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Builders of peace: a legacy awaiting examination and dissemination

Carmen Magallón Portolés
Director of the SIP Foundation (Peace Research Seminar)
Carmen Magallón Portolés

Carmen Magallón

The historian Carmina García Herrero explains that in 1429, when the armies of Aragon and Navarre were preparing to fight against the Castilian army, the Queen of Aragon, Maria of Castile, hurried to the battlefield and pitched her tent right in the middle to prevent it. By doing so, she took responsibility for offering those involved an alternative solution, a task in which other mediators had failed. This was not an isolated case, and does not do justice to the variety of civilising influences that powerful women or those close to power have had at many points in history. C. García Herrero uses three verbs to describe these roles: mediate, arbitrate and establish. Mediation and arbitration in particular are clearly connected with what we today consider necessary for the management of conflicts within a framework of a culture for peace. According to the historian, queens were expected by society to be "agents of peace and agreement" as part of a very deep-rooted secular tradition in the Middle Ages, as shown by the fact that "between the sixth century and the early fourteenth century, of the twelve queens regnant who were made saints, five were canonised to a large extent as a result of their direct involvement in processes creating and maintaining harmony".1 She adds that this work was not only done by queens, as "common women" also acted as peacemakers, and as such ran great risks.

A look at history, which shows the attitudes, actions and thought of women committed to reducing violence in various ways, is a task that is ongoing but incomplete. We need to continue calling into question the history that has been passed down to us, which until relatively recently only highlighted the facts that patriarchal power considered most important: wars, changes to frontiers, conquests and the subjugations of peoples by others; in short, events created by the logic of domination. By contrast, the part of the historical narrative that received less emphasis covered tasks that was essential for maintaining life, which were devalued and rendered invisible, by being described as "naturally" the work of women and other marginalised groups: child rearing, the care of animals and food production, work linked to emotions and care, mediation, cooperation, and in short, the response to the multiple facets of human vulnerability.

The women's movement, feminism in its broadest sense, which contributed the energy and conceptual tools to question the inequality and knowledge passed down, now faces the challenge of disseminating this work for constructing peace. Women from all ages have rejected violence in all its aspects: structural, symbolic and direct. The experience of a majority of women has been that it is possible to see clearly that violence destroys the work it is supposed to protect, the conditions for survival of the community.

There is a feminine wisdom that is aware of the value of blood: how blood creates life and can save lives, and which refuses to shed it; which thinks and strongly rejects how unacceptable it is that it is traded; which knows how much a life costs, and how it is easier to destroy it than to take it forward.

The legacy of the female constructors of peace is passed down to us within that wisdom and based on vital, plural and multiple experiences, with the face and body of a woman. The following methods may be useful in its ongoing recovery:

One: the recovery of outstanding female constructors of peace, knowledge of their lives, their work and the events in which they were involved: politicians, mystics, trade unionists, literati, artists, reformers, non-violent revolutionaries, queens, Nobel Laureates (Bertha von Suttner, Jane Addams, Rigoberta Menchú, Wangari Maathai).

Two: the recovery and dissemination of the ideas and commitment of thinkers who in various eras gave the world reflections and thoughts which made up a civilising rationality vital for the construction of a culture of peace (Rosa Luxemburg, Virginia Woolf, Simone Weil, Petra Kelly).

Three: raising the profile of the grassroots work done by organised women's groups against war and violence all over the world. With very varied perspectives, philosophies and objectives, they generally share the desire to undermine the logic that places human beings' lives at stake in the pursuit of material, ideological, power, sovereignty or other interests.

Women's groups exist: a) To oppose war and policies of militarism and aggression implemented by their governments or the groups to which they belong (such as the Women in Black network). b) To bring together, by means of relationships and the search for points in common, people from opposing groups of which they are part, to break down the barriers between factions and bring together divided communities (women in Palestine and Israel; Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots; Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; Somalis from the five clans forming a sixth clan, etc.) c) To seek non-military solutions to structural conflict (the Colombian women's Ruta pacífica, Mothers against drugs, etc.). d) To rescue husbands and sons from a war that they do not believe in (Code Pink and soldiers' mothers in the United States; Russian mothers in the war against Chechnya...). e) Action against impunity: so that the genocides, disappearances and persecutions suffered by specific groups are not repeated (the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Widows of Guatemala, the Mothers of El Salvador, etc.). f) To support women who live in situations of war or a lack of freedom and human rights, in countries other than their own (many Women in Black groups.). g) To make the grassroots work of women count in decision-making and lobbying (UNIFEM, the Women, Peace and Security group, WILPF, women of the European Parliament and other parliaments).

Four: the recovery and dissemination of the value and meaning of the everyday work of countless nameless women who worked as carers, nurses, teachers, who were a majority in both rich and poor countries, performing the hardest tasks in hospitals, schools, homes for the elderly, etc.

Five: knowledge of the work of the leaders and international organisations within the current of internationalist feminism, with emphasis on centres of power: this trend can be traced from the First World War to the recent creation of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) at the United Nations.

Six: visibility and space for researchers, teaching staff, journalists and everyone working to disseminate and raise the profile of this female legacy of the construction of peace. The aim is for the threads of thought and action aimed at a reduction of violence and the construction of peace that these women left us to be gathered and included in the cultural fabric as a resource necessary for improving humanity's plural and troubled coexistence.

Zaragoza, 8 September 2010


1. García Herrero, Carmina (2009), "El entorno femenino de los Reyes de Aragón". A: Ángel Sesma Muñoz (dir.), La Corona de Aragón en el centro de su historia (1208-1458). La Monarquía aragonesa y los reinos de la Corona. Saragossa, Departamento de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, Gobierno de Aragón, Colección Actas, 74, p. 329. (Back)