by Terry Messman
At the dawn of the decades-long confrontation with the Trident nuclear submarine, what Shelley Douglass remembers so clearly is the physical and emotional exhaustion that had already overwhelmed the tiny group of peace activists who would soon launch a campaign against the most lethal weapons system in history.
Many activists were still suffering burn-out and fatigue from years of stormy antiwar protests during the Vietnam War, police repression, multiple arrests, trials that dragged on for years and long jail sentences. Relationships had broken apart, families had been separated by jail bars, and many were overloaded with anguish from a war that never seemed to end.
Then one day, out of the blue, they were suddenly called into another colossal struggle against impossible odds, when Trident missile designer Robert Aldridge showed up at the doorstep of Shelley and Jim Douglass bearing an urgent warning about Trident’s escalation of the nuclear arms race. This summons to renewed resistance — a showdown with a nuclear leviathan — came at a very difficult time for the activists who would soon form the Pacific Life Community and the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action.
Those who had endured such heavy costs from years of antiwar actions during the Vietnam War realized that if they were to confront the most destructive weapons system of all time, they would have to take better care of one another and build more supportive communities.
Women in the Peace Movement
The many issues involving women’s rights and the well-being of children and families were also of vital importance in the earliest days of the anti-nuclear movement in the Pacific Northwest.
From the very beginning, Pacific Life Community and Ground Zero put forth a consistent message about the importance of feminist principles to the larger peace movement. The affinity group formed by Shelley and Jim Douglass was named “Luna” — symbolically honoring the feminine spirit of peacemaking. The Douglasses constantly said that the movement to abolish nuclear weapons had to be an anti-sexist and anti-racist movement.
At the end of the 1960s, a generation of women who had dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to the antiwar movement were increasingly aware of the destructive personal costs they had paid in those years. Many felt exploited and oppressed by a patriarchal system that they confronted not only in the form of the Pentagon’s wars and military hierarchy, but even in the movement itself.
It was the discovery of an intimate betrayal. How could the same movement that worked for human liberation subject so many women to dehumanizing treatment and refuse to honor them as equals?
Shelley Douglass reflected on women’s role in the peace movement in her articles, “Beyond Patriarchy,” in Fellowship magazine, and “Nonviolence and Feminism” in Peace Is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence (ed. Walter Wink, Orbis Books).
“Those times took a heavy toll,” she wrote in describing the unequal status and lack of respect that women faced in the movements for peace and civil rights.
It was a demoralizing and intolerable contradiction. As Douglass wrote, “This tragic waste of potential and unconscious dehumanization took place in a movement that only wanted the common good.”
“Women were expected to make coffee and provide refreshments while men planned strategy and did resistance actions. Women kept the home-fires burning while men organized, acted, and went to jail. Women bore and raised children and created the homes to which the men returned. Women did leaflets in the thousands, typed letters, licked stamps, marched in demonstrations.”
No voice in the movement
Although women did a great deal of the essential work in building social-change movements, they were rarely visible or vocal leaders. That was not their expected role. According to Douglass, even in cities where “women have been the backbone of the peace movement for years,” they were not taken seriously and were locked in lower-echelon positions.
“We rarely spoke at demonstrations; our actions did not make us celebrities like the men. When women went to jail, they lacked strong community support. They had no knowledge, by and large, of their historic role in the peace movement.”
That last point is especially troubling, given the groundbreaking and heroic roles played by women in movements throughout our nation’s history.
Women who objected to this second-class treatment often met only scorn and incomprehension from the male leaders of peace and civil rights groups. But they would not be silenced. Many began realizing that they were not just facing personal problems, but rather widespread inequities caused by gender inequality.
Douglass explained, “We realized that our feelings were not just personal problems; they were political, the results of a system that exploited us all. We were not unique; this oppressive mentality pervaded even the movement itself.”
Many women ended up feeling “disillusionment with a movement that fought for other people’s freedom while standing upon our backs.”
In searching for ways to work for peace while standing up for their own rights and dignity as women, many began looking back at the examples of strong women who had gone before. They learned the stories of legendary women who had overcome powerful systems of oppression to become heroes of the resistance.
Douglass explained how crucial it is to retrieve the history of women who were icons of resistance and liberation. “We are reclaiming our history — remembering all those founding mothers, all those women who kept the movement going without credit for so long, all the contributions we women have made and undervalued.”
Reweaving the Web of Life
A highly influential book that explored the interconnections of nonviolence, women’s rights and human liberation was Pam McAllister’s Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence.
