Nuclear Weapons are a Feminist Issue – This is Why

THE devolved parliament in Scotland, elected through proportional representation, has undoubtedly attended to many of what are described as women’s issues. New legislation to protect women from men’s violence towards them and their children for a start.

Women within the movement for independence are deeply committed to ensuring that women are better represented, that their voices are heard and that they contribute fully to creating the kind of country where their needs are met and their aspirations are part of the plan.

But in a country where women are twice as dependent on social security as men, devolution has not offered enough to allow the radical change that’s needed to really deliver equality.

In the UK, there is a low level of gun crime, and it’s even lower in Scotland. It was two women who initiated the Snowdrop petition that eventually gained a million signatures, but it still required a change in government to achieve its aim: to ban handguns.

In contrast with small arms, light weapons, knives and football results, nuclear weapons can seem to be something that women do not need to worry about. Nuclear weapons don’t seem very visible in the high street, let alone in people’s homes. They are complicated, technical, they require training to use and they are obviously hugely expensive.

Maybe there’s a problem with the radioactive waste, but how would you know? They are not seen to be one of the ever-present daily dangers that affect how women live out their lives and do what is needed to protect their children.

Yet, ionising radiation has twice the impact on women’s bodies as it has on men’s, it has more effect on soft tissue and makes the growing body even more vulnerable to cancers. Consider children and pregnant women at this point.

Hearing the evidence of women’s marked vulnerability to ionising radiation described in evidence-led scientific reports at the UN negotiating conference for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted in July 2017, was new information, shocking in the extreme for some young Scots women campaigners on Scotland’s civil society delegation.

The side event they were attending was hosted by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, and the panel there continued with evidence from across the world about the social stigmatisation of nuclear/radiation victims, from Chernobyl to Fukushima, in addition to the experiences described by survivors from the US attacks on Japan in 1945 and their descendants, collectively known as Hibakusha.

Fukushima women are subjected to the cover-ups and lies that have left them not only exposed to radiation, but after that they were abandoned to the double shift of childcare and earning. Evacuation without their husbands was followed by the withdrawal of government allowances while authorities argued over whether or not it was safe for the women and children to return to communities that, somehow, had missed out on any so-called clean up.

Marriage break-down had become common enough to be called “atomic divorce”, and women were shunned as tainted because they had been exposed to radiation. Years earlier, the same stigmatisation led to many Hibakusha fearing to speak out after their ordeals at Hiroshima and Nagasaki until they were old women.

In the documentary film made by Adam Jonas Horowitz, Nuclear Savage, the intersectional elements of racism and patriarchy are played out in the true and horrific history of a Pacific paradise and its people being utilised for three decades as a laboratory.

The Marshall islanders were exposed to nuclear fallout and consequent tumours, cancers and appalling birth defects are all justified by the race for the most destructive weapon that could be devised.

Although women, including the young women at the UN for the TPNW negotiations, may have protested the development, testing, deployment and possible use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima, paradoxically this has often been without considering the particularly disproportionate impact on women.

Nuclear weapons possession is predicated on maintaining a culture that prefers strong, capable, unemotional men to take charge over impulsive, emotional, nurturing women whose task it is to facilitate their work and clean up after it.

These roles have nothing to do with the sex of the people performing them, but a great deal to do with the roles assigned by our social conditioning by gender.

Detailed, focused attention on the human impact of nuclear weapons is off limits in discussion among security professionals. If one of them stumbles into allowing it to occur, the speaker is discredited, because it is seen as weak, feminine talk (i.e. irrational, emotional and unrealistic).

Women are usually debarred from the conversation, but any men foolish enough to speak from the “women’s perspective” will be ridiculed or, at best, disregarded. Try it.

THIS is not an issue about the gender of those in charge of these weapons, but the way that society assigns roles. There is also a vocal minority of women who will claim that the issue is best understood by their (male) leaders and power brokers, so even though they may feel a bit squeamish about it, the “right” thing to do is support the (brave) (male) military leaders who understand the issues.

Nikki Haley is an American politician who served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 2017 to 2018. She infamously pulled a stunt involving a mock “protest” outside the TPNW conference to which all the nuclear-armed states had been invited, but refused to attend.

She declared that her support for the US nuclear weapons programme and the US refusal to consider disarmament was because, she said, “I am a mom, I understand that my family need to be kept safe”.

Lack of female participation and neglect of women’s voices denies the majority of women a say in issues that heavily impact their lives.

UK nuclear policy does not engage with women’s perspectives and narratives, and this pattern is repeated across nuclear-armed states throughout the world.

The social costs of hosting nuclear weapons are often at the expense of meeting the basic needs of shelter, food and water, electricity, health and education. While the task of looking after the daily needs of children and the elderly or vulnerable is generally left to women, absence of the required resources will hit women the hardest and women often sacrifice their own needs in order to fulfil the expectation that patriarchy places upon them.

