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Nuclear Weapons

What Does Feminism Have to Do With Nuclear Policy?

by Marissa Conway

A feminist analysis asks, "Who's affected, who makes the decisions, and how are the health and lasting peace of a society impacted?"

Feminism

Feminism represents a wide range of ideas, values, and movements that are all marching toward a common goal: equality for all. Historically, feminism has promoted gender equality, but it has become so much more in recent decades.

A new wave of thinking called intersectional feminism emerged in the ’80s calling attention to the complex relationship between multiple identities. It addresses gender but also makes critical note of race, as well as class, ability, and more.

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Intersectional feminism highlights how identities interact in ways that can either make it easier or more difficult for people to access power. Feminism in its latest iteration then, is largely concerned with questions around power: who has it, who doesn’t, and why? 

Taking a power-oriented approach when having feminist discussions about any given subject presents a unique opportunity to prod and poke at the inequality and corruption that is typically taken as the “norm”. Particularly when it comes to policy, a feminist analysis raises important questions about who feels the impact of policy, who gets to make those policy decisions, and whether such policy helps or hinders the health and lasting peace of a society. 

Nuclear Policy

Only a handful of nations currently possess nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty grants China, Russia, France, the U.K., and the U.S. the right to possess these weapons. The other four nuclear possessors are North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel.  

Current nuclear policy relies on a values system sustained by power imbalances. It keeps an elite few in control and the rest at their mercy.

The power dynamics and hierarchies that maintain this global system of nuclear have and have-nots are complicated. They are rooted in toxic masculinity, racism, and imperialism, all of which uphold the wider patriarchal system our world exists in. In other words, current nuclear policy relies on a values system sustained by power imbalances. It keeps an elite few in control and the rest at their mercy. And so, a feminist analysis gets to work.

Let’s frame a feminist questioning of nuclear policy and look at a specific example: nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

nuclear explosion at sea

Operation Crossroads Baker.

Wikimedia Commons

Who Feels the Impact of Nuclear Policy?

When it comes to U.S. nuclear policy, those who feel its impact are often marginalized populations, including indigenous and colonized people. In the case of Bikini Atoll, both apply. After decades of colonization by the Spanish, German, English, and finally, the Japanese, the United States took the Marshall Islands by force in 1944. The Marshall Islands officially became a U.S. territory in 1947 by United Nations decree. The U.S., however, began testing its nuclear arsenal in 1946 before this official decree and continued testing until 1958.

The Marshallese people initially agreed to temporarily relocate for the testing. However, the islands the U.S. moved them to didn’t have the resources to support their needs. They were left in a state of insecurity and were dependent on U.S. aid money to survive. 

A group of women carry boxes and bags across a beach.

Residents of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands carry their belongings across the beach. They were evacuated on the U.S. government’s orders before a nuclear weapons test.

 

Carl Mydans/Getty Images

Over the next twelve years, nuclear tests decimated Bikini Atoll. The radiation contaminated the water and soil and made fishing and farming—the key means of producing food on the island—impossible. Though people have since returned to live there, a study from 2016 indicated radiation levels were higher than what is considered safe. Many who initially relocated never returned due to fear of the consequences of unsafe levels of radiation.

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Who Gets to Make Nuclear Policy Decisions?

Historically, older, upper-middle-class, white men have made decisions about U.S. nuclear policy. There is little-to-no input from people who were and are impacted by nuclear testing. Such is the case for the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. Even though the devastation from testing was greater than expected, the U.S. continued to test their weaponry in the Marshall Islands for 12 years.

Though the Marshallese people and the surrounding environment were experiencing intense radiation exposure, their wellbeing was not reason enough to cease testing. Eventually, the U.S. developed a medical program in response to radiation illnesses in 1977. However, the U.S. also secretly used the program to document the effects of radiation without the knowledge and consent of the Marshallese. In short, the Marshallese people were excluded from any meaningful policy decisions, despite suffering the consequences of those policies.

A doctor listens to the heartbeat of an infant, in the presence of a concerned mother.

American medical teams conducted annual examinations of Marshallese people who were exposed to radioactive fallout from the Castle Bravo test.

 

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Does Nuclear Policy Help or Hinder the Health and Lasting Peace of a Society?

For those from Bikini Atoll and the surrounding areas, U.S. nuclear policy has significantly impacted their health and quality of life. U.S. nuclear policy rendered residents homeless, exposed them to radiation, and brought great violence to their land. 

After the U.S. relocated the Marshallese, it conducted the Castle Bravo test on March 1, 1954. The explosion was two and a half times larger than expected and ended up being the largest ever U.S. nuclear detonation. Castle Bravo was responsible for unforeseen levels of radiation that extended beyond the areas the U.S, had initially evacuated. When the U.S. military arrived to take people out of the exposed zones, they made the women strip naked to be hosed down in front of the military, medical personnel, and the women’s male relatives. 

"Anointed" by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

A spoken word poem about the Marshall Islands and nuclear testing.

Both in body and land, this U.S. nuclear policy reinforced a highly unequal power dynamic in which the colonizer had more power, rights, and access than the native people. Bikini Atoll experienced greater violence than peace at the hand of U.S. nuclear policy.

Conclusion

The Marshall Islands is just one example among many that demonstrates how nuclear policy works to maintain power imbalances that are rooted in a patriarchal, imperial, and colonial hierarchy. A feminist society would see these imbalances leveled out. More specifically, it would see the people who are impacted by nuclear policy included in the policymaking process.

 

Marissa Conway is the Co-Founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy. Follow her on Twitter @marissakconway.

This content was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy.

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