Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

The Problem of Nonviolence: Women's Protest in the United States, Post-Civil War to Post-9/11

Sara Mitcho

Major Professor: John G. Dale, PhD, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Committee Members: Debra Bergoffen, Alison Landsberg

Johnson Center, #240A
April 10, 2014, 11:00 AM to 08:00 AM


Scholars, activists, and observers rely on a violent/nonviolent dichotomy to make ethical judgments about protest. This categorical distinction raises difficult analytical questions. Are tactics like hunger strikes violent or nonviolent? Can we untangle these categories from false assumptions about gender, race, and other social categories? In addition to producing the analytical difficulties posed by questions like these, the conceptual construction of the violent/nonviolent ethical paradigm fails to treat as 'violent' sources of structural violence that 'nonviolent' protestors often ignore, perpetuate, and rely upon. This project proposes an alternative to this flawed ethical approach not by endorsing violence, but by shifting our focus to the ontological claims protestors advance. To demonstrate the utility of an ethical model that acknowledges our fundamental ambiguity, vulnerability, and relationality amid uneven power relations rather than prescribing or proscribing violence, I examine women’s protest activity in the United States from the post-Civil War era to the post-9/11 era, from women’s suffragists and temperance activists to CODEPINK and "mama grizzlies." In doing so, I critique notions many of these protestors rely upon—women’s categorical vulnerability, the unambiguous relationship between political agency and nonviolence, and women’s enhanced aptitude for relationality—and highlight useful models in protest movements that have historically been dismissed. My four-part model, I suggest, can not only be used in analyzing activist activity, but also in planning future movements.

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