Throughout the Cold War Period there were countless examples of women standing up against the pervasive threat of nuclear war and fighting for peace. This week, we lift up the 1983 Seneca Women’s Encampment for Peace and Justice (WEFPJ), an extremely inspiring grassroots protest that supported anti-nuclear activism and emphasized the importance of environmentalism, feminism, and civil rights within the peace movement.
The idea to have a women’s peace camp originated at the Conference on Global Feminism and Disarmament in 1982. There had been a wave of European feminist peace movements such as the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in which groups of women camped and protested at nuclear weapons sites. The protest at Seneca Falls was to be the American companion. Well-known women’s peace groups such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the War Resisters League (WRL), and Women Strike for Peace (WSP) helped plan the event as well as numerous non-affiliated women.
Seneca Falls, New York was important symbolically, as it had been the location for the historical Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. This convention marked the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled off of the Declaration of Independence, which outlined the rights that American women should be entitled to as citizens. Additionally, in 1590, women of the Iroquois Confederacy had gathered at Seneca to end the war among nations. Seneca Falls had historically been a spot that had melded women’s rights and peace action. Likely, the main reason for selecting this location was that it was adjacent to the Seneca Army Depot, which was used to store nuclear parts prior to their transfer to Europe and was also used as a nuclear dumping site that resulted in high levels of radioactivity in the bunkers located on the base.
The vision statement for the Women’s Encampment for Peace and Justice largely referred to the historical role women have had in opposing violence and oppression, which they believed nuclear weapons represented. In their own words, they believed “the existence of nuclear weapons [was] killing us” and was presenting a critical danger to life itself. This gathering was a way to “challenge the nuclear threat at its doorstep”, starting with the Seneca Army Depot.
Thousands of women stayed in the main encampment from July 1983 through labor day of that same summer. Activities included staged die-ins, marches throughout the town, performative songs and dances, and a walk from Seneca Falls to the army depot that was blocked by angry residents and resulted in the arrests of over 50 women. A major tenet of the WEFPJ was that their civil disobedience would likely result in arrests. To protest so publically, particularly against the U. S. government, all but ensured that they would come into contact with law enforcement, much like peace protesters for the past hundred years.
The Women’s Encampment for Peace and Justice followed the horizontal organizational style of women’s peace groups that had grown out of the new wave of feminism in the 1960’s. Notable examples of this new ideology were the Women Strike for Peace (WSP) and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Both of these groups purposely had no formal leadership. Though there were women with connections to long-standing peace movements such as WILPF, the vast majority of those involved had no affiliations with any political groups. When speaking about their activism to the press, members made sure to emphasize that they were simply a part of the collective whole, and that no one person spoke on behalf of the organization. The WEFPJ felt it was imperative to continue the grassroots tactics that had gained traction with peace groups founded during the start of the Cold War. They did this by bucking the trend of having a select few vocal leaders within their movement, which had characterized the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as other non-women run peace groups during the first half of the twentieth century. This was extremely important, as the WEFPJ made it clear that anyone could be an activist and did not have to be a leader within an established peace association to make a difference.
The Women’s Encampment for Peace and Justice was notably ahead of their time, in that they made sure to have an intersectional and inclusive approach to their peace activism. They understood that nuclear disarmament as well as international peace movements did not exist within a vacuum. Nuclear weapons were, and continue to be, inherently interconnected in their destruction towards the environment, women, people of color, and those of a lower-socioeconomic background. In the pamphlet for the peace camp these intersections were elaborated upon. For example, in the WEFPJ, they called for the peace movement as a whole to be a multi-racial group that acknowledges the ways in which the military industrial complex has enabled racism. In addition, they also highlighted the environmental consequences brought on by the creation of nuclear weapons, such as toxic waste dumps, deteriorating coastlines, and destruction of global forests. This focus on intersectionality was extremely impactful amongst the women at the peace camp, and has continued to stay relevant long after the camp finished.
The activism of the Women’s Encampment for Peace and Justice continued for many years. After the initial summer encampment, smaller protests continued at the Seneca Army Depot. The depot was eventually shut down in the early 1990’s and is now used for non-military purposes. Active protests associated with the WEFPJ continued until 2006. While the results of the peace encampment were not immediate, the legacy of the movement is still seen today. Their integration of intersectionalist goals within peace activism, the emphasis on the history of women as peace advocates, and, lastly, their focus on grassroots are all crucial components of modern peace movements.