Tell us about your journey in the field of nuclear disarmament? What drove you to this fight and what keeps you going?
I came to antinuclear work through broader social justice activism. I was antiwar and antimilitarist in high school and university, joining protests against the Iraq war, the occupation of Palestine, and war profiteers. I also worked against the death penalty and for the abolition of prisons. I did my undergrad degree in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto and by chance, interned with a woman named Randy at her organization in Cambridge, MA, the Institute of Defense and Disarmament Studies. Randy had drafted the call for a nuclear freeze in the 1980s and was one of the leaders of the Nuclear Freeze Movement and a co-organizer of the march and rally for the nuclear freeze that drew a million people to Central Park in 1982. She taught me a lot about nuclear weapons and the antinuclear movement, and when I graduated from university I sought a position at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom working on disarmament, with the Reaching Critical Will program. That was 2005; I’ve been there ever since.
I’ve been committed to antinuclear advocacy and activism because I see nuclear weapons as one of the ultimate symbols of injustice and hubris in our world, as well as a purveyor of catastrophic humanitarian suffering and environmental destruction. Nuclear weapons are possessed by a handful of governments that use them to dominate international relations. They have succeeded in controlling the academic and political discourse around these weapons, they have threatened other countries to bend to their will, they have tested these weapons thousands of times, mostly only on indigenous lands and communities, they extract the uranium from and bury the waste near vulnerable communities. Nuclear weapon policy and practice is racist, patriarchal, and dangerous, yet the tiny handful of governments that possess them have managed to control ideas about these weapons so that society has largely learned to live with them, and to believe they are necessary to maintain international peace. In reality, these weapons are maintaining the status quo for the most powerful, privileged countries on earth and put us all under the threat of annihilation. Confronting this set up, trying to change it, working collectively with activists and survivors and like-minded governments – this is what keeps me going. Working to abolish nuclear weapons, for me, is also about challenging patriarchy, racism, and militarism all at once.
Briefly describe the relationship between patriarchy and nuclear struggles?
There is the “ubiquitous weight of gender” throughout the entire nuclear weapons discourse and the association of nuclear weapons with masculinity described by Carol Cohn in her groundbreaking work on gender in nuclear weapons discourse. There is the denial of people’s—especially women’s—lived experiences of the weapons, that is, denial of others’ perceptions of reality. Such denial is characteristic of patriarchy and psychologically abusive relationships. The dominant discourse also attempts to justify and to link opposition to nuclear weapons to “womanhood” or “femininity” in order to belittle and marginalize antinuclear perspectives. All these complex dimensions are important to explore and expose.
The connection between militarized/toxic masculinity and warfare creates and reinforces the widely observed gender stereotype, assuming men to be inherently violent and inclined to participate in violent acts. Men do constitute the majority of those committing violence and participating in armed conflict. But there is a distinct social history fostering this behavior, perpetuated by assumptions about masculinity and femininity and by the institutions and social structures influenced by these assumptions. When gender differential treatment of men becomes integral to political or military policy, it is difficult to change. Like institutional racism, it becomes part of the social fabric, continuously reinforced through practice, and so conditions the environment in which all disarmament negotiations take place.
Within the context of nuclear weapons, the masculinity-warfare connection displays two key elements of gendered obstacles to denuclearizing security policy. First, the association of weapons and war as a symbol of masculine strength makes it harder to open up discussions about disarmament or collective security. Proponents of abolition are put down as unrealistic and irrational, as “emotional” or “effeminate”. In the last few years, some representatives of the nuclear-armed states have tried to argue that even talking about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons or calling for abolition is “emotional”. They refused to attend the humanitarian initiative conferences. They have argued that the topic is irrelevant to conversations about nuclear weapons. Overall, the gendered discourse around nuclear weapons has made it more difficult for heads of state, diplomats, and the military to envision or articulate different security structures that do not rely extensively on weapons and military might to “protect” the “nation” or its people.
Why have women been so silenced in the fight for nuclear disarmament, especially considering their long history of involvement in this struggle?
Women have been marginalized in pretty much any issue dealing with peace and security, or weapons and warfare. Women, and others not identifying as men, are vastly underrepresented in disarmament and arms control discussions and negotiations. At the same time, women have been at the forefront of the antinuclear movement. Women were leaders in the campaign to ban nuclear weapon testing in the United States, using powerful symbols such as a collection of baby teeth to show evidence of radioactive contamination. Women led the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s, calling on the Soviet Union and the United States to stop the arms race. Women were leaders in the movement to ban nuclear weapons in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
I think the disconnect between the high-level of women’s participation in activism against the bomb and low level of participation in government delegations or their silence/dismissal as non-experts is based on a very patriarchal approach to security and weapons issues described above in my answer to the second question. I think it’s also because of the technique of the patriarchy to deny lived experience, to consider the reality of lives and bodies as being “emotional” and as “non-expert”.
When those flexing their “masculinity” want to demonstrate or reinforce their power and dominance, they try to make others seem small and marginalized by accusing them of being emotional, overwrought, irrational, or impractical. Women and other marginalized people have experienced this technique of dismissal and denigration for as long as gender hierarchies have existed. The denial of reason in someone else is an attempt to take away the ground on which the other stands, projecting illusions about what is real, about what makes sense or what is rational. One actor proclaims, “I am the only one who understands what the real situation is. Your understanding of is not only incorrect but also delusional—it is based upon a reality that does not exist.” It means putting self as subject and the other as object, eliminating their sense of and eventual capacity for agency.
This is more than just an argument or a difference in interpretation. This is an attempt to undermine, discredit, and ultimately destroy the other’s entire worldview in order to maintain power and privilege. Objectification of others and control of reality, known as “gas lighting” in psychological terms, is as integral to patriarchy as it is to nuclear deterrence as a mechanism to maintain the current global hierarchy. When the majority of states, international and civil society organizations all say, “Nuclear weapons threaten us all and must be eliminated,” the nuclear-armed states say, “Nuclear weapons—in our hands—keep us safe and we must maintain them indefinitely.” When it is pointed out that they haven’t complied with their disarmament commitments, they claim that they have. They argue that they done all they can and now it up to rest of the world—those countries without nuclear weapons—to “create the conditions” for any further disarmament efforts. And it’s not just the reason or rationality of those supporting the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons that is denied. It is also the lived experience of everyone who has ever suffered from a nuclear explosion, or mining of nuclear weapons, or burial of nuclear waste.
This isn’t just about silencing women. This is about silencing everyone who has an experience or feeling about nuclear weapons that contradicts the dominant narrative.
Have you ever been silenced or ignored simply because you’re a woman? If so, what did you do?
Sure, all the time! But I just refuse to shut up. I keep writing, speaking, and inserting my views and the views of others I witness being silenced into the rooms and into the discourse.
What does it mean to apply a gender lens to your work? Why is it so critical?
Taking a human-focused approach to disarmament, and thereby challenging the dominant state-centered approach to international peace and security, was instrumental in establishing negotiations on the nuclear ban treaty. The humanitarian initiative, with its purposeful deconstruction of nuclear weapons as weapons of terror and massive violence, led to the majority of states being willing to negotiate the nuclear ban. An understanding of the gendered elements embedded in the discourse and politics of nuclear weapons will support the continued stigmatization of nuclear weapons and promotion of the new treaty.
A gender perspective challenges governments and people to act on moral, ethical, humanitarian, environmental, legal, political and economic grounds without waiting for permission from those benefiting from the status quo—because that permission will never come. Humanitarian discourse intended to relieve multiple human suffering requires the recognition that nuclear weapons represent a constant threat of terror and that they perpetuate inequity between countries, with broader implications for humanity.
Explorations of injustice help unmask their immorality. Within this more complex critique, gender analysis is crucial to illuminating and challenging the structures of power that impose injustice and deprivation and sustain nuclear weapons.
Just as the humanitarian discourse undermines the perceived legitimacy of nuclear weapons, a gender analysis of nuclear discourse helps to deconstruct nuclear weapons as symbols of power and tools of empire. It can show that the enshrinement of nuclear weapons as an emblem of power is not inevitable and unchangeable but a gendered social construction designed to maintain the patriarchal order. As Carol Cohn, Felicity Ruby, and Sara Ruddick wrote in 2006, a gender analysis that highlights the patriarchy and social constructions inherent in this valuation of nuclear weapons helps to “multiply, amplify, and deepen” arguments for nuclear disarmament and question the role of a certain kind of masculinity of the dominant paradigm. Disarmament, sometimes cast by its detractors as a weak or passive approach to security, can instead be shown for what it is—rational, just, moral and necessary for our survival.
