Reflections on the Women's Peace Encampment: 30 Years Later



Mark Hare is not the kind of person who strikes you as being aware that he played more than a minor role in changing the world. When I interviewed him for this article, he downplayed his role in the Women’s Peace Encampment, which was established in the summer of 1983.

The encampment was in remote Seneca County, NY, a 55-minute drive from Rochester where I live. It was 51 acres of farmland that abutted the Seneca Army Depot, which Hare’s research revealed, was the eastern seaboard’s storage facility for nuclear weapons.

Two years before, Hare heard rumors that local people in neighboring small towns suspected the Depot was more than a training facility for military personnel. As a reporter for Rochester’s City Newspaper, an alternative weekly, Hare spent two to three months researching army handbooks, interviewing military analysts at The Natural Resources Defense Council, and even touring the army depot. A mutual friend and peace activist, Mark Carver, lived in a tiny rural community and spurred Hare to publish his investigations.

While army personnel would not confirm or deny the charges, it appeared to be common knowledge among military investigators that the Seneca Army Depot was one of two largest nuclear weapons storage sites in the United States and was the point of departure for nuclear weapons to Europe. Bunkers on the 11,000-acre property likely stored the neutron bomb.

Hare found information that escaped reporters for 25 years. It’s not an understatement to say that the publication of his research was explosive. Letters to the Editor and talk show commentary flooded the airwaves.

What kinds of weapons were stored there? Was the depot a decoy facility hiding weapons of mass destruction on another east coast army base? What was the effectiveness of a policy of deterrence if the extent and even presence of these weapons were secret? What about the 1,400 jobs the depot provided for these rural people employed on the site?

Most importantly, what was the risk from possible contamination? In 1982, Hare wrote about the Ginna Nuclear Power Plant incident in Central New York considered the most serious accident since Three Mile Island. But in comparison, Hare called it “a burp, a few puffs of radioactive steam.” Ginna’s radiation was minute compared to a possible accident from the underground neutron bomb stored only 40 miles away. In addition to the landmines and handheld nuclear devices, fuel leakages and the dispersal of deadly radioactive materials—tritium, uranium, and plutonium—had the potential detonation power of 30 times Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Women respond

New York women’s traditional preference for non-violent solutions to human problems goes as far back as 1590 when women of the Iroquois Confederacy gathered in Seneca to demand an end to wars among Native American nations. This kind of courageous peace-making was continued by suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, only 20 miles away, and called for voting rights for women. The inaugural edition of The Revolution, the newspaper of Rochester’s own Susan B. Anthony, condemned “standing armies.” Harriet Tubman’s home, 30 miles from the Seneca Army Depot, was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

On the national level, suffragists from 12 countries came together in 1915 to oppose World War I and birthed the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF), headed by Jane Addams. Other women, such as the Austrian Hildegard Goss-Myer, extended that work into World War II and began the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Helen Caldicott from Australia began Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament. Ireland’s Mairead Corrigan Maguire led peace contingents to the United Nations.

I was a member of Rochester’s chapter of WILPF and my family had to look at a poster that hung in our breakfast room: One Nuclear bomb could ruin your whole day. Our children helped to raise funds for the encampment. We ran a sale of the contents of an old school that my husband was converting into affordable housing in Rochester, NY. They priced desks, detached chalkboards, and crawled through spaces in the school cafeteria carrying out dishes. It prepared them for what was to come when they accompanied me on occasion to the encampment where we slept in tents and organized protests.

Within months, women from over 10 countries descended on the half-mile square space in Seneca County. Posters calling for peace in German, Danish, and Dutch were not uncommon. At its height, as many as 250 women and children were encamped. We organized into teams: housekeeping, childcare, literature distribution, strategic planning, cooking, etc.

The encampment at the Seneca Army Depot was seen as a continuation of the Greenham Common Peace Camp in England. Greenham was one of 100 air force bases in England and the focus of opposition to the planned deployment of 96 cruise missiles, probably to Europe. It began as a 40-woman, 120-mile march from Wales to the air force base. One-and-a-half years later, as many as thirty thousand assembled and called themselves Women for Life on Earth.

Greenham Common was a mixed gender camp for the first three months. However, as time progressed, the men found it difficult to remain non-violent. They saw their women friends being treated badly at the hands of police. The women felt the men were over-protective. Men continued to play a supportive role in fund-raising, childcare, and transportation, but they no longer slept or participated in actions at the camp.

The peace, community, and matriarchal nature of the WPE at Seneca was designed to be a stark next-door contrast to the patriarchal structure of the military. Children, whole foods, creative storytelling, cooperative nurturing, and singing songs of hope were a blatant dissimilarity to armored vehicles and uniformed guards standing in attention. Also the backdrop of decision-making by consensus at the peace camp stood against hierarchical military authority.

Feminism and non-violent practice

An article from the WPE manual proclaims the principle of non-violence as “profoundly simple”: the committed belief in the ultimate value of every person. Feminism makes the same claim. As Francine Cardman says, it is a movement “that seeks to end domination and subordination in human relationships and to bring about justice, freedom, and mutuality in all areas of life.”

Unearthing my notes on affinity group discussion, I see scratched in the margins the names of women who said something profound and I wanted to always remember:

  • Non-violence holds life to be the highest value—life in its full wonder. Killing people, hunger, poverty, and the lack of meaningful work, all are forms of violence.

  • We oppose the power to do that leads people to dominate, control another, deny the existence of another, or consider the existence of another only in terms of one’s own self-interest. Non-violence, however, is the power to be.

  • We support being creative in the face of domination and exercising inner-strength and emotional energy from community. We developing alternative strategies to killing when faced our personal or national insecurities.

The theme of being “other”-centered was the garment we wore, as opposed to being “self”-centered. Non-violence was not about protecting ourselves. This was about the abhorrence of killing others. We were reminded of Gandhi’s teaching: “Truth is in the dying, not in the killing.”

Operating the camp by consensus was strained, however, when one woman made a sign about a woman’s right to abort her child. Another woman whom I immediately befriended felt that other-centeredness disallowed taking the child’s life. We were women, and therefore had to go beyond patriarchal solutions of power and domination in solving human problems—the power to be, not the power to do, remember? We wanted to protect children from dying in war, not fight for the right to destroy children before birth.

On the long walk to the protest site, she told me about the writings of Juli Loesch Wiley and Rachel MacNair.

In these years hence, some women’s concept of non-violence has devolved from wanting no one to die in war, into fighting for the rights of women and gays to kill in war.

This represents a drastic shift away from the rights of the human community to live vs. the rights of the individual to kill.

Aftermath

While still reluctant to give himself much credit, Hare can breathe a little easier now that the Depot is out of the hands of the military. The Women’s Peace Encampment closed in mid ’90s and the final shipment of dismantled nuclear material vacated the Seneca Army Depot in 2002. Since then, it houses a correctional facility and a police training camp, not exactly a garden of bread and roses.

Commercial airlines were given permission to fly over the Depot shortly thereafter. The panorama from the air showed eerie igloo-like storage structures lined up in rows, like tents on a desert scape.

But my favorite view is passing along the Seneca County back roads and catching a glimpse of one of the graceful albino deer starring out from the depot chain fence. Really. There are albino deer there.

#volume3issue1 #feminism #unjustwar

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