PeHP Oral Herstory 018: Elliott batTzedek
Date: December 9, 2006
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Present: Estelle Coleman (EC), hershe Michele Kramer (H)
Transcribed by hershe Michele.
Elliott arrived at Seneca (the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice) in the summer of 1989. The following summer she helped midwife the camp’s transition from open women’s land to intentional community (Women’s PeaceLand). She left the collective in 2003.
E: My name is Elliott Femina batTzedek. It is December 9th 2006. We are recording in my house in Philadelphia, PA.
H: Why don’t we start with your poetry – what have you brought to share?
E: I brought two up to read. This first is a poem of mine called Havdalah at Women’s PeaceLand. Havdalah is a Jewish ritual you do at sunset on Saturday, so it’s the end of Shabbat and going back into the week, so it marks distinction. We really wanted to do a Havdalah, but you’re supposed to have a candle, and you’re supposed to have a little thing of spices, and you’re supposed to have some wine, and we had, of course, it being the peace camp, a cracked cup that was leaking something and we didn’t have the little box of the spices so somebody ran into the kitchen and got a jar and poked holes in it and tossed some stuff in it. And traditionally you have a braided candle so all the different flames become one, but we didn’t have that, so we all held clusters of candles and lit them off the camp fire because it was Havdalah at women’s peace camp. And the Hebrew that’s in here is, there’s a blessing that’s sung and so these are just little snatches from those blessing lines. And then traditionally at the end of that, you sing a little song, ‘sha doit tobe, sha doit tobe’ which is ‘a good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and joy increase.’ It is the song that you sing in Jewish communities and so that’s rewritten here. So this is Havdalah at Women’s PeaceLand.
The women gather
leaning into the light of the fire circle
quieting into notes strummed by the hands I love
the spark that is each woman
woven gently in
boreyt peri hagafen
wine in a tumbler
chipped edges refracting the flames
boreyt miney vesamin
cloves and cinnamon
in a tin jar marked “pepper”
boreyt m’orey ha esh
two candles lit from the fire itself
held tightly in single hand
after single hand
each made by the light distinct
and made by the shadow
part of the braid of decades and dreams
the women sing
a good week
a week of peace
stars raining gladness upon us
fireflies, more numerous than the stars
rising to dance in joy
with this newest
and oldest torah:
E: This next one is actually another piece I wrote after I’d been at the land for a couple of years and I was really dealing with my own incest stuff coming up and coping with it. This was an actual dream I had one night – even my dreams are political some times – so this was a dream I had one night about the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time, about the U.S. and Russia having a nuclear war because, of course, we talked about that a lot there and it seemed very imminent when you were camped next to the damn bombs. And so this is a piece called, Incest Dream #1, In Which No Perpetrator = No Crime.
The bomb that fell wasn’t intentionally malicious, but an accident, the result of a simple informational malfunction.
The Russians called while the missile was still over the Atlantic. They explained and apologized and offered to pay for any damage. The Pentagon understood their situation and didn’t retaliate.
My house was far enough out not to get hit by the bomb or the heat blast or the fires. In the next day’s thick cloud I was on the streets, grabbing people and yelling about radioactivity and poison. Each person stared blankly past me and commented about what a typically foggy day it was, content with the government’s explanation that, because it wasn’t a real war, it wasn’t a real bomb, and so nothing, really, to worry about.
After negotiations, D.C. dropped a bomb on a Russian city – all very polite and civil, of course, jut to keep the numbers and types of bomb tests even. The missile that delivered it had fireworks attached that exploded into a huge Russian flag over the northeast, a symbol of our countries’ friendship.
The debris from that display was so pretty, cascading through the night sky, that it, too, could never have been really dangerous.
The ash fell onto my hair and face in white, sticky gobs that burned. I screamed and screamed for help, but no one around me could see any problem, any problem at all.
E: And that’s part of what it meant to be there was to really to choose to live in a knowledgeable way. The entire world, especially the entire U.S. population, was living as if Hiroshima had barely happened and as if these horrible, horrible weapons meant nothing and we could all just go on with our happy little lives. And to choose - and this is one of the things that drew me to there, because I need to live in truth - to choose to live at the peace camp and to engage at the peace camp was to choose to live being acutely aware it was two minutes ‘til midnight all the time and it was getting closer and we sang songs about that, about the countdown to the midnight on the atomic clock. And even if we were just playing and growing vegetables and doing daily life at the camp, it still meant you were right next to it and you had to be awake to what was happening and that had a huge impact and I think it could be really traumatizing in ways that I think we didn’t really understand until you’d go live somewhere else and try to forget about it. But it meant to choose to live the truth in a time and place where people were living in complete Reagan fantasy, right, that we were the good cowboys - that it didn’t matter what we did. And the women gathered there to say, no, this is the real truth, this is what’s going to happen, this is why we read aloud from the book about the bombing of Hiroshima every summer, right, because this is the truth. And that really mattered, I think it really mattered and it really mattered for me, I know it really mattered for all of us who were there.
