What does WILPF mean to you?

Legislative luncheon organized by the Des Moines Branch in 2013, from left: Maggie Rawlands, Cecilia Munzenmaier, Marybeth Gardam, Rep. Kelley, Jan Corderman, Sherie Teha, Carolyn Ulenhake Walker. Courtesy Marybeth Gardam.

By Marybeth Gardam, Development Chair

As the Development Chair of WILPF, I am asking WILPF members, old and new, in branches and at-large, to email me and tell me exactly what being part of WILPF means to you.

I want you to really think about it. No formulaic answers, please.

Recall for me how you came to join WILPF, what inspired you most about your time in WILPF, and which WILPF women leaders provided you with your own roadmap to activism. What skills have you learned at WILPF? What memories of successes or solidarity moments keep you going? What would you like to see WILPF accomplish in the world or in your community? What are your hopes for the future of WILPF?

Send your comments to me at GROWINGWILPFCHAIR@gmail.com—in under 1,200 words, please.

I’ll start us off.

In 2000, when we left Macon, Georgia, to move to Iowa, in pursuit of my husband’s career goals, I had already been involved in peace and justice work. I helped create a coalition of people in Georgia who worked with migrant farmworkers. Formalizing our efforts into a recognized body was important. For one thing it helped PROVE to the governor that there WERE migrant farmworkers in Georgia—a fact he had been denying loudly. And it gave us more power speaking TOGETHER than any of us had individually. Together, the People of the Road Coalition was able to pressure the state of Georgia to build a second Migrant Health Center in the state and to create a Migrant Camp Health Aide Program that issued cherished certificates to women who completed basic health training to be able to take temperatures and blood pressures and to distribute information to migrant workers and their families. Along with saving lives, the program empowered women in the camps who, until then, often had no real status.

I was also active on the parish council of my very diverse urban church, which had been the “Black Catholic Church” in town during segregation. It was a privilege to work alongside the strong, committed African American leaders of our small, intimate faith community. I learned a lot and have never before or since felt that strong a sense of “community” in church.

I served as director of the Central Georgia Peace and Justice Center during the turbulent period of the Nicaraguan war, generating donations and information about what was really happening in Central America.

But in 2000, starting fresh in a new place and exhausted from so much peace and justice work, I imagined reinventing myself. I signed up for writing courses at the University of Iowa and enjoyed them so much I had to pinch myself. By the end of the summer of 2001 I was determined to devote myself to writing full time. Then 9/11 happened . . . and I found myself unable to turn away from more peace organizing. I started a women’s group called Women for Peace in our little town, and we eventually had 200+ women standing with us on protests against military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a wonderful way to get to know my neighbors, and I formed a strong support network among those wonderful women.

When we moved again in 2003 to the state capitol, Des Moines, I missed my “tribe” but again deluded myself into believing I could now avoid peace work and concentrate on the writing I wanted to do. Wrong. Instead, I became the state coordinator for STAR*PAC, Stop the Arms Race Political Action Committee, arranging public forums with all the major presidential candidates for the 2004 election, where the public could ask questions about peace and militarism.

After the election, I was actively pursued by Maggie Rawlands of the Des Moines Branch of WILPF. Maggie was gently relentless in her pursuit. She would call me every month to remind me when their meeting was and invite me to attend. She would ask if I needed a ride, if I wanted to meet for coffee or dinner before the meeting. Eventually, I ran out of excuses. And, in WILPF Des Moines I found a group of women who would in time become my family.

Having moved from New Jersey to Georgia and then to Iowa, we were without extended family. We knew not a soul in the Midwest in 2000. And I had left my Cedar Rapids Women for Peace two hours away. The WILPF women welcomed our 13-year-old daughter at our meetings when I was forced to bring her along. They protected her at protests and helped me teach her how to do phoning to get people out for lobby days and protests and events we held. They became surrogate grandmothers to her and surrogate moms to me. Their passion and dedication, from the days of the Vietnam War resistance, were deeply meaningful to me.

WILPF had the structures in place that I had been struggling to create with Women for Peace. When I left Cedar Rapids, and my co-leader did as well, Women for Peace pretty much devolved into other kinds of activism. It had been held together by the sheer tenacity of those of us who founded it. I appreciated the longevity of WILPF, and the fact that it already had bylaws and a board and the strength and support of a network of other branches in other cities, and an international connection to women peace activists all over the world. Only one who has tried and failed to establish that kind of long-term effort can fully appreciate a group that’s already done that hard work!

With the increasing move to the corporatized RIGHT of the Catholic Church, WILPF became my church, my faith community . . . and my faith was placed in those women and their passion for peace and social/economic justice, which matched my own.

The leaders of that branch who will always be important to me are: Maggie Rawlands (that ruthless pursuer of new members and huge activist against Corporate Personhood); Sherry Hutchison (a Quaker who, well into her 90s, stood every week in all kinds of weather at a peace vigil downtown); Carolyn Ulenhake Walker (who retired after working in an inner-city school to be an environmental activist with WILPF and Sierra Club); Judy Lonning (a shy, retiring school teacher who morphed into a vocal advocate against PROFITS OVER PEOPLE dynamics in many local issues); Diane Krell (who used her own vast connections in town to raise awareness and support for WILPF); Willa Tharp (the quiet efficient treasurer whose careful record-keeping let us efficiently run events and track members); and many, many others, including our current WILPF US president, Mary Hanson Harrison.

When I moved from Iowa to Florida, we settled close to my husband’s job in an ultra-conservative part of a very conservative state. Reaching out as a board member of WILPF US has kept me sane and in touch with “my tribe”—women like me who value peace, sisterhood, liberal values, human rights, feminism, and radical participatory democracy.

In an era of online virtual organizing, WILPF puts a human face on peace work, providing substantive support for each other, as well as for the work in which we engage. We are a consistent and recognizable local face in our communities, which leaders and politicians, corporate interests and absentee “landlord” corporatists have come to respect, if only for our persistence. What WILPF offers progressive women is a chance to be united in their organizing in a nonpartisan way, to amplify their voices, strengthen their impact, and bring their dreams for activism to life.

That’s what WILPF means to me. And, while I support other organizations, too, I regard as a privilege the opportunity to contribute to WILPF, with my annual dues AND as many contributions as I can afford over the course of the year. After all, if WE as WILPF members don’t support the work of this great organization, how can we expect others to support our work?

I think I’ll give Maggie a call. It’s been a while!




Alert/Update Category: