Women and Conflict

Elise Boulding

Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Dartmouth College and Former Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

Sorry, the audio for this segment is unavailable. 

Q: Is there a special role for women in peace making?

A: Definitely. I did my doctoral thesis when I decided to go back to school. I needed more training so that I could teach myself and just be better prepared for all the work that I wanted to do. By then our youngest was in junior high. So the five kids were sort of on their way by then. My dissertation was on the effect of industrialization on women's roles. I studied pre-industrial societies that were of development. And I studied the UN statistics and the human relations area files stories on how far pre-industrial women could travel from home in different countries. If they were market women they might drive all over the country or even internationally. So looking at the pre-industrial society I noticed that women were more visible and active in many of these countries than they were in developed societies. This was mostly because they were very often the farmers and merchants, so they had a whole lot of activities. But once they got colonized and westernized, women were supposed to stay home. Of course I am not saying that all indigenous societies had women who were so free, but I'm saying that I got an idea that women are doing a lot of stuff that is not visible. So I took a year of solitude, took a sabbatical, and did some reading on women through history. I went right through from the early homo sapiens to hunter-gatherers and up to the present. I went through history books and data. I found that most history books didn't have anything in them about women. Yet I learned how to look for stories of women. As I picked up stories, I saw them in every society, including in Europe. The way Western women were active didn't show up at all in the history books, but they were the ones who started hospitals, social services, and set up services for women. The women saw the problems where the men did not. The undersides of history were showing all the things that women did. Occasionally you would have a Queen, or somebody like Joan of Arc who made it into the history books, but the actual work done by women, their contributions to society, and the invention of hospital systems, was not visible. But women's social roles and how they came to be has not always been invisible. In pre-industrial times women's roles were quite visible. They had to be better listeners and closer observers of the environment and where the resources were located because they bore the children and had to feed them. They also fed the men. They were providing these basic services, and if there was violence they had to be the protectors of the children and the house, which meant that they were always listening for what was going on.

Q: How does that translate into now?

A: What is happening today? You've heard of UN Resolution 1325, that women must be participating whenever there are peacekeeping forces. I always say to people it is because they are better listeners. Any peacekeeping station where a woman is in a decision-making role functions better because they learn how to listen to the community and figure out how things are going on. They're better listeners because they have to be. That becomes their special skill. In my lifetime there has been an increased emphasis to women as peacemakers. I would say that this really began with Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, in which I had served as International Chair at one point. So I got to know a lot of the women who were working on the political and public policy level about disarmament. There were just so many different kinds of organizations. The Fellowship of Reconciliation runs A Women's Peacemaker Program, which is fabulous. It gives conflict resolution training and alternatives to violence in every country where there are members of the Fellowship. This organization is one of the oldest of the international peace NGO's. Rebecca Shelley runs a remarkable program of training. Women don't get these skills of listening and so on, then go to another country and tell them how to behave. What they do is they go and listen. They make themselves a presence in any conflict situation. Then they combine what they know with what the women there already know and then they build up ways of working for peace. A very important part of it is the Women's Listening Circle Movement. The listening circle movement is an idea that if you are to resolve conflict you should all be sitting in a circle so you can see each other and have dialogue. Instinctively, women form circles. They know that this is a way that it works.

Q: Does listening lead to peace?

A: Well, listening is an absolute precondition for conflict resolution because you have to understand how the other person sees their situation. So as you listen you begin to see how things look to them. Then you can negotiate something that deals with the conflict in a way that it takes account of their diverse needs and diverse interests. . In terms of current