This episode of Nonviolence Radio brings Carol Flinders — scholar, author, biographer, feminist and nonviolence advocate — to talk with Stephanie Van Hook about her work. For over 30 years, Flinders has been exploring and documenting the lives of women, religious and secular, far back in history and today. Their conversation takes the life and ideas of feminist activist Barbara Deming — who lived from 1917-1984 — as its starting point. It then looks at issues ranging from patriarchy to sexual orientation to effective strategies of nonviolence to what it means to be a complete and whole human being.
Stephanie: Welcome everybody to another episode of Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook, and I’m the director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, California. And I’m here in the studio today with a friend, Carol Flinders who has been a biographer of women and women saints. She’s here to talk to us about a figure in nonviolence that really hasn’t been given her due: Barbara Deming. It’s important to explore biography in nonviolence because it brings out a sense of the history, the context that people were living through. People are at the heart of what nonviolence is about, and the way that different themes emerge in her life that might be relevant to us today.
And so, I want to bring on Carol first to get us through understanding why she’s here to talk to us about Barbara Deming, in particular. Carol, I’ve been sort of slushing through your own biography — do tell me, why is biography important to you and what brings you into the study of women and nonviolence and spirituality?
Carol: Oh, we could just talk about that for an hour! One thing I love about studying biography is that it grounds you. You know, you can’t be abstract when you’re looking at an actual lived life; people who made choices that maybe you wouldn’t have made and so forth. You have to be true to the facts of the story.
I think with Barbara Deming, we move into territory that falls a little beyond the women I’ve written about in the past. She wasn’t a saint, obviously. She was an activist. She wasn’t in my generation though. She was old enough to be my mother, old enough to be your great-grandmother. I always have to keep that in mind because when I want to talk about certain points in her life or certain people who were influential, I have to realize that this life was a long time ago.
She was born in 1917, and she died in 1982 or 84. She was older than most of the activists that she hung out with in the 60s and 70s. She grew up in a very privileged situation in Manhattan. Her father was well-to-do. I never sensed that she was affected by the Great Depression, for example. She went to Quaker schools from the time she was in kindergarten all through high school. Her family wasn’t religious, but that [Quaker education] left an indelible stamp on her thinking.
She’s known in some circles for having offered a secular reading of nonviolence. I think that’s opposed to a religious one, which can be kind of problematic. We can talk about that in a while. But she would drop phrases like, “That of God in every man,” from the Quaker tradition into her discourse. She went to Bennington College. She was very much grounded in the arts her first 40 years.
She wrote poetry, short stories, she published a book on film criticism, she founded several theater companies, she drew. And then in 1959, she went on a trip to India and that changed everything.
Stephanie: Having finished another biography, the autobiography of Patti Smith, it seems like everybody in the 60s was doing art in some way, shape or form — right?
Carol: Yeah, exactly. Let’s look at that word, “Self-expression,” for a second because that gets back to why I am so fascinated by biography. I am more and more of the feeling that the great ones of nonviolence wouldn’t have gotten where they were if they hadn’t been more than just political and external in their orientation, but also engaged in a profoundly important personal search for meaning for their own path, for their own identity.
So I think there’s a very natural segue from being interested in the arts as forms of self-expression, and then on into nonviolence as a way of translating your most idealistic version of yourself into a way of being in the world.
Stephanie: Is that your definition of nonviolence or how would you –
Carol: I think Barbara Deming’s own definition of nonviolence was to quote Gandhi saying, “Clinging to the truth that all of life is one.” Or as she also put it, “We are all part of one another.” That meant that anything you do that contradicts that [oneness and unity] is a form of violence. It would include structural violence; it would include, in her book, any time we suppress the self of another person, that is a form of violence.
I want to hook that up because I think sometimes we might look at some of her statements and say, “Well, that doesn’t sound very Gandhian.” I think it’s only been in the last 20 years that scholars have come to be more and more appreciative of the importance of the word swaraj to him, as opposed to simply the term satyagraha. Satyagraha is that literal clinging to truth. When he wrote about swaraj, he was careful to say, “This happens on two levels.” Swaraj in the independence movement, going way back before Gandhi, meant self-rule. Independence.
But, he said, “it also has a Upanishadic meaning – self-possession, self-awareness, self-rule.” You know, are you able to curb your most excessive impulses? Do you know yourself? Do you know why you’re doing what you’re doing? Well, that’s a big thing. I think you get to somebody like Barbara Deming, her whole life she was simultaneously pursuing her own deepest sense of truth and self, and that wasn’t in contradiction with the pursuit of social justice, peace, and freedom.
