Interweaving Peace and Women’s Rights: The Street Spirit Interview with Shelley Douglass, Part 3

by Terry Messman

The feminism that I believe in is a defense of all life. Not only women, not only the earth, but all together. It’s all reweaving the web.”   Shelley Douglass

Jim and Shelley Douglass demonstrating for peace in Birmingham, Alabama.

Street Spirit: Concern for the rights of women, both in society and in the peace movement, was always a part of Ground Zero’s message to the larger movement. Can you describe how feminism and women’s issues became interwoven with Ground Zero’s peace work?

Shelley Douglass: Well, you have to remember that Ground Zero — and Pacific Life Community, which preceded it — were founded on the idea that nonviolence was a way of life. So it wasn’t just a political type of resistance campaign against Trident. It was an attempt, and is an attempt, to learn a new way of living where things like Trident are not necessary any more. In order to do that, you have to have justice, because the point of the weaponry is to defend things that are unjust or structures that are unjust. So equal rights for women was part of the basis of what we were doing.

Spirit: You once wrote that Ground Zero found that challenging militarism also meant confronting the issues of sexism, racism, and economic injustice.

Douglass: Exactly. It’s all part of one system that oppresses all kinds of people. And personally, speaking for those of us who founded Pacific Life Community and then Ground Zero, we were coming out of a number of years of intense resistance to the Vietnam War where basically everything else got shunted aside.

Spirit: What exactly was shunted aside? The kind of personal issues that led some to say that the personal is political?

Douglass: Yes, all the other issues. It was supposedly selfish to think about your own problems or your own oppression when the Vietnam War was going on and people were being napalmed all the time. It was that sort of intensity: “We have to stop the war and that’s the most important thing.”

The result of that, of course, was very difficult for our friendships, our marriages and our families. Marriages broke up and people went to jail for long terms that they weren’t able to cope with. Kids were neglected, not across the board, and I’m not saying we were all horrible people, but we did things in a way that didn’t give any honor to the way we were living. I guess you could say that, even as we resisted it, the war was kind of in our lives in the way that we treated each other.

Spirit: So people’s lives began falling apart because the urgent demands of antiwar organizing took such a heavy toll?

Douglass: It did. Exactly. And when we began the Trident campaign, we were just coming out of that kind of experience and most of us had no desire at all to do any kind of resistance or political action any more. That was it, you know! We didn’t want any more of that. [laughs]

Spirit: But then good old Bob Aldridge comes along talking about the Trident first-strike submarine?

Douglass: Good old Bob Aldridge, right. When he gave us that look and said, “Do you know where the Trident is stationed?” We’re like, “Oh no!” [laughs]

But we couldn’t not respond. So when we had our initial retreat, the whole point of that retreat was to figure out how we could resist Trident, but do so in a way that would allow us to remain human and to even grow and nurture each other.

That was where nonviolence came in as a way of life — and especially for the women. This was in the mid-’70s and we women were all very aware of the kind of obvious sexism in the peace movement. You know, who did what chores and who got quoted and who was a public speaker and who wasn’t — all of that stuff.

Spirit: Instead of leaving it in the abstract as “who did what,” could you describe what the actual practices were in the movement at the time?

Douglass: Well, the men did most of the public speaking, and the men also spoke most in the meetings. I can remember a number of meetings where I would say something and a few minutes later some man would say, “As Jim said.” We did a lot of providing of refreshments, we women, and we made sure copies were prepared. All that kind of stuff tended to fall to the women while the men were out doing the public and maybe dangerous things. And, of course, we didn’t like that. So initially, on the personal level again, we began to do exercises in our meetings that would even the balance.

Spirit: What kinds of exercises?

Douglass: When we had a Pacific Life Community meeting, we would give everybody matchsticks at the beginning of the meeting. Each time you talked, you surrendered a matchstick and, initially, the men after half an hour had no more matchsticks and so the women did all the talking after that. That was very interesting because it showed both that the men were dominating, but it also meant that the women had to take some responsibility for making decisions. So we realized in a way it was more comfortable to sit back and let them dominate and then we could critique what they had done, because we weren’t the ones making those choices.

Women Organize for an Equal Voice

Spirit: So the matchstick experiment confirmed your sense of male domination in the peace groups?

Douglass: Yes, well, I would not ever question that. There certainly was. So we did the things I said. We used consensus decision-making, which is very long and time-consuming, but it does honor everybody and that’s what we wanted to do.