EC: So you were quite a political activist before you got to the camp?
E: I was. Before I got there I’d mainly been doing feminist issues and stuff around violence against women and Take Back the Night (1) and stuff about stopping rape, and I was anti-war, but it was really in reading abut the camp even before I got there and starting to read Barbara Deming (2) and reading the anthologies, that I really got what the peace camp was doing, which was putting together the gender analysis of feminists about violence with the anti-war – sure war is bad, but at the peace camp we said, war is a set of masculine behaviors and you either have to believe they can’t be changed and therefore it’s over or we have to believe they can be changed and how are we going to learn to make a world where it’s changed. And I sort of went back and forth politically for a while because I was really strongly separatist - men are broken and they can’t be changed so what’s the point, they’re going to just blow us up. And then at the camp which was really, we have to believe that both men and women can be changed – we’re watching women be changed and we’re dropping the way that femininity has shackled us and kept us from being active people, so therefore we have to believe that men… I used to joke that at the peace camp where there were no men was the place that I most actually believed that men could be better and then you’d go out in the world and they’d be horribly violent. So at the peace camp, you could actually believe that everyone could change, people could change because we were there and we were changing.
EC: Where did you first hear about the peace camp?
E: I heard about the camp when I lived in Madison (WI) and my lover at the time, Mari, and I were riding our bikes down the road and there was a car with really interesting bumper stickers so we left a note on the windshield saying you must be new in town, call us. And it was Amy Batsapora and her girlfriend, Alice, who had just moved there and were really happy to meet other lesbians - not just to meet lesbians, but to meet other lesbian feminists. And so they had come to Madison from the camp.
EC: What year was that?
E: It was ‘87 or ’88. I can’t remember exactly when they moved there. But we got to be really good friends with Amy and Valerie who told us nonstop stories about the peace camp.
H: Had you heard about the camp in 1983 when it opened?
E: I heard a little bit about it – I knew there were some people going up to it, but I was in college in southern Wisconsin and was politically completely clueless. So I knew there were some women making some quilt for the Pentagon and I was like, whatever, and had no clue. And then I had been in graduate school and stuff, so no, I hadn’t heard about it because I’d been on the west coast or in the Midwest and I just hadn’t heard about it.
So then Amy talked about it all the time and I was enchanted because I loved the stories and, the stories were women doing this and women going over the fence and women rescuing each other and women singing songs that turned off the power at Greenham (3) and, I was completely enchanted.
So then, I think that summer, it must have been summer of ’88, Mari and I were at a separatist gathering in southern Wisconsin and Hershe showed up and said she was a peace camp woman and I actually think I’d heard your [to Hershe] name from Valerie, anyway. So we really connected at the sep thing which was kind of hostile to the women in their 20’s that no one knew so we all completely bonded and plus we wanted to sit around the campfire and use water containers to play drums and sing all night and the older, political women thought that we were not political enough so we totally bonded and again, learned peace camp songs and just learned stories from there and, so we were completely enchanted.
And then Hershe, I think it might have been right after that, sometime that summer, Hershe ended up at our house in Madison to do, because she was taking a drive-away car somewhere for some reason, so she stayed overnight or for a couple of days, I don’t remember, and again, we sang songs all night and told stories and then I was at Michigan (4) that summer and the peace camp women were all around the triangle camp fire at night because one particular peace camp women was playing her guitar all night long which was Otter [see Herstory 014] – that’s where I first met her – around that campfire at two in the morning playing ‘Built for Comfort,’ which left a lasting impression.
And so then the next year, Mari and I were in separate graduate programs in Minnesota and we took our summer vacation and drove to the peace camp. So that was the summer of ’89, some time in mid-July we showed up there after driving through Canada.
EC: What was it like when you first got there?