McAllister’s eye-opening anthology was overflowing with first-hand accounts of feminism on the front lines of the peace and freedom movements, profiles of historic figures who led the struggles for women’s rights, and utopian visions of the future of women’s quest for liberation.
Her book came out at a crucial historic moment in 1982, just as anti-nuclear movements in the United States and Europe were engaging in massive nonviolent resistance that touched the lives of millions of people. Reweaving the Web of Life helped to put the oppression of women at the center of the social-change agenda, and shared the new methods that the women’s movement had invented and refined to build strategies for liberation.
McAllister’s book made it clear that nonviolence was not only about war and nuclear weapons. It was also about rape and sexual harassment and domestic violence and the economic injustices faced by women in the workplace. It was about the centuries of discrimination women had endured in every country in the world.
And, in a breathtaking leap, nonviolence was also about compassion for all living beings — trans-species solidarity with whales slaughtered by the whaling industry, birds decimated by pollution and irreplaceable animal species facing extinction.
McAllister’s own mentor was Barbara Deming, a longtime activist in the peace and women’s movements. Deming, an insightful theorist of nonviolent social change, was the author of Prison Notes and We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader.
Deming demonstrated against Polaris nuclear submarines in the 1960s, and was jailed for protesting atomic testing at the Atomic Energy Commission. She marched in civil rights demonstrations in Alabama and Georgia, and marched in the Nashville to Washington, D.C., Walk for Peace.
Far-Sighted View of Nonviolence
Deming helped McAllister understand the “vital link between feminism and nonviolence.” And Deming’s vision of nonviolence extended far beyond peace activism to include the entire ecological web of connections that sustains all life.
This far-sighted vision of nonviolence reached up into the skies where high-flying bombers target defenseless civilians, and extended down to the earth below where the web of life includes herons and cranes in coastal waterways and a next-door neighbor facing domestic violence.
In a beautiful passage, McAllister described visiting Deming at home and hearing the magnitude of her compassion.
“She embraces the whole spectrum of life with unfragmented concern — from love for the Great White Heron who haunts the quiet canal in front of her house and concern for the endangered snails in a Florida stream, to concern about the global implications of the military maneuvers at Key West and the urgency of offering asylum to a battered neighbor.”
In “How Feminism Changed the Peace Movement,” Caroline Wildflower, an anti-nuclear activist and Catholic Worker, described her painful experiences in well-known peace groups that dehumanized women by relegating them to subservient roles and secretarial chores. Things changed for the better in the mid-1970s, when she got involved in the Pacific Life Community and Ground Zero.
She found a new atmosphere where women’s involvement was respected and encouraged. The Pacific Life Community intentionally included feminist principles in its core values, rejected a hierarchical structure and made all decisions by consensus.
“Each person’s ideas were considered important — women’s and men’s,” wrote Wildflower, and “feminism was talked about as an integral part of the strategy.”
Women became leading speakers and writers in the Pacific Life Community. After she took the remarkable step of going to jail for resisting nuclear weapons while she was pregnant, Wildflower herself became a speaker and writer, writing about her arrest for Fellowship magazine.
Ground Zero was “dedicated to feminism” and to a group process with collective leadership, Wildflower wrote. “Our feminism permeates all aspects of life and makes a difference for everyone.”
“Now that we have made these big changes, women are not constantly hurt and put down and devalued in the peace movement. We have successfully created a situation where we live the revolution now, where women and men are respected for their talents and potential.”
Reweaving the Web of Life enshrined the courage and leadership of women who fought for human liberation. McAllister’s book showed that women were an essential part of virtually every social-change movement in our nation’s history, from the Underground Railroad to labor union organizing, from the civil rights movement to antiwar resistance, and from defense of the environment to the struggle for women’s rights and gay rights.
Today’s social-change movements can be strengthened by learning from these historic movements that overcame seemingly all-powerful systems of domination. The imaginations of today’s activists can be electrified by the feminist icons and heroes of these resistance movements.
She Risked Her Life for Others
“Hundreds of miles we traveled onward
Gathering slaves from town to town
Seeking every lost and found
Setting those free that once were bound.”
— “Harriet Tubman,” composed by Walter Robinson, sung by Holly Near
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery. After she escaped, she risked her freedom again and again, returning to the South to liberate many others still in slavery. She became known as “Moses” for leading her people to freedom by using the secretive network of escape routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.
Slaveowners posted bounties on her head for helping fugitives escape the cruel and brutal system of slavery.