Spirit: You found that the consensus process gave more people a voice and honored their ideas?

Douglass: We chose it to honor everyone’s input and perspective. We were very committed to that. We didn’t just go into this sight unseen. We trained in how to do consensus. We learned a lot from the Quakers, and from the Movement for a New Society. We were trying to experiment with ways of honoring everybody’s voice, although not everybody got their way each time. That was just not possible. But the whole idea of the Trident campaign was that we’re all part of this oppressive system and we can all change it. So we have to learn to change just as much as somebody working on the Bangor naval base has to learn to change. We were trying to invent ways so that could happen.

Spirit: In anti-nuclear groups in the Bay Area, consensus was very effective, and it worked even in really large meetings. We found it resulted in greater unity and better decisions, and it was way more democratic. Did you find that to be the case?

Douglass: We did. It created greater unity because everybody had been heard, and when we came up with a decision, everybody could live with it. Not everybody thought it was wonderful, but there was nobody there who absolutely could not deal with that decision. So together we could support whatever it was we had decided to do.

Spirit: Consensus often was taught to anti-nuclear groups by women who had developed it in feminist organizations. What else did feminist principles bring to Ground Zero’s work?

Douglass: As a part of that same discipline, we tried to work on our child-rearing practices. We were all fairly young at that point in the ‘80s and we had lots of little kids around, ranging from almost newborns up to early teens. So we tried to give them a sense of taking part. They had their own meetings while we met and we tried to give them a sense that their voices were heard.

They did all kinds of things. They did fun things, and arts and crafts things, and they also talked about the arms race and oppression. It would be interesting if you could find one of those kids to see what they think now. [laughs] Our kids were so little, I’m not sure they would remember much.

But we had one experience where we were at a Fellowship of Reconciliation gathering, planning for a civil disobedience action. The kids had their own program and sent a delegation to the grownups saying that they didn’t think it was right that we should always be the ones who got to get arrested, because we were always saying that we were doing it for them. So they wanted to get arrested too.

We took that very seriously and we arranged an action where the kids would go with us to the action. I think the youngest that went with us was our son Tom, who was probably about five, and the oldest was an early teen. We had told the police we were coming and we made sure that there were people who had legal documents that would allow them to take the kids out of custody after arrest. We all did the action together and we were all arrested, and the kids were taken to the gate of the base and delivered into the hands of their responsible parties.

Spirit: What kind of action did the adults and children do together?

Douglass: Most of our actions at that point were going over the fence and going into the Trident base. I think that one was going in for an “Interdependence Day” picnic on July Fourth so it was a family kind of thing. You know, you go for a picnic as a family and —

Spirit: And then you get arrested as a family. Were the kids arrested inside the Trident base?

Douglass: Certainly These were all trespass actions. I would guess there were around a dozen kids and they were given to their responsible parties and then we were taken off to jail. I think we spent a night or two in jail waiting for arraignment and then of course we went back for trial. But they were very high on doing it.

Spirit: Once you accept that kids are actually human beings, I guess you’ve got to accept them as part of the movement?

Douglass: [Laughs] Right! They’re human beings too, so they’re part of it.

Spirit: We had the same thing in the Livermore Action Group. Children planned their own action, and about 60 got arrested. They were good organizers and very dedicated.

Douglass: That’s great. I didn’t know about that.

Spirit: Was it a positive experience for the kids that participated?

Douglass: Yes, I think so. They did what they said they were going to do. They felt very good about doing that and they kept being involved. As the kids grew up, some of them joined in other actions.

Spirit: In Birmingham, during the civil rights movement, hundreds of children and youth marched for freedom from the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Douglass: Sure, the kids saved that one.

Spirit: They turned the nation around.

A Defense of all Life

Spirit: Do you think the women’s movement broadened our vision of nonviolence? By that, I mean do you think it connected the issues of war, sexism and environmental destruction?

Douglass: I do. I think the feminism that I believe in, the feminism that I know, is a defense of all life. Not only women, not only the earth, but all together. It’s all a web — reweaving the web. And, you know, I’m a little dismayed at some of what I guess you’d call the popular feminism that you hear about now: “Oh, we’re so thrilled that we have a woman general or that women can be in combat.” Or, “Women have to break the glass ceiling and take over the corporations that are exploiting everyone.” I mean, that wasn’t our idea, at least not the part of the feminist movement that I belong to. Our idea was not to get a piece of the pie and lord it over everybody else. It was to have a different pie altogether.

