The Female World Can Lead to a More Peaceful World

Jessie Bernard, 1984

Jessie Bernard is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University. Throughout her career as a scholar she has focused on such topics as the nature of relationships between men and women, the changing institution of the family, and the unique strengths and differences inherent in the female world. One impediment to achieving peace, in Dr. Bernard's view, is that the quest for power, domination, intimidation, winning, climbing, and achieving are such prime values of the male ethos.

Whiteley: Dr. Bernard, you've observed that often when people are asked to talk about peace, they begin by talking about war, and that's not at all how you see it.

Bernard: Oh, no. It's true that people have a notion that if you're not at war, you're at peace, and history has given us the notion until recently that the only important thing for historians to write about was war and the intervals between well, whatever was happening. It wasn't interesting, it wasn't important, until the social historians, especially the women historians, came to see that an awful lot was happening and it was important. So, I think we should, you know, find out what's peace all about. And it does not mean that all is sweetness and light. You remember William James went up to visit Chatauqua where they were very peaceful, had no conflict at all, and he was bored to death and he thought this was a terrible life to lead, and that of course is when he wrote his moral equivalent for war: football, I suppose, and boxing, and the Olympics. But I'm not even thinking in those terms. As a sociologist, I see a community as a dynamic thing going on all the time, exciting things happening all the time, including conflicts of many kinds. And we have worked out styles and ways of dealing with them, in labor relations, in family, industry. There are all kinds of steps, and sometimes you think the only way to handle it is to get rid of them. Well, you can kill them, that's one way to get rid of them; or you can isolate them, you can send them to Siberia; or you can withdraw yourself like a lot of the dissidents in England withdrew from Britain when the differences became too great. So, as a sociologist, I see conflict going on all the time in communities everywhere, but we have worked out ways of dealing with them, excepting when we get to the national state, then it becomes a little different.

But I would like to enter a caveat here, because I'm going to be talking about women and I don't want to be misunderstood. So I'll have to introduce a brief digression on sex differences, of all things, that some differences are categorical, either/or, male or female. But most - not most - but a great many differences are distributional. It isn't that men are all aggressive and the women are all passive, because we know that one of the basic changes in both your discipline and mine is that intragroup differences are greater than the average between two groups. That the most aggressive male is more different from the least aggressive male than he is from the average female. So when I say women, I don't mean every single woman, because if I did say women are this and men are that, you'd immediately point out 25 women who were generals, or what have you. So when I say women I mean more women than men, or more men than women are such and such.

Whiteley: But your point is that there are substantial gender differences that bear on the question of peace, and it's to that notion that you want to direct your attention.

Bernard: Yes. That's what I'm addressing, yes. There have been women's international peace groups in our country for over 150 years. In 1840, 1850, they were already organizing, and of course you know in the First World War there was this formation of this International League for Peace and Freedom, and Jane Adams tried to get something said at The Hague. But men are slow learners. More men than women, I should say, are very slow learners. It takes them a long time to find out, as one commentator has said, 'it doesn't work if the benefit/loss equation is not a good one.' But they pay very little attention to what women think about it.

Whiteley: In trying to understand how men see the world, you've written about the era preceding World War I, when militarism and racism became so entwined with our body politic. You basically saw that as a thrust for men. What were you trying to share?

Bernard: Well, that males are only half of the human species, and as women get their act together (which takes time), and also I believe in the - when you get a certain momentum of the critical mass, there have to be enough people, enough women to see their own power, and to work out the plans, the strategies, and that takes time. Women have often felt that war wasn't their thing, and many of them have been used, of course, in the wars to stimulate recruitment for men.

Whiteley: To heighten the patriotic or the attractiveness of military service.

Bernard: Yeah. Uncle Sam Wants You, and to make heroes of the soldiers. But I think more and more women are becoming sensitive to their impact and what they can do, and I think in time that will have an effect.

Whiteley: Do you think women are as afflicted with what you've observed as the male need for dominance?

Bernard: Fewer women than men, I would say. I don't think all men have it, but more men than women do have this need to dominate and be the boss. But there are all kinds of stereotypes in that area too. I once went through the Bible just for fun, Old Testament, and looked at the patriarchs. And you know, they had a bad press, because when you actually see how they were behaving, they didn't all need to dominate; they could be quite humane and non-bossy. So I think the women who are working on achieving, minimizing war have a lot of allies amongst the men if it were only possible to reach them. But unfortunately, if something is viewed as a woman's issue, it will be, you know, disregarded. Women are not weak and they're not macho in the male sense, but they can have power once they realize it. And I think some men are afraid they might learn about it and use it.

Whiteley: What keeps women from putting that power to work?

Bernard: Well, it's only recently that they have been exposed to the issues, and a critical mass has not yet been achieved. It's beginning, I mean it's growing as the gender gap shows, but one of the things that has fascinated me in the Third World is the - when leftist movements, anti-colonial, national liberation, revolutionary movements started, they needed the women. They needed them for all kinds, as in the communications system, and they needed food, they often needed shelters in the guerrilla movements. So they went out and recruited them, and in order to attract them they gave them a vocabulary of their own oppression. They hadn't known how oppressed they were until they were - it was the Leninist, Maoist, Marxist vocabulary - and they were showing that you're very oppressed, we're all oppressed, and you're doubly oppressed. And that it's fascinating to see all over the Third World how the women in their own documents were repeating the same vocabulary.