Tubman was so committed to ending slavery that she helped John Brown recruit people for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown, an uncompromising abolitionist who was captured in the raid and later executed, called her “General Tubman” as a sign of profound respect.
Tubman then began working for the Union Army, leading a band of scouts, and also serving as a nurse for wounded soldiers. Tubman led a Union raid on a group of plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina and liberated an estimated 750 slaves from the plantations.
After the Civil War, Harriet Tubman took part in the struggle to win voting rights for all women, becoming one of the most legendary symbols of freedom and courage in U.S. history.
“Ain’t I A Woman?”
Sojourner Truth was a deeply dedicated abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and a powerfully persuasive speaker for human rights. She delivered a legendary speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 known as “Ain’t I A Woman?”
Truth was born into slavery but escaped to freedom with her baby daughter. She dedicated her life to the abolitionist movement, and advocated political equality for all women, black and white.
After the Civil War, she tried to end the segregation of street cars in Washington, D.C., by riding in cars set aside for white people — an act of civil disobedience 90 years before Rosa Parks was arrested!
Truth also tried to secure land grants from the U.S. government as reparations for former slaves, but Congress refused to honor her basic demand for justice.
Through the causes she championed later in life, Truth showed how all human rights are connected. She spoke out for women’s rights, prison reform and voting rights for all. She spoke passionately against the death penalty. Just as she had worked tirelessly to abolish slavery, she now worked to abolish capital punishment.
In June 1881, Sojourner Truth spoke out against the death penalty by telling Michigan’s state legislature that it was “murder in cold blood” to put a prisoner to death. She said, “I won’t sanction any law in my heart that upholds murder. I am against it! I am against it!”
Women’s Rights and Abolitionist Leader
Many of the women now celebrated as legendary figures of social justice were simultaneously opposed to slavery and to the subjugation of women. Lucretia Mott was a Quaker minister who played leading roles in the abolitionist movement and in the women’s rights movement. She always linked women’s rights to nonviolence in her speeches and advocacy.
Mott fought ceaselessly for an end to slavery and racial discrimination, for the rights of women and Native Americans, for the rights of workers, and for freedom of speech and religion.
Violent mobs attacked her home because of her abolitionist work, yet she bravely continued to fight slavery even after mobs destroyed the Pennsylvania Hall meeting place built by abolitionists. She worked her entire life for voting rights for women and Black people.
In 1833, Mott organized the Philadelphia Female AntiSlavery Society. In her article, “Nonviolence and Women: The Pioneers,” Margaret Hope Bacon called it “the first active political organization of women, the launching pad for the women’s rights movement, and the marriage of nonviolence and feminism.”
Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were co-organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention in July of 1848, the first public women’s rights meeting in the U.S. The women’s rights movement was launched with the Seneca Falls Declaration of the Rights of Women, which demanded voting rights for women and declared that men and women are equal.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Arrested for “Illegally Voting”
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were lifelong friends and coworkers. They were indispensable leaders of the suffragist movement, and worked together in a decades-long struggle for a federal amendment giving voting rights to women.
They were both abolitionists and worked for equal rights for African Americans and women. Stanton also supported a broad spectrum of women’s rights, including employment rights, property rights, custody rights and birth control.
Anthony was a leader in the American Anti-Slavery Society and helped fugitives on the Underground Railroad. She called for unconditional emancipation and a complete end to racial discrimination.
Susan B. Anthony was arrested for trying to vote in the presidential election of 1872. After being tried and convicted for illegally voting, she refused to pay the fine saying, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.”
In 1878, Anthony and Stanton succeeded in getting a bill giving women the right to vote introduced in Congress. The bill, known as the Anthony Amendment, became the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, 42 years after the two women introduced it.
Ida B. Wells
Anti- Lynching Journalist
Ida B. Wells was one of the most fearless advocacy journalists in the nation’s history. As an investigative reporter and newspaper editor, she documented the horrific crime of lynching, and carried out a brave struggle against the widespread torture and murder of Black people.
Wells was a leader in the civil rights movement, as well as an activist for women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement. Born in Mississippi in 1863, she later moved to Memphis, where she became a schoolteacher. In 1884, 71 years before Rosa Parks, Wells was dragged off a train when she refused to give up her seat in the first-class section. She successfully sued the railroad and won her case.
Wells began reporting on racial injustice for Free Speech and Headlight, a Memphis newspaper; she eventually became the paper’s editor and co-owner.
In 1889, three of her closest friends were lynched by a white mob in Memphis, and Wells began doing investigative reporting to expose widespread lynchings in the South. She also began speaking out across the nation in a virtual one-woman anti-lynching campaign.
