Barbara Deming

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Barbara Deming (July 23, 1917 – August 2, 1984) was a feminist and advocate of nonviolent social change who lived in the USA.


  • In 1967, she spoke of “the need to become more bold, and therefore more effective” and that would bring more government repression. “And then if we do not all stand together, helping always whomever is singled out for punishment, our effectiveness will end… We must certainly be frank with each other when we disagree,” she told War Resisters League. “We will need every one of us. We are all part of one another.”
  • I had felt for a long time that the two struggles for disarmament and for Negro rights-were properly parts of the one struggle. The same nonviolent tactic joined us, but more than this: our struggles were fundamentally one-to commit our country in act as well as in word to the extraordinary faith announced in our Declaration of Independence: that all men are endowed with certain rights that must not be denied them.

Quotes about Barbara Deming[edit]

  • the memoirs of poet Elsa Gidlow and civil rights and peace activist Barbara Deming evidenced the struggle with which so many have engaged for a lesbian identity rooted in self-esteem and dignity. In publicly affirming who they were, each encouraged the sense of continuity and tradition central to the formation of lesbian archives. Deming, writing in 1971 to her "dear brother and dear sister," Ray Robinson and Cheryl Buswell-Robinson, southern civil rights activists with whom she had worked in the 1960s, confronted her own oppression as a lesbian and the anger and agony of her feelings of powerlessness: "The bottom I write about of course is the bottom of being a homosexual. Facing always the threat of being despised for that. . . . And as I write this, the tears begin to gush from my eyes, and I know I'm writing the truth of it."
    • Bettina Aptheker Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)
  • This has recently been stressed by Barbara Deming in her plea for nonviolent action-"On Revolution and Equilibrium," in Revolution: Violent and Nonviolent, reprinted from Liberation, February, 1968. She says about Fanon, on p. 3: "It is my conviction that he can be quoted as well to plead for nonviolence.... Every time you find the word 'violence' in his pages, substitute for it the phrase 'radical and uncompromising action.' I contend that with the exception of a very few passages this substitution can be made, and that the action he calls for could just as well be nonviolent action." Even more important for my purposes: Miss Deming also tries to distinguish clearly between power and violence, and she recognizes that "nonviolent disruption" means "to exert force.... It resorts even to what can only be called physical force" (p. 6). However, she curiously underestimates the effect of this force of disruption, which stops short only of physical injury, when she says, "the human rights of the adversary are respected" (p. 7). Only the opponent's right to life, but none of the other human rights, is actually respected. The same is of course true for those who advocate "violence against things" as opposed to "violence against persons."
  • I believe in the stubbornness of civil disobedience and I'm not afraid of it. I remember one May Day demonstration. In 1971. Still wartime. We were arrested and we were in this big, sort of football field. Barbara Deming and I were walking around, arm in arm. We had been arrested together. It was very cold. Everybody was finding someone to walk very close to. Later on, one person wasn't enough, we would try to get into groups that huddled: fifteen. But at that point, Barbara and I were walking arm in arm and it was a pretty messy place, because that was the year they arrested thirteen or fourteen thousand people, just picking them up off the street, and then they didn't know what the hell to do with them. At that point we were in a football field. Later, we were put inside a stadium. And so we were walking around, arm in arm, talking to each other, and then congresspeople came in to see what was going on, and Bella Abzug came over to talk to us. She and I had always had these disagreements about the electoral work and what you can call action, direct action, and we would talk to each other about this. So she came over and she looked at me and Barbara walking arm in arm. She asked how we were. She was a congresswoman at this time. She was worried about us. We said we were all right. And then she said, "Well, I guess you're where you want to be and I'm where I want to be." And we laughed, we all laughed together. And I want to say about Bella that she was at this Women's Pentagon demonstration. She came, she walked with everybody, she didn't look for any limelight of any kind. She just sort of walked, and begged me not to get arrested. Again, she said she thought it was a waste of time. I could do more outside. But she really was just a part of the action. That's what we wanted all of our leaders to be, just a part of the women's action.
    • 1981 interview in Conversations with Grace Paley (1997)

"Thinking about Barbara Deming" (1985), Grace Paley[edit]

  • At the Friends' Meeting House a couple of weeks after Barbara Deming died, we gathered to remember her for one another, to take some comfort and establish her continuity in our bones..."This too," our friend Blue said, and gave me an envelope. In it were shards and stones gathered from the rubble of Vietnamese towns in '67 or '68. On the envelope, these shaky letters were written: "endless love." Nothing personal there, not "with endless love." The words were written waveringly, with a dying hand, on paper that covered bits and pieces of our common remembrance and understanding of another people's great suffering. I thought Barbara was saying, Send those words out, out out into the airy rubbly meaty mortal fact of the world, endless love, the dangerous transforming spirit.
  • Prison Notes is the story of two walks undertaken to help change the world without killing it. Barbara Deming was an important member of both. Twenty years of her brave life lie between them. On that first long journey, men and women walked and went to jail together. Women alone took the second shorter walk, and fifty-four were jailed. Barbara was among them. It was her last action, and those who were arrested with her are blessed to have lived beside her strong, informed, and loving spirit for those few days. That difference between the two walks measures a development in movement history and also tells the distance Barbara traveled in those twenty years.
  • The direction her life took was probably established by the fact that her first important love was another woman, a hard reality that is not discussed in Prison Notes (this is probably the reason she insisted that her letter to Norma Becker be included in any reissue of that book). This truth about herself took personal political years in which she wrote stories and poems and she became a fine artist who suffered because she was unable to fully use the one unchangeable fact of her life-that she was a woman who loved women.
  • As a writer myself, I must believe that Barbara's attention to the "other" (who used to be called the stranger) was an organic part of her life as an artist-the writer's natural business is a long stretch toward the unknown life. All Barbara's "others" (the world's "others," too), the neighbor, the cop, the black woman or man, the Vietnamese, led her inexorably to the shadowed lives of women, and finally to the unknown humiliated lesbian, herself. It was hard when this knowledge forced her to separate her life and work from other comrades, most of whom believed themselves eternally connected to her. "Why leave us now?" friends cried out in the pages of WIN magazine. "Now, just when we have great tasks. She explained: "Because I realize that just as the black life is invisible to white America, so I see now my life is invisible to you." Of course she was not the separator. They had been, the friends who wrote, saying, "We know it's okay to be a woman," but hated to hear the word "feminist" said again and again. She stubbornly insisted that they recognize Woman, and especially Lesbian, as an oppressed class from which much of the radical world had separated itself-some for ideological reasons, some with a kind of absentminded "We'll get to that later." (And many did.)
  • Of course she never separated herself from the struggles against racism and militarism. She integrated them into her thinking. As she lived her life, she made new connections which required new analyses. And with each new understanding, she acted, "clinging to the truth," as she had learned from Gandhi, offering opposition as education and love as a way to patience. The long letters that Barbara began to write after her terrible automobile accident in '71 have become books. They are studious, relentless in argument; she seems sometimes in these letters to be lifting one straw at a time from a haystack of misunderstanding to get to a needle of perfect communication stuck somewhere at the bottom. At the same time she had developed a style which enabled her to appear to be listening to her correspondent while writing the letter.
  • Learning from Barbara Deming: First: She's a listener. So you can learn something about paying attention. Second: She's stubborn. So you can learn how to stand, look into the other's face, and not run. Third: She's just. So you can learn something about patience. Fourth: She loves us-women, I mean-and speaks to the world. So you can learn how to love women and men.

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