E: Empty. Mari and I drove up. We’d been car-camping in this tiny little orange Mercury Bobcat hatchback with my 6-month old puppy, and we drove up to the camp and I was expecting thousands of women and a well-run office that was getting the mail and organizing donations and we get there and it’s this decaying farm and there’s no one there. There’s completely no one there. So we parked the car and 10 minutes later someone drives by and takes a picture of our car – we’re like, this must be the right place. The shitters [outhouses] were right there and the wall of the shitters had the thing about ‘Welcome to… pick up your orientation materials…’ So we went to the house that was unlocked and we found the folder on the woodstove that said, ‘Peace Camp Orientation.’ And so we read it and we followed the directions in there to get to Ithaca to the Coop and bought some food and came back and there was still no one at the peace camp so we did what it said on the Orientation stuff and it was empty so we chose a room upstairs and we assumed the dog was welcomed because nobody said she wasn’t and we made some dinner and we went to sleep. We got up the next day and we, there was somebody in town to call – I don’t remember what, but it said call somebody in Ithaca – so we called and said, hey, we’re at the peace camp. They’re like, oh, some women will be up this weekend. It was a Tuesday or Wednesday – I don’t remember – we’re like, okay. So then we went out and walked all around the land and went and looked at all the pictures painted on the barn and ran another errand somewhere and came back and there was this young woman from New Zealand there who said, “Oh good! Peace Camp women. I wondered where everyone was!” And she had hitchhiked with a skateboard and had been dropped off at the peace camp. So we were like, we don’t know what’s going on but here, we’ll make some dinner and so for three days, we were the peace camp until women showed up – finally that weekend women - because everybody had been there for July 4th but this was right after July 4th – we didn’t know about July 4th or we would have come earlier. So we were the peace camp for three or four days and we went and got mail from the post office and wrote down some messages off the telephone and put them in the little folder for messages and kind of just hung out there until women started showing up that weekend. By that weekend there were, I don’t know, maybe eight or nine women showed up for the weekend but we were there and we were the peace camp which was really weird, but also really – when it was really functioning, that worked really well, because in fact, any woman could show up and answer the phone and send mailings out – anyone could show up and actually make it work which was a very cool model and I still tell people about that – if you write really good directions, then you just follow the directions. It was very easy.
EC: Had you done civil disobedience, had you had nonviolence training?
E: I hadn’t, we actually did have nonviolence training that summer – I’d done a lot of political activism and organizing but I had never done that kind of formal, right-up-against-the-military, right-up-against-the-police, nonviolence – we’d done more of the middle-of-the-night, or the protest marchers, but I hadn’t done that kind of training. So we actually did that over that summer – I don’t even remember because that was the summer of ’89, and there were actually a lot of women around over the summer. I think Mari and I were there until we went to Michigan, so we were there until some time in August. It seemed longer, I mean it was like a month, but it seemed like a long time because so much happened and so many women kept coming and going and we learned about zapping (5) that summer and we met Woody, actually I think Woody showed up that first weekend - and we found out about all this stuff that was going on in the world and women came through from Greenham and women just kept wandering through and so we learned this tremendous amount in what was really a really short period of time AND got zapped pretty bad a few times so really came to know about that - pretty much, in fact, as soon as Woody showed up.
H: Tell us what you found about zapping – what did women know at that time?
E: It’s hard because I don’t exactly know what I learned that summer versus other times but we found out about the different kinds of microwave radiation and just the basic stuff, knowing that our bodies have an energy level and then radio waves are a different level and TV waves are another level, microwaves are another level and that this was, in fact, simple another kind of weapon that used the electricity of our own bodies. And we certainly heard the stories of about women having the violent dreams, women having suicidal dreams, we would get hit with tremendous headaches that would cease as soon as you walked off of the land. It really bothered my puppy, Beau - we would all just be sitting around and she would be frantically scratching at her ears. Also at some point that summer the vacuum kept turning itself on in the middle of the night – it was plugged in but turned off and at night it would happen – the vacuum would turn itself on and it was weird. That was very weird. The woman from New Zealand stayed the whole summer so she was there the whole time.
H: Was the idea that the military could be directing this weapon at you hard to believe? Did you have doubt that that was happening?
E: I had no doubt at all that it was happening and I don’t even know why – well, you know, because I knew that we had, even though I was, okay, an infant at the time or a young child, I knew that we had dropped these horrible chemical weapons all over Vietnam. I knew our own military had shot students on their campuses in the seventies – I knew that because I had this radicalizing history once I came out as a dyke and started reading everything. So I absolutely knew that they were capable of it so it didn’t surprise me at all. And it was coming out of the Reagan years so I believed anything at that point because the man made jokes about the bombing’s going to commence, right? So I believed anything at that point – anything within reason, but that was certainly within reason for me that the government was developing kinds of crowd-control weapons that would be anonymous because they had gotten in so much trouble in the Vietnam era for actually shooting American citizens, that I completely believed that they were doing something that would let them not get into so much trouble but still absolutely control people. And there was a lot of documentation, the women from Greenham came through and talked about how they had done all of the record keeping there for years – this clearly wasn’t one person saying, “I’m having a bad day,” there were groups of women who had carefully and, we met Laura Boswell that summer. Otter had already been at the peace camp for a while and I met Sarra [see Herstory 021] there that summer and Cindy Sangree– these eminently rational, calm women – they weren’t even the big rah, rah, fuck the patriarchy activists – they were, especially Cindy, was very calm and very academic and just had the facts. And I experienced it. I experienced the walking off the land and having it stop and watching my dog react to things that we did not know were happening, so it made perfect sense to me.
EC: Did you participate in any actions that first summer?
E: I didn’t ever go into the base, in part because I realized during the nonviolence training that it was not ever going to be okay with me for some man to grab me and put handcuffs on me, that I would not respond to that in a nonviolent way, ever, because of my own personal history – somebody grabs me, I’m going to fight for my life, which is not going to work in and intentional civil disobedience setting. But that was good to know – we did that training and I’m, like, okay, I know this about me now. I did a lot of support for other women who were doing things.
EC: Do you remember any of the actions?
E: We did, some women came and there was a parade down to the depot gates and we got balloons and people went in, people meaning ‘women’ of course, [laughter] ‘women-people’ went in over the fences and put balloons with messages on them around the soldier’s housing and we did some spray painting of army recruitment billboards in the local area and either that summer or the next summer, I confuse them, there were a lot of the carpet actions which I loved – I learned a lot from the carpet actions where you’d simply throw carpet over the fence and then go back home and then call the military an hour or so later and say, “Hey, have you picked up the women yet?” And just sit and watch them drive around the base all night looking for women that weren’t there because they were sitting around the campfire back home – which is a brilliant model for activism – I’ve used that in other ways to say, you know, we don’t actually have to do it, we only have to make them think that we’ve done it. And that’s really useful, especially if you’re a small group up against a big powerful group - that was brilliant. And they’d, like all night, they’d be out looking for these women and we’d just be hanging out. I was actually living there two summers, and I remember there were women going into the base all the time and we were going over and getting them out/ That was the year a lot of Barbara Bush’s got arrested for going over to the base [laughter] – there were nine women – “What’s your name?”
EC: Do you remember what your average day there was like?
E: They just never seemed very average. [laughter] There was a lot of talking, that’s what I loved - hearing peace camp stories but also life stories and the singing and the story-telling at night. A lot of the days were kind of ordinary in that we were coping with making meals – especially if there were a lot of women there and the kitchen was tiny and when there were meetings which Mari and I were completely welcomed at although we had just shown up. Any woman who came could come to the meetings and learn about the financial situation and help send out mailings and write thank-you letters to donors and do the business of the peace camp. We spent a lot of time in the hammock because that was a really good place, or going over to take showers at the state park and, I don’t know if it was that summer or the next one, where there was the big topless demonstrations in Rochester so we were helping do that and trying not to get arrested swimming nude in Seneca Lake and that – it was always about the women and about talking about the world and about what are we going to do about what’s happening in the world and that conversation was just nonstop in many different kinds of ways and then meeting all of these women who were coming through.
EC: And then of course, there was process [laughter].
E: Well, there was always process but that was part of the community, it just was.
EC: Had you used consensus process in other organizations?
E: We had, but we’d used it for either short-term things, like for a Take Back the Night march, or we’d use it within very well-defined groups – I had never seen anyone [laughter] and I still don’t think we should, try to do consensus with anyone who wandered off the highway [laughter]. “I’ve shown up for today only, but we’re going to consense!” And somebody who’s wandered in can block consensus and then wander out and never be heard from again.. So that was, it was an education and partly in not how to do it. But it seemed to function nonetheless It was an experiment and it was an amazing experiment but if this is women’s land, open to any woman and every woman has an equal right to have a say and an understanding in what is happening – that was an amazing experiment. We ran into the limits of that as an experiment, but it’s not wrong to have tried, because it certainly pushed the boundaries and, I think, on good days, it taught us about how to educate women around these issues really quickly, like, you’re new here, come to the campfire tonight and hear women’s stories – and you’d learn so much from that but not in an official, now-you-have-to-go-take-a-class-on-the-histroy-of-nuclear-politics way. But just really come and hear what women have to say about it and what they’re thinking about it and that’s really important even if it made the consensus process – I mean, there were days when we’d, especially because that next summer was Transform or Die (6) there were literally days where I would just borrow somebody’s car and just get the hell off the land because if I had to go through one more hour of meeting, I was going to do physical harm to women I cared about [laughter]. I cannot anymore hear how any one FEELS about the issue – like, stop feeling! Just think, make a decision for god’s sakes! [laughter].
EC: In that first month that you and Mari were there, how many women would you say came through?
