In 1979, I boarded a Greyhound bus and toured ten southern cities, my first time south of Washington, D.C. I traveled alone. Ah, the courage of youth!
Along the way, I stayed in women’s collectives and collected anecdotes about the range of community responses to the threat of male violence — rape, battery, abuse, harassment. Two experiences on my tour stand out as most intense, memorable, and rewarding for me.One was my week visiting radical feminist pacifist Barbara Deming and her partner Jane Gapen in the Florida Keys. I’d read Barbara’s books in college (Revolution and Equilibrium and Prison Notes). Most of my understanding of nonviolence was a direct result of her writing. She eventually became my mentor. Through her, I came to understand the vital link between feminism and nonviolence.Mornings at Sugarloaf Key were spent reading, bike riding, and exploring the tropical landscape, while Jane worked in her art studio and Barbara wrote, slowly pecking out an occasional sentence on her typewriter.
In the evenings, it was another story. Their little cottage overflowed with women from around the world. We ate together around an oval table and talked, in a delicious variety of accents, of our dreams for the world, each other, and ourselves.
Later, we listened by candlelight as Barbara cast long shadows with storytelling hands. She told of her experiences during the Civil Rights, antiwar, and feminist movements and of challenging hardened hearts encountered along the way. Listening, I began to understand more about Barbara’s “two hands of nonviolence” (the one refusing to cooperate with injustice, the other extended in invitation to help build a new world). And I began to understand Gandhi’s “clinging to the truth.”
Two days after I left the Keys, I visited a women’s collective in northern Florida. These women slept with pistols beneath their pillows, prepared to use guns for self defense.
They took me to a police range and gave me a lesson in how to shoot. (That’s me in dark sunglasses, seeing a gun up close for the first — and last — time.) I remember standing beneath a blue sky with six women absolutely committed to the “I’m-not-a- victim-anymore” spirit. When they put a pistol in my hand, I wasn’t the least bit unsure. I hit the bull’s eye with all but two shots. We were all astonished. “McAllister, you’re a natural killer!” exclaimed one with her version of a compliment. “So much for aimlessness,” quipped another in a Southern drawl.
How do I explain that I was so at home with radical pacifists and only slightly less with the gun-toting women? As a pacifist, how do I reconcile these contradictory experiences?
Gandhi said, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.” I believe this is the common ground I found at both communities — the total commitment to resistance. Still pondering after all these years. Stay tuned …
To Go Deeper:
I spoke about Barbara Deming at a War Resisters League panel discussion with Martin Duberman & David McReynolds on April 26, 2011 at Judson Memorial Church in NYC. I’m introduced at about the 18:30 minute mark:
Read Barbara’s writing:
We Are All Part of One Another: Barbara Deming Reader, edited by Jane Meyerding (New Society Publishers, March 1984)
Prisons That Could Not Hold by Barbara Deming, Introduction by Grace Paley (Spinsters Ink, June 1985)