Stephanie: Let me circle back to your role at the beginning, where you were talking about your interest in biography and writing about women saints, you also have written about women who aren’t saints. You have “Enduring Grace” and then “Enduring Lives.”
I was recently doing some research into an artist from the 60s, Eva Hesse, who does post-minimalist art. That art usually doesn’t interest me very much; I don’t understand it. But I realized you can’t understand Eva Hesse without understanding the context in which she was working, the other artists whom she was in contrast with, and then what kind of a lineage that she ended up falling into.
You have these modernists and minimalists who basically looked like they were setting up shelves on the wall, very straight very, you know, masculine art. And then she creates something made out of latex that you can hang any way you want to on the ceiling. And people are saying, “It’s brilliant, it’s brilliant” because she’s breaking out of a mold.
So, can you talk a little bit more about who were some of the women that you had studied before Barbara Deming? And then let’s get into the context that Barbara Deming was breaking out of.
Carol: We’re always in conversation with the context in which we are born. There’s no way around that. And that’s why I want to study – I’ve always wanted to study not just one biography, but different biographies. That way we can see what it looks like when that truth that is satya presses through the consciousness of somebody in one context, and then another, and then another, and then another.
At first, it [satya, truth] can look very different. And then you dive down into that life and you start seeing the ways that there’s a certain kind of life, there’s a certain kind of person who doesn’t obstruct that light, who doesn’t get in the way of it. They can’t not let it in. You look at the incredible integrity of a Helen Prejean who just had to take that next step and the next step, and the next step as the path cleared in front of her. I love the variety of these lives.
Stephanie: Helen Prejean is one of the women that you studied, but you also studied some women mystics as well, or you’ve written about them. Just to review some names for our listeners…
Carol: Right, okay, good. In Enduring Grace, I looked up people that everybody has heard of, like St. Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux, but also, at people like Julian of Norwich, and Mechthild of Magdeburg. The one point I wanted to bring out there is that the women mystics of the medieval and early Renaissance time, they hadn’t gone to university and studied Latin. They didn’t know theology.
What they knew was that they had had these tremendous religious experiences, not just out of the blue sky, but after years of unifying their desires and their focus and so on. And so, when they wrote about what had happened – and they did have this tremendous urge to get it out there, they used the vernacular languages, which were fresh and hot to the touch.
French and Italian and German and Spanish, these languages were still just forming, and so there was a thrilling-ness about the usage and the imagery. There’s nothing stale or abstract about the language they used. And I found that kind of wonderful. I also found it something that you can see right on into the present context where women have not been encouraged.
Women, until pretty recently, we didn’t go to Oxford and Cambridge and pick up the patois. We didn’t know how to talk the talk, and so there’s a vividness. Somebody like a Grace Paley, wonderful, rich street talk, and yet the truths that they are conveying are so tremendous.
So, I’ve come to think that the vernacular spirituality of middle ages is — and almost goes without saying — any time women are writing and speaking. I mentioned a while ago that Barbara Deming has been slotted as one of those people who writes about nonviolence from a secular point-of-view. Basically, what that means is she doesn’t talk about God. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a tremendously powerful spirituality running through the way she talks about her experiences.
Stephanie: It reminds me of something that Gandhi wrote in his autobiography, that those who don’t understand the relationship between spirituality and political struggle don’t understand the meaning of spirituality itself.
Carol: Perfect. Did he actually use the word spirituality? I wonder about that.
Carol: Yeah, exactly. And that’s confusing when you’re reading Gandhi because sometimes we push in those meanings like, “Oh, he’s talking about a pastor or the congregation and church,” and so forth. And he’s not. When he uses the word ‘religion’, he’s talking about the Indian understanding, the religiousness itself that precedes any of its expressions.
Stephanie: And so, you see Barbara Deming and her work in feminism and nonviolence, and then later, well throughout her life, the exploration of truth in regards to her own identity as a lesbian, you see her as somehow part of this lineage of women, as you said, who are seeking self, whether they’re in a religious context or not, because you read about Helen Prejean who is a nun, but you’ve written about other women who aren’t such as Etty –
Carol: Etty Hillesum.
Stephanie: – for example.
