Women As Peacemakers: A Relational Perspective

By Janet L. Surrey

In this 2003 essay, Jan Surrey explains Relational Cultural Theory (RCT), an approach to women's empowerment developed by she and her colleagues at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Stone Center, Wellesley Centers for Women.

: :

Throughout history, groups of women have responded to the threat and the destructive power of war by mobilizing behind a particular vision for peace. In 1872, Julia Ward Howe suggested the idea of Mother’s Day as a day dedicated to peace. In the early twentieth century, the right to vote brought women’s values and visions into the public sphere as a force for peace, justice, and the promotion of social welfare. Later in the century, the values of the women’s movement coincided with other social movements: civil rights, nuclear disarmament, environmental sustainability. By 1982, Sally Miller Gearhart was able to write:

I believe we are at a great watershed in history, and that we hold in our hands a fragile thread, no more than that, that can lead us to survival. I understand the rising up of women in this century to be the human race’s response to the threat of its own self-annihilation and the destruction of the planet.

This perspective was possible, in part, because a few years earlier, in 1976, Jean Baker Miller sparked a revolution in psychology when she wrote Toward a New Psychology of Women. In this breakthrough book Miller described how women in Western culture have been the assigned the role of “carriers” of aspects of the total human experience: the work of tending to relationships, building connection, expressing emotion, and promoting the needs and development of children and men. This private, domestic work is often invisible and devalued in the public sphere. She called for a study of this relational practice as a new pathway for empowering women.

Miller’s work emphasized the creative “seeds” that needed to be nurtured and developed in our culture. Growing out of this work, researchers at the Stone Center at Wellesley College (Jordan, Miller, Stiver, Surrey et al.) developed the Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) of human development as a resource for growth, empowerment, and healing. In this approach, women’s sense of self is grounded in making and maintaining relationships. The “work” of relationship, or “relational practice,” is driven by the underlying primal desire for mutual connection (rather than sexual, aggressive, or narcissistic drives) and the intention to work (or “hold”) through the inevitable impasses and conflicts in life. These obstacles or disconnections, when stuck or unchanging, can become the source of great suffering, isolation, and violence. When worked through, they can be transformed to build stronger connections.

Relational practice fosters a new way of being. Empathy, authenticity, attunement, responsivity, and a capacity for true engagement and dialogue are core ingredients of growth-fostering mutuality, the means and ends of which lead to a creative interacting mode of “interbeing.” The work of building and enlarging connection and the vital work of healing disconnections represent a previously uncharted and potent new source of energy and power, especially, but not exclusively, for women.

The relational mode of development implies an interconnected perception of reality, which leads to an ability to work with the whole and the parts, simultaneously and synergistically. This constantly changing and evolving way of being and working—which invites us to live as part of an interconnected whole—is not basic in dominant Western culture. Nor is the capacity to attend to and nurture relationships. Clearly, RCT is at great variance with our individualistic, competitive, and materialistic culture and our heavy reliance on simplistic dichotomous thought and action.

And yet this variance holds great promise as relational values, visions, knowledge, and practice make women of all groups—regardless of race, class, sexuality, and/or ethnicity—a tremendous resource for leadership in promoting a culture of peace. From the most “personal” to the “global,” I see the promise of participation, of collaboration, and of joining with others in working for shared goals arising from this new understanding of power that women share. By supporting the efforts of women to stay connected to their core values as they move into larger arenas, and by working together to create opportunities to foster creative visions and applications based on relational values, we will be building a new understanding of power arising from connection. This I would call action towards peace building.

Print Friendly and PDF