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Women War Resisters: Oral Histories, Contemporary Visions

Women have always resisted war. Courageous civil disobedience actions disrupt their lives and often mean long jail or prison terms.

by Rosalie G. Riegle

From 2004 to 2007, I interviewed 157 war resisters from the U.S. and Europe. Many of these were women--young and old, married and single, living with families or in community.

Women have always resisted war. As mothers and lovers, they grieve the loss of their companions and the maiming of body and soul caused when their warrior men fight other warrior men. Most tolerate uneasily the false heroism of their male companions’ beer talk, hearing instead the battle nightmares of the dark. Some do more than quietly tolerate. They resist, both by saying no in legal protest and tax resistance and by “acting no” with their bodies when they take part in nonviolent direct action for peace. Some resisters call this civil disobedience; others use the term “civil resistance” reasoning that they are obeying international law, while their government is disobeying it. These actions disrupt their lives and often mean long jail or prison terms.

Throughout the 20th century, women worked for peace. Foremothers included Jeannette Rankin, a US representative from Montana, who voted against US entry into both World Wars, and Barbara Deming, a radical lesbian pacifist whose life and writing helped to make the connections between war and racism and whose feminist analysis shaped the lives of many women. Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, remained a pacifist in both the Spanish Civil War and World War II. From its inception in 1932, the Catholic Worker movement has stood against war, with Day more convinced of her pacifism than co-founder Peter Maurin, the peasant philosopher from France. When she became a Catholic in the thirties and then met Peter, she was already confirmed in a leftist perspective; he introduced her to the European theology which gave substance to her positions.

Day was jailed several times for refusing to take shelter during the spurious air raid drills of the fifties, nonsensical attempts by the government to make the populace think they could survive a nuclear bomb. In one of these jailings, she was joined by Jewish anarchist Judith Malina, and the two remained friends until Day’s death in 1980. During the Vietnam War, draft refusers and draft card burners found refuge in Day’s motherly support and approval.

There were other strong women in the Vietnam times, as well: writer and War Resisters League member Grace Paley; Mary Moylan, a forgotten member of the Catonsville Nine draft board action; and many others, including several thousand women who once completely surrounded the Pentagon.

One of the most successful---and least remembered---raft board raids was “Women Against Daddy Warbucks,” an action framed specifically as feminist in philosophy and execution. Linda Orell, a woman arrested for that action, wrote me, “[There was] massive chauvinism. At that time, a lay woman who did not cower in her niche as a married person was on just about as low a rung . . . as one could get.”

After careful planning, five women spent the entire night inside a building containing several Manhattan draft boards, shredding over 6000 A-1 files without being apprehended. Two days later they turned themselves in at a dramatic Rockefeller Center rally, raining the shredded files like confetti over the crowd, and the waiting FBI. While several arrests were made and a grand jury attempted, in the end no one was prosecuted because Federal judge Constance Baker Motley, a former civil rights activist, dismissed the charges.

Two women---Sr. Anne Montgomery and grandmother Molly Rush---were part of the first Plowshares disarmament action in 1980 at the GE nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, when participants followed Isaiah’s injunction to “beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.” This action heralded the beginning of the Plowshares Movement, founded by the Jonah House community led by Liz McAlister and her husband, the late Phil Berrigan. Plowshares Actions recognize the distinction between property and “improperty” made during the draft board raids of the Vietnam War. (“Improperty” is the word coined by Fr. Dan Berrigan to name that which is so damaging to human life that it has no right to exist.)

Molly told a friend that she did the action, for which she could have been jailed for five years, not “in spite of her children but because of her children.” As Mark Colville of the New Haven Catholic Worker says, “Is it not more important, even, for us–as parents–to go forward and take part in [these actions] as a way of crying out to society that there’s real danger for the future of our children, for the next generation?”

Many women have made these actions of nuclear abolition the compelling center of their lives, risking long prison terms and sometimes even death by entering “shoot to kill zones” to symbolically disarm nuclear weapons. It=s a big step to go from crossing a line, sometimes with hundreds of others, to sneaking into a fenced military installation in the dark of night to hammer and pour blood on a weapon component. But over 150 of these actions have happened around the world since that first one in 1980. Most Plowshares activists go in community. Katya Komisaruk went alone. She was introduced to resistance in 1982 with a large action at the Livermore, California nuclear research labs. For several years, she worked in affinity groups across the country, serving short jail terms for these community actions. One of her affinity groups was called the Bag Ladies, which stood for “Big Affinity Group with Lots of Activists Denying the Impending End of Society.” Katya told me she got tired of going to resistance meetings, so when she planned a Plowshares action in 1987 against NAVSTAR, she decided to go it alone. “Of course,” she added wryly, “after the action, I ended up having lots of meetings.”

