'I can't just stand by and do nothing'

Greenham, Ulster... and now Afghanistan. Are women doomed to stand on the sidelines, protesting against men's acts of war? Julia Stuart talks to women who just say no
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Aclutch of peace protesters stands in Parliament Square, facing the Palace of Westminster. One of them, Alice, 26, has taken the day off from her job as a software engineer to stand in the autumnal drizzle and hold a banner made of garden canes and a scrap of purple material sprayed with the words "No War".

An American woman starts screaming that the protesters are "disgusting". When Alice interjects, the woman turns on her. "I hope you die!" she rages. " I hope your family die like those policemen died! Like those firefighters died! That's how your family should die!" She storms off.

Alice, dressed in blue hiking trousers and trainers, and carrying a rucksack with a monkey sticking out of it, looks on the verge of tears. "I'm shocked. I tried to explain to her that I don't want innocent people in Afghanistan dying. I said my aunt in is New York, and I'm horrified by what has happened. That's why we feel so strongly that we don't want more innocent people dying. As someone who might have lost someone herself, she should feel even more strongly that she doesn't want more death. I don't understand."

Like many peace campaigners before her, many of them women, Alice feels she cannot sit back and do nothing while plans are being made for violence. "It's such an important thing that people stand up and say 'no more war'. I can't stand by and not at least try. I couldn't look at myself in 10 years' time and know I did nothing while atrocities were going on."

Alice is a veteran campaigner, saving her annual leave for days when she can stand up and be counted. Eight years ago, her causes were roads and animal exports. Now it's people. She was in Prague last year protesting at the annual meeting of the World Bank and IMF, and attended this year's May Day rally in London. What does she hope to achieve today? "I have never been the sort of person who crosses to the other side of the road when I see bad things going on. If I have children one day, I can't imagine them asking me what I did while they were bombing Afghanistan and me saying I watched it all on television."

Walking around the square holding a large placard bearing a picture of an angel and the words "We Must Seek Wisdom Not War" is Sandra Wiseman, 58, a children's face painter from Hampstead, north London. This is her day off from work, which she would normally spend cleaning her flat or seeing friends.

"I'm a great believer in making a statement for the truth when you really feel you must do so," says Ms Wiseman. "One just hopes people are listening. I can't not do it. I have to make a statement for the truth because all this talk about war isn't the way forward. I thought I must just go out on to the streets and say something. I couldn't stand it if there was a war next week and I hadn't done something.

"It took me the whole morning to make the banner. I wanted to create something that was beautiful so people would look at it, so it would counteract all the negativity just a tiny little bit."

The last time she made a public protest was in the 1980s – again outside Parliament – for nuclear disarmament. What does she hope to achieve this time? "To get people to think a bit about what's happening. A woman came up to me and said, 'Well done'. Some people have been smiling at me, some looked rather indifferent; other people were too busy to really notice."

Helen Rappaport, author of An Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, says that protests by women against war are by no means a recent phenomenon. "Since the days of Mary Wollstonecraft [the 18th-century author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, who is considered to be the 'mother' of British feminism], when they first began debating their need for social and political emancipation, women time and again have argued their sex's unique qualities, as mothers and nurturers, for preserving life and binding up the wounds made by men in time of war.

"With the rise of militarism at the end of the 19th century, the Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner published a powerful anti-war novel, Lay Down Your Arms (1889), that was so influential in its day she was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – as long ago as 1905."

Rappaport says there is "no particular deep or mystical reason" for women protesting against war. "Most people might say that it's something 'in their genes', but there is no doubt it is instinctive in the vast majority of women to be conciliators and to urge co-operation and restraint among warmongers. Sadly, I don't think women have had much success at collective campaigning for peace – except perhaps as part of the massive anti-Vietnam protest. At Greenham they were extraordinarily tenacious and exerted tremendous moral pressure, but at the end of the day I guess it was the end of the Cold War that led to the withdrawal of the missiles rather than women's voices being listened to. The 'successes'... have tended to be in terms of the respect they gained from other women. Unfortunately, too many women activists have been demonised as 'stroppy feminists' and for this reason their message has not been taken seriously by men."

Thalia Campbell, 64, who spent most of the 1980s going back and forth to Greenham Common, remembers the insults. "We were vilified. We were called hippies, dropouts, criminals, lesbians, slags. In fact, we were actually teachers, doctors, magistrates and lawyers," says Ms Campbell, an Aberystwyth mother-of -four.

She says she was brought up to believe that she could make a difference. "I had a very idealistic grandmother who brought me up to think that single-handedly I could change the world."

She knew she had to act when she saw a strange-coloured sunset and assumed someone had dropped a bomb. "People were really scared at that time. Reagan was saying 'Bomb Russia'." She eventually gave up her job as an art lecturer to devote more time to the protest, and describes her time with the campaign as the best of her life – one of joy and laughter, as well as fear. "My sons and husband were wonderfully supportive. My daughter was very embarrassed. She thought she had the most dreadful mother on the face of the earth. She's just beginning to be proud now."

Ms Campbell, who has also been protesting – in Aberystwyth – against Operation Infinite Justice, believes the achievements of the Greenham Common women were wide-ranging. "We publicised the dangers around the world. We actually got rid of cruise missiles – with other forces – and the tree and road protesters learned from us. We also changed women's lives. We now have a lot of Welsh Assembly members who were at Greenham, where they got their confidence." She believes women are naturally drawn to peace. "Both sexes have all qualities, but I do think women are closer to the vulnerability of life. Women do seem to seek consensus, and men do enjoy conflict."

Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who, with Betty Williams, was awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for setting up a peace movement in Northern Ireland, believes that everyone has a responsibility to prevent violence. "Everyone needs to do something for peace. Apathy is a terrible disease. If we are apathetic to injustice and suffering then we are responsible," says Ms Maguire, 57, a mother-of-five who lives near Strangford in Co Down. In 1976, she helped found the Peace People after three of her sister's children - aged eight, two and six weeks - were killed. Danny Lennon, a member of the IRA, was in a high-speed car chase pursued by soldiers when they shot him. The car swerved and crashed into Anne Maguire and her children. Anne never recovered emotionally from the trauma, and killed herself 41 months later.

"It was in the height of the Troubles, and when the children died I felt very strongly that it was time to raise voices and say clearly that violence doesn't solve any problems, and that the kind of ethnic political conflict that we were involved in would not be solved by either paramilitary or military violence. There had to be another way to solve the problem," explains Ms Maguire.

"We organised marches from August to December in 1976. Hundreds of thousands of people marched throughout Northern Ireland, and indeed many marched in England including in Trafalgar Square. I think we proved that people can solve their problems without using violence. In the first six months of the peace movement, there was a 70 per cent decrease in the rate of violence. It has never, thank God, ever gone back to that high. I believe you can trace the beginning of the process back to the mid-Seventies when people began to think in a different way."

She feels very disturbed by images of American forces in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, and urges Tony Blair to help solve the current situation with dialogue rather than violence, as he has urged the people of Northern Ireland to do. "As a woman of the human family, I feel very sad and ashamed of myself that we can afford to send warships costing million of pounds while children are dying in Afghanistan from hunger. Violence serves no purpose. Violence solves no problems. Retaliation would mean the further deaths of many more people. This would, in turn, add to an increasing sense of fear, anxiety and hopelessness, being felt around the world.

"We have a lot to be proud of in our technological advances and, as Einstein said, we are technological geniuses and moral pygmies."