A brief history of WRI's Women Working Group

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WRI Women Gathering
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Author(s)
Joanne Sheehan, Ellen Elster, Veronica Kelly, Trui Masschelein, Ulla Eberhard, Shelley Anderson, Dorie Wilsnack’s

 

The WRI Women's Working Group was formally established in 1985 at WRI Triennial Conference in India. From that moment on, a very important work continued, to which several anti-militarist and / or feminist women from WRI's network joined. The women's working group had an impact worth remembering, highlighting and continuing.

This piece gathers the reflections of some of the women who were an active part of the working group, where they share their experiences and the impact they consider the group had on WRI, and on their activism and personal life. Also, you can find at the end of this story a timeline assembled by Joanne Sheehan with help from Ellen, Dorie, Cynthia Cockburn, her files and memory, that briefly summarises WWG trajectory.

Some reflections from Ellen Elster

I was an active part of WRI’s Women’s Working Group since its start until I resigned from the WRI council in 2006.

Women’s situation within the movement was discussed first time during the Triennial early 1970. On the Triennial in 1975 it was decided to have a women’s gathering together with IFoR (International Fellowship of Reconciliation) the summer 1976 in France. This was my first meeting with women within the international antimilitarist movement. The meeting with women from different parts of the world, thinking and meaning the same as I did, was very inspiring.

Since then there have been four other gatherings (Scotland in 1980, Ireland in 1987, Thailand in 1992 and 2004), two of them in cooperation with women in IFoR. In addition, women met at all WRI’s international meetings (councils and conferences). The Women’s Working Group (WWG) was formally established at the WRI Triennial Conference in India 1985/1986.

The purposes of the WWG were to draw additional light on the role of women in peace processes; to bring women’s perspectives into WRI, drawing on different cultures and traditions; to bring antimilitarist perspectives into women’s groups; to network among and provide emotional support to women who are isolated in their antimilitarist work; not least, creating a women-only-space at WRI-meeting.

A closer solidarity between women in WRI was established. Themes like nonviolence and feminism, feminism and antimilitarism, militarism, masculinity and patriarchy were put on the agenda. The masculinity culture within WRI, after all it was a male-dominated organisation, existed as long as I was part of it, though it became better over the years. A couple of examples, men who dominated the plenary discussions, and women taking leader-roles were met with open scepticism. To deal with this, we started all meetings by having a meeting in beforehand, going through the agenda, to prepare ourselves for the discussions.

The group was loosely organised. Most of the times we were coming together at meetings under the heading WWG, but we gave reports and minutes to WRI. Other times, we communicated through e-mails and gave out a newsletter. The most important project was giving out the anthology on women conscientious objector.

I think that the only area we didn’t have very much impact was bringing antimilitaristic perspectives into women’s groups.

I have always appreciated that we had this woman-only group within a very male-dominated organisation. It was a safe place. It was a place where we could discuss certain issues, undisturbed, and go into the depth of the themes.

I am not sure how well we managed to deal with cultural differences among the women from different parts of the world. But I did have a sense that being women, we had more in common, despite cultural differences.

If it is still relevant to have a WWG inside WRI and what focus, must women within WRI to-day answer.

Veronica Kelly’s reflections:

My real introduction to WRI’s women was at the Vedchhi triennial, when a group met in the mornings to discuss feminism and antimilitarism.  As the woman on the WRI staff at the time, I was allowed to sit in and listen (when I wasn’t supposed to be doing something else somewhere else, of course – we were a staff of three!).  I remember Ellen being very clear: what we had to do, within WRI, was bear women in mind constantly, and separately.  If someone says something about “people”, think: does this mean the same thing for women as for men?  Or not?  And I think she suggested going down through all WRI statements etc. and doing the same thing: checking to make sure they were correct when applied to women as well as men.  And if not... 

 That sounds so obvious now – but at the time, having come straight from nonviolent direct action with women activists, I was unfamiliar with how a large, venerable, gender-mixed antimilitarist organisation worked.  (I found out!)  And I agree with Ellen: those women-only meetings within WRI were a lifeline.

Trui Masschelein’s reflections

In 1992, Ulla, Trini Leung (from Hong Kong) and I had several meetings with women in the US at the Women's Information Centre in Syracuse ('Feminist Responses to Racism and Militarism. A dialogue with women peace activists'). Also, at the Mendocino Women's Peace Forum. During this “road trip” we had interviews with local journalists. 

I would like to add the participation of (branches of) WRI-Women’s Working Group at the International symposium 'Women and the military system' in Helsinki. We were there with several WRI-Women: I guess Veronica knew most of the women there. I found this information about the symposium in Helsinki: “The activist work of women in response to military issues has been complemented by some academic research on women and the military system.  In 1987 an international symposium was held in Helsinki, where 120 women and 10 men from 17 countries discussed women’s place in the military economy, liberation struggles and the liberation of women, the militarization of women and women and the peace movement” (Prudtatorn, 1987; ‘Feminist Forum’, 1987; Isaksson, 1988).[1]

It's important to point out that through all our meetings and activities everyone came back home full of inspiration and new contacts: we wrote articles, had meetings with other women and with our male fellow-activists in our local peace organisations. It’s impossible to measure the impact but this was only possible because a woman was working at the WRI's International Office (thanks Veron!).

