A Naked Plea for Peace Gets Legs as Protest Draws Imitators

Special to The Times

In this quiet community, better known for succulent Tomales Bay oysters than irate protesters, Donna Sheehan couldn't imagine what she alone could do. The statuesque 72-year-old with large feet and larger ambition wanted to protest looming war with Iraq.

But living in this rural Marin County hamlet of 50 -- or 51 if you believe the hand-painted correction on a California 1 sign -- she knew she had to be creative. Then in November, it came to Sheehan in a dream.

The artist envisioned naked bodies and swatches of color and, on waking, she recalled the Nigerian women who threatened to disrobe last year to protest the lack of jobs and services offered by a Chevron-Texaco plant in their homeland. It was that moment that crystallized Sheehan's thoughts, conceiving a protest that swept her county and then, hopscotched to locales as far away as England.

First she began recruiting in her backyard. While hiking at a local dog park with neighbor Bonnie Clark and her oversized dog Gaia, she inquired, "What would you think of having 100 naked women lying down in a field, spelling out the word 'Peace?' "

Clark was stunned. The onetime health educator turned "life coach" was only getting to know her new neighbor and this off-the-wall form of protest didn't make her feel terribly comfortable.

"Would you like to do it?" Sheehan said. Clark responded with a swift, "No."

But then she went home, talked to her husband and reconsidered: Writing her senator, she was sure, would produce only a form-letter response.

"A phone call to the White House? Like somebody really listens?" thought the naturally shy 55-year-old. "Adding my name to an e-mail petition? It's just too easy."

Disrobing, she decided, would outdo the normally "predictable, mechanized, boring" protests of today and let her express her "outrage" at the prospect of war.

And so it was that Clark became one of the early recruits for the self-described "Unreasonable Women of West Marin."

She and the others took their first stand or, more accurately, repose, on a misty, cold day at Love Field -- a soggy baseball diamond in the Marin community of Point Reyes.

Art Rogers, chronicler of several generations of families and businesses on the Point Reyes peninsula, photographed the 50 women, mostly in their 50s, who lay in the grass and spelled out "Peace." Sheehan stretched out at the bottom of the letter "A," her long, bony feet protruding. Another of the unreasonable 50, white-haired Kimmy Johnson, a professor of gender conflict and other liberal subjects, said: "This is all I have to offer. We become more visible by becoming more exposed." She said the best way to get attention for the antiwar cause was to bare it all.

The community responded with enthusiasm. Sheehan helped organize additional photo sessions. There was a "No War" spell-out on a verdant Marin hillside and another nude "Peace" spell-out, this one on the wet sand of Drakes Beach on the Point Reyes Peninsula. The Point Reyes Light newspaper made the women's original in-the-buff display its centerfold.

For locals familiar with publisher Dave Mitchell's musings, that was hardly surprising. Mitchell has been known to frequent nude beaches and write about his encounters, including conversations while sunning with Pentagon Papers activist Daniel Ellsberg.

"We're a fairly carefree community," Mitchell said.

Shortly after the photo was published, Mitchell attended a gathering at the olive ranch of Nan McEvoy, former publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle. Seated at a table full of ranchers, Mitchell says that women in their 60s, 70s and 80s, including one "who needed to be steadied getting out of her chair," said that had they known about the demonstration, "they would have been there too."

"Clearly, this is not going to stop war by itself, but it will keep people talking," the newspaper publisher said.

And looking. After the centerfold appeared, a gift shop in Point Reyes reportedly sold out of magnifying glasses.

The newswires picked up the story. The BBC sent a crew to interview Sheehan and friends. And Unreasonable Women of West Marin grew outside its local borders to become Unreasonable Women Baring Witness.

Since then, Sheehan has organized a "No War" photo at a cattle ranch, recorded by Oscar-winning documentary photographer John Korty.

She created an "Unreasonable Index," a roster of the participants, including their occupations: seven waitresses, two doctors, one librarian, three singers, one nurse, nine artists, six radio personalities (think community radio), two bartenders, one mountain climber, two 1960s activists, four social workers, three senior citizens and "no FBI agents."

The idea is spreading. Similar photos were taken in Santa Cruz, Bolinas (family style, everyone was clothed), and Gainesville, Fla.

A group of women in Sussex, England, also planned to undress and spell out "Peace" in a forest.

Sheehan is only getting started. Next up: the big antiwar demonstration in San Francisco later this month.

She won't say what she's got planned. But she could be overheard asking her fellow demonstrators if they had access to choir robes.

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