So they discovered that they were oppressed. They had known they were miserable, and they had known they had a lot of suffering, and they had known there were bad things in their society, but now they had a word for it, and now they had an explanation for it, and now there was a way out of it. So they learned their power.

Whiteley: So an important role for you in harnessing the power women have is through education.

Bernard: Oh absolutely; oh absolutely.

Whiteley: What form should that take?

Bernard: Well, reading and writing at the bottom level, because you know, literacy, not many women in the world are literate yet. Education which would include, beyond literacy, something about the organization of their society, of their culture and how they fit into it, and what their own strengths are. They're not dumb. They're really not dumb once they have access to information.

Whiteley: Okay, but that access is present by and large in America, and education hasn't been enough.

Bernard: Not yet.

Whiteley: What else needs to occur? What are the blocks? So you've talked about the need for literacy and information. The information may not be widespread, but comparative to life in a global perspective, this is a pretty literate society, and both young men and women are educated up...

Bernard: That's why we have more responsibility.

Whiteley: Okay. But with that responsibility there is a certain level of literacy and information, and it hasn't led to the coalition around ideas and translating those into power that you're calling for. What else is operative?

Bernard: We have to develop an old sociological term: consciousness of kind. We have to get to know one another.

Whiteley: In your book The Female World, you've quoted the Roszaks (Betty and Theodore Roszak, Masculine/Feminine) about the last century has been a century of male dominance, and in your view, that's a block to peace, that the body politic has been a male dominated body. How has that been a block to peace?

Bernard: Well, the polity is male turf, and it has run on the male ethos. You had to win, you had to be first, you had to be top dog, and peace was just a dream, and not even a beautiful dream. Remember, was it Clausewitz (Carl von Clausewitz, On War) who said that? It wasn't even a desirable goal. The important thing was to fight a battle and win.

Whiteley: As you've written, it ran counter to the male ethos anyway of aggressiveness and competition, and someone winning and someone losing.

Bernard: Yes, right. But in that book you may also note that we're finding that doesn't solve this anymore. Another person on your list of speakers has made that point. It just doesn't pay anymore. And men are asking for the help of women, helping us solve these problems; we're not doing it right. I think that's very hopeful. Not that women have all the right answers, but we can learn together what the right answer is.

Whiteley: You've quoted The Roszaks as indicating the period leading up to the start of World War I read like one long drunken male stag party with the glorification of war and warriors.

Bernard: You have to have scars, but you had to prove that you had been in a battle.

Whiteley: As we struggle as a society to prevent a third World War, do you see it any different from the period - the cultural ethos any different from the period leading up to World War I?

Bernard: Oh, yes, I do. I think the nuclear warhead is - Margaret Mead said it really started a totally new situation. Nothing like it before. But I am a little disturbed about - well, these things go up and down. You don't just have a straightforward progress. About ten or fifteen years ago nuclear war was unthinkable. You couldn't even think about it, it was such an impossible idea. Well now we're thinking about it, and we're having television programs about it, we're writing a lot of books about it. I think that's a regression; I think that's a backward step.

Whiteley: How is it a backward step, because the paradox is that if people for the first time thinking about how terrible a nuclear war would be...?

Bernard: But we're thinking that maybe it's winnable. If you're allowed to think about it, then you start thinking well, okay, we kill a hundred million people, but that leaves an awful lot of people left. I think it's a backward step that we're thinking about it as seriously as we are. As long as we accepted the idea that it's unthinkable, it's too terrible to think about. And if it had become firmly fixed I think it would have had more impact. But the minute you think it's winnable I think that's a backward step. But I think women will - more women than men - will be opposed to that line of thought. It isn't winnable, we shouldn't be thinking about it.

Whiteley: In contrast to the male ethos of intimidation and power and aggression, you've written that the women's ethos of compassion and empathy or pity...

Bernard: Well we want to communicate. We emphasize relationships, positive relationships. And all of those babies just dying, and all these - our sons - and all these beautiful young men or women going off to be killed, and all the people at home not even having to go off, being killed in their own bedroom. That's not a very good thought. I don't think it inspires very many women to see anybody so meaninglessly destroyed.

Whiteley: You've written that's the darker side of the male ethos, and the positive side is it led to so many technological advances that a lot of our problems now are problems we cause ourselves. There are no longer problems that aren't preventable: famine and pestilence. Why is it that we're not able as a society to solve the human problems?

Bernard: Well we have new ones all the time. We're all slow learners; it takes us a while to - first of all it takes us a long time to see the problem, to recognize it and to measure it, and to get a fix on it. Then it takes us a long time to do the research necessary to find an answer, it takes a long time to convince people about the importance of it. It's a slow process.