Carol: Fascinating example too. And same thing as with Helen Prejean, she is, in a sense, at odds with the established church, she is carving out a path within. She loves the Catholic tradition, and she’s opposed to a great deal in it. And you really see that, even when she’s writing “Dead Man Walking,” her impatience with the priests who are presiding there on death row, that what they’re doing is not in harmony with Jesus’ teachings. She’s not afraid to say that.
So, one of the things that happens in vernacular spirituality in all of its forms, is women just reach out and claim for themselves the right to, in all sincerity, identify the crucial truths and give voice, give expression to them.
Stephanie: And then Barbara Deming’s own context in the 60s and 70s in particular, you said, that other people that have written about her — Ira Chernus, for example, is one in “Nonviolence: History of an Idea.”
Carol: Yeah, I know the essay.
Stephanie: It promulgates the sense that her approach to nonviolence was a secular approach, and she showed people that you don’t need to be religious in order to practice nonviolence. And, you know, Ira’s a man, and he’s defining Barbara.
Stephanie: I think there’s a sense of irony there; let’s get into understanding Barbara’s feminism and how she might have felt about a man defining her approach to nonviolence in that way. Maybe she would agree, but what I keep reading over and over again when women write about her – I don’t think I’ve ever read one woman say she wasn’t a spiritual person.
Carol: Right, right. I think in fairness to Chernus, in his book he was trying to convey that it is possible to practice nonviolence without sounding like Martin Luther King, and so he grabbed Barbara because she sort of sounded like that. But I think he was off-base because he didn’t understand. I think a lot of people don’t understand the spirituality of non-churched people.
Huston Smith used to talk about this. It’s part of our nature to be – we have religiousness. It’s a thirst for depth and meaning and connection. We’re all looking for stories that will explain, give some sense of meaning to existence. And once we found a good story, we’re thrilled to find other people that like that story too, because it connects us. That kind of thing.
So, there’s a kind of purblindness that we’re up against. But what was happening there in the 70s was the first motions towards women formulating what it might be — what feminist spirituality might look like, reclaiming everything that they had been denied. There were a lot of missteps and a lot of arguments and so forth.
But I think out of it, there does come this sense – I mean, the very first voices of the women’s second wave movement, people like Mary Daly writing about “God, The Father,” was the title of her book. Bella Abzug became a feminist when she realized that she was not going to be permitted to sit shiva for her – that’s not the word – for her father, his passing.
Stephanie: That’s it.
Carol: Yeah. Religion was right in the center of those early conversations because we realized how much – to what extent — religious language had defined women as less than fully human, so we had to push back against that.
Stephanie: Then looking into Barbara’s feminism, what did that mean? We’ve been looking at a little bit of her nonviolence, a little bit of clinging to truth, now let’s start weaving in this sense of what feminism means.
Carol: Let’s go back and look at her life a little bit, ground it in the life experience. When she got back from India, she knew, suddenly: she’d been apolitical all along, and now she knew that nonviolence was who she was, in the marrow of her bones. It was like finding herself, really, at that level. So, she plunges into working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation with AJ Muste, and she starts going out and getting arrested for all the right reasons, and writes a gorgeous book called “Prison Notes” in the middle of the – actually, I think 1963 — she was in jail in Albany, Georgia for 27 days.
And she partially fasted. And a lot of other people over there fasted completely. And she wrote this wonderful small book called Prison Notes which was on a lot of people’s lists for best book of the year. I think you can see looking at that, that she has this almost instinctive intuitive grasp of what Gandhi was talking about with regard to nonviolence because she captures the relationships between those who are imprisoned and the jailers, and the imprisoned people to one another, recognizing something that you’ll see in the literature often. That is that the jailers are in jail also, you know, and the tenderness she expresses towards them.
And saying at one point the solidarity that she feels with her fellow fasters and jailbirds, that she says, “It’s like being in love.” And this woman was in love her whole life. She was passionate. She was always in a pretty long-term loving relationship. And for her, the one didn’t preclude the other at all.
She had a strong sense of the performativity of effective nonviolence. I think her background in theater prepared her to understand that dimension, and it comes up often in her writings. Core to her nonviolence is this sense that you need to listen closely to your opponent because they know things. They recognize things about you that you might be missing. So, there’s a big open-heartedness there.
So, okay, she’s on that course right up through the 60s. Very well loved. She’s writing now, she’s a journalist/activist, goes back and forth between the two, writes for the “Nation, for Liberation,” for a couple of other journals. And then, in a similar kind of boom explosive thing, she starts to read those first books that were coming out by people like Mary Daly and Shulamith Firestone. And she describes it as others do, as almost a religious experience, this feeling of truth dawning.