She called her action “White Rose Disarmament,” after the German resistance group executed by the Nazis for leafleting during World War II, because she sees that Plowshares actions also leave a marker for subsequent generations and show that not everyone cooperates with nuclear empire.

In her solitary Plowshares, Katya walked through an unlocked gate at Vanderberg AFB in Santa Barbara County, California, and spent several hours damaging an IBM mainframe computer with a hammer, a crowbar, and a cordless electric drill. Then she walked out and hitchhiked back to San Francisco, leaving cookies, flowers, and a poem for the guards. The next morning she turned herself in at a press conference, taking full responsibility for the damage and explaining to the crowd that NAVSTAR satellites provide first-strike navigational guidance signals to nuclear submarines and missiles and to the Star Wars system.

Katya had what’s called a muzzled trial, with a laundry list of forbidden words, such as “first strike,” “nuclear weapons” and even “children,” and was sentenced to five years. Her nickname in prison was “Snow White,” because, as she explains, she was “white with long hair and a prissy voice,” but she got along famously with the other prisoners, who cheered her on as she took the LSAT. She was released on a clerical error after only two years and admitted to Harvard Law School. Today she regularly counsels nonviolent resisters in actions large and small. Her book Beat the Heat, explains in cartoon form how to protect one’s rights when arrested.

While Katya went into the base alone, the four women in the 1996 “Weep for Children Plowshares” planned and acted in community, intending their action as a specific call to women to resist the violence of war. Grandmother Kathy Boylan was joined by three Dominican nuns, Sisters Carol Gilbert, Ardeth Platte, and Elizabeth Walters, and the four danced the universal dances of peace as they followed the railroad tracks into the Naval Submarine Base at Groton, Connecticut. Once inside, the poured their own blood from baby bottles onto a torpedo test cylinder used inside nuclear submarines. Then they covered the weapon with a banner, knelt, and prayed. Soldiers watched silently from nearby ships, and the arresting personnel waited until they had finished their prayer before apprehending them.

In explaining why they chose the symbol of weeping, Carol said it was “cathartic, the signal that something new is beginning,” a world without war. In her 1996 interview, she continued, “As a culture, we don't want to cry. We want to think that everything is happy and wonderful. But it is only when one feels strongly enough and loves enough that [one] can weep. Weeping is not weak, and it shouldn’t be seen as whining.” Ardeth chimed in: We weep because we love so deeply and feel so strongly and the weeping calls us to action. As women, maybe this will be our greatest gift to men. When one stop to think that millions of children have been killed in war, millions of children suffer starvation and hunger, millions of children are blown apart by land mines, millions of children are orphaned and separated from their parents when they go off to war . . . So we weep not only for them but with them.

At the trial for this action, the prosecutor compared the four women to the Oklahoma City bomber. Judge Thomas Smith disagreed, saying they were following a higher law, and sentenced them only to community service. In later actions, Sisters Ardeth and Carol served jail sentences of up to thirty months and other women---mothers and grandmothers---have served six years or more. When mothers go to prison for peace resistance, they leave their children in the care of fathers and/or support people in their communities. Tina Busch-Nema served six months in prison for “crossing the line” at the School of the Americas (SOA, now called the Western Institute for Security or WHINSEC) in Columbus, Georgia. Before her marriage, she was missioned to El Salvador and saw first-hand the violence perpetuated on the peasants by SOA graduates, so she believes strongly that our government should not be training these soldiers to oppress their own people.

Tina’s son goes to peace vigils with her, and one day he asked if everyone who works for peace has to go to prison. She told me, “We talked about it and at the end he said, ‘Mom, If you have to go to prison, I’d be a little bit scared and a little bit proud.’” Her husband, however, sometimes has trouble understanding her belief that she is called to resist by her Christian faith and that she might be arrested again at the SOA. I interviewed her shortly after she was released. “[My husband and I] are taking the risk to talk more about it,” she said. “In the end, if he’s able to be in a relationship with me with that much uncertainty in his life. . . He’s a scientist and he sees things pretty black and white. So it’s been hard. Coming home has been traumatic for me.”

While family and community conflicts are can be problematic for resisters, most women resisters today receive tremendous support while they’re incarcerated, including help with child care, as Tina did. And thanks to advances on the part of both men and women in the movement, they don’t experience the blatant sexism from those on the left that the “Women Against Daddy Warbucks” felt during the Vietnam War. But the tragedy of September 11, 2011 raised the stakes. Since that date, resisters in Europe are frequently acquitted, but not in the U.S. where Sisters Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert, and the late Jackie Hudson served long prison sentences for their 2003 Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares. In 2009, Sr. Anne Montgomery and grandmothers Lynne Greenwald, and Susan Crane were indicted and sentenced along with two Jesuit priests in the Disarm Now Plowshares action at Kitsap AFB, home to many of the Trident nuclear submarines in the US fleet.

Why do women risk long prison terms to say no to war in the strongest possible way? True motives are hard to fathom, of course, and perhaps oral history is not the best medium for defining motivation. Certainly aspects of self-regard and community with people one admires play significant roles in these decisions, but the fact remains that choosing civil resistance, with it resulting disruption and the jail or prison time, entails deep commitment.

What all women war resisters have in common a lively and lived spirituality, even though they differ in faith traditions. Sister Anne Montgomery, who has participated in seven Plowshares Actions in her 83 years, explains: “When I think of Camus, whose love of human beings was so great that he could do these things [in the French Resistance] without the sense of support from a faith, I really admire him. It doesn’t really matter what faith tradition a person comes from; if a person has that, it=s a great support. Otherwise, it takes great heroism.”

And what of today? September 11, 2001 changed things, but so did new generations. Young women now look to earlier women for inspiration and support, but their symbols and methods are different. Becky Johnson took part in a successful banner drop on the front of the Plaza Hotel at the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC. She says: We do technical direct action. Very highly trained by the Ruckus Society, which taught us climbing and other skills. They teach other things, too, like lobbying techniques and media work and other aspects of direct action. We’re proud to be working in the same movement [as the older activists], but our culture’s a little different and probably more secularized. Although we all have religious and personal reasons for doing this work, they’re not all the same and we don’t have common symbols, as many of the older generation do. We do have common actions and common media outlets, as they’ve developed over the past few years in the anti-globalization movement.

In describing her career as a resister, Becky told me, “You can do lots of things if you if you look like you know what you’re doing.”

Code Pink women have also brought new ideas and pizzazz to war resistance. For example Nancy L. Mancias, a Code Pink staffer from San Francisco, was recently arrested with me and 17 others at Creech AFB in Nevada. Our colorful but unfortunately very temporary closing of the base was in protest of the drones, unmanned space vehicles which further extend the reach of the US military arm. They are directed from Creech where air force personnel sit in air conditioned comfort and with video-game joysticks launch the Predator and Reaper drones at targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Africa. Then they put their computers into sleep mode and go home to dinner. It’s a total disconnect from even the mock-heroic reality of warfare in former times. One wonders if they have nightmares as their older brothers do or if it’s simply an extension of the video games they played as children.

As always, women resisters see clear connections between the expenditures for nuclear weapons and the numbers of the unemployed and are sharing these connections with the Occupy Movement. As Kathleen Rumpf told me, “I stated in court that I wasn't afraid of the bombs dropping, but that I had come across bodies frozen in the streets, and I was more afraid of not speaking.”

Women war resisters continue to speak truth to power—on the trespass line and in courts and in the jails. Actions in 2010 and 2011 at the Pentagon, the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plant, the nuclear test site in Nevada, and air force bases in Washington state, New York, and Nevada show that nonviolent direct action against our raging militarism is alerting the world to the excesses of the US military. Truly, they speak with their lives, envisioning the future prophesized by Isaiah “where nation will wage war no more.”

Rosalie Riegle, of Evanston, Illinois, is a retired professor of English, a writer, and a grandmother of seven.

Banner drop photo by Jesse Wegman. Nancy Mancias photo by Jim Haber. Photo of Ardeth Platte under arrest by Jonah House. Image of Carol Gilbert, Jackie Hudson and Ardeth Platte from Dorothy Day from the author's book Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her.

Copyright © Rosalie G. Riegle. All rights reserved.