Trident replacement costs continue to spiral astronomically, while the UK Government’s austerity measures leave university graduates scrabbling in food banks, and cuts to public services impact on the most vulnerable groups in our society.

That’s to say on women, single parent led households and everyone else who is surviving on lower incomes, such as the elderly, those with enduring health issues and the severely impaired, the majority of whom are reliant on women for care and support.

Recent changes to Universal Credit has affected all single parents – 9 out of 10 of which are women. Even if nuclear weapons came free in your cornflakes, the UK’s policies of denying WMD to others implies maintaining the current international balance of power, in which the UK and the US are privileged, politically and economically.

As Scots and feminists, we oppose the extreme inequality inherent in the current world order, and actions which endorse it. It’s not our kind of Scotland.

Many of us welcomed the opportunity that the independence referendum gave us to really seriously consider the concept of the early days of a better nation, to allow our hearts to beat a little faster, our aspirations to rise a little higher, our common sense to gar us grue the UK state’s aggression towards folk we had no quarrel with, and the nuclear weapons foisted on the Clyde are just what we wanted rid of.

In 2003, in their working paper on ethics and WMD, Carol Cohn and Sara Ruddock noted the dominant attitude. A woman participant at the biological weapons treaty negotiations noted that what counted was “reason” and that “emotions” were excluded. Concerns about the effects of a vaccine on troops were “emotional” and described as “complaining”, “whining,” or “carrying on.”

More than a decade later we should know better. Excluding the emotional response and not considering vulnerability when processing information and assessing the impact is incomplete. And not fully human.

The power of the kind of gendered discourse described excludes what is still coded as “feminine”, but it can be reduced if sufficient women are present. Women and men who are respectful enough of each other to fully listen can work together to prevent us from accepting that there is any acceptable use for nuclear weapons.

This acceptance includes recognition that nuclear weapons are a women’s issue when social service is inadequate because the economy is dysfunctional.

Nuclear weapons remain a women’s issue because of the disproportionate harm they do to women’s bodies – even when they are not used.

Nuclear weapons will continue to be a women’s issue as long as we maintain a power dynamic that prevents women from contributing their expertise and skills in conflict resolution, and does not protect them from harm. And until nuclear convoys carrying fully armed nuclear warheads cease to be driven past Scottish (or any) primary schools and hospitals.



Comments (17)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Nuclear weapons are an abomination and we should not have them. This is not a feminist issue it is a humanity issue.

    1. Jo says:


      I wonder how many people didn’t bother reading the article because of the title. I say that as a woman.

      1. Alistair MacKichan says:

        I was interested that the ICAN TPNW was orchestrated and achieved by an international group of women. There is a courage that is raised by withstanding patriarchy which then goes on to challenge current political activity, like nuclear armament. It may be the force which saves the human species, and therefore while it starts as a feminist issue, it becomes the humanitarian joker in the pack, the winning card within the human psyche. That’s why I read the article, because of ICAN, and because of similar feminist activity e.g. it was the liberation feminists of Catalonia who drove the socialist uprising that asked for Catalonian independence in 2017 – this is about the emancipation of cultural minorities, and is an urgent matter for peace all round the world.

    2. That’s true – as the author – a veteran peace activist will testify – however she is drawing attention to a gender element of the issue which i believe is essential.

      1. Anthony Donovan says:

        Tis true, we benefit from every cause taking this omnicidal reality up… putting it forward on agenda’s, making it their own, connecting all our silos. Indeed it’s in there with Climate, with Health, with Human Rights, with racism, housing, immigration….. simply stealing vast treasury from our challenges of today…. The new Divestment movements are vital. Those going to prison challenging our nuclear policies in the Federal Courts directly (a few grandmothers in here) need exposure as they give their all for all…. etc. (Thank Nae Nukes for sharing their message!)

        And yes, ICAN’s and others push to have nations ratify the Ban Treaty. All and more pathways are the tapestry that will Save our world and humanity. Thank you again for this article.