E: I just have no idea – maybe, there might have been maybe 30-50 – but women came and told stories about other women who I met later, so I felt like I kind of met them then. Or there were women who were friends of women I knew – so the network felt huge even if there were at any one time, not that many women on the land - there was this clear sense of walking into this web that still exists and every where you go you meet peace camp women. So there was this vast web that we were already a part of before we got there because we had been meeting peace camp women and then we got there and became part of that web and it just, it was just everywhere because then we were at Michigan and, of course, there were peace camp women at Michigan who hadn’t been to the camp but now I’d been at the camp so I was a peace camp woman so, it became just this vast web so I don’t remember that summer – the next summer for Transform or Die, a lot more women were there because we’d spent time putting out publicity saying, come to the camp, we’re going to have this big meeting. So there were a lot more there the second summer.
H: Tell us how you decided to come back again after that first summer.
E: Well, how did I decide to come back again? First there was Otter whom I’d met that summer and had gotten involved with and she was in Ithaca at the time so I wanted to come back out and spend the summer at the camp and at Ithaca with Otter. But I also, I was in a Women’s Studies program and we had to do an activist internship somewhere so I got Cindy, who has a PhD, to be my professor and actually coming out and helping do ‘Transform or Die’ was my summer internship and I got graduate credit for it – somewhere I have the paper I wrote about it – I’ll find it, I don’t have it right now, but I’ll find it for you – that was about the process. But also I wanted to be at the peace camp and I came out for the summer and we did a lot of meetings but I also had a lot of sex with my girlfriend and met a lot of really cool women and, so the meetings were intense but it was also I wanted to be there because it was a really good place to be. It’s where I wanted to be that summer – back on the land with the women with my dog.
EC: In what ways were woman at the camp different from one another?
E: There were women from other countries, like Canada, [laughter] but no, there were some British women there who had been at Greenham that were coming through. In its way it was really, it was diverse in terms of life experiences – there were women there who had been in the military themselves and there were women who had gotten married young and had a lot of kids and then came to the political work much later in their lives and there were women. And there were women there who had grown up with tremendous privilege and there were women there who had grown up with nothing, really nothing, and they all came to the camp. That was really important to me. And there were, you know there were a range of political identities - there were women who were very hardass separatist and there were women who resisted that and there were straight women and there were asexual women and bisexual women and it’s-none-of-your-business women but I actually think our identities about it were farther apart than our actually politics – like, we were all at the peace camp and we all knew we wanted not just nuclear power, we wanted military and national governments to be over [laughter]. Although there were some women, I know historically, there were some women there who sort of really loved their country but just wanted no nuclear weapons but by the time I came in the late ‘80s it was women who really believed that we shouldn’t have national governments and militaries at all because that hadn’t gotten us anywhere it was a bad idea for women and it kept women and children from connecting and it caused children to starve and, so I think that had changed by then. There were differences but I think they seemed bigger than they were.
H: Did you come up against feelings that the peace camp shouldn’t even still be there anymore?
E: I didn’t get that until the Transform or Die summer, yeah, because who I’d met of course the first summer were women who still came, like the two of you, right, and women who were still coming and who were still living there so it wasn’t until that Transform or Die thing where some of the women from the earlier years of the peace camp came on the land and that was – the weeks of Transform or Die were really intense because those conversations were like, “What are you people still doing here? We did the real political work, now there’s just these freeloaders who expect women to support them.” And I also came up that summer against some women who came there who were there because they had no where else to be in the world and no resources and felt like if they came there they’d be taken care of and often were living with a lot of diagnosed or not diagnosed mental health issues that made them vulnerable and fragile and yet aggressive and really difficult to deal with so I didn’t see that the first summer as much – I certainly heard stories about it from Otter and from Sarra about the bad winter with the woman who showed up with a gun and wouldn’t leave because some other woman’s land had kicked her off. So I had heard those stories but I actually met them that summer and really that summer learned about that conflict between – we came here for one summer vs. we came here for one summer to do a political protest kind of as opposed to this is an ongoing cultural revolution where we’re going to try to invent a new way of living and that conflict was really intense over Transform or Die – really intense.
EC: One of the things I’d like you talk about is disability on the land.
E: I haven’t even thought about that in so long but at the time I was doing work at women’s music festivals as an accessibility coordinator. We came to the camp from the East Coast Lesbian Festival one year with the women who had been my crew to make that accessible.
There was a commitment to that at the camp. A lot of energy went into keeping that ramp to the front and the boardwalk there when, in fact, there hadn’t been a woman there in a chair in the entire time I was there. There were women with all other kinds of physical mobility issues for whom the ramp was useful. And we did spend a lot of time really trying to get women to understand you can’t just throw your stuff in the middle of the room even though it wasn’t a problem for anyone on the land at that point, we need to be open to women who come. It needs to be accessible. And then once it became Peaceland and you [to Estelle] and Anne were living there – the accessibility became a real day-to-day issue. You wanted to put the washing machines in the house because going out on the icy roads was dangerous. And I know there were some women who had been at peace camp before who were horrified that this was going to happen at which point we said, yeah, but you don’t get a vote anymore. But it’s also that idea that the peace camp would be this kind of complete eco-living and women would wash their clothes on a rock – but it made no sense in terms of real women living there with real accessibility concerns.
EC: And numbers had changed enormously, it wasn’t like there was going to be laundry being done for 30 or 50 women at a time living on the land.
E: And 20 years had passed and we were all older. It’s one thing to decide you don’t need warm running water for a shower when you’re 21 – it’s a whole other thing to not need a warm running shower when you’re in your mid-40s and it’s January in New York state. [laughter] But there were often women there with different kinds of physical disabilities and we always did what ever we could to make it possible – whether that was, we ramped the one little shower area and built a privacy screen because there was a woman there with MS and she couldn’t go to the back area, it was too far, and we did the driving cars to the back fire circle because after a while we couldn’t really keep the boardwalk up anymore, it was just too rotten, and we didn’t have the money to rebuild it. But also we were doing intentional community at that point and the women who were living here got to decide.
H: How did the intentional community idea come about? Take us back to the summer of Transform or Die.
E: Transform or Die happened because we, being the women who were still actively involved, after the land was paid off, well, the land had been paid off but people had loaned money to get it paid off and we had been paying them back slowly through donations for years and we hit a point where we had paid back everything. But there weren’t that many women there anymore and so we realized we needed to have a big gathering to make a decision about what are we going to do? Are we going to sell the land? Are we going to give it to the Cayuga? (7) Are we going to make a nature reserve? Are we going to keep living here as a peace presence? There were all these conflicting opinions and the land needed a lot of work and upkeep that had not been happening. So we decided the only way to do that was to call the women home and to put out a big thing all over the country – we put things in Lesbian Connection and all these newsletters saying we’re going to have this process called Transform or Die, although Mari advocated hard for calling it, Transform or Transform – because you know, we all transform when we die. But it was going to be this big gathering and we would make decisions communally about what the future of the land and the peace camp were going to be. Xi Redwolf did these wonderful drawings that was a snake wearing a tool belt – I don’t even know how she did it but they were really great. We probably have those somewhere – they were really funny because she was a woman who was there at the time. So we put out this notice that there was going to be this meeting and I think I got to the land in late-May that year and it was going to be sometime in July so we kept putting out word but we had no idea what was going to happen, who was going to be there.
H: What year this was?
E: Transform or Die was the summer of ’90 because ’89 was my first summer, so we knew we had to make these decisions and the only way to make them was to get as many women as possible there talking and thinking about it – including the different sets of opinions about it. So we did everything we could – we got silk-screening materials and we had a little design – the Transform or Die summer design and we silk-screened everything. We silk-screened everything flat at the peace camp – towels, pants, everything got silk-screened with this. And we gathered tools and waited and those days of waiting were total magic because we’d go to sleep and they’re maybe eight women on the land and you’d get up in the morning and there’d be four more who would’ve arrived in the middle of the night and then you’d be having lunch and the dogs would start barking and there would be a truck driving up with three more women in it – many of whom I’d heard stories about – other women knew them but I’d never met them. It was just astounding! Estelle just kept saying, if you call the women home, they’ll come – the women always find a way back home. And sure enough, more women would just appear!
EC: Weren’t those lines from a song (8)?
E: They were from a song, [laughter] And women just kept appearing and we started these meetings and I don’t know how long, it seemed like it went on for months, it probably went on for about a week of intense, all-day and then around the campfire all night – stories women were telling, and how passionately. After a few days, we had this horrible impasse about the kind of one-summer-only crowd – this is stereotyping them, but the one-summer-only, it’s-time, you’re-not-doing-political-work-here-anymore, this-isn’t-real-political-work crowd and the cultural-revolution crowd. It was this horrible impasse and no decision could be made – consensus was not only blocked, but impossible and we finally, I don’t remember how this happened, but at one point somebody said stop, stop, stop, let’s all just talk about our feelings about this land. And women started talking and crying – it was just intense. Women felt the land as a woman they loved – this wasn’t just land, this was ‘she’ and ‘her,’ actually later that summer at Michigan, there’s a woman’s dance troupe, whose name I just totally blanked, did a performance – no, I’d seen this in Madison – women did this dance performance about the break-up of a collective, their dance collective had broken up and they had a dressmaker’s female model – so it’s just the torso with no head or arms because it’s the dressmaker’s model and they had her on stage and as they danced, they physically lunged it at each other and they’re heavy and they’d catch them and go backwards –
“I loved her!”
