A woman’s place ...

Times Staff Writer

As a prominent New York University protest leader against the Vietnam War, Leslie Cagan remembers men telling women to sit and listen quietly during meetings. Because they were not subject to the draft, female activists were told, they were not qualified to talk on the issue.

“I, like other women, was outraged, and at one such meeting all the women got up and left the room,” Cagan said. “That’s when many women first started saying, ‘Maybe we need a women’s movement.’ ”

Today, Cagan and many other veterans of Vietnam-era protests are now running the meetings as leaders of the domestic resistance to the U.S. war on Iraq. With far more clout: Cagan is one of two women on the three-member steering committee of United for Peace and Justice, one of the nation’s leading antiwar groups.

There is a preponderance of female leadership in today’s antiwar movement, in groups national and grass-roots, with women taking the lead in organizing candlelight vigils and protest marches.

“I think women are key players,” Cagan, 55, said. “They’re out in large numbers. And now, more than in the past, they’re in leadership positions. There is definitely a consciousness about gender that didn’t exist before.”


The leadership of women -- and the respect they are accorded -- is a far cry from the 1960s, when one ubiquitous antiwar poster featured three seductive women on a sofa, with the slogan: “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No.”

Some women recall pressure to sleep with fellow male activists to prove their radical credentials. Even in the civil rights movement, one leader famously declared that the position of women activists was “prone.”

“It was incredible. Women were invisible,” said Anne Weills, 61, a civil rights attorney who, during one of her arrests at a 1960s protests, was represented by attorney Willie Brown, who is today San Francisco’s mayor.

“One day the women started talking about how we were treated as second-class citizens. It was as if we had all simultaneously come to the same conclusion. It was the antiwar movement ... that created our modern women’s movement.”

She was arrested again on March 20 with 1,400 other San Francisco protesters who took to the streets to oppose the U.S. bombardment of Iraq.

But today, Weills said, “women are in leadership of every organization I am involved with, from the Lawyers Guild to the People’s NonViolent Response Coalition to Not in Our Name. Men are totally in the minority in leadership.”

No one has fully studied the composition of the antiwar leadership. But longtime activist Tom Hayden said he also believes that today’s antiwar movement -- as well as the fair trade movement and the anti-globalization movement -- is “more or less led by women.”

“You’ve had several decades of the women’s liberation movement and feminist groups and gender studies ... which are empowering,” Hayden said. “Men have certainly done some soul-searching and had, in many instances, a change of heart. Even where some deep-seated bias remains, women have had the power to make men respect them.”

The military, too, has begun to mirror the change in gender roles, with women serving alongside men in the war against Iraq -- and women being taken as prisoners of war.

For female veterans of the Vietnam War protests, and the women’s movement that grew out of that era, today’s activism is bringing them full circle, showing them the power of their role to remake a world that has historically undercounted their contributions.

Written out of history

Bettina Aptheker, a UC Santa Cruz professor who is the chair of the women’s studies department there, was a prominent activist on the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam in San Francisco, and she was often on the podium, speaking at public events.

“I encountered sexism all the time, but I just overrode it,” she recalled. “The antiwar movement was extremely sexist, with very much men in charge, speaking at the rallies, doing the press conferences and the women being the backbone of the work. Many men in the Students for a Democratic Society ridiculed the women’s movement and any attempts for women to gain equality.”

Aptheker’s books on the era include “The Academic Rebellion in the United States.” But when she reads books written by men on the student movement, she feels that many prominent female activists of the time have been, in effect, written out of history.

“It’s just as though we weren’t there,” she said.

But on Thursday, Aptheker spoke at a protest organized by an ethnically diverse array of male and female students, and as she looked out at the young faces, she reflected on just how much has changed.

“We had a Latino guy speaking, a white professor who is very knowledgeable on the Middle East, and Angela Davis,” she said. “We never had that in the ‘60s. And now it’s very common.”

Author and journalist David Harris, 57, a onetime leader of the draft resisters’ movement who was once married to protest singer Joan Baez, said there were deep-seated cultural dynamics at play.

“At that point in history, most men grew up thinking of themselves as the dominant gender, therefore the thought of being led by a woman was threatening,” he said.

“We were all coming straight out of 1950s America, so the options were June Cleaver or Marilyn Monroe, but there was nothing in between,” he added. “This was pre-women’s movement.... We didn’t know any better. Men all over America had to learn a lesson, and that included men in the antiwar movement.”

Many women say they believe the relative youth and immaturity of 1960s antiwar activists may have contributed to the inequities. Today many older people fill the ranks of the antiwar movement.

Marian Gordon, 58, a Silver Lake speech therapist, is one of the eight women and four men on the steering committee of the Los Angeles Coalition for World Peace. At the downtown demonstration that began at Pershing Square March 30, she was a security monitor. “A lot of people think women are better at it because they’re not so macho and better trained at settling people down,” she said.

Like many of her older fellow protesters, she began as a civil rights activist, spending one summer in Jackson, Miss., to push for voter registration. By 1966, she was deeply involved in the antiwar movement as a student at Cal State Los Angeles, where black and Chicano groups had also begun to organize on their own.

“There were a lot of women who were really upset that they were not given enough respect for their ideas,” she said. “We began forming separate organizations, just like the Black Panthers.”

‘It got so macho’

There were other reasons women left, according to 1960s antiwar activist Kate Coleman, 60, who is writing a book on Earth First! activist Judy Barry. Coleman credits the overwhelmingly male leadership with pushing the movement into increasingly confrontational tactics. Even as some women got involved in radical groups like the Weathermen, other women simply became alienated.

“It got so macho,” she said. “It got so violent and militant the feminists voted with their feet and left the movement.” Subsequently, she said, “the feminization of politics meant that women took their model of consensus politics, and that became the model, and you had to have women and people of color.”

Some say that model holds today. When the exodus began, recalls Zoe Cardoza Clayson, 60, now a professor in the College of Health and Human Services at San Francisco State, “a lot of the antiwar male leadership was very threatened by it and tried to pooh-pooh it, that this was stupid girlie stuff.”

Today, she sees “a real diversity in ethnicity and gender that we did not have in the Vietnam antiwar movement.”

The evolution of the antiwar movement of the 1960s into the women’s movement and alternative lifestyles reshaped American society in ways that are still playing out. Gloria Steinem thinks a similar, though more subtle, shift in consciousness is taking place today, as women’s opposition to war begins a reflection on the roots of violence.

“I think there’s a populist understanding that the most violent cultures are the ones that have the most polarized gender roles,” Steinem said.

“You can’t look at the Taliban and not hear them say they have a cult of masculinity. The least violent societies have the least polarized sex roles. Whether we win or lose, at least we’re going after the roots of violence now.”