Spirit: What do you mean by a different pie; a different model of the economy and society?

Douglass: Instead of a corporate, capitalist, militarist pie where your eye is on making a profit and dominating and controlling, we wanted a pie that was more circular, with cooperation, with equal justice for all, with an egalitarian kind of economics, with some kind of economic parity, and with nonviolence rather than violence. What we were trying to do in the Pacific Life Community was find a whole new way of life, where we wouldn’t depend on dominating people — any people.

Spirit: Do you think that’s a major part of the original vision that has been lost?

Douglass: Just like everything else, the women’s movement is multifaceted and parts of it have been co-opted. Parts of it maybe never agreed with what I wanted in the first place.

Spirit: No, I think it did agree. I think there was a widely shared vision, across the board, and that vision of equality and justice has been co-opted. How do you think it ended up being co-opted?

Douglass: It goes back again to this idea that if you’re the woman, you can be the token CEO of Exxon or something where you’re exploiting both the earth and other people, and you’re making a whole bundle of money. So basically, what you’re doing is, you’re fitting the classic male model and you have to become that kind of a person.

We used to talk about the so-called female qualities and male qualities, and about how women are supposed to be soft and caring and sensitive, and men are dominating and aggressive and strong. And if we shared power, women would bring all these good qualities to the mix. Our belief was always that we’re all supposed to be all of those things and it’s not divided separately between women and men.

But what seems to me to have happened is that everybody has decided that the so-called masculine characteristics of dominance and aggression are the ones that we need to get ahead. So we join the system and I think women can become that kind of masculine, just as well as anybody else. Look at Margaret Thatcher, or Madeleine Albright for that matter.

Spirit: So society has redefined its picture of strong or liberated women in the image of the patriarchy?

Douglass: Exactly. Exactly. The domination system wins again.

Spirit: Also, when looking at women’s rights, the hardships faced by women in poverty are almost never mentioned. But that has a lot to do with women’s rights.

Douglass: Well, at Mary’s House, people here don’t have very much money. They’re usually glad when they’re pregnant, but they don’t always feel that they have the support they need to carry pregnancy through. So the choice is not really a choice, because there are all kinds of factors that control the choice they feel they have to make.

Spirit: Economic factors like poverty?

Douglass: Economic injustice, racism, all of those things are involved in it. And non-supportive spouses, or no spouses. The men just disappear at that point. I’m not going to say anybody is wrong for whatever they do. I don’t think legislation is a good solution to it, but I think we get so busy defending the right to abortion that we forget to ask the question of whether it is the right thing to do for me or for any individual woman.

It’s just a question I have because obviously there are some situations where it gets used in ways that I think play into the hands of the domination system. When a woman turns up pregnant and the man says, “here go take care of it,” and gives her some money and that’s supposed to deal with the problem. To me, that’s a very patriarchal way of dealing with it.

Fellowship of Reconciliation Delegation to Iraq

Spirit: In 1990 you went on a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation to Iraq that delivered medicine to children when U.S. sanctions had caused deprivation. Why did you decide to go to Iraq?

Douglass: It was before the U.S. had actually attacked and Saddam Hussein’s government was holding hostages to protect itself against possible attack.

Spirit: American and other international hostages?

Douglass: Right, America being the ringleader, of course. We had imposed sanctions on Iraq and Iraq produces oil and not much else, so they were basically not allowed to trade at all with the outside world. This meant that after a fairly short time, they ran out of medicine, they ran out of toilet paper, they ran out of anything they had to import.

They were suffering under the sanctions, and there was a citizen’s movement led partly by the FOR to go to Iraq and see the situation and bring back a report to share with people because the government wasn’t giving good information. I was the former national chair of the FOR council, so I was asked to go and be one of the co-leaders on this visit.

There had been a previous trip that Tom Gumbleton, the bishop from Michigan, had led and he had been able to bring back a hundred of the hostages. They had been released to him and there were only about that many hostages still remaining.

The hope was that we could at least visit them and make sure they were OK and perhaps even bring some more of them out.

So we went. It was civil disobedience because we were taking baby formula and medicines into a country that was under sanctions. That broke the U.S. sanctions rules. It wasn’t a criminal offense, but it was a civil offense that the Treasury Department could have charged us for.

Spirit: Were you ever charged? And did you have any problem getting the medicines on the plane?