      2. Janet Fenton says:

        Thanks Mike
        Of course nuclear weapons are an abomination and I have campaigned in the streets, at the bases, in the parliament and at the UN at some level throughout my adult life to be shot of them, and even if they were not disproportionate in their impact on women and girls, I would/will continue to do so until they are gone. But, knowing that they are, it upsets me when I hear women and men who want to work for women’s human rights suggest that its ‘not a women’s issue’. I’m also upset when Greenham women (I wasn’t there, I was living in Dublin and involved in different aspects of women’s human rights at the time) get a bad press because they were mucky and loud, given that they did succeed as part of the huge public pressure that got the INF onto the table. So women, and the Scottish women I am addressing, should wake up to this and get it into the heart of their indy aspirations. The other reason for my focus is that the TPNW is the best hope we have to irreversibly rid the world of nuclear weapons, and the inclusion of women and the action of women was a huge part of how it was sucessfully negotiated and adopted and maybe
        there is a lesson there in progressing it now. If folk think I have made up what I am saying, a good source of info is here: and/or here: or you could check out the website of

        1. Chris Connolly says:

          I’m a veteran campaigner myself, Janet. I wasn’t at Greenham either, not because I was in Dublin (I wasn’t) but because I had the wrong genitals. I was Secretary of my local CND branch at the time, but was banned from Greenham Common even though Margaret Thatcher would have been allowed to go there if she wished. We had a baby son at the time and I don’t suppose he would have been allowed there either since he was going to grow up into a man. (He did, by the way.)

          The very last thing that the anti-nuclear movement needs is to be divided. It certainly doesn’t need to be divided between men and women when we should be in total solidarity with each other. I’ll stand with a Tory pacifist if necessary just as I’ll stand (because I’m not a bigot) with anyone else regardless of their gender, colour, religion, ethnic origin, country of birth etc. We can discuss other important matters in the pub or over a cup of coffee later but we don’t want to be turning some of our comrades into second class protesters, especially over something that none of us can do anything about, like our gender.

        2. Jo says:

          “So women, and the Scottish women I am addressing, should wake up to this and get it into the heart of their indy aspirations.”

          Janet, I wonder if you understand the implications of that sentence. I found it quite arrogant to be honest. I’m already awake but one thing that worries me about the times we’re in is that there are so many separate groups all looking for recognition in their own right. If you look at it as a march, what I see often is a fight to determine who gets to lead, who is the most important. That’s hopeless. We all lose.

          I’m not saying that this isn’t a women’s issue. But I see it also as an issue we should all care about regardless of gender and I genuinely believe that to make it solely a “feminist” issue creates resentment and division.

          I do respect your work but right now identity politics is a source of great irritation to me in general so I apologise if you’ve been caught up in a backlash there.

  2. Blair says:

    This is not just a Scottish problem it is a world problem that must be attended to. The UK and the USA are taking us in a direction nobody wants except a few very privileged elite.
    The millennial Generation are different in that they will have support from World Wide Network and a multimedia multidimensional platform. They have been training on-line via gaming consoles for a while: Everybody since 12 Aug 1992. Smart systems are in place.

    Those in power need to understand the folly of playing with nuclear weapons. Somebody better warn our PM Mrs May to reconsider. BREXIT may be too damaging to our health, would she really want that on her watch. Can we really trust Donald Trump? Can we really trust those who make and want and sell us WMD? It’s time the real world destroyed its Weapons of Mass Destruction.

    1. Jo says:

      “Someone better warn Mrs May.”

      She’s been warned plenty! She’s not listening. As we speak she’s having dinner with the only person she obeys. Arlene bloody Foster!

  3. Anthony Donovan says:

    Thank you very very much, from across the pond. We here, and especially our U.S. Representatives need to hear loud and clear that the citizens of our good allies (Scots, all) do not believe in nor want the help of the US in this so called “protection” and “safety”, this umbrella. Please…. we are very hard of hearing here (well, frankly, we don’t listen.) We go around extracting well over 50 % of our US taxes for our vast militarization and this secret world of the nuclear weapon industry poisoning and endangering the world daily. Yes, mothers know instinctually better than any one. Onward together.

    One little clip from a documentary (2015):

  4. Chris Connolly says:

    I don’t know whether or not it’s true that ionising radiation affects women twice as much as men, but I’m sure it’s a fact that receiving a dose of radiation from a nuclear bomb, just like being blown to smithereens by one, as happened to the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is going to kill you regardless of your gender.

    In my opinion CND was not helped by the identification of its cause with feminism in the 1980s. While the Greenham Common Women were obviously sincere in both their feminism and their opposition to Cruise missiles, the TV images of aggressive lesbian activists making Woo Woo noises and some of the extremist justification for not allowing any men to join in the protest did the anti-nuclear movement no help at all at a time when it had a much bigger presence than today.

    There are a million reasons to be a feminist and another million to oppose nuclear weapons. I’m not sure there’s much to be said for muddying the waters here.

  5. Richard (Dick) Wickenden says:

    I fully agree with the gist of this document and the additional problems that can occur to those of the female gender. In August last year I lost my soulmate and partner of nearly 40 years to breast cancer and am now a lonely 73 year old man living in beautiful Highland Perthshire. I have a scientific background in electronics and computing and try to keep abreast of all scientific breakthroughs. Nuclear weapons have no place in any countries weapons arsenal as they can NEVER EVER BE USED. They are only kept in a a few countries which, in most cases, are of a far right or far left political persuasion. This includes Britain’s Tories and Labour (red tories) parties with the backing of ultra rich arms dealers and manufacturers and likewise in Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea and the Republic of China. The sooner these so called World leaders dump these ultra expensive weapons and spend the money saved on their starving populations the better. If they have any money left over after this they could invest it in the exploration of the Universe and space travel ans FTL (faster than light) drive.