It seems so clear and obvious and kind of gorgeous, “Oh, now I get it. It’s all about patriarchy.” And it’s damaging men as much as it’s damaging women. That’s the nonviolent dimension of her feminism. She wasn’t alone in that perception. Since I was there, I remember. I want to underscore that was always in the mix. Women used to say, “A world that is safe for women, is safe for everybody,” for example. That’s what we understood.
And so, there was this celebratory dimension because it seemed so clear, that you just knew that any minute everybody – the men would say, “Oh, you’re right,” and the world would change. We had no idea, no sense of how deeply misogyny was embedded in all of our institutions. Fearfulness. And just that whole male code, that there’s only one way to be a man and it starts with recognizing that women are not fully human.
We didn’t know what we were up against. Barbara Deming didn’t either. And when she first started saying the things she did about feminism and nonviolence, she angered everybody. Her feminist friends were angry because they thought she wasn’t doing – some of them thought she was saying, “Oh, just turn the other cheek.” They said, “We’ve been doing that.”
And that wasn’t what she was saying at all, but such were the times. And her men friends in the nonviolence movement, their feelings were hurt, right? “You’re being so divisive,” and so forth. So really, her ideas there, they were like with a biblical phrase, “Seeds thrown on rocky ground.” That’s why I feel like I really want to revisit her now when there’s so much – the cycle has come around once again, that feeling of tremendous anger.
I said, “Well, where do we go from here?” I think Barbara helps us see where we could go.
Stephanie: Yes. We’re talking with Carol Flinders about Barbara Deming, a figure in the history of nonviolence that we feel hasn’t received enough analysis and attention. And given the politics of 2020, and we’re sort of in between Valentine’s Day, which is the big movement from Eve Ensler across the world, to bring women together. And then just having the Women’s March earlier in January. It’s a good time to explore Barbara Deming in relationship to nonviolence and the work of feminism and its importance.
One thing, Carol, that I’ve noticed in Barbara’s writings is that she keeps pointing to people who might not have a conscious understanding of what’s going on — and so, they react. And when women are pushing, or men push against patriarchy or try to transform it, there’s going to be a reaction because it’s happening on a subconscious or unconscious level.
Carol: Well put, yeah.
Stephanie: And she keeps bringing that out. I think what’s astounding about her writing or makes you really think at times, is that she’ll bring something out from the unconscious, like when she was holding her dead father in her arms when he had a heart attack and had fallen on the ground and died. She said this was one of the only times that she felt safe holding him in this way. She said, “I bet there’s a lot of other women who have felt something similar.”
In this really wonderful book that we both have called, “Reweaving the Web of Life,” that’s edited by Pam McAllister, she’s being interviewed by Mab Segrest and Mimi Bruce. They’re talking about anger. This is another way that I’ve talked about feminism, that it has been seen as kind of a movement of anger. We can talk more about that if you’d like.
But this is the more unconscious aspect. She says,
“Yes, I too have been afraid of my anger, but I think that if we can begin to free ourselves of the lie we’ve accepted about what it is to be an angry woman, if we can begin to believe in our anger as a healing force, then our own belief in it will cause men to begin to experience it in a different way and our danger from them will decrease.
In fact, I think that the reason that men are so very violent is that they know deep in themselves that they’re acting out a lie, and so they’re furious. You can’t be happy living a lie. They’re furious at being caught up in the lie, but they don’t know how to break out of it, so they just go further into it.”
Do you want to comment?
Carol: Beautifully put. Wow. Well, my mind first goes off in several directions. One thing that’s occurred to me just recently is that I think what Barbara Deming might have reflected is that women of her time weren’t angry enough yet to take up nonviolence, that being merely PO’d, as they say, merely being pretty bummed out, you can get on with your life.
When you get to the point that you see that your anger at that situation is overwhelming you and making you ineffective, I think something in you can – won’t necessarily – but can, at that moment, pull back and say, “Wow, this is a force and it’s mastering me and I can’t let it do that.”
But this tremendous amount of energy, how can I turn that towards, into a transformative force? Gandhi went through that. I think if you look at how angry he was at Pietermaritzburg when he was thrown off the train, he knew what it meant to be a victim of towering rage. You don’t run away from that. I think she makes a distinction between two kinds of anger, one of them being transformative, the other being angry as affliction.
And when we find that our anger is an affliction, then that moves into spiritual territory and the necessity to come to terms with their own personal interior processes.
