International Women’s Day highlights a non-violent path to social change

by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

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Tuesday was International Women’s Day. I spent much of the morning thinking about the women who have informed my understanding of how the common good is realized.

International Women’s Day owes its origin to the Socialist Party of America, who designated Feb. 28, 1909, as National Woman’s Day in honor of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York. Inspired by their American counterparts, a group of European women decided the following year to establish a Women’s Day to publicize the campaign for women suffrage. The first International Woman’s Day was marked March 19, 1911, with more than 1 million men and women in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria rallying for women’s right to work, to vote and hold public office, and for an end to job discrimination.

On the eve of World War I, International Women’s Day provided a mechanism for protesting war and demanding that most fundamental of rights -- the right to peace.

But the United Nation’s recognition of March 8 as International Woman’s Day did not come until 1975. That fact surprised me.

Back in 1983, I assumed this day commemorating the work of women around the globe was a long-established U.N. tradition. I was in Washington D.C. at the time. On March 8 that year, I sat on the floor of a sunlit meeting room among a circle of women who were plotting how to support the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice located outside Seneca Army Depot in Rome, N.Y. The base was one of the country’s largest repositories for nuclear weapons and a deployment site for the Pershing II and Cruise missiles, tactical nuclear weapons intended to “defend” Europe.

The women campers in New York were in solidarity with British women, who a year before established their own encampment for a future of peace and justice outside the Greenham Common military airbase to protest its housing of U.S. cruise missiles.    

More than 12,000 women -- flag-waving grandmas, braless lesbians, working mothers of every ilk, as well as our group from D.C. -- marched on the New York army depot in that summer of 1983. Several months later, my friend Liz McAlister, a mother of three, and six other anti-nuclear activists went to nearby Griffiss Air Force Base (home of nuclear capable B-52 bombers) and hammered on one of the plane’s bomb-bay doors in a dramatic disarmament action for which she and her cohorts served several years in prison. 

The army depot and air force base were later deactivated, but upstate New York is now a locale for the operation of military drones. Once again, women are among the leading voices speaking against these weapons and the sacrilege they represent.

Among them are Kathy Kelly, co-founder of Voices for Creative Nonviolence; Medea Benjamin, author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control; and Catholic Worker Ellen Grady of Ithaca, N.Y., who along with her sister Mary Anne Grady Flores and a community of activists, is waging a campaign of nonviolent protest in Syracuse, N.Y., at Hancock Air National Guard Base, a military drone training center.

These women are our literalists, our visionaries, our peacebuilders. They interpret the human consequences of policies blithely presented as essential to national security and advocate instead for a security based on the well-being of all. They make the life-giving connections.

All across the globe and throughout history, you can find women like them, their accomplishments often unknown and unacknowledged:

  • Palestinian women of the 1920s who advocated for Palestinian self-determination, as well as women’s rights;
  • black women who implemented and sustained campaigns for civil rights in the American South;
  • Vietnam-era feminists who did not go back to their kitchens at war’s end but went on to confront militarism and our culture’s reliance on violence;
  • and the extraordinary female environmentalists around the globe who risk their lives to preserve trees, water, seeds and a sustainable way of life.

Unlike many male leaders, these women sought political change and the betterment of their societies through collaboration and persistence rather than violence. The realization of global women suffrage, which represents one of the most significant power shifts in human history, occurred without women firing a single shot. (The all-male Vatican is one of the few remaining states that does not grant this right.)   

Of course, more work needs to be done especially now in this testosterone-laden political season, with its chest-thumping candidates screaming isolation and division. The work of creating the common good will always be with us, but as I consider how to go about the task, I am glad for the example of so many women. 

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