A mob destroyed the offices of her newspaper in retaliation for her stories about lynching, but Wells would not end her crusade. She published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and reported that blacks were often lynched for minor offenses as a form of intimidation, repression and social control.
Militant Resistance and Prison Hunger Strikes
Alice Paul was a Quaker who initiated bold new strategies in the movement for women’s voting rights, including militant acts of civil disobedience, picketing the White House with a group of suffragists called “Silent Sentinels,” and carrying out hunger strikes in prison.
In the crucial decade from 1910 to 1920, Alice Paul became the main strategist of the women’s suffrage movement, and the leader of the National Women’s Party. She was instrumental in the successful battle to pass the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, giving women the right to vote.
She was opposed to war and when the U.S. entered World War I, she organized pickets at the White House, “protesting a battle for democracy abroad while there was so little democracy at home.”
When Alice Paul and other suffragists were arrested and jailed in the notoriously brutal and squalid Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, Paul demanded that the women be treated as political prisoners, and launched a prison hunger strike.
Jail authorities tried to break their spirits with brutal force-feedings, beatings, and horrible jail conditions. The shocking mistreatment of the imprisoned suffragists generated public outrage and media attention and women flocked to Washington, D.C. Alice Paul’s acts of civil disobedience were crucial in winning public support for the Nineteenth Amendment.
After voting rights for women were won, she began concentrating on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was able to get the Equal Rights Amendment introduced into Congress in 1923, a visionary bill that was far ahead of its time.
Alice Paul also played a major role in adding protection for the rights of women to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The Most Dangerous Woman in America”
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was a firebrand labor organizer who tirelessly fought against unfair working conditions and the inhumanity of childhood labor. She was a cofounder of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
In 1903, Jones organized a Children’s Crusade on behalf of young textile workers exploited in mines and factories. She and the children marched from Philadelphia all the way to Oyster Bay, New York, to confront President Teddy Roosevelt, demanding reforms in the child labor laws.
She worked with the United Mine Workers and became an effective champion of justice and better pay for workers, and also organized the wives and children of striking workers to protest on their behalf.
Mother Jones was so successful at organizing strikes and picket lines that when the authorities arrested her and put her on trial during a coal strike in West Virginia in 1902, the district attorney called her “the most dangerous woman in America.”
During a strike by the United Mine Workers in West Virginia in 1912, she was arrested under martial law and tried before a military court. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the military court but was freed when Sen. John Kern launched a Senate investigation into conditions in the coal mines.
Her famous declaration was: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
Fannie Lou Hamer
The Voice of a Movement
When Fannie Lou Hamer tried to register to vote at the Sunflower County Courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi, on August 31, 1962, she was immediately fired from the Mississippi plantation where she had worked for 18 years as a timekeeper and sharecropper.
When the plantation owner told her to either withdraw from voter registration or face eviction, she refused to back down from her principles. She lost her job and her home simply for attempting to vote.
After trying to register, Hamer and her family were constantly stalked by men with rifles who cursed at her and threatened to shoot her.
It only strengthened her convictions.
Soon, Hamer became a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most dangerous job descriptions in Mississippi.
She played a vital role in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer which brought young black and white activists to the state from all over the country to overcome the racist barriers to voting. She also sought food, clothing and support for needy families at a time of great hunger and poverty in Mississippi.
In June of 1963, Hamer traveled with other activists to an educational workshop in South Carolina, but when the bus returned, Mississippi police arrested and jailed them, and they were severely beaten in their jail cells in Winona.
Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten almost to death in her cell by two men with blackjacks. She suffered permanent kidney damage from the beating. Even though she suffered for the rest of her life from injuries caused by the brutal beating, she would not stop fighting for justice.
One year later, in the summer of 1964, Hamer was elected Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats who had organized to challenge the state’s segregated delegation to the Democratic National Convention.
President Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey refused to support the Mississippi Freedom Democrats in 1964, but Hamer’s eloquent challenge to Johnson and Humphrey showed that her voice could shake up the White House.
The Mississippi Freedom Democrats were finally seated at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. That same year, Hamer worked in support of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
Hamer was the courage and conscience of the civil rights struggle, and she was also its voice. She lifted people’s spirits by singing stirring renditions of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Walk with Me Lord.”
Due to her great dedication to the Freedom Movement, Hamer was threatened, arrested, beaten, and shot at.
