It Doesn't Have to Be That Way

Interview with Betty Reardon

Professor Betty Reardon is widely acknowledged as a founder of contemporary peace education and is the founding director of the Peace Education Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, U.S.A. She has served as a consultant to several UN agencies and education organizations and has published widely in the fields of peace and human rights education and gender issues.

SGI Quarterly: What has been the role of women in helping the emergence of a paradigm of cooperation?

Betty Reardon: I think that women have done a great deal that could be a lot more effective if it were done in complementarity with men. I think that what women have done reflects the concerns they embrace as a consequence of their gender socialization. This seems to me a very important distinction to make: nothing innate or essentially female in women causes them to tend more toward cooperation. It is the learning acquired through their roles as caregivers and sustainers of life and well-being that influences their cooperative behavior. Cooperation, competition and conflict are learned behaviors, modes of achieving human ends. Women's traditional roles socialize them toward cooperation and inclusion to produce more well-being for more people. Men's traditional roles socialize them toward competition and exclusion, concerned with the well-being of their own group to the exclusion of others, behavior that leads to conflict.

When thinking about conflict, there are two arenas of action which are important. One is education in the sense of systematically cultivated learning. And the other is political structures in which conflicts play out. These structures are set within a paradigm of essentialism--whether it's gender essentialism, ethnic essentialism or political essentialism--the idea that human beings can be summed up in a set of characteristics that are in fundamental opposition to another set of characteristics.

This sense of essentialism perpetuates gender inequalities. Education can help unpack that kind of thinking, but education per se cannot deal with the structures out of which it comes. I believe those structures are multiple manifestations of patriarchy. Most of our politics are essentially patriarchal. We are socialized to patriarchal politics, and we are socialized to patriarchal gender roles.

SGIQ: How can women play a role in changing the overall dynamic of that multilayered essentialization?

BR: Gender essentialisms are used both constructively and destructively. The destructive manifestation is woman as object, woman as the body of the enemy, as victim. As for the constructive use of such essentialism, as women become aware of the fact that wars are basically men’s conflicts--that is, they are conflicts in the interest of the politically powerful--they can see that it is no longer in women's interests to go along with war. They want their work saved--and women's work is maintaining human life and viable societies. So what women are now doing is bringing up an antiwar discourse, calling upon their gender roles as caregivers, mothers and teachers to intervene in and prevent armed conflict, as some have, even physically--putting their bodies between combatants.

Women can also raise consciousness that gender roles are culturally derived and changeable. Conflict is a matter of human choice, and that brings up my favorite expression, "It just doesn't have to be that way." We can make a difference. If, for example, you look at the stories of the 1,000 women who were jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, then you see the multiple ways in which women actually make a difference, manifesting the roles of mother, teacher and courageous intervener.

SGIQ: What about the role of women as teachers in the home--can they change the way children are socialized?

BR: Those women, indeed all parents, who are conscious of gender socialization and trying to educate for a "culture of peace" can do a great deal in communicating to children such values as universal human worth and human equality. They can provide a worldview in which youngsters learn that conflict is not necessarily inevitable and that there are other ways of achieving one’s goals.

They can teach that women and men, all individuals, have different capacities. The ideal arrangement is when those capacities are used for the mutual advantage of both in the relationship and for all in the family. Children can see that sometimes the mother is better at fixing the plumbing than the father, sometimes the father more nurturing than the mother. They can begin to see that we all have various capacities that can be arranged for collaborative purposes in a complementary and equal gender relationship.

New Leadership

SGIQ: Is there a critical mass of women's leadership that is required before the dynamic begins to change?

BR: I'd like to see many more women in politics and in power, but I hope they would be women who have a consciousness of patriarchal structures and an understanding of the significance of gender socialization, so that they are able to work together with men in a complementary, collaborative way for transformation of the culture of war and violence. Transformation can only occur when there is both organic and structural change. By organic, I mean the inner consciousness that drives behavior. Education must be such that it can lead to internalized learning that affects worldview, behaviors and, ultimately, can produce a politics of significant transformative structural change.

photo Women in Somaliland demonstrate for peace [HamishWilson/Panos Pictures]

SGIQ: You are speaking to such a deep transformation. Does this mean we need to be patient?

BR: I think we have to be impatient! We need to act now. Transformation is organic and evolutionary as well as revolutionary. Politics is a living system, because it's made by living beings. This means we can make significant short-term interventions which will determine whether the longer evolutionary process is positive or negative. We should understand that we will probably reap some immediate positive result from our efforts, but we probably will never see the larger transformational consequences in our lifetime. We have to come to terms with that. Human society is very young in terms of the history of living things on this planet. So we have to be impatient but aware, organically aware, that we have ethical responsibilities to act against war and gender injustice now as steps in an evolutionary process to achieve a culture of peace.

At last we are debating, although very awkwardly, issues of the fundamental ethics of the public sphere. We have had, over and over again, reminders from religious leaders, from philosophers and from various scientists that we are one species. Now we must understand that we are one, we are slowly evolving, that we might become really good at making a society built on constructive, mutually beneficial relationships if we act within the time frame and the conditions that are open to us.

While we might not get the satisfaction of seeing the long-range nature of these changes, we can get a lot of short-term satisfaction from specific achievements, like SC 1325, the UN Security Council resolution on women's participation in peacemaking. This is a landmark international development toward gender equality and political change, the result of action by women in NGOs associated with the United Nations.

So if that could happen in the short term, then I think long-term transformation can happen. And knowing that should give us the courage to face the full extent of the transformational path.