support nonregistrants as comrades rather than as isolated heroic symbols. (Comradely support is much more sustaining anyway.) Refusal to register has to be acknowledged as one brave act of resistance but not the only one or the only important one. Other actions, whether confrontational or not, have to be recognized as significant and part of the same struggle: direct actions against Selective Service in the courts, tax resistance, wimmin’s peace camps, etc. Support should be mutual: something that we all give to each other in our resistance. And men need to take responsibility for some of that support to see it as necessary and demanding of energy, just as is any other political work. If they don’t, wimmin and up draining ourselves and attempting to provide an unending flow of nurturances. When men in the movement approach things in this spirit, and makes a tremendous difference to wimmin’s ability to work in the draft resistance movement without also feeling that we are working against ourselves. It is then possible to begin to create the movement as an alternative the patriarchy.

But the movement already partially exists as this alternative is, I suppose, why I keep coming back to work on this issue and why the friends I have made here are a part of my closest community. One of the things that ihas drawn all of us, wimmin and men, to this struggle, has been a rejection of the patriarchal myth and its part in us. And, to a large extent the trust that is been able to grow up between myself and my male friends who have consciously rejected that myth is what has shown me the myth’s destructive power. I sometimes felt that all our lives were breaking out into freedom as we quietly removed some essential pieces from the very center of the state’s machinery of coercion and war.

[Liz Davidson was a member of the editorial collective of Resistance News and active in Mass Open Resistance and the National Resistance Committee, and contributed prose, poetry, and graphics to Resistance News. Her poetry was also included in Hauling Up the Morning / Izando la Mañana: Writings and art by political prisoners and prisoners of war in the U.S. (Red Sea Press, 1990). She was imprisoned for direct actions obstructing draft registration and prosecutions of draft resisters, and was an organizer of the blockade of the national headquarters of the Selective Service System in 1982. Liz also participated in the Seneca [NY] Women’s Peace Encampment, the Women’s Pentagon Action, and anti-nuclear and anti-militarist direct actions including at the Seabrook, NH, nuclear reactor construction site, the nuclear submarine shipyard in Groton, CT, and the Colt military firearms factory headquarters in Hartford, CT. Originally published in Resistance News #21, 8 June 1986, as part of a special section on “Women and the Resistance Movement” edited by Liz Davidson and Noelle Hanrahan. Reprinted by kind permission of the author.]

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