Visionary Women: Profiling Champions of Peace and Nonviolence

Coinciding with the celebration of International Women’s Day on the 8thof March, National Women’s History Month is celebrated in the United States in the month of March every year. Initially a National Women’s History Week, first celebrated in 1980, the commemoration of women’s contributions to American history was transformed into a month-long event in 1987. The theme for this year’s Women’s History Month is ‘Visionary Women: Profiling Champions of Peace and Nonviolence’.

Dorothy Cotton teaching in a Citizenship Education Program class. Image by Bob Finch, with permission of the Stanford University Department of Special Collections and University Archives.
Image Courtesy of Bob Finch via Stanford University © 1930, some rights reserved

As part of the celebration of women’s contributions to peace and non-violence the American National Women’s History Alliance will recognise and celebrate eleven honourees on 30thMarch in Washington DC.Jessica Craig looks at some of the women who are being recognised for their contributions to peace and non-violence this month.

Dorothy Cotton – Civil Rights Activist

A confidante of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the only woman in his close circle of aides, Dorothy Cotton is best known for her work with the civil rights organisation the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Cotton began her civil rights activism as a member of the Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, where she organised anti-segregation protests in the local library and the local whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter. She first met Dr. King during a speaking engagement at her church in 1959 and was thereafter invited to join the staff of the SCLC. She served as the organisation’s Director of Education for 12 years, administering the Citizen Education Program with follow civil rights activists Septima Clark and Andrew Young. Her work on the Citizen Education Program helped teach disenfranchised African-Americans about civic and political participation. Since Black voting was suppressed by force and through the law, with literacy tests imposed to limit black voter registration in some areas, she encouraged participants to register to vote and participate in non-violent protests

The education programme was one of the SCLC’s most successful initiatives, though it remains among the least well-known. Cottonfaced the attacks of Ku Klux Klansmen on many occasions, always promoting peaceful protest.

Cotton’s work with the SCLC and her close relationship with Dr. King tells of the often-overlooked contributions of women to the civil rights movement. The Dorothy Cotton Institute, a project of Cornell University’s Centre for Transformative Action, was named in her honour and promotes the ‘knowing, sharing and protection of human rights.’

Dorothy Cotton died in 2018 and she is among the five honourees who will be recognised posthumously for their promotion of peace and non-violence.

Zainab Salbi – Founder and Former CEO of Women for Women International

Zainab Salbi was born in Iraq and, as the daughter of Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot, felt the close scrutiny of the regime. She travelled to America aged 20 and founded Women for Women International in 1993, at the age of 23.

Frustrated at the lack of responses to women’s experiences of rape and internment in concentration camps in the Bosnian War, Salbi and her husband flew to Croatia to help women recovering from the impacts of the war. Women for Women International, which she founded after this experience, aims to help improve the lives and opportunities of women affected by conflict around the world. Salbi remained as CEO of Women for Women International from its founding until 2011, in which time it grew to support more than 400,000 women in 8 areas of conflict. The organisation has distributed more that $100 million in direct aid and micro credit loans to help women recover from the impacts of war.

She is also a television host, launching The Nida’a Show, aimed at addressing and inspiring Arab women, in 2015. Salbi held the first interview with Oprah Winfrey in the Arab world on the Nida’a Show and has used the platform to highlight the achievements of men and women from a variety of backgrounds from around the world. She also hosted the PBS show #METOO, NOW WHAT? in 2018, which aimed to create a critical conversation around how to generate lasting cultural change from the #MeToo movement.

Salbi has been hailed by the Architects of Peace Foundation as ‘arguably one of the most influential women’s rights leaders of our time’, working to empower and support women around the world after conflict and to create conversations about women’s rights and celebrate their achievements.

Zainab Salbi at the Focus for Change Benefit, 2013. Image by Jennifer DelCastillo for d-mulsion photography
Image Courtesy of WITNESS via Flickr © 2013, some rights reserved

Kathy Kelly – Peace Activist, Voices for Creative Nonviolence

Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a campaign against US military and economic warfare. Much of her work has been in Iraq, where between 1996 and 2003, Voices activists defied economic sanctions to deliver medicines to children and families.

Kelly has protested the US engagement in drone warfare, protesting at US military bases and has also worked in peace activism and civilian support in Gaza and Pakistan. Most recently, Kelly’s activism has turned to protest the humanitarian crisis and conflict in Yemen, where the UN estimates that 14 million people – half the country’s population– are at risk of starvation.

She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize three times since 2000. Only 17 women have received the Prize between 1905 and 2018.

Past honourees include: Lilly Ledbetter, the equal pay activist after whom the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama, was named; Norma Yaeger,  the first woman stockbroker on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; and Isabel González,  who engaged in a 15-year campaign to ensure all Puerto Ricans could secure US citizenship.

While Women’s History Month is celebrated in the US, the month of March – particularly around International Women’s Day – provides an opportunity for the commemoration and celebration of women’s historical contributions and achievements all around the world. However, it is a moment to evaluate not just how far women have come, but what still stands in the way of gender equality. This year’s International Women’s Day is themed ‘#BalanceforBetter’, promoting gender balance in the working world.

Nonetheless, the achievements of the women being celebrated this Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, and those whose efforts go unseen, should inspire and drive us every day of the year.