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Photo Courtesy of Scott Hess

Truth Movement: Over a hundred women took their clothes off for peace in Occidental.

Naked Aggression

Sonoma County women bear witness for peace by baring ass

By Ellen C. Bicheler

I'm here because there's a lot of power. Women have a lot of power. To me, this is about women in the flesh embodying peace and truth. It's a wonderful way to make a statement," declared Jacqueline Hayward of Sebastopol on Feb. 23. One hundred and three women apparently agreed. On a green, grassy knoll at Ocean Song, the farm and wilderness center near Occidental, they stripped off their clothing to spell out the words "truth" and "compassion"--words they want the nation's leaders to notice, consider, and follow.

Motivations for participating were varied.

Elizabeth Fuller of Sebastopol said, "A lot of what's going on right now is about patterns--seeing patterns, really looking closely at what we're in the middle of. The idea of putting our own physical beings in the most vulnerable and beautiful and essential state as part of a pattern to be seen is to me a tremendously appropriate thing to do."

An older woman added, "We're little old women in tennis shoes. Nothing else we've done seems to have made a difference. This is not something you do every day. We're hoping it will be fruitful and useful--bearing witness by baring ass."

Kym Trippsmith, organizer of the Sonoma County event, explained further: "This is not just about the war; this is about the whole capitalist system that is basically bent on destroying our planet, making sure the resources are set aside for the elite. As [antinuclear activist] Helen Caldicott told us: 'It's the responsibility of all of us to make saving the planet your number one priority, every day.'"

For Trippsmith, a musician, writer, and producer, that means staging events like today's nude photo or her recent Truth and Justice concert or the upcoming May Day celebration at Stafford Lake in Novato, slated for May 3--which may host another Baring Witness event.

The naked pictures are part of an international movement conceived just three months ago by Donna Sheehan, founder of a group called Unreasonable Women Baring Witness. Sheehan was captivated by the actions of a group of about a hundred Nigerian women who stormed an oil terminal owned by ChevronTexaco. The women used "the curse of nakedness"--threatening to remove their clothes--to shame executives into meeting their demands. The company was forced to promise jobs, electricity, and other improvements to villages in the Niger Delta.

Sheehan's version of "the curse" was further motivated by a dream she had of people creating artistic shapes with their bodies. In November, she organized a group of women in Point Reyes for a spelling-out of the word "peace."

"Bush has his weapons," Sheehan says, "women have theirs. . . . The dynamic of nudity throws off the balance. In that moment, we are hoping our leaders will hear us."

There have been some negative responses to some of the nudity. Some people "think it's ridiculous," Sheehan says.

When the nude peace photo appeared on CBS News Sunday Morning, Charles Osgood exclaimed, "Talk about a body of work." Bob Schieffer responded, saying "I was hoping for a close-up." Their comments sparked a lot of anger and questioning about the strategy.

Sheehan's husband, Paul Reffell, says that this response "is the embarrassment most sober men feel when confronted by female nudity." What the women participating in Baring Witness are attempting to convey with their nakedness is "how exhausted and frustrated they are by the state of the world in men's hands. If that means standing naked and unprotected--unarmed in a violent world--they are ready to do so."

In response to accusations that the events are exploitative, Sheehan said "the original idea was to make a beautiful piece of figurative art for a good cause. The fact that the media has taken notice does not mean we are exploiting our women. . . . Exploitation of women occurs when their bodies are viewed as commodities. These women are glad to expose the flesh all humans share, especially since the proceeds, if any, from photo sales go to the peace movement."

The photo from Sonoma County will join the growing collection, part of a soon-to-be traveling exhibit and documentary. Sheehan hopes to elicit photos from every state in the union; currently, she has 14.

Sheehan and Trippsmith agree that women need to reclaim their power. "Women are feeling voiceless in the predominantly male push towards war," Sheehan noted.

"What a collective we can be!" Trippsmith added. "There are so many kinds of women here--ages two to 70--with all kinds of religious and spiritual backgrounds. Democrats, Republican, Greens, and Pagans. Part of the power is showing that we can come from different waves of life and come into alignment with each other."

The women at Ocean Song were greeted with warm cups of chai, held hands for prayer, were entertained by drumbeat and song, and were purified with sage before descending the hillside to form the letters, first in clothes, then without. An ocean breeze cooled the air and the ground was cold, but the camaraderie was warm as women linked bodies with friends, family, and strangers to form the letters. Women chanted "Om" while photographers snapped the shots. The group cheered upon completion.

Women mingled after the pictures were taken, exchanging e-mail addresses, passing out flyers on future events, and mulling over the experience of taking their clothes off.

Sheehan means to continue her efforts. One of her latest tactics is a vigorous letter-writing campaign to Laura Bush, Cherie Blair, Lynne Cheney, and Alma Powell, in which she implores them to talk with their husbands.

"If we cannot deter our men from violent acts, then we have failed as women, as nurturers, as guardians of our families and voices of reason. Baring Witness wants men to know they don't have to take sole responsibility for the war, that women want a greater partnership. Men's acts of war are linked to their biological urge to provide for what they think are women's needs. Women are ready to be equally responsible for their men's actions."

Trippsmith, too, is hopeful. "I believe the women coming here today baring their bodies to the earth is a drop in the proverbial bucket, planting a seed right here. That the light in our hearts, the love we shared, the care we brought individually for each other--for the earth, our children, parents, grandparents--will allow us to change our lives by taking less from the planet."


For further information and photos, visit www.baringwitness.org. Locally, International Women's Day on March 8 brings a number of events, including a women's forum at Subud Hall, March 8, 1-5pm. 234 Hutchins Ave., Sebastopol. 707.874.1744. A Wailing Wall peace action will take place March 8 at noon at the Santa Rosa Plaza. Coffee Catz (6761 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol) will host an evening on women, March 8, 7-10pm.

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From the March 6-12, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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