Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)
His-story and Her-story in nonviolence
Recent decades have seen the start of reclaiming women’s place in history and the past. With the telling of history dominated by men, history focused on certain aspects to the exclusion of others, and women’s roles were generally ignored, discarded or belittled. This picture has certainly been changing but it would be foolish to think that the situation is yet where it should be.
The story of nonviolence is no different to other aspects of the telling of history. Even in a radical approach like nonviolence, women tended to be invisible. In this ‘Readings in Nonviolence’ we are extracting just a few pieces from Pam McAllister’s 1988 book “You can’t kill the spirit – Stories of women and nonviolent action”. This was published by New Society Publishers (252 pages) in the USA and is now out on print. While we include a few stories, we deliberately begin with a reference to Gene Sharp’s classic “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” to set the scene; Gene Sharp was not alone and at this stage, before women began to compile stories, it could genuinely be difficult to get hold of such information. But it was not impossible because there are incredible stories all over the world which were – and are - waiting to be told about women’s involvement in nonviolence and nonviolent struggle.
This feature can only take a very small amount from Pam McAllister’s book. There is a huge amount covered in its pages, and it includes a chronology of women’s nonviolent actions (which could be greatly expanded) and a useful listing of women and women’s organisations who have worked for peace and justice (this was written over thirty years ago now). Many more examples of extremely courageous action in hazardous circumstances are included such as opposition to dictatorship and war.
- Some short extracts from 'You can’t kill the spirit'
by Pam McAllister (1988)
On the omission of women:
“Texts on nonviolence make little or any mention of women’s use of nonviolent action. The clasic text on nonviolent action is Gene Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part Two: The Methods of Nonviolent Action” (Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973). Sharp lists 198 specific nonviolent tactics with several examples to illustrate each one. But in this fascinating volume, so popular with students of nonviolence, women are under-represented to a shocking degree. For example, of the nine instances he cites of mass petitions, Sharp includes none by women, though petitioning is a tactic critical to women’s history. Of the ten stories he tells of revenue refusal, he cites no examples of women’s use of tax resistance. Of the ten examples of protest meetings, he cites none by women. This is not to say that he leaves out women entirely. He has included a number of examples of women’s use of nonviolent action, but they are unnecessarily scarce, made conspicuous by their rarity.” (page 11)
“The gestures of courage are repeated from age to age. Consider, for example, the nonviolent tactic of providing sanctuary:
In 1300 B.C., male babies were condemned to death by law. An Egyptian princess and a Hebrew slave mother crossed ethnic and class lines to conspire to break the law. Women’s hands reached through the bullrushes, pulled a baby to safety, sheltered him from the pharaoh’s wrath, from the soldiers’ blades. This is the ancient art of providing sanctuary, the gesture of vreating a safe place in a violent world. The women were brave, clever and creative in their resistance to the insanity of their day.
In 1844, a Quaker farmer put a candle in her window as a sign that her farm was a stop on the secret Underground Railroad. Late that night she hid a black mother and her baby in a barn until the slave-hunters had passed.
In 1944 Germany. A Protestant woman watched as Nazis goose-stepped past her house. Every time she heard a siren she held her breath. An entire Jewish family was hiding in her attic.
In 1984, a young volunteer opened the door of a battered-women’s shelter to a dispirited woman and her fussing baby. She found milk for the baby and tea for the mother and led them to a room where they would be safe for the night.
In 1987, an Iowan church woman pulled over into the parking lot and opened her car dor to the frightened, young “illegal alien” from Guatemala she had agreed to carry to the next safe house. She was playing her part in the sanctuary movement, the “underground railroad” of the 1980s.
The gesture is sanctuary, an ancient art of protection and resistance to unjust authority.” (pages 14-15)
“In Argentina, the mothers were watching with a wide-eyed rude glare that helped bring down a death-dealing kingdom. Ever since the military coup in 1976, their children and their children’s children had been disappearing. They disappeared if they raised their fists, raised their voices, reaised their eyebrows. They disappeared if they joined a union, sang freedom songs, were seen with the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then occasionally they disappeared even if they had done nothing at all. Heavy footsteps came at night, muffled screams, and then nothing – no bodies, no proof of torture, no world outrage...
“Every day many of the mothers of the disappeared went to the Ministry of the Interior in Buenos Aires seeking information from the officials. The mothers waited in long, barren corridors. When a woman finally met with an official, she was told that her case would be “processed” but that, in all likelihood, her missing child had run off, had abandoned the family, was having a secret affair someplace, or was a terrorist who’d been executed by other terrorists...