Stephanie: I’m talking with Carol Flinders, author of “At the Root of This Longing, Reconciling a Feminist Hunger with a Spiritual Thirst.”
Carol: Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst.
Stephanie: Spiritual Hunger. [Laughter] We’re hungry and thirsty. We want spirituality and – [laughter]. She’s also a biographer of spirituality and of nonviolence as well. I think you’re also the author of “Laurel’s Kitchen,” which, in a way is another kind of – it’s a more kind of autobiography, or it’s a biography of women’s work, in a way.
Carol: Yeah, yeah. It’s all of a piece. Every bit of it.
Stephanie: We want to talk about the relevance of feminism today. I think that it’s hard in 2020 to continue the kind of bifurcation that was happening in feminism in the 60s and 70s.
Stephanie: On the other hand, I did want to play a song from this woman, an Australian artist, young. She’s probably early 30’s and she’s a well-known artist, Courtney Barnett. The online culture of trolling, being trolled by angry men online who threaten her. In this song, which is for folks and feminists in 2020, she quotes Margaret Atwood. And Margaret Atwood said she talked to two groups of people, one group of men, one group of women, and whenever she talked to groups of men, what are they most afraid of? They’re afraid of women laughing at them.
Carol: Oh, yes. And what are women most afraid of? That the men will kill them.
Stephanie: Yes. That’s the intro to this song. I just thought it would be nice to punctuate this conversation with Barbara Deming with a little bit of contemporary feminism.
Carol: Good. Thank you.
[Courtney Barnett’s song “Nameless, Faceless” plays.]
Stephanie: [Laughs] I’m laughing because it makes me nervous, that song.
Carol: I get it. My hearing is not great, but what I was picking up just went right into my heart. You know, I’m holding my keys in my hand. I live out in the country. I’m pretty safe, you know. But every time I’m in a big urban setting, I’m looking around at all these young women and thinking all women, we’re living in fear all the time. And how strange it is in the context of how much has changed since the 60s and 70s and how much is the same. It’s like everything is amplified. Everything is intensified.
We do have more clarity about the forces that are at work. We’re still a long way from having much mastery over the internal forces that brought us here. And that’s, I think the point of honest bafflement that the most honest, most lucid people have today, what on earth do we do?
I was just thinking of something the other day. Peggy Orenstein is doing such important work. I mean going way back, her work with girls was huge. She has a book that’s just come out about boys and sex, and she’s been interviewing little boys and high school boys for the last couple of years. She’s a parent herself of a daughter.
And you can just see how her heart is opened to the suffering of these little boys because she can see how really vividly, how all of these horrible ideas are forced on these young boys so that they are conditioned to look upon girls as objects and so forth. That’s a vital first step. I think that’s right out of a nonviolence handbook, is listening and listening, and opening your heart, and realizing that, yeah, the jailer is also in jail. I mean we need to recognize this is something that’s been in the making since – I always date it to the Neolithic revolution. That’s when everything shifted around and women became like cattle in certain regards, you know, to be penned in. Main responsibility is to just have babies and so forth. That’s the most extreme sort of thing, but that colors where we are.
We shouldn’t be surprised that it’s going to take more than 50 years to undo it. And yet, within our lifetime, we want to see more, don’t we?
Stephanie: I think so.
Stephanie: Let’s talk about Barbara – I have this audio of her, but maybe we won’t share it during this show, but after the show, people can find it on the link at the Metta Center. She’s at the Seneca Peace Camp. [YouTube video]
Carol: Right. And she’s near death. She’s going to die within about a year and a half at that point. She’s not well. Her voice is very shaky.
Stephanie: Yes, and she’s talking about what transpired on the bridge right before they got arrested. They had permission to be on a bridge to sort of honor, to do a walk to honor women of that area, but also they’re protesting nuclear weapons, right? There’s the sense that these women need to be a catalyst for changing the mentality that is behind the ultimate destruction of our world through the nuclear weapons.
Stephanie: They originally had permission to go, and then the townspeople decided that they didn’t want her there. And so the sheriff went along with them and decided the mob of townspeople came to try to get them out of there. Then the sheriff told them to go too, even though he had already given them permission, and then arrested them. She said that one of the things that was being yelled at them was, you know, “Kill the commies,” and you know, “Get rid of the Jews,” and “Nuke the lezzies.”
She referred to one of her friend’s analysis, and she summarizes it and she says that even though these people were out of their minds with what they were saying –
Carol: They were making sense.
Stephanie: They were making sense because they were saying that they knew that these women were protesting the patriarchy. And with the patriarchy, there will come a different way of governing ourselves, a different kind of religion, and a different kind of sexuality.
Carol: Yeah, and that’s frightening because it’s unknown.
Stephanie: And so, speak to that, that it’s not just men discovering that there are these ideas put in their heads about what it means to be a man, but when we transform patriarchy, it’s going to transform a lot of other things along with it. Can you speak to that?
Carol: Change is terrifying. And we’re already in the midst of this tremendous climate change. So, adding to that is really very frightening. You just see it in the conversations in the news, on Twitter and so forth, all the different fora of the fears that are being expressed. And that’s why I think it was interesting because I revisited that recorded session that you just described too, and how she seems to feel that what was really useful and reassuring to people, was that the women demonstrated – without even being conscious they were doing that, demonstrated their process.
They first sat down. They realized that they needed to be non-threatening, and so they sat down. I laughed at that because I remember Jane Goodall always said when you’re around a bunch of chimps, first thing you do is make yourself very small.
So, they sat down, and they sat in a circle, and they deliberated. And both the people watching them and then the law enforcement people began to realize there was a different kind of process going on here because they had these listening circles. And they didn’t arrive at a decision until they had consensus.
And the respect they were showing one another, they were also showing to their jailers. She felt that was having an effect because by the end of the few hours, the jailers were being more respectful to them, which isn’t to say it’s not a long, slow process. But that something like that is involved.
Stephanie: Yeah. And then she said when in the prison, when two women escaped out of a window, then that really undermined the authority of the role that the guards were playing. And so, one of the main issues in patriarchy is the challenging of authority and challenging of hierarchy. And she talks about it as well in terms of her friend or maybe it was her partner leaving her husband and trying to get custody of the children as a lesbian. And the husband not wanting it to happen, not because he loved her, not because he wanted the marriage, but because he wanted control over her.
And so, in a lot of her writings and speaking, she’ll talk about the problem of ownership. And the concept that you can’t own people. Can you relate that to the depth of what feminism is about and how it intertwines with nonviolence, a sense of owning people, and questioning. And that sort of internal reaction that somebody who feels that someone is their possession, or that they possess some sense of authority, will react against that if you challenge it.
Carol: It’s just so fascinating. Just that concept, the idea that you can own another person, I think partly means they cannot be permitted to surprise you. They cannot be permitted any free movement. And that implies the definition of yourself, that your own security depends on total control over your environment.
And when you bring up, frame questions like that, that’s when you realize that progress in nonviolence can’t happen if the practitioner isn’t making simultaneous progress within one’s self and making that appear to be an attractive thing that everybody would want to do, inviting others into that process.
I think that was a lot of what the 60s and 70s were about. And that was the joyousness of that time that I think eludes a lot of the poorer historians of the period. We wanted peace and freedom for one another. And the lovely things that happen when people are free to express themselves.
I think a key to what was going on in the scene you’re describing, goes back to something she wrote about beautifully in an essay called, “Revolution and Equilibrium.” But that thread is running through even her earlier works too. She said there are two hands to nonviolence. And that’s the genius of it, the challenge of it. You are simultaneously putting up a hand that says, “No. Absolutely not. This is not acceptable.” But you have another hand with which you reach out in tenderness and fellow feeling, even playfulness, establishing a human connection with the other. And those two hands are continuously at work. There’s a skill in that and a requirement for being really awake and fully attuned to the humanity of the other person. When she moves from that later, she’ll say, “These two impulses of assertion and warmth, connection and so forth, are the way we kind of stereotype maleness and femaleness.” So she moved from saying, “Yes, part of the genius of nonviolence is its androgyny. That each of us, as human beings, need to reclaim the part that’s been denied to us.”
If I, as a woman, have been forbidden to speak and appear in public and own property and all that stuff, then it’s good for me to reclaim that for my wholeness. And if I, as a man, have been forbidden to have empathy and to show sympathy and so forth, then I am to that extent, damaged. And I’ve been done violence to, and I need to reclaim that. So, the whole process on both sides is a fascinating, rich – we’re moving towards our full humanity when we practice that kind of discipline.
Stephanie: I’m really glad you brought up the two hands of nonviolence. That’s a really important concept. It’s important to remember too that empathy is something that we grow and we learn with practice.