“No, I loved her!”
“You never loved her enough!”
“You never knew who she was!”
- all the things that we scream at each other and they did this as a dance. And at the end everyone hugged the danceform and left and she was alone on stage. And I felt that about women talking about the land that summer - everyone loved, and we said, ‘the land,’ but what we meant was, the capital ‘L’ land, which was not separable from the women and the women’s life stories. We said ‘land’ but what we meant was, the experience we had together there and what it meant for each of us and how we carried it – we carried it here [gesturing to gut] and here [gesturing to chest], some women carried it up here [gesturing to head] – but when you really got started talking it was here, so that you couldn’t quite breath when you felt like you might lose it and it was womb energy – it was the heartland, it was the womb, it was the giving birth to the new world – it was, it was this physical, it was physical for all of us. So women started talking about it and the one woman who’s name I don’t know who had been in this years-long, horrid custody battle with this violent ex-husband and all these peace camp women had been supporting her and if she moved away from him he’d steal her child – it was this whole… and the land was caught up in that for her and her kid who had been a child but was at that point a teenager. And women’s ashes – that’s when I found out that there were women’s ashes on the land that had been brought there after they had died – I hadn’t known that. And that conversation, it just changed every…and women were just sobbing and that seem to go on for days, it probably went on for a few hours, but it went on past dinner and well into the night. That conversation changed everything because women, once we all knew that this was this capital ‘L’ platonic [inaudible] ideal land that we carried in our physical bodies, there were women there who basically said at that point, you know what, it’s with me, it’s not here for me anymore, it’s in me, I am going to step aside from this decision because clearly I hear some – I think it was Cindy Sangree who finally said this outloud, she can be a woman of such tremendous principle, I’ve learned so much from her – she finally said, “You all want to be here, you should make the decision. I don’t, therefore I’m going to step aside and not even be a part of that conversation, because I just can’t be. I’ll keep paying for the garbage to be picked up. Here’s what I can do and now I’m going to step out of the conversation.” And the women who really felt like to continue would be to somehow harm this thing in them could really say, “You love it as much as I do but in a new way – there’s a new wave of energy coming, therefore, I’m going to step out of the meeting, stay – nobody left – but I’m going to step out of the meeting.” Which was a model for me of a kind of integrity about letting go – I had crazy adults in my life, I never saw anybody let go of anything – so that was a model of a kind of integrity about how to let go. learned from that, that at some point it’s okay instead of staying and fighting bitterly, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go and it’s, not only is it okay to go, it can be a good thing to know when it’s time to go – to know when it’s time to stay is important, but women are always taught that – stay connected, hang on no matter what – women are never taught it’s okay to, in a principled way, say, I’m walking away now. And so I learned that there that I had never learned in my life. I’d never seen – I’d seen women get angry and storm away – I’ll burn it, take it down before I let you” – but I’d never seen women simple say, my time here is done. I love all of you but I’m leaving. And that was, that’s been a really important life lesson. So once that happened – it was such a blur, and there were literally meetings where I would just walk out because I couldn’t take it anymore - but once that happened, the energy shifted and for the rest of the week we could really talk about, those of us who knew we were committed to staying, we were committed to this idea of a perpetual presence on the land, of being there as long as there was war, we could therefore make decisions about how we were going to make that real because we didn’t have to fight about it anymore. And some time on Saturday we came, we started finally agreeing after this entire week, we started reaching consensus. We were going to form a separate collective, we were going to become a women’s land trust. I don’t think we settled on a name right away but we knew it would be women’s peace something but we didn’t want to be the peace camp anymore. We knew we would be something different and we knew we were going, we knew the land had been paid for, we knew we were going to become an intentional community although we didn’t know what that meant yet. We knew women were going to go back and start researching different models and then we had dinner and then we kept meeting and at that time we all lost our collective minds. I don’t know if you [to Estelle] remember that part of the meeting – totally lost our minds – we consensed on everything. We consensed that beginning the next morning, since the back part of the house, the dorm and the attic were starting to be very decrepit, we agreed that we would wake up in the morning and tear them down [laughter]. We agreed that we would – I don’t even remember anymore – that was the crazy agreement – because we were so happy to finally be consensing on things and we all felt so connected and sisterly lovely and we were all cuddling in the hammock and we agreed to crazy, crazy stuff and we get up in the morning – a lot of women had gone home – and we got up in the morning, okay, the fact that we’ve reached consensus, we were giddy, we are not going to tear down a third of the house today because none of us here have the tools or the skill to do it. We agreed to crazy things.