  6. Gillian Lawrence says:

    Thank you, Janet, for the detailed arguments and for setting it out so clearly. I really appreciate this. And to everyone for the comments.
    Briefly, in response to the commentators who dismiss it being a feminist issue: I disagree. Nuclear weapons being an issue for all humankind doesn’t rule out it being a feminist issue at the same time. It doesn’t have to be one OR another.
    I’ve heard International Red Cross staff speak about their current medical work with people affected 2 generations after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs and about the additional effects of radiation on women over and above the effects on all human beings. The burden of bedroom tax/ universal credit etc is also well recognised as affecting women to a greater extent. Both are forms of toxic masculinity so yes, nuclear weapons are a feminist issue and affect us all too.

    1. Chris Connolly says:

      The problem here is not that there is no Venn Diagram for anti-nuclear protesters and feminists but that people at large may (as occurred in the 1980s) be given the impression that you HAVE to be a feminist, and by extension you have to be a woman, in order to oppose nuclear weapons. The media drove this message home during the time of the Greenham Women and they will do so again today if a similar situation should arise.

      Feminists come in all different shapes and sizes are there may well be some who are in favour of nuclear weapons. The media war existing between feminists who support the rights of trans women and others who virulently oppose them is an illustration of how people who are ostensibly on the same side can still tear each other’s throats out over certain controversial issues. Would you rather stand in solidarity with a pacifist man, or with a trans-exclusive radical feminist? I know which I would choose!

      I’m a welfare rights worker by trade so I know that benefit cuts affect women disproportionately, albeit by no means exclusively. I really don’t think that can be said for nuclear weapons, which kill indiscriminately. There are bombs around now that are over 100 times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and will destroy all life, human and animal, within hundreds of miles should they ever be used. We could just as easily, and possibly more fairly, refer to the matter as an animal-rights issue and a case of toxic humanity; after all, lots of women are in favour of nuclear weapons but I’m pretty sure birds, rodents and insects are not.

  7. Helena-Sophia Exel says:

    Thank You for addressing this utmost important issue. No further evolution to a more refined Homo Sapiens is possible without solving this problem. Although I like to emphasize two things. First, there is this notion that:

    A woman who seeks to be equal with men lacks ambition.

    Unfortunately, the second point is very disturbing and contradicts everything women usually proclaim to be about. E.g. “Giving Life”, “Being Emphatic”, “Being Sensitive”, “Being Caring”, “Being Loving” and so forth. Sure, there have always been women who were equal to men in terms of ruthless brutality, violence and demagoguery. Like Clinton. But now, a change is taking place that desecrates the principle of being a Mother. A Mother usually does not only lover her own children. She at least has understanding and compassion for the children of other Mothers as well.

    It may come as a stomach churning truth that Feminism (the Bernays kind) has finally achieved its goal to synchronize everything that is deadly in a male being with everything that was nourishing in a female being. Israel showed the world that women can be killers in uniform as well. Women flocked into the military and while first having been excluded from ‘combat’, that is no longer the case. Female murderers are here to stay. What it much worse though, is the fact that the ambitious kind of women, the Clinton/Albright/Thatcher-alikes are now running the military industrial complex in the US. And since these US war manufacturers are operating on a multinational basis, these women are now a role model for those who equally attempt to out perform men.

    How women took over the military industrial complex

  8. SleepingDog says:

    I have the strong impression that militarists and imperialists, hierarchists of all kinds tend to be exceptionally emotional. Emotions inform our values, how else would we make decisions? It is disingenous to contend that advocates of nuclear weapons are in any way less emotional than their opponents (although nukers may entirely seem less rational).

    For comparison, if the Wikipedia article on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is accurate, the public judged her defence of natural systems in her book against her (corporate-backed) critics as reason against wild-eyed, loud-voiced bluster:

    Nuclear weapons, and any other system which concentrates power like a nuclear arsenal command-and-control system, may be supported by hierarchists who are agnostic about the weapons themselves, just so long as their own personal or social agenda is served. Nukes undermine any collective decision-making, support state secrecy and unaccountability, divert public funds into the military-industrial-securocrat-etc complex, and maintain seats on the irrational UN security council. They prevent peace overtures, harm diplomacy, require an economy slaved to their production and maintenance, and a muzzled civil service. They poison civil society.

    And for examples of over-emotional irrationality, the USAmerican ambassadors to the UN are seldom outdone.

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