Stephanie: Yeah. We might be bitter. We might be angry. We might not know how to really want to like somebody who’s done something that’s been harmful. So, creating spaces for that, which I think the, “No,” helps to create the space. One of her interviews, they talked about what is known as “Lesbian feminism,” where these women just wanted nothing to do with men at all.
One woman was saying that she doesn’t really agree with that because she’s afraid – not that she’s afraid, that she wants – that she does love men, even though she loves women. She doesn’t want to deny that she can have very close relationships with men, but they’re not going to be sexual relationships. But she doesn’t want other women telling her that she shouldn’t like men at all or that she should deny that part of herself. And so, what Barbara said is, “Yeah,” she said, “For some women, it is hard for them to be around men and that’s fine too.” She said, “But because some of them are afraid to go back into those relationships with men because they’re afraid that they’re going to enter back into the dynamic of the relationship that they got out of.”
Stephanie: So, just the importance of that, “No,” to create the space for empathy to grow self-assertion, to be there, and then you get to choose what you do say yes to.
Carol: Part of what we’re talking about is the necessity of the whole realm of human growth and relationships that has been so devalued in our culture. I’m still carrying a kind of heartbreak around with me from something I read the other day, that it turns out that among women who, in the United States, who have just given birth, one out of four is back in her job within two weeks. Has to be. I mean that this wealthiest country in the world doesn’t have the heart, doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to recognize what happens, what kind of violence is done.
And that’s just one example of the ways in which we don’t care about families, about children, and so forth. And so to recognize that nonviolence isn’t just about sitting in. It’s about structural – it’s about addressing the violence that’s built into our institutions. There’s so much work to do. And it’s lovely work.
Stephanie: And, you know, Carol, another way I’ve heard Barbara explain this as you’re saying, like presenting a new reality, what you do in nonviolence is you simply assert there’s another reality. And you live it.
Stephanie: And it’ll take people a while to process that they’re being confronted by a new way of seeing, a new way of doing things. As she says in one of her articles, “It’s a new spirit.”
Carol: Yes. “A new spirit moves among us,” she said. Yeah, yeah. And that’s pre-figurative politics is one way of putting it. But it also comes back to that sense of theater. We have to be bold and brave like somebody walking out onto stage in a new role. It requires the kind of discipline and the passion of a great actor and actress, doesn’t it? Oh, I didn’t complete this, I was saying earlier, that scholars now – one of the recent scholars — has recognized in the Salt March what a wonderful sense of theater Gandhi had.
Stephanie: Well, that’s pretty obvious too in terms of how he started dressing, you know.
Carol: Yeah. He didn’t miss a beat. There was nothing unintentional about that.
Stephanie: Yeah. Well, Barbara, she didn’t stay with nonviolent activism, you know, in terms of civil rights, you know, direct actions all her life – or nuclear work. She also moved into more of the art and also more into the queer activism, LGBTQ spaces.
Carol: She returned to her artistic passions, yes. And she said – very important to recognize – she realized that her colleagues there in the world of nonviolence were not accepting of her being a lesbian, really. They weren’t ready for that. They still wanted to live in a “Don’t ask, don’t tell. Can we just not talk about it?” kind of thing. “No, this is who I am.”
When she realized – she made a graceful exit from all of that world because she realized how foundational to her nonviolence this whole idea that you don’t ‘other’ somebody else for their race or their religion, or their color, or their sexuality. And she did spend the last four or five – you have to realize her energy was dropping off pretty fast because her cancer came, you know, was operative for the last three or four years of life. So, she had limited energies.
She wanted to spend that with other lesbian women in an experience of, kind of, I think, firming up, shoring up their sense of identity as a group. Loving one another, loving the natural world, just sheltered for that last few years from the hard reign of a patriarchal culture. And she said very clearly, “This is temporary. There are some of us that are going to have to live separately for a little while. But we’ll be back.” We’re healing.
Stephanie: I think it’s amazing too when I try to situate myself in the time when Barbara was alive – and she is still alive in her writings, if you can just turn to her and find her. But she, being for women in the way that she was, both in terms of her relationships, but also for women’s evolution in society and politics.
There’s something really special about that role, that she represented a kind of wise person, I think, to so many women during that time, that they looked up to her and they sought out her wisdom and they felt when they were around her, they felt like they were in the presence of a kind of a teacher.