She said, “Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”
The Courage of a Freedom Rider
Diane Nash provided brave leadership in many crucial moments of the Freedom Movement, including the Nashville student sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and the Selma Voting Rights Movement. Nash was a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
When Nash was a 22-year-old student at Fisk University, she became a leader in the Nashville Student Movement’s ultimately successful campaign to desegregate the city’s lunch counters in 1960.
Nash and other students were trained in Gandhian nonviolence by Rev. James Lawson, and began a series of sit-ins at lunch counters. Nash advocated a “jail, no bail” policy by refusing to bail out of jail to maximize pressure on the city. After a few months of protests, all of Nashville’s lunch counters were desegregated.
During the sit-ins, Nash publicly asked Nashville Mayor Ben West, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” Mayor West admitted he felt it was wrong, and Nashville’s lunch counters were desegregated soon afterwards.
In 1961, when buses were burned and Freedom Riders were brutally attacked in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, CORE decided to cancel the Freedom Rides due to the violence. Diane Nash stepped forward at a turning point in history and refused to let the Freedom Rides die.
Despite warnings that they could be attacked and killed, Freedom Riders boarded the bus and traveled from Birmingham to Jackson, Mississippi. Before getting on the bus, Nash signed her last will and testament, showing the courage of her convictions in the face of death.
Diane Nash played a key role in calling for a voting rights project in Alabama, which resulted in the Selma to Montgomery marches and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference awarded its highest honor, the Rosa Parks Award, to Diane Nash and James Bevel for sparking the Selma Voting Rights Movement.
The Works of Mercy or the Works of War
Countless people have been inspired to dedicate their lives to peace and social justice by the example of Dorothy Day. Day co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin and dedicated her life to providing food and hospitality to poor, hungry and homeless persons.
In Dorothy Day’s vision, the works of mercy not only meant providing food and shelter to poor people in the inner city, but also seeking economic justice for workers, protesting war and nuclear weapons, and resisting a capitalist system that exploited and oppressed people.
Day was an advocacy journalist and editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper, reporting on labor strikes, supporting the rights of workers, speaking against war and militarism, and giving a voice to the poorest members of society.
Before converting to Catholicism, Day had worked for women’s suffrage, opposed warfare, written for socialist newspapers, and supported the IWW, one of the most radical labor unions.
Day deepened in her spiritual life, yet remained just as radically committed to peace and justice. She was jailed for refusing to take part in civil defense drills, and arrested for supporting the farmworkers. Her faith led to lifelong acts of solidarity with poor and homeless people.
Dorothy Day drew a contrast between the works of mercy and the Vietnam War. “The works of mercy are the opposite of the works of war — feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, nursing the sick, visiting the prisoner. But we are destroying crops, setting fire to entire villages and to the people in them. We are not performing the works of mercy but the works of war.”
Planted by the Water
In her recent article, “Finding Hope: Reweaving Then and Now” in On the Issues Magazine, Pam McAllister reflects on the many heroic women who are leading social change movements today and reweaving the web of life. She writes that groups of women such as Code Pink and Women In Black have “come together to do our work of reweaving.”
In a remarkable poetic metaphor, McAllister says that the names of these women are “like prayer beads, markers on a long strand, each one a reminder that women everywhere continue doing the work of reweaving the web of life.”
It is illuminating to learn of the women that McAllister now names as the “prayer beads” who help protect life in the face of a culture of death and injustice.
Some of her recent heroines are Asmaa Mahfouz, a young Egyptian activist who helped to spark a largely nonviolent mass uprising when she used social media to challenge Egyptian people to meet her in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and another young woman, Rachel Corrie, “who became a martyr in 2003 when she attempted to act as a human shield against the bulldozing of a Palestinian home.”
McAllister expresses great admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi who was placed under house arrest in Burma, but “has never wavered from advocating nonviolence as both a tactic and a way of life.”
She heralds the crucial work of women peacemakers in far-flung areas of the globe, including Leymah Gbowee who organized thousands of Muslim and Christian women to conduct sit-ins that were instrumental in bringing an end to a violent civil war in Liberia; and Cindy Sheehan, who stirred a nation by challenging President Bush’s war in Iraq after losing her son there.
Reminding us that our care must be extended to the natural world, McAllister praises Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental activist who fought against deforestation in Kenya by founding the Green Belt Movement “and organizing women to plant trees all over the nation.”
Maathai’s dedication to ecological preservation is emblematic of the spirit of one of the most long-lived movement anthems: “Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”
To read the interview with Shelley Douglass, “Interweaving Peace and Women’s Rights,” click HERE.