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>> LESBIAN… POET… NONVIOLENT ACTIVIST
The fact that she was a child of privilege (her mother was an aspiring singer and her father a Republican political operative) makes Barbara Deming’s life story all the more compelling. She was born in 1917 in New York City, and the entirety of her primary and secondary education was spent in a Quaker school. She studied literature and drama at Bennington College from 1934-1938 and earned a Master’s degree in Drama at Case Western Reserve University 1941. Deming experienced her first lesbian relationship when she was 17. From 1954-1972, she partnered with Mary Meigs, and later, from 1976 until her death in 1984, Deming lived with her partner artist Jane Verlaine at their home in Florida.
Exposed to creative writing influences throughout her childhood, Deming developed a career as a poet, professional writer and film critic until she became interested in Gandhi during a trip to India in 1959. From the 1960s until her death, Deming was involved as a nonviolent activist in the peace and civil rights movements, the movement to end the Vietnam War, feminism, lesbian and gay rights, and working to end violence against women. In Deming’s view, the unifying theme in all these issues was advancing “respect for individual rights and dignity”. (McDaniel and Paley, xi-xii)
After corresponding with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1962, Deming began to advocate the joining of the peace and civil rights movements, and in 1964 participated in an integrated peace walk through several southern states, “The Nashville, Tennessee, to Washington, D.C., Walk for Peace”. She describes some of her experiences on that walk in the essay “Southern Peace Walk: Two Issues or One?”.
Since the publication in 1968 of her seminal essay, “On Revolution and Equilibrium“, Deming has become recognized as a leading thinker in nonviolent theory. According to Dr. Ira Chernus, Ph.D., author of American Nonviolence: The History of An Idea, Deming utilized a “strictly secular approach”. She, “developed a systematic argument for nonviolence with no religious basis. More than anyone else,” writes Chernus, “Deming made it intellectually plausible, and even respectable, for nonreligious people to commit themselves to nonviolence with no religious basis.” (Chernus, 182) Deming argued that a faith-based perspective often clouds the thinking of nonviolent activists and prevents them from being “aggressive” or “bold” enough in resisting injustice.
In addition to her critical evaluation of the faith-based perspective of nonviolence, Deming also advanced a rational argument that nonviolent methods are more effective than violent ones in ending injustice. Not only do nonviolent methods reduce the human cost in conflict situations, they also enable more effective use of moral suasion by the oppressed on the oppressor: “We can putmore pressure on the antagonist for whom we show human concern,” she wrote. (Lynd & Lynd, 415)
In “On Revolution and Equilibrium“, Deming also suggested a theoretical alignment of nonviolence with all justice struggles. She argued that, by obstructing or circumventing oppressive social structures, the coercive power inherent in nonviolent methods could be a potent force in creating social change. Deming assumed that human dignity and the right to exercise one’s free will are self-evident principles–and that because all forms of injustice deprive the oppressed of the right to exercise free will, they are all inherently violent. Because all injustice is inherently violent and, in her estimation, nonviolence is the most efficacious method for resisting injustice, nonviolence and all struggles for justice are inextricably linked.
Finally, Deming also discussed themes familiar to Gandhian adherents–”clinging to truth”, voluntary redemptive suffering, and nonviolence as a method of personal transformation–but her reorientation of priorities and emphasis on the forceful transformation of power dynamics within social structures represented a new and radically different approach to thinking about the philosophy and methodology of nonviolence.
>> WRITTEN SOURCES
- Chernus, Ira. “Barbara Deming“, Chapter 12 of American Nonviolence: The History of An Idea. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.
- Deming, Barbara and Staughton and Alice Lynd (eds). “On Revolution and Equilibrium“,Nonviolence in America. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995, 2002.
- Deming, Barbara and Staughton and Alice Lynd (eds). “Southern Peace Walk: Two Issues or One?“, Nonviolence in America. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995, 2002.
- Deming, Barbara and Sky Vanderlinde (editor), Judith McDaniel (biographical essay); Grace Paley (introduction); and Joan E. Biren (photo essay). Prisons That Could Not Hold. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1985, 1995.
>> WEB SOURCES
- Barbara Deming: An Activist Life
- Ira Chernus, American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea
- Barbara Deming Papers. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
- A Random Chapter in the History of Nonviolence, by Michael L. Westmoreland-White
- Barbara Deming (1917 - 1984) @ Queer Theory
- Barbara Deming Quotes — 21 quotes and quotations…
- Amazon’s Barbara Deming Page
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