Carol: It really comes out, doesn’t it, in the Seneca camp descriptions? Grace Paley, wonderful writer and activist. They marched together on several occasions. She said such a loving thing. There’s a brief eulogy that she gives, which is, “Watching Barbara those last years, most of her writing was confined to letters that she wrote to people with whom she had disagreements.” And she said, “The gentleness and the integrity and the patience – just like it was like watching somebody lift straw after straw away until finally you got to the gold underneath.”
And the gold, she never lost sight of the gold. I remember one person saying her eyes were always so sad. And I’ve seen pictures I remember from the time she was in college, right on until her last years. She saw. I think that’s what you’re getting at, partly, as a teacher, she saw deeply into life, saw suffering in humanity on both sides. She couldn’t ever quite demonize anybody.
Stephanie: Why not?
Stephanie: Why not?
Carol: Because she really understood that we all are part of one another. When she read that in Gandhi – I would love to get back and look at the archives and see whether she wrote letters from India while she was there. We have so little understanding of who she met when she was in India and how much of Gandhi, what of Gandhi she read. She doesn’t sit around and say Gandhi said this, and Gandhi said that. Her thing is much more – yeah.
Stephanie: She’s experimenting with nonviolence.
Carol: Good, good. Yes.
Stephanie: She’s trying to put it –
Carol: Yes. Yes.
Stephanie: And I think that what makes sense in Barbara’s life to me is when she takes up satyagraha and that commitment one makes to it. In nonviolence, we make the ongoing commitments to our ideals and to our values and say, “I’m going to do my best to live up to this.” So I’ve always been fascinated by that ideal of truth, and how when you kind of latch yourself onto the star of truth, how wild of a ride it really is. You have to really, really hold onto it.
Stephanie: And I think it also ties into her sexuality. And as you said, knowing since she was 15 years old that she was a lesbian, at time when there weren’t necessarily a lot of women were out and really being at the forefront of the LGBTQ women of the 20th century, that having a sexual identity that isn’t of the hegemonic culture, I think you realize that you are living a kind of a lie. You recognize there’s something in yourself that’s not matching up to what you see around you.
Carol: That’s right. You can’t manifest it.
Stephanie: You’re already pushing from under the surface at something that’s very close to the same philosophy and ideals that are a part of nonviolence too, of what is truth? Well, part of my truth is not being reflected in my environment, so how do I create it? And similarly, it’s because you don’t see it. You have to feel it. You understand there’s a feeling in you that isn’t expressed in the relationships that you have, in the kinds of structures that are available in society. It’s not there.
Stephanie: And so, how do you seek them out? How do you find them? How do you choose them?
Carol: Yeah. Her being lesbian was absolutely intrinsic to everything she learned along the way. Remember, she has that experience when she was like 15 years old, she writes in her journal, “Well, I am a lesbian.” And then she goes back an hour later, tears the page out, tears the page into little pieces, and puts it in the wastebasket.
And 50 years later, she remembers with grief that that truth was buried all until she came out. And she only came out when her hand was forced, there in the courtroom when her partner was being slandered by her ex-husband over the custody battle and so forth. And that’s when she felt what she called, “The hate stare.” She felt for the first time what it means to be a color, a person of color in a white society. But that also galvanized her. So, yeah. Can’t be taken out.
Stephanie: Well, Carol, I wasn’t sure if we’d have anything to talk about on the air today, and it looks like our time is just about up. We’ve been talking about Barbara Deming. I’m here in the studio with Carol Flinders who is an author. Carol, why don’t you point people to your work so people can learn a little bit more about you?
Carol: I realized a while back I was talking to Robert Ellsberg who – we both realized we’re hagiographers, primarily. We just love to hang out with a certain kind of person and spend the years it takes to trace out what we see is the narrative of their lives and what, you know, deeper significance there might be. And it’s very lovely way to spend your time. But I’ve always been interested in the relationship between women and peace. Jane Addams was somebody – the transition from Laurel’s Kitchen to the rest of the stuff I’ve done had to do with Jane Addams, the founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Stephanie: So, people can find your books at the bookstore?
Stephanie: Look up Carol Flinders?
Carol: Just look up Carol Flinders.
Stephanie: Thanks so much for joining me today, Carol.
Carol: Oh, thank you. It’s been lovely.
Stephanie: I want to thank my mother station, KWMR, to all of our listeners, all of the friends and staff of the Metta Center, especially Matt Watrous for transcribing the show, and Anne Hewitt for putting it up later at Waging Nonviolence. And to everybody else, until the next time, take care of one another.
Transcription by Matthew Watrous. Edited for Waging Nonviolence by Annie Hewitt.