Douglass: No. Other people later were charged, but we were not charged. We were flying from New York to Amman, Jordan. You couldn’t fly into Iraq because of the sanctions, but it’s legal to take whatever you want to Amman. We could get the medicines through because their destination was Amman. Then we took another flight from there to Baghdad.

Iraq before the U.S. Wars

Spirit: What was your delegation trying to accomplish?

Douglass: When we got to Iraq, we were to try and meet with the hostages, to meet with Iraqi people, to meet with any officials we could meet with, and talk about the need for peace, and to bring back as much information as we could. And we did all those things.

There were 13 of us on the delegation, and we had a minder who was a government person who was meant to keep us out of trouble. But luckily, since there were 13 of us, he couldn’t keep track of us all. [laughs] We went to universities, we went to farms, and we went to women’s groups. But the interesting thing at that time — now this was before the first bombing — is that Iraq was a socialist country and we saw very little, if any, Third World kind of poverty.

Spirit: Really? That contradicts the picture of Iraq that most Americans had.

Douglass: Yes it does. The Christians were supportive of Saddam Hussein because Hussein gave them the same breaks as the Muslims got in terms of taxes and legal protections. The Christians were not, at that point, being harassed in any way. They had their churches.

And we visited the hostages. Many of them were holed up in the U.S. Embassy and we went with the idea that they were in dire straits, and I took communion all the way from our Catholic Church in Alabama in a little container so that I could give them communion.

We went in a cab to the U.S. Embassy one morning. We were coming to visit these poor oppressed people and they were hostages, so it was scary. But they had a Vietnamese Embassy staff that was feeding them and taking care of them. They had all kinds of electronic devices, like TVs, radios and all that kind of stuff, and they roamed fairly freely, as far as I could tell, around Baghdad.

When I went to take communion to the Catholics, they said, “Well, why don’t you meet us at Mass tomorrow?” So we did. It was Advent and we went to Mass at the little Catholic Church not too far from the embassy with all the Iraqi Catholics and with these guys from the embassy.

A couple of them actually got in touch with us after they were released to say that they were home safely. I think our visit did help get them released, but they weren’t released to us, they were released to John Connally.

Release of American Hostages

Spirit: So you were able to meet with Iraqi government officials and ask them to release the hostages?

Douglass: We did. We had a meeting with the Speaker of the Parliament. You know, these are all very cut-and-dry kind of things. It’s not like we were having any intense diplomatic talks. We were just there to say this isn’t a good idea because it’s going to lead to an attack and it would be a good idea to let them go.

As it turned out, unbeknownst to us, one of our delegates was an oil company employee and he was kind of working behind the scenes and actually disappeared from our delegation toward the end and turned up again with John Connally from Texas.

Spirit: Connally was the governor of Texas and then Secretary of the Treasury, but what was he at that time?

Douglass: I think he was an oil company executive. So it’s not as simple as it seems, and even in peace delegations you find people who are actually working for what I would consider the other side.

Spirit: And this guy who was connected to Connally somehow got on an FOR delegation?

Douglass: Yes, he was in the FOR delegation. He was a corporate plant and he was not on the trip roster because he joined at the very last minute at the airport. It was not a good thing, that’s for sure.

Spirit: Was Connally in Iraq trying to expedite the release of the hostages?

Douglass: Yes, he’d brought a plane, as I remember, and put them all on the plane and took them home, and, as I’ve said, some of them called us once they got back to the states to say thank you for coming and for caring and all that. That was very moving. But in a way, that’s a sidelight to the whole point of my two trips to Iraq.

Effect of Sanctions on Children

Spirit: What did you experience in visiting the hospitals and seeing at first hand some of the effects of U.S. sanctions?

Douglass: At that time, before any of the wars, Iraq was basically a developed country. They had very good medical care and it was socialized medicine so everybody got it. They had free college, so if you kept your grades up, you could go all the way through a B.A. degree and not pay anything — women too. It was a secular Muslim country, so women didn’t have to wear the burqa; they wore whatever they wanted.

We met with all kinds of people who were just saying they don’t like Saddam, but what the United States is doing is just making us support him all the more because he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard — that kind of thing. Of course, they were very careful about talking about him.

At that point, the hospitals were among the most heavily affected by the sanctions because they had to import everything from light bulbs for the incubators to tubing to aspirin. It all had to come from outside the country. Their supplies had run out.