EC: I remember saying to Leeann, wait a minute, this is an agreement we came to because of this pressure.
E: Because we were happy to be agreeing, but it was crazy.
H: Which is why you had to have consensus at three meetings before you could change the respected policies.
E: And that was the thing about that summer - we decided pretty early on in Transform or Die that the peace camp with its set of rules, were over. It was a contentious decision but we decided that. And now we had a free open space to make up new rules and that’s part of what took so long that week was trying to agree what the new rules might be and there were women who didn’t want to let go of the old rules and there were women who had rules that they remembered being rules that none of us had every heard of and there were, so it was, it was, those first few days were really rough. Women stayed and stayed with the process but it was not easy in any way.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
1. Take Back the Night - (also known as Reclaim the Night) is an internationally held march and rally originated by the radical feminist movement to protest rape and other forms of violence against women. The term "Take Back the Night" came from the title of a 1977 memorial read by Anne Pride at an anti-violence rally in Pittsburgh.The first known "Take Back the Night" march in the United States was organized in San Francisco, California on November 4, 1978, by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media and marched through the red-light district of San Francisco in protest of rape and pornography.
2. Barbara Deming (July, 23 1917 – August 2, 1984) - writer and activist who was one of 54 Seneca peace camp women arrested at the Waterloo Bridge, August 1, 1983. Her essay about this protest—which was her last—is included with the reprinted Prison Notes under the title Prisons That Could Not Hold (1985). Deming’s passionate and practical articulation of nonviolent struggle presented in the articles, essays, letters and books she wrote, most notably, Prison Notes (1966) Revolution and Equilibrium (1971), We Cannot Live Without Our Lives(1974) and Remembering Who We Are (1981), affirm her as one of the most significant nonviolent theorists in U.S. history. She stands alone among nonviolence theorists not only because her ideology was secular, but because she was a woman, a lesbian, a feminist.
3. Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp –an ongoing nonviolent protest outside the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common in England, 1981-2000. On August 28, 1981, 40 women marched 110 miles to the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common, the proposed site of 96 U.S. cruise missiles. Eight days later, four women chained themselves to the air base fence. From this direct action a women’s peace camp was born. On March 21, 1982, 10,000 people demonstrated at the base. 250 women engaged in a 24-hour blockade – 34 were arrested. On December 12, 1982, 300,000 women linked hands to embrace the 9-mile fence encircling the base. Although the last of U.S.’s 96 cruise missile were removed in 1991, women stayed on at Greenham until 2000 to ensure that the base was closed down. In March of 1997, the land was purchased by the Greenham Common Trust and returned to a variety of civilian uses.
4. Michigan Women’s Music Festival –a yearly all-female gathering on privately-owned land in northwestern Michigan each August since the 70s. The festival is marketed as a cross-generational multi-cultural event for womyn to gather and listen to concerts, make art, explore politics and community, live simply among the meadows and woods and have an outrageously good time. The Michigan community is based upon an essential participatory ethic and is designed and crafted each year by a new combination of womyn, ranging from first-timers to those who have worked on it for over 30 years.
5. Zapping – low frequency, electromagnetic wave weaponry used by the U.S. government. The use of zapping against nonviolent protestors at Seneca Women’s Peace Camp and Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was first confirmed by women at Greenham who brought microwave testing equipment to the camp in 1985 after a pattern of illnesses began to be established. Subsequent testing at Seneca in 1986, where women had been suffering from similar illnesses, confirmed zapping was in use there as well. Documented symptoms of exposure to such weapons include: severe headaches, memory and concentration problems, irregular menstrual cycles, post-menopausal bleeding, nausea, ear pain, dizziness, fatigue and sleep disturbances.
6. Transform or Die – a nine-day gathering at the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in the summer of 1989 to discuss the future of the camp.
7. Cayuga Nation - aka the Gayogoho:no, People of the Pipe, are one of the original Five Nations who joined together with the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, and Seneca to form the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is also know as the Iroquois Confederacy.
The original homeland of the Cayuga Nation extends from Lake Ontario to the Susquehanna River and includes the land of the Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice. The Cayuga were forced onto a 64,000-acre reservation in 1789 and lost additional land illegally when the state of New York bought reservation land in 1795 and 1807. The Cayuga have been attempting to regain their land since 1849 but to this day do not have a reservation or land base.
In the early 1980s, the tribe successfully sued the state of New York for the return of 64,000 acres and a federal judge awarded them $247.7 million in damages. The case has been appealed and as of May 2005, is awaiting further proceedings.
8. Peace camp song lyric “… the women always find their way back home…” from Ain’t Life a Bitch, Average Dyke Band (ADB), 1985. [see Song 034]