Gender analysis also highlights the ways in which the possession and proliferation of nuclear weapons are silently underwritten and supported by an image of hegemonic masculinity, demonstrating just how dangerous and illusory an image of security produces. Being aware of the gendered meanings and characterizations embedded throughout the discourse and politics of nuclear weapons helps to “confront the traditionally constructed meanings and redefine terms such as ‘strength’ and ‘security’ so that they more appropriately reflect the needs of all people.” This kind of awareness can help us to understand and improve how we think, talk and act about weapons, war, and militarism in a broader sense.
How has intersectionality impacted the field of nuclear disarmament? Did it impact the success of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?
The story of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—and why it could be achieved now—must also be seen in the much larger context of the broader global resistance to injustice and oppression. In the United States in 2017, we have had Native Nations Rise actions; protests at airports and strikes at bodegas to protect the rights of immigrants; Black Lives Matter actions and professional athletes taking a knee to protest police violence against people of color. Around the world there have been initiatives to protect LGBTQIA people, refugees, workers, the environment. The Women’s March and the #MeToo campaign have smashed through layers of silence, exposing specific men but also disrupting the culture of misogyny, sexism, harassment, assault, and abuse.
Nuclear weapons are part of these bigger systems of patriarchy, racism, militarism, and capitalism—systems that have been challenged throughout history, and that are being challenged now in new ways, from new collectives of people around the world.
Women and LGBTQIA people are leaders in ICAN and the broader antinuclear movement, challenging the normative discourses that traditionally allow certain perspectives to be heard. Women also played a leading role among the diplomats in the process to ban nuclear weapons, with some delegations to the negotiations even being comprised solely of women.
People of color also played a leading role in the nuclear ban. The process was galvanized and led by the nonwhite world, both in terms of governments and civil society. ICAN campaigners from Brazil to Kenya to the Philippines were instrumental in advocacy while most of the governments involved in the process are also from the global south. Indigenous nuclear-test survivors from Australia and the Marshall Islands gave testimony during negotiations alongside Japanese atomic-bomb survivors. Nuclear-weapon policy has long been recognized as racist and colonial. Banning nuclear weapons meant taking a stand against these policies, working together at the United Nations where all countries are supposed to have an equal say.
How do you measure success in the fight for equal representation regarding nuclear talks? Is success being realized?
We can measure success with numbers, to some extent – how many non-male-identified people are participating, speaking, being treated as experts within disarmament discussions and negotiations? How many all-male and all-white panels are still happening? Are government delegations and civil society groups making an effort to include – in a meaningful way – the views of people of diverse gender and ethnic backgrounds?
There is some success. A few governments have been working to ensure participation of women from the global south at certain meetings by running sponsorship programs. Some have pushed for language in outcome documents in disarmament for encouraging governments to ensure the “full, effective, and equal” participation of women (such as the NPT, the TPNW, and also the UN General Assembly and the UN Program of Action on small arms and light weapons). There is some understanding of the relevance of UN Security Council 1325, which includes promotion of women’s participation, as relevant to disarmament. But much more work is needed. Even in civil society coalitions, the leadership is still skewed towards white, western activists and groups. Understanding privilege and taking an intersectional approach to our work is imperative, and we need to do much more.
What are you focused on next?
I’m writing a book about the process to ban nuclear weapons! I’m also working to promote entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, to prevent the development of autonomous weapons with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, and to stop the bombing of towns and cities and war profiteering by holding states accountable to international law. (And a few other things!)
A fierce advocate for gender equality, Ray Acheson works for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), one of the world’s longest-standing feminist peace organizations. At WILPF she serves as the Director of Reaching Critical Will, a program focused specifically on disarmament. Sitting on the ten-person international steering group, Acheson represents WILPF at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Recently awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, ICAN and was recognized for a successful, intersectional campaign that led to the adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. A champion for gender equity within disarmament, Acheson researches and writes about the important relationship between nuclear weapons and gender. Putting this research to practice, Acheson employs a invaluable gender lens in her fight for nuclear disarmament – a lens that provides her with hope for a future without the dangerous cycles of arms races and proliferation.