Ray Acheson, from Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament wing of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom talks about nuclear weapons in the conext of the patriarchal system in which we live today.


Who has the biggest nuclear button?  No, I’m serious.  This is a real foreign policy question, apparently.  This is how 2018 started: The US president taunting the North Korean president over the size and virility of his nuclear arsenal.  You can’t make this stuff up, right? I mean this is feminist comedy gold.  But it is also deadly serious, because the US president also threatened to unleash fire and fury like the world has never seen before.

Except we have seen this fire and fury before.  We saw it unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 by another US president.  We’ve seen it unleashed on the islands of the Pacific, across the Australian outback, in the deserts of New Mexico and Nevada.  The world has seen this fire and fury. We know how it melts human beings, turning them into shadows.  We know how it contaminates the land and the water and our bodies for generations.

Today fourteen thousand nuclear weapons exist in the world, in the hands of nine governments.  This is an incredibly dangerous situation for all of us, for every single person on the planet.  And yet it’s those of us who call out this danger and demand disarmament that are ridiculed.

Last year for example the vast majority of governments in the world worked with the Red Cross and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons to ban the bomb, and we did it.  We got a treaty and ICAN even won the Nobel Peace Prize, but through it all we were called radical dreamers. By “we” I mean activists, diplomats, men, women, non-binary, didn’t matter, we were told that we don’t understand security.  We were told that we were being naïve and ridiculous and, my personal favourite, terminally unserious.

But we were also told repeatedly that we were being emotional.  Now this one is curious.  What woman in this room has not been accused of being emotional for raising a point about pretty much anything, right?

It’s classic patriarchy.  You’re a woman, so you’re emotional.  Real men, they don’t act out of emotion, right?  Real men like to make hard decisions about hard security.  So let’s think about nuclear weapons in this context.

I believe that feminism helps us to think about how nuclear weapons are related to the patriarchy: the patriarchy as a system that privileges men, especially those that conform to a certain kind of masculinity, a masculinity that equates strength with violence, that equates security with the capacity and the willingness to use force.  It’s a system where you need weapons to be strong and secure.  More weapons, more security.  Nuclear weapons are the pinnacle of a system like this.  They are the ultimate tool of violence and of dominance and control.

Nuclear weapons are bound up in this system of patriarchy, because systems like this require this capacity for massive violence in order to sustain themselves.

It’s how people in power, stay in power.  Now I am NOT talking about absolutes or individuals; I am NOT saying all men this or all women that.  I’m talking about a system in which gender is constructed, where there’s expectations on us of how we’re supposed to behave, on what’s masculine and what’s feminine, a system that totally denies any other identity or experience of trans, queer, non-binary.  It’s a system that celebrates the certain kind of violent masculinity and it belittles anything that it sees as a threat to that: emotion, compassion, cooperation.

The patriarchy oppresses along lines of sex and sexuality but also along the lines of race and class.

Just think about where nuclear weapons have been used, where they’ve been tested, on whose bodies, on whose lands: indigenous people, people of colour, marginalized segments of populations.

Feminism helps us unpack all of this.  It helps us see nuclear weapons’ place in the patriarchy, in a system that allows certain groups or people to remain in power through this capacity to use violence.  It helps us see how the dominant narratives around nuclear weapons are myths designed to uphold a patriarchal world order.

The story goes: nuclear weapons keep us safe, deter conflict, prevent war, keeps the world stable and secure. Stable and secure, for whom?  Not for those who have experienced the fire and the fury of nuclear weapons.  Not for those of us who live under the threat of experiencing it one day ourselves.

The magical thinking of nuclear deterrence theory says that we are safer living with weapons that have the capacity to kill us all than we would be without them.  It’s like “these are not the droids you’re looking for,” right?  This is why I think feminism is so important to our thinking about nuclear weapons.  It helps us see how nuclear weapons are about dominance and control.

It helps us see how our socially constructed expectations of gender come into play, how our ideas of what’s masculine and feminine, and our insistence on this binary, effects what we see is strong and rational and credible when it comes to weapons policy.

It helps us see nuclear deterrence theory for what it really is: pure gas-lighting, the total disregard for the lived reality of those who’ve experienced the fire and fury of nuclear weapons.  And it helps us think about security.  Whose security matters?  What does security mean?  How do we build security?

Feminism helps us engage with nuclear weapons as an issue of social justice.  This means learning from survivors, listening to those who have been impacted by the use and testing and the massive spending on nuclear weapons.  It means being led by those who understand structural discrimination and institutionalized violence: women, queer folks, people of colour.  We are at the forefront of the anti-nuclear resistance.  We led government delegations and activist groups to ban the bomb. By banning nuclear weapons, we put the interests of the marginalised ahead of the quest for dominance by the most militarily powerful countries in the world.

The governments of these countries were right about one thing.  They told us that by banning nuclear weapons we would disrupt the international order.  We did.  That was the whole point.  We mounted a challenge to the patriarchal world order supposedly ruled with the iron fist of the atomic bomb.  And we won.  This is massive.  This is a huge, incredibly important victory, but the struggle is far from over.

Nuclear weapons still exist.  Violence and militarism still dominate.  And the patriarchy is fighting fiercely for its survival.

So I urge all of you here to help, to help debunk myths, challenge these dominant narratives, disrupt the supposed natural order of things.

Our power does not lie in weapons, our power lies in our ability and our willingness to challenge the attitude that nothing can change.  We can achieve nuclear abolition.  We can achieve peace and nonviolence.  We can build collective security, human security and in this work together we’re dismantling racism and patriarchy, and we’re building something better.

Thank you