“One day an official smirked when he dismissed Azucena De Vicenti. She was a sad and aging woman, well into her sixties. Her suffering was not his concern. But that day Azucena De Vicenti was angry. As she passed the other waiting, anxious mothers on the way out, she muttered, “It’s not here that we ought to be – it’s the Plaza de Mayo. And when there’s enough of us, we’ll go to the Casa Rosada and see the president about our children who are missing.”
And that’s how it all began.”
However the road ahead was not easy, and nine women were abducted and killed, and three more, including Azucena De Vicenti, killed a few days later. However the mothers of the disapperaed were able to meet secretly, and sometimes silently, in churches, and a couple of years later they were ready to step out. “The women returned to the Plaza. They wore flat shoes and white scarves embroidered with the names or initials of the relatives they were seeking. They came to the Plaza carrying photos of the “disappeared”. Some days after walking the circle, several women would leave the square, take a megaphone down a side street and each tell her personal story. They had learned it was easier for people to understand the horror of one missing child than it was to grasp the picture of thousands who had “disappeared”...
“Argentina’s bloody military regime could not hide from the eyes of the Mothers of the Laza del mayo. The women were watching and the world was watching them. With their persistance they inspired women in other countries (such as the mothers of El Salvador and Guatemala) where children were disappearing. And they helped bring the day in December 1983 when the people of Argentina inaugurated President Raul Alfonsin as the head of a democratic government.” (pages 20 – 24).
“In almost every corner of the globe, women have experimented with the collective power of the strike, using a variety of tactics in a range of circumstances. In 1818 in Valencia, Venezuela, hospital laundresses went on strike to demand the back pay they were owed. In Iran in 1890, royal harem women organized a successful tobacco strike to break the British monopoly of Persian tobacco production. Twenty thousand women silk workers went on strike in Shanghai, China in 1923, demanding a ten-hour day. And in 1972 in Italy, when their demands for improved salaries and better work conditions were ignored, the cashiers in one Naples department store went on a “smile strike”. By refusing to smile, they were withholding that aspect of cooperation the store needed most to maintain its friendly facade.” (pages 62 – 63)
Graffiti as a tool for nonviolent protest:
“ “If our back is against the wall, turn around and write on it” – graffiti” (page 100)
Singing as protest:
“One April evening when I was eleven years old, I unlocked my little blue journal and wrote:
Today at recess we sang the boys sick. This is the girls’ secret method!”
“With preadolescent famale ingenuity, my girlfriends and I had found a way to get revenge for all the hairpulling, pushing, bullying and name-calling which had been inflicted on us. “Singing the boys sick” also worked as a temporary measure to keep the boys at bay, nonviolently as it were.
“Little did we know that we were not the first to “sing the boys sick”. This tactic was used in the early 1900s by the great labor oragizer Mary “Mother” Jones [born in Cork – Ed] in Greenburg, Pennsylvania, just southeast of Pittsburgh......The brave women of Greensburg went to the picket line cradling their fussing little babies in their arms. When thirteen wome weren arrested and sentenced to thirty days in jail for disturbing the peace, they had no choice but to take their babies with them. The women sang as loud as they could all the way to the jail. This gave Mother Jones an idea. With a curious twinkle in her eyes, she advised the women to keep singing – [Quoting Mother Jones] “And they didn’t; they sang the whole night, and the people complained about the singing, and the women would not shut up, and the babies would not shut up, and nobody would shut up until they turned them all out.” “
Resistance to dictatorial electoral fraud in the Philippines (this quotes just a couple of paragraphs which do not give, or do justice to, the overall story, nor does it quote the story which is included of radio announcer June Keithley who risked her life to broadcast – protected nonviolently by nuns):
“Marcos was proclaimed president after an election marred by terrorism and fruad committed by his supporters, but on February 16, 1986 2 million people turned out at a rally to repudiate the election fraud and proclaim the victory of the people over Marcos. That day, the people began a massive program of civil diobedience and nonviolent protest....
“ “I was at Ortigas when the tanks tried to attack on Sunday afternoon. There were a lot of people, but the real heroes were the nuns. They were the frontliners. When the tanks started to move, the nuns did not budge. Other people began to retreat, but the nuns clutched their rosaries and did not move.
They had a very good strategy. The nuns were cool. They instructed us to stay behind them while they talked to the soldiers. They said nothing could be settled by arguing. “Let’s talk to them. Offer them water or cigarettes,” they said. They pacified those who were hot-tempered.
The nuns were our leaders.
- Carlos G. Guiyab, Jr.” ...
“Out in the streets, people were teargassed that morning, but when seven helicopter gunships were sent to destroy the rebel camps, the pilots refused and defected to the rebel side. That afternoon the government-owned television station was taken over by reformist soldiers. By evening, the majority of the 200,000 soldiers had defected to stand with the people against Marcos. And that night, everyone simply ignored a curfew imposed by Marcos. The next day Corazon Aquino took her oath of office.”