Scottie Faerber can relate to the millions of Americans today who struggle with the departure of a parent, child, spouse, friend or other family member to war. Faerber’s grandfather was a doctor in World War I, her father served in World War II, her husband was drafted into Vietnam and two of her brothers served in Vietnam as well. So how does someone with a long family history of service become an activist for peace and pacifism as a member of Women in Black, a group that protests international war?
Three years ago at a church in Northampton, Mass., 250 women gathered to share their experiences at the Women’s Congress for Peace. One of the women in attendance, Mary Wentworth, came away from the conference with the inspiration to begin a branch of the Women in Black locally in Amherst. The national group of Women in Black identify themselves as a “world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice and activity opposed to injustice, war, militarism, and other forms of violence” (www.womeninblack.net).
The Amherst chapter of Women in Black is not just devoted to protesting war-they protest violence against women as well as gender and racial inequality. But Women in Black is also about empowering women to stand up for themselves in the patriarchal environment in which they live. “I’m hopeful that as women become more active, more assertive and more supportive of each other’s struggles, they will grow to not be intimidated by all the patriarchal means and will be able to overcome the problems that they face,” said Wentworth.
“We’re older women, from about 55 to over 80,” said Faerber. “We’re not doing this for our generation. We’re doing this for young people. We know what it’s like to fear for people we care about.”
Once a week, the Women in Black gather in front of the Bank of America building in Amherst center with signs, posters and their signature pamphlets. Each week, their pamphlets spotlight one important issue in addition to their normal protests. Furthermore, each member of the local group brings her own personal agenda of problems to address. The weekly gatherings are not silent vigils-the women are more than willing to discuss their views with curious passersby. “We talk to one another and engage in dialogue with anyone who questions us,” said Wentworth. Wentworth said that the Women in Black believe that the best way to share their message is to talk with people about the problems of war and violence against women.
Faerber, despite her upbringing in a family enshrined with service, knew from a young age that she disagreed with war. “I always thought war was the wrong way to solve problems,” she said. “It becomes very real when you are worried about the life of your loved ones. When a war is unjust, that just inspires you to take a stand and identify in a Judeo-Christian way.” Raised outside of Boston, Faerber attended Smith College and still lives in the area. Religion is an important part of who she is. “I attend the Hope Church in Amherst, a church donated by Amherst College to freed slaves after the Civil War,” she said. “It has a multiracial community and promotes messages of love, loving ourselves, others and God.” Although Faerber is outspoken about her anti-war attitude, she sees a place for just war, if only in extraordinary circumstances. “The only just war is a defensive war. But … there should be other ways to find solutions,” Faerber said. “War is impractical as well as immoral.”
Educated individuals, regardless of gender, class or race, according to Faerber, should be responsible for finding ways to find alternatives to war. She recalled a story told to her while she attended Smith. “During the Civil War, Austin Stearns, the son of the then-President of Amherst College, was killed. The entire town of Amherst went into mourning. Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to her cousin, describing the state of the town. In that letter, she wrote, ‘Let us love better, for that’s the most that’s left to do.’ I think that sends a really strong message,” said Faerber.
Although religion isn’t especially important to Wentworth, a Unitarian, she understands why some are prone to see war in the Bible and assume that it is a reasonable way to solve problems. “I see that the Old Testament was probably written by a group of old patriarchs who had their views on how things should be. I do respect what is written in the Bible about the life of Jesus,” she said. “War seems so natural sometimes to people. Even men who aren’t particularly anxious to go fight still get a kick out of talking about war, the weapons of war and the glory of it all.”
Unlike Faerber, who under extreme circumstances can accept a defensive and just war, Wentworth is truly a pacifist, against all violence and all war. “For people to claim that they get strength from their religion and claim religion supported them throughout fighting, that is not good thinking. If they really thought about what God wanted them to do and what God would approve of, they wouldn’t fight,” said Wentworth.
Where many antiwar pacifists disagree with just-war activists is over the issue of how exactly war can be avoided. Women, Wentworth claims, bring a different perspective to war than men. “Our experience has been one of cooperation. We talk over our problems, rather than try to solve our problems by invading and taking what’s not ours.”
An intense and gratifying belief, pacifism cannot truly be understood through books and newspapers alone. The only way truly to understand what it means to be a pacifist is to speak with actual pacifists about their experiences with this notion of extreme nonviolence. The echo of concern was all too clear in the voices of Faerber and Wentworth as they spoke of their fear that future generations would make the same mistakes as past generations and never realize the ramifications of war. For people like the Women in Black, pacifism and activism remain the only means by which they can pass along their wisdom and understanding of what it means to be nonviolent.