Whiteley: I'd like you to share with us your views on how some of the principle institutions that affect society need to change. Let's start with religion.

Bernard: Religion is not a very hopeful approach. It's so, so much a part of us, such a terrible part of us in the sense that it really gets to the rock bottom. The Middle East, Beirut is a perfect example how non-rational a lot of the behavior is, and when you look at the religious wars, they're so intractable, so hard to - you can't concede, you can't compromise, no such thing. Well, but even there we're beginning, we're trying. As I recall, a lot of denominations, of course Protestant denominations, are attempting to work out some modus vidende. And even amongst - between Catholic and Protestant, they're beginning - they can't compromise their basic principles, but they're finding ways that they can live together without destroying one another. You know, it took a long time to get to that point. So the potential is terrific if you can get people to make peace, or getting rid of war, a religious war - we even use that figure of speech - it would be great. But at the present status it's still a powerful stimulus to violence.

Whiteley: What do you see governments needing to do differently to be forces for peace?

Bernard: Well, put policy in the hands of people who do not have to dominate every place that they take part in. Better negotiation, an awful lot of the conflict is dealt with around the table, and the more the better. As soon as we stop talking, as soon as we stop negotiating, that's bad news. But we have to have people to whom it isn't essential that they win every point, who don't feel that they have been degraded if they make a concession. And unfortunately, some people, their whole self-image, their self-pride depends on winning the point. And one of the worst things you can say about a government person is 'you lost China for us,' or 'you lost Central America.' We never had it, we never owned it, but if we were defeated that was the end of the world.

And - you know, one of the most shocking things in our U.S. history was the loss of the war in Vietnam. Of course we shouldn't have been there in the first place, but a better judgment on the part, better understanding, it is said - I was just reading today that the worst mistake we made in Lebanon was we didn't understand what was going on there. We imputed to them our own psychology and our own background, and it didn't work there, and we made all kinds of mistakes.

Whiteley: What do you see the implications for the family to be? Family in America, and men and women living separately and together is something you've devoted most of your professional career to thinking about.

Bernard: Well, the decade between the late 60s and the late 70s was a time of very serious crisis for marriage and family. If you look at the figures, the marriage rate was going down - the first-marriage rate was going down, the remarriage rate was going down, so the overall marriage rate was going down. The divorce rate doubled. Well, if those trends had continued, marriage would have come to an end and a whole system would have ended. But by 1983 the overall national divorce rate had gone down, which seemed almost unthinkable ten years earlier. The marriage rate went down a little bit last year, but overall they're fluctuating around a level point.

But the marriages that people returned to after that crisis was quite different from the marriage that had prevailed before, and mainly in the two-earner marriage which is not only quantitatively different, that there are more two-earner families, but it's qualitatively different because it changes all the relationships when there are two earners. So that was a big change but it didn't destroy marriage; it changed it very drastically. Then a new thing that grew very rapidly was cohabitation. There's a difference of opinion as to whether we're following the more liberal Swedish plan, {or} the more traditional French plan; it looks as though we're following the French plan where, if they want children, they marry, and most of them do marry in time. So as Johns Hopkins Professor Andrew Cherlin has pointed out, what it amounts to is just inserting a new stage in the life cycle of intimacy before permanent commitment.

Whiteley: But the family remains the seed of a lot of violence in our society, and that does run counter to achieving peace. And as you've observed the changing nature of men and women and how they get together, what are the implications for the family unit as some force for peace?

Bernard: Well, first of all I would like to point out that violence in the family, it wasn't new, but the thing that's important and extremely valuable, is that now we are facing it. There are people who are reporting it, even including the women themselves. They warn us so we have a sign, and we're facing it. We used to sweep it under the rug. It was only things that immigrants did, but us nice respectable people, we didn't do it. Well, now we find that it occurs everywhere, up and down and across. So I think that's terribly important, not that there is violence there, but that we're learning about it and facing up to it, and the women themselves know they don't have to put up with this.

Whiteley: And for you that's a first step in putting a stop to it.

Bernard: That's a first step, right. Right. And we're researching it and we know more and we know how to deal with it and how to treat it, and we see it in its context. And I think that's very important, especially researching it is important.

Whiteley: So for you, making the family a more peaceful institution of society is an important step towards achieving peace. And what is it about the female world that's particularly relevant to achieving peace?

Bernard: Well I think the ethos, the female world has its own structure, its own culture, and its own ethos, which is just almost the opposite of the ethos of the male world. The ethos of the female world is what I call 'love and/or duty.' Altruism, doing for others, serving others. And don't ask me to tell you whether or not this is inborn; I don't know to what extent it is. But it's very widespread, many cultures have it, but it's very documentable in our society. If you look at the - from a way back the books on manners, books on behavior, even cookbooks, they were always teaching, girls, you know you have to serve others, you have to be helpful to other people. Which doesn't help women when they enter the workforce. It's not a very useful thing on male turf.

Whiteley: In your view the female world has within it an ethos that can lead us to a more peaceful world.

Bernard: I think so. I think so.

Whiteley: Dr. Bernard, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the ways to a more peaceful world.