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For this week’s Peace of History:
In acknowledgement of International Women’s Day on March 8, we will share stories of women’s direct resistance to military service. Some resisted their own service, after enlisting under false assumptions, misconceptions, or outright deceit. Others have put themselves at risk of arrest and bodily harm to resist as surrogates for others. And still others have made themselves into roadblocks to hamper the draft effort.
One woman, Jean Zwickel, lost her job as a teacher for refusing to conscript students during World War II. She joined the Harlem Ashram, then the greater peace movement, remaining a dedicated activist into her eighties. Another woman, Erna Harris, a member of the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, risked arrest and worse when she and a friend encouraged the “guys from the camp” to either apply for conscientious objector designation or to go “over the hill” and desert. Harris, a black woman and journalist who continued to be active in the pacifist and civil rights movements years later, provided shelter and aid to C.O.s and deserters. From her own words, “What we women were mostly doing was trying to take care of the guys who went to camp and make sure they didn’t feel deserted, which was easy to feel, and to take care of the ones who didn’t get their classification or who decided not to register and, therefore, were in trials or on their way to prisons.”
Years later, as the draft returned during the Vietnam War, the Committee for Nonviolent Action staged a remarkable protest in Washington, D.C. On June 19, 1968, under umbrellas and plastic coverings at the foot of the Supreme Court Building, several men handed over their draft cards to their female co-conspirators, who lit the cards ablaze with a little propane torch. The women and some men over the draft age again put themselves at risk of arrest and injury to voice their opposition to compulsory military service. Exemption from the draft did not include exemption for the penalty of burning a draft card. Several of these activists, including Mary Suzuki who lived a CNVA in Voluntown (predecessor to VPT), were subjected to being dragged by their hair and clothes by police as activists nonviolently obstructed the arrests of their fellow protesters. Others were arrested later, when police forcibly broke into a church, interrupting a nonviolent resistance training for teens and adults.
Our society is changing rapidly, and some in more recent times have argued that true gender equality would also mean that women should have to register for selective service alongside men -- otherwise, those proponents say, the feminists’ call for gender equality is revealed to be disingenuous. And yet in the past decade alone, at least 20-32% of female service members have been sexually assaulted by other service members, often by officers and senior staff. Accurate numbers are difficult to attain, but several surveys have determined that while sexual assault in the armed forces is at least twice as high as in the general public, it is also extremely underreported, and even fewer reports result in convictions. At least half of those who report assault have suffered some form of retaliation by their superiors, and some have been dishonorably discharged for reasons relating to the assault. The entire premise of the military is built upon authoritarianism and patriarchy. To impose the draft on more people would only serve to expand and reinforce such an institution, and to impose the draft on women would especially reproduce and amplify the worst elements of toxic masculinity in the world.
If the choice between gender-neutral selective service and the dismissal of gender equality is a false dichotomy, so is the choice between being a “Rosie-the-Riveter” and a helpless maiden as one’s country decides to go to war. For some years now, there has been an increased effort to promote and celebrate stories of women’s contributions to great national war efforts on the “homefront”: working in factories to replace the male workers, caring for families and children who have lost their main breadwinners, and generally maintaining the social fabric of their communities. And yet, little has been made of the converse: the remarkable women who resisted war, militarism, and selective service with action or noncompliance, even when it may have been easier to comply. May those women who resisted be an inspiration for us, as they show us that to have inner strength means to remain true to our convictions even when there is no immediate threat to us personally.
Next week, we will discuss the various reasons for conscientious objection, the different paths that have led many to pacifism, and what it means for the United Nations to have deemed conscientious objection as a human right.
Allsup, Citti. “Sisters Say Yes.” Direct Action for a Nonviolent World. New England Committee for Nonviolent Action, June-July 1968.
Elster Ellen and Majken Jul Sorensen, Editors. “Women Conscientious Objectors: An Anthology.” War Resisters’ International, 2010.
Photos from Direct Action for a Nonviolent World, June-July 1968.