So we would go to the hospitals and the doctors would give us the tour. And it was so sad, especially in the children’s hospitals because they had children there who were sick and who could have been cured if they just had the right medicine, but who were dying. They couldn’t give them fluids, they didn’t have IVs, they didn’t have saline; they didn’t have aspirin, or anything.

We met with parents in the hospital whose kids would have survived had they been able to get decent medical care, but whose kids were dying. And we had little peace doves and things, toys to give them and balloons and bubbles to blow, but the medicine we brought was a drop in the bucket compared to the need. People in Iraqi would say to us, “What does Bush have against us? Why is America doing this to us?” They made a distinction between us, and the American government. They were asking us, “Why are they doing this?”

Spirit: Because the sanctions didn’t just affect the Iraqi government, but primarily hurt the Iraqi people?

Douglass: Sadly yes. It probably didn’t affect Saddam very much at all, but it certainly affected all kinds of people. So we were kind of speechless with the parents in the hospitals because most of us were parents and we could imagine what it felt like to be there helplessly with your child. That was very intense.

Bombing of Shelter in Baghdad

Spirit: Several years later, you went to Iraq again. What was the purpose of this second delegation?

Douglass: We were going mainly as a citizen’s peace venture trying to, again, understand the situation of the people in Iraq and see if there was anything we could do to lessen the hostility in this country. We were going there to try and come back and share with people here what was actually happening in Iraq.

Spirit: How had things changed in the country in the years since your first trip?

Douglass: On our first trip in 1990 Baghdad was a major developed city. There were low-income areas, but there weren’t any Third World levels of poverty that we saw. There was free education, religion, good water, good sewage, power, electrical power all the time — just the things you would expect in a big city.

In 2000, just after the bombings, I went back with another delegation from Voices for Creative Nonviolence and now it was a Third World country — and that was done consciously by our government as a policy. That was the lesson.

They had bombed all the power plants. They bombed the water-purification centers. They bombed the communication centers. They bombed the infrastructure, and they kept the sanctions on so that nothing could be repaired. So everything was in total shambles.

We went to the Amiriyah shelter, which was an underground shelter in Baghdad where women and kids and elderly people had taken shelter during the bombing. A smart bomb had gone into one of the air ducts and people were literally baked inside when this bomb went off.

This happened because the U.S. military thought that this was a command site for their military — you know, it was a “smart bomb.” So it’s like going to Hiroshima. Inside the Amiriyah shelter, there are shadows baked on the wall of people who were incinerated in the shelter when the bomb hit.

Spirit: That’s horrible. So you witnessed the after-effects of U.S. bombing raids that had slaughtered civilians, and you saw how 10 years of sanctions had caused great damage?

Douglass: Right, and there was no reason for it. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and he did horrible things and it was all politically oriented so you didn’t open your mouth; but you could live safely, you could worship, you could go to university. Once the U.S. bombed during those two wars, nothing was secure anymore in Iraq. People were scrambling just to eat. It was incredible and, of course, we kept the sanctions on the whole time and we kept changing the reason for why we had sanctions.

How the Sanctions Destroyed a Country

Spirit: So you saw that many things had dramatically worsened for Iraqi civilians because of the war and sanctions?

Douglass: Yes, as a direct result of the war and the sanctions, Iraq went from being a repressive, but otherwise good life, to being almost impossible. And, it’s gotten worse since then, which is the key to why there’s so much hostility to the U.S.

Spirit: So the U.S. government made the people of Iraq suffer and fear us and then called that “mission accomplished.”

Douglass: Right, exactly. And that’s an obvious example that is just very stark, but we do that all the time in the world.

Spirit: What was the reaction of others on your delegation, especially those who hadn’t been there before? How did they react to seeing these conditions?

Douglass: We were all horrified. Well, Kathy Kelley, of course, had been in Iraq many times, but I don’t think anybody else had been there before. But you didn’t have to have seen it before to be horrified at what was going on then.

We saw the conditions, and the way people were made to live. We already knew about U.S. policy, U.S. bombing runs. We knew what had been done, but now we were walking around in sewage in the middle of the streets because the sewers had been bombed. The city only had electricity for two hours a day because the power plants had been bombed. And the sanctions were still going on.

[Continued in Part 4 below]

EDITOR’S NOTE: Terry Messman is a regular contributor to this site. Please click on his byline to view his Author’s page and an index of his interviews and articles. He is the editor and designer of Street Spirit, a street newspaper published by the American Friends Service Committee and sold by homeless vendors in Berkeley, Oakland, and Santa Cruz, California.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi