«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: But if you had a critical mass in a developing country, all of which had experienced oppression, violence and so forth, you might have an agreement about a progressive agenda of peace and human rights and gender equality. So, I call it an evolution of my thinking. Now, I say, and this is my phrase, you can't use it, "It takes more than ovaries." That you have to have women who are peace and justice-loving women, women who support gender equality and sustainable development, and not just women women. Everybody looks and says, "Of course."
But that's not what they say and do. I write it into my talks now. I distinguish between women
Q: Let's keep that thought for a moment, but going back again to the distinction between women in a more affluent society, women in a developing society. Part of that is the differing nature of the oppression. The oppression is so overt in many parts of the world, yet, the oppression here is somewhat different.
Weiss: Well, a) in the developing world—and it's changing there too, as countries evolve—but in the developing world, they have more in common than in conflict. There's more suffering, among a larger group of women. But Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hasn't suffered, and she represents a new elite. That's happening in increasing numbers of developing countries; there is a new elite.
Small, but it's going to get bigger. The gap between rich and poor will get bigger. In this country, we have an educated mass, we have political party, evolution, and development, we have more choices to make. And we have a larger middle class. So, not all women want to reduce the military budget. Not all women want to abolish nuclear weapons. Not all women want to have alternatives to prison and get rid of solitary confinement. That's what I am concerned with. I like the women who want to abolish war.
Q: My argument would be that that difference is historically contingent, that there are certain women from certain communities with certain ideas, laws, attitudes, ideologies; and there are other women—but it's historically contingent. So— Weiss: One might have said that the preponderance of Tea Party—or that the Tea Party comes
Weiss: But you go to Easthampton, New York, and there are Tea Party flags. Right on Route 27 where every human being has to travel to get to Montauk, the end of the United States, there's a Tea Party flag in front a famous pizzeria. So, it's interesting.
Q: What is the special thