The Women in Black, 25+ years of peaceful vigils move toward a centennial observance!

Women in Black, 2015. Photo: Olivia Twine.This feature is part of a continuing series of articles highlighting women’s history of Woodstock, NY that was reinforced by a resolution of the town board in August 2015. Woodstock became the first community in New York State to officially honor its women’s history in support of the upcoming 2017 state suffrage centennial and the nation’s 2020 suffrage centennial. Woodstock’s Women in Black parallels the dramatic visual rhetoric of the American suffrage movement as their peaceful vigil heads in the direction of a centennial observance in the future. Olivia Twine’s articles and photographs about women’s history appear in local, regional, and New York State publications.

by Olivia Twine

Their numbers vary, but a contingent of the international movement for peace, Women in Black, have been demonstrating on the Woodstock, New York village green almost every Sunday afternoon since the first Iraq war began in 1991. For the first few years, and even on the coldest of winter days, the women (and occasionally a man or two) stood, mostly alone, holding their signs. As Woodstock’s popularity as a tourist destination revived in recent years, the stalwart group became part of a scene as busy as a Bruegel painting and only slightly less sensual. When controversies sharpen with crises in the Middle East, the women are occasionally confronted by (mostly men) demonstrating in support of war.

“WE STAND UP IN SILENCE,” EXPLAINS RENEE ENGLANDER

The women activists are well-versed in political history, and they don’t pontificate. “We stand up in silence,” said Renee Englander, a participant in the Woodstock group since the beginning. “We are silent because words cannot express the tragedy of war and hatred. The message of peace is not difficult to understand.”

Although they don’t engage in political discussion, literature is available to explain the positions and the history of Women in Black. The movement originated in Jerusalem in January 1988 when a group of Israeli women courageously stood together at a busy intersection to protest the occupation of Palestine. They drew inspiration for a public vigil from the mothers of Argentina who circled the main square carrying pictures of their missing loved ones and for wearing black from the South African Black Sash movement in opposition to apartheid.

OCCUPANTS OF THE WOODSTOCK VILLAGE GREEN REPRESENT PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE

“Solidarity vigils” sprang up in other countries. By 1990, the Women in Black had gained a reputation as a movement of women of conscience of all nationalities and denominations who advocate for justice, civil society, and peaceful co-existence. They stand against policies that kill, destroy cities, force migration, and annihilate human relations. “We oppose all forms of local and global violence: war, terrorism, inter-ethnic conflict, militarism the arms industry, nuclear weapons, racism, neo-Nazism, violence against women, and violence in neighborhoods,” the literature states.

One recent weekend, Englander was among several women demonstrating adjacent to Grandpa Woodstock, a living symbol of the post-Woodstock Festival era now available for photo ops. The weekly drum circle was getting started. An informal procession of young folks pranced to the beat on their way to the bus stop. The crowd of weekend visitors waiting for transport back to New York City gathered across the street, a built-in audience for activities on the Green. A photographer focused on Grandpa Woodstock as I angled to photograph the Women In Black. (It’s difficult to get a shot without backing into traffic or standing across the street and including cars in the frame.)

OTHER ADVOCATES TAKE UP POSITION TO PRESENT A FUTURE VISION

A photo of Grandpa Woodstock appeared a few days later in the New York Times, accompanied a September 4 article by Corey Kilgannon highlighting the irony of the Woodstock Nation era which represented the mutual sharing of resources now marketed to promote commercial success for the town.

Grandpa Woodstock expresses those humanitarian values to anyone who wants to listen. Does that idea attract visitors, or is it the accompanying suggestion of life as a timeless party? It’s all good as long as activists like Women In Black, who share a commitment to justice and a world free of violence, are able to share their vision of peace, compassion, and justice. On Saturdays, their place is taken by a Mennonite group known as Families for Peace. On balance, the Woodstock Village Green is a peaceful place which represents the town, standing side by side with commercialism.

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