I still have a 'Friends of Women Newsletter' (June 1993) edited by Niramon Prudathorn (who attended the symposium in Helsinki and was the co-organiser of the WRI-Women’s gathering in Thailand) with an extensive report of the WRI-women's conference. Really interesting what this meant! The newsletter started with an open letter to the prime minister in the name of the 170 women from 63 countries who attended the conference, calling for a guideline for ending violence of prostitution in Thailand (see full here or below).

WRI-Women’s Working Group made me grow as a feminist, I am so grateful to have met wonderful and inspiring people from the US (on conferences and in the US), fighting for peace and justice. Remembering this helps me to look through the negative perception we get from the US nowadays.  Keep on inspiring many people over there! 

Ulla Eberhard’s reflections

My participation in the WWG of WRI had a big influence on what women in the non-violent movement in Germany thought and did. As I was a staff person in the office of non-violent action groups in Germany from 1987 to 1992, it was among my tasks to coordinate the Foega-Womens-Group.

Women of the Foega-Womens-Group

  • published a lot of articles about feminism-nonviolence-antimilitarism in the Graswurzel-Newspaper
  • made a lot of nonviolent direct actions, mostly as a women’s group in a bigger mixed activity, for example the blocking of the doors at the Hunsrück military base
  • participated in women’s only activities, for example in the Hunsrück women camp
  • gave workshops about women and antimilitarist during conferences of the peace movement

The Foega-Womens-Group was the only anarchist-non-violent-action group in Germany. This point of view did not become mainstream in the German peace movement, but most activists got to know that position.

Women’s working group participated in big actions where WRI was part of, for example, at Marches in Brussels, Grebenhain/Germany and Scotland.

I would describe the political impact of the women’s action group in Germany (that was influenced by the WWG of WRI) as:

  • putting feminist analysis on the table of the peace movement in Germany
  • taking action as women: this made women in the peace movement very visible
  • bringing the connection between militarism and violence against women in the public awareness.

My involvement in some of the activities carried out by Women’s Working Group meant a lot and influenced my personal and professional live as well:

  • It formed my identity as a feminist and non-violent activist
  • We managed to organize such a big international conference in Thailand (and before a little bit smaller in Ireland). This trust in women’s power led me through many occasions later in my life. It was an amazing experience.
  • After our gatherings I learnt how important it is international networking and successful fundraising. These were keystones in my professional life.

 “You Can’t Miss This”: Shelley Anderson Reflections on the WRI Women’s Working Group[2]

The WRI Women’s Working Group had a major impact on me and on my work. I was first introduced to the group in 1987 by my partner (now wife) Francoise Pottier, who was then working for the International Fellowship of Reconciliations (IFOR). She had missed the joint WRI-IFOR Women in the Nonviolent Movement in France (July 13-16, 1976), but did attend the second gathering in Scotland (1980).

The Third WRI Women’s Gathering was held in Glencree, Ireland, in July 1987. “You can’t miss this,” she told me. She was right. To find a group of like-minded women activists with their feet planted strongly in both nonviolent movements and feminist movements felt like coming home. There was no need to explain or defend my concerns, unlike at ‘normal’, male-dominated peace conferences. Ultimately some 60 women from 18 different countries participated in this third gathering. I still count as friends many of the women I met at Glencree.

What I remember most about the Glencree gathering, aside from the rainy beauty of the Irish countryside, was the sense of excitement and possibility. The sense of shared victory when, after writing a letter to the South African government protesting the jailing of two End Conscription Campaign activists, Janet Cherry and Sue Lund, Cherry was released near the end of the gathering (Lund’s release followed several months later). The sense of hope when Yugoslav activists explained how an alliance of women’s, peace and environment groups successfully forced a public debate on government plans to conscript women, which halted such plans. The shared frustration when the only Polish woman able to attend, Ulla Nowakowska (four other Polish women were denied visas), spoke about the resistance within independent dissident groups to women-only organizing. The camaraderie and laughter when, during a night of sharing folk songs, a shared theme was discovered: a young girl falls in love, and her male lover abandons or is forced to leave her.

I was energized by that gathering for months afterwards. I think of this energy to continue the work whenever anyone asks if a women’s group is relevant today. For me, the women’s group wasn’t necessary—it was essential. The sense of being part of a world-wide community kept me going. I think that sense of enthusiasm and shared values is especially important for grassroots women activists who face hostility and isolation, and who continue to struggle despite decreasing resources and increased authoritarianism.

The networking was important. Working as an editor for IFOR’s peace magazine, I knew where to go when I needed an article on the peace movement, whether in Ireland or Indonesia. As an organizer for IFOR’s Women Peacemakers Program, the WRI women’s group network was also important when I needed a panel speaker or a nonviolence trainer who understood women’s issues or suggestions about possible participants.  Working on the 4th WRI Women’s conference “Women Overcoming Violence” in Bangkok, Thailand (November 25-1 December, 1992), which drew some 150 women, the majority from the Asia-Pacific region, deepened my understanding of and my commitment to opposing war. My fundraising and organizing skills were honed, as were others: the Thai lesbian group Anjaree made its first public workshop at that conference.

I also learned a lot from the way the WRI Women’s working group tried to influence WRI policies and structure. The WRI’s 22nd Triennial in Porec, Croatia (September 1998) was especially instructive with its Gender Day, when all discussions, from peace teams to the war in Kosovo, were to address gender implications.  This was an important model when women inside IFOR presented a plan to engender IFOR and its branches at its quadrennial council (Japan 2006).

Most of all the WRI Women’s Working Group’s discussions and moral support was an inspiration for women's programming within its sister pacifist organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). In 1997, IFOR’s Women Peacemakers Program (WPP) was established. In its later years the WPP (which ended in 2017) became a separate organization, not least because of the resistance to tackling women’s issues and promoting women’s leadership within IFOR. Still, by 2005 the IFOR-WPP had trained some 60 women as gender-sensitive active nonviolence trainers, who in turn conducted over 100 nonviolence trainings in 25 countries. This did not include a number of regional gender trainings for peace activists in Africa, Asia, Europe and the USA. In October 2004 the IFOR-WPP and the WRI Women’s Working Group co-organised an international gathering of women trainers, the “Asking the Right Questions: Gender and Nonviolence” consultation, in Thailand.

It is ironic that IFOR, whose women members had never organized into a working group, developed a women’s program. The IFOR Women Peacemakers Program came about because of several factors, not least of which was sympathetic leadership and a dedicated staff person whose sole job was to fundraise for and develop the program. While the networking and information sharing of the WRI Women’s Working Group was successful, more could have been accomplished if it had had a sharper focus. 

An awareness of the interconnectedness of issues such as militarism, gender, poverty and environmental degradation has never been so vital. So, too, is the empowerment of grassroots women activists. I’m proud of the contributions the WRI Women’s Working Group has made in both these areas, and keenly aware that the work must continue.

Dorie Wilsnack’s reflections

I hope I have my facts correct but my first memory of hearing the collective voice of WRI women was at the 1978 triennial in Denmark when women made a request to the WRI Council for support for another women’s gathering and one esteemed (male) Council member replied with loud frustration “ I don’t understand what you women want!” That lack of understanding never quite went away. Nevertheless, WRI women members became more articulate and stronger.

I did not attend the 1980 Scotland gathering but I organized in the US for other War Resisters League women to attend. I attended the Glen Cree, Ireland Gathering in 1987 and helped to organize the 1992 Thailand Gathering and the 2004 Thailand conference of women nonviolence trainers. In the early 1990’s, after the WRI Council met in New York, I helped to set up the tour for some WRI women to meet war resisters women in the US. Throughout my time on the WRI Executive and WRI Council, I took an active part in the women’s meetings before each Council meeting and various other WWG activities.

I gained two major gifts from the Women’s Working Group. One was the circle of support and common understanding, knowing that we were not alone in our ideas. But a more meaningful gift to me was the diversity of contexts and experiences. One might say now that WRI had a limited diversity at the time, but I met women who were living in very different cultures than my own, facing very different challenges than I did. Hearing their stories expanded my universe in deep ways. I would return from Women’s Working Group gatherings with a sobering awareness of the risks that women from Eastern Europe, or later from Turkey, were taking just for being feminists and anti-war activists.

There have been a number of references to the difficulties we faced in raising feminist issues within the WRI. I would like to be a bit more concrete about that. WRI was filled with members who believed that war resistance meant resistance-to-conscription and that other forms of resistance were minor add-ons. So for women to claim our own reasons for resistance to war was difficult for many male WRI members (and leaders, I’m sorry to say) to understand. And as the feminist analysis deepened for some of us, as we saw more clearly the heavy links between misogyny and war-making, our commitments grew stronger, but the gap grew wider between us and some male members of the WRI.

Those gaps and conflicts brought various skirmishes. They look petty on the surface but I’m not sure they really were petty. At one Triennial or more, there were men who insisted on attending the meetings identified as for women-only. At one Council meeting, a lengthy time on the agenda had been set up for the Women’s Working Group to make a major presentation. Our time was minimized because the Council decided that hearing stories from a visiting World War 2 conscientious objector was move valuable. For some women, the closing of ears and doors was too much and pulled back or dropped out.

But for me, as the others have shared, I left each WRI theme group and conference and meeting and Women’s Gathering feeling empowered to keep raising questions and organizing. And I felt – still feel – so fortunate to have worked together with such amazing women during the years I was involved with WRI.

Timeline WWG actions, gatherings and dates to highlight

WWG Timeline

 

[1]Source: Women’s Movements and International Organizations by Deborah Stienstra, 1994

[2]Shelley Anderson was Program Officer for the IFOR Women Peacemakers Program from 1997 to 2007, and editor of WRI Women from 1988 to 2005.

 

 

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