In November 1980 and again in ‘81, women gathered at the Pentagon to mourn, rage, empower, and defy, in a pageant-like demonstration that combined rational thought with deep emotion.
A JARGON-FREE MANIFESTO
The idea for the Women’s Pentagon Action (WPA) emerged from an ecofeminism conference on Women and Life on Earth held in Amherst, MA in spring, 1980. The next fall, a spinoff group met to examine the connections between violence against women, racism, and the destruction of the earth.
With input from over 200 women, author-activist Grace Paley drafted a jargon-free manifesto called the Unity Statement. In her essay, “All Is Connectedness,” Ynestra King, an ecofeminist activist-scholar, wrote that the process of collectively creating the Unity Statement set the tone for the actions to follow.
For weeks Grace took phone calls, read the statement to women in her kitchen, on the subway, in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts. The spirit of unity from the Hartford meeting and the process of writing the statement and reaching consensus on it at our next planning meeting told our politics and brought us together. We all listened to each other, everyone was heard and satisfied, and we took this statement home with us to organize.
The Women’s Pentagon Action was guerrilla theater, ritual, and pageant, with opportunities for civil disobedience woven throughout. As King wrote, “All of us were the theater, the actors, there were no speakers, no stage, no leaders…”
In the first stage, thousands of women walked to the beat of a slow drum through Arlington Cemetery, past endless neat rows of tombstones. They were led by a giant Bread and Puppet Theatre papier-mâché figure. (The first year it was draped in black, the second in white.) When they reached Pentagon property, they knelt to place homemade grave-markers: “Mary Dyer,” “Anne Frank,” “Karen Silkwood,” “My mother Roberta, self-induced abortion, 1964,” “the Salem witches,” “the mother of the soldier my son killed in Vietnam.”
The drumbeat changed to a faster, more insistent beat, and a fiery red puppet took the lead for the second stage. To the astonishment of the cynical press and Pentagon personnel who peered from the windows, women began to circle the building chanting, “No more war,” and “Take the toys away from the boys.” They ululated and howled, stomped the ground, pumped the air with raised fists, shook cans filled with pebbles. White bird puppets atop long poles rent the sky, swooping, flapping long, gauzy wings. All was fury and chaos.
From rage evolved the third stage. Another puppet appeared to lead the way (the first year gold, the second year black). The empowerment puppet held a basket of scarves. The women helped themselves as they began to encircle the Pentagon, a building one mile in circumference. As they circled, they read aloud the Unity Statement and sang, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Song of the Soul,” and “You Can’t Just Take My Dreams Away.” By using the scarves to connect woman-to-woman, the circle finally closed around the war building, and the women gave an exultant whoop of victory. (Photo: WPA logo, designed by Vermont artist-activist Bonnie Acker.)
The fourth stage began. Women who had taken workshops on nonviolent civil disobedience began the work of blocking three of the five major entrances to the Pentagon. Some of the women sat on the steps, linking arms and letting their bodies become limp as soon as officers approached to arrest them. (Photo: Grace Paley being arrested)
Other women, led by the Spinsters, a Vermont affinity group of feminist activists, began spinning webs of multi-colored yarns across two of the entrances to express their conviction that all life is connected. They decorated the webs with flowers, feathers, leaves and bells.
As if following a prepared script, police came out with pocketknives to shred the webs and clear the entrances. Unwittingly, they played their part in the pageant. In a dance of destruction, they ripped apart the symbolic webs, demonstrating how our connections to each other, the animals, the earth, are severed.
A BOOK JACKET AND BEYOND
When New Society Publishers went to press with my 448 page anthology, Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, featuring essays by Joan Baez, Barbara Deming, Karla Jay, Holly Near, Alice Walker, and dozens of other author-activists, several photos of the WPA were included inside, as well as one on the cover by Joan E. Biren (or JEB). Unfortunately, some readers, unfamiliar with feminist symbolic use of webs to block entrances, thought the women were caught in the web.
When the book was reprinted, a different cover photo was chosen, this one, also by JEB, showed cheering women triumphantly holding a web over their heads.
In November, 1981, several months before the book’s publication, Grace Paley and several other New York-area contributors to Reweaving joined me in a reading at the Woman’s Salon, co-founded by Erika Duncan. What a night it was! (Photo, L-R: Erika Duncan, one of her daughters, me, Grace Paley, Leah Fritz, and Catherine Reid.)
TO GO DEEPER
Unity Statement, 1980 — Read the entire text!
“All is Connectedness: Scenes from the Women’s Pentagon Action USA” by Ynestra King in Keeping the Peace: A Women’s Peace Handbook, edited by Lynne Jones. The Women’s Press Limited, London, 1983.
“Finding Hope: Reweaving — Then and Now” by Pam McAllister in On the Issues, Summer, 2011 (Looking back 30 years on the experience of editing a groundbreaking and transformative anthology.)
Grace Paley: Collected Shorts by Lilly Rivlin (Paley’s life & times on film)
Photo by War Resisters League showing the Bread and Puppet Theatre creations by Amy Trompetter.
1980 WPA Poster designed by Yolanda Fundora for Feminist Resources on Energy and Ecology (FREE).
Book cover photos by JEB (Joan E. Biren). Photography Collection at George Washington University
WPA logo: designed by Vermont artist-activist Bonnie Acker.