Publisher's Preface

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Howard Clark, chair of War Resisters’ International

When apartheid South Africa made it illegal to advocate conscientious objection, it was a woman — Sheena Duncan, president of the Black Sash — who saw the opportunity: that it remained legal to campaign against conscription and that such a campaign would have the potential to open a new front in the struggle for a non-racist South Africa. Opposing conscription could bring together a broad platform of social groups, especially in the white community (as only whites were conscripted), while demonstrating that a section of that community saw the struggle against apartheid as a common struggle. In 1983 Black Sash's annual assembly called for a campaign against conscription, thereby triggering the foundation in 1984 of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). Banned in 1986, it nevertheless continued — in cooperation with the existing network of Conscientious Objector Support Groups — to orchestrate white resistance to apartheid militarism until the system collapsed. Although only men were called up and therefore only men imprisoned as conscientious objectors, tens of women in the ECC were detained — some for months — in the 1980s.

This was by no means the first time women had taken the lead in campaigning against military recruitment. There were two little-known massacres in 18th century Britain — in Hexham, England, in 1761 and Tranent in Scotland in 1797 — where troops were sent in to crush anti-recruitment protests in which women were prime movers and in which a number of them were killed. During the first world war, women founded two of the main anti-recruitment campaigns in the USA — in 1915 Jessie Wallace Hughan (later founder of the War Resisters League) launched the Anti-Enlistment League and in 1917 Emma Goldman founded the No Conscription League. Meanwhile in Australia, the Women's Peace Army spearheaded the campaign that successfully defeated the government in two referendums, in 1916 and 1917, that would have brought in conscription for overseas service.

In several senses, an anthology such as this is long overdue. First in the sense of acknowledging this part of the relatively hidden history of antimilitarism. Second for War Resisters' International organisationally. Founded in 1921, WRI has for much of its history been male-dominated, despite the prominent role of women in various affiliates and with certain exceptions at the international level such as long-serving WRI General Secretary Grace Beaton. Since 1972 conscious efforts have been made to change this — first the introduction of inclusive language (s/he, etc), and then, beginning in 1976, the organisation of special women's gatherings, usually in conjunction with WRI's “elder sister” the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. The second gathering in Scotland served as a prelude to the resurgence of an international women's peace movement in the 1980s, and produced a forceful statement on Women as Total Resisters. The British women involved in these gatherings formed the Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group and WRI later co-published their book Piecing It Together (now online at /pubs/Feminism_and_Nonviolence). Then in 1986 the WRI Women's Working Group was formed to take this work forward and to provide a welcoming entry point for women activists, while WRI's 1987 seminar on Refusing War Preparations: Non-cooperation and Conscientious Objection was a response to feminist prompting to look at “the wider implications of conscientious objection”. That seminar reflected new interest in the Anti-War Plan presented to WRI in 1934 by Bart de Ligt, but it took a decidedly more feminist approach. Activities central to war refusal — war tax resistance, refusing war work and opposing cultural preparations for war — are all areas where women have been and remain at the forefront.

A third and more immediate sense of this anthology being overdue is that its gestation has been rather protracted. Conceived as part of WRI's Right to Refuse to Kill (RRTK) programme, there was at one point an intention of presenting the anthology at the 2007 seminar on Gender and Militarism, organised by WRI and its Israeli affiliate New Profile. It appears now largely thanks to the persistence of two patient mid-wives, Ellen Elster and Majken Jul Sørensen — both members of the WRI Executive committee that decided to publish the anthology — and to the typically conscientious support of the RRTK programme worker in the WRI office, Andreas Speck. The publication of this anthology is a sign of WRI's continued commitment to bring together and support women objectors and to address issues of gender and militarism, both in the WRI's staffed programmes — the RRTK programme itself, and Nonviolence for a Change, promoting nonviolent action to remove the causes of war — and more generally throughout the WRI network.

Published in: Women and Conscientious Objection - An Anthology

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