Women Activists: Challenging the Abuse of Power
By Anne Witte Garland
1988, The Feminist Press at City University of New York
146 pp., $9.95
Reviewed by Jim Donahue

WHY ARE MOST COMMUNITY activists women? A powerful new book by Anne Witte Garland, Women Activists: Challenging the Abuse of Power, answers this question. In examining the activist lives of 14 women, each with their own unique and personal story, Garland reminds us that true heroes are made in real life.

In one example, Garland writes of two activists campaigning to get the Audi 5000 automobile off the road because of an alleged defect that causes the car to lurch forward and become uncontrollable even if the driver's foot is on the brake. The women found dozens of Audi 5000 owners in their city alone with the same problem. Audi initially denied any defect. As the issue began to attract attention across the country, Audi blamed the two activists for decreased car sales and suggested that women drivers might be the cause of the problem. Audi sent the women and their organization cassette instructions on how to sit in a driver's seat and operate driver controls. Such humiliation only strengthened the determination of each woman.

One said:

I'm a different person because of this fight ... I'm more interested in women's rights than I was before .. . Here we had Audi singling out women for the blame. And I found that even if you're just calling to complain about something--if a woman calls and complains, that's one thing, but when "the man of the house" calls up, that's something else; right away there's respect, he's treated differently. That made me angry.

Garland also writes of the women protesting deployment of U.S. cruise missiles at Greenham Common air base in England. One of the women, who set up a permanent protest camp outside the base, had never involved herself with activism:

When I became involved in civil disobedience, it was a very big step for me, because I come from a very conservative background. I took an act of civil disobedience because I felt that there was nothing else I could do but put my body against the war machine with hundreds of others who were doing the same thing.

In 1982 she, along with many others, was arrested for trespassing at the air base and was sent to prison for two weeks:

It was a deliberate action, to bring the issue to court and before the public. Although afterwards there was a lot of talk about the brave and courageous Greenham women, I had been terrified. I had qualms about how my family would cope with my going to prison, and I was anxious about it for myself--it was such an unknown, this whole experience of going to prison.

Each woman confronts personal struggles and unknown experiences in overcoming the insecurities of activism. It is this struggle, and how each activist deals with it, which captivates the reader. And Garland's ability to obtain candid, personal comments from each of the women is admirable and makes for enjoyable reading.

One woman protesting at Greenham Common candidly talked of the hardships brought to her marriage as a result of her activism:

At one point, it looked as if I stood to lose everything that had motivated me to join the peace movement. I had always thought of marriage as the base for two people to move out from and come back to for support. But when it came down to it, it was that way for my husband, while I was the home base. When I started doing this work, I wanted to be able to look at the marriage as a base in the same way. We started having big arguments about it and finally he basically said to me, 'look, it's me or the peace movement.'

Other activists in the book have equally wrenching stories of the personal consequences that sometimes arise from political activism. They include a southern Virginia woman fighting local racism who came home one day to find her bed drenched with gasoline. Another woman who successfully fought to stop construction of a local nuclear power plant received threatening phone calls; her children were tormented in school, and her husband's law practice lost clients.

Most notable about the women in Garland's book is the tenacity that keeps them fighting on, even when their lives and reputations are at stake. It is a determination born largely of necessity. While the causes that motivate the women in this book may vary, each posed a threat to these women and their families, a threat great enough to move them to take the future into their own hands.

Jim Donahue is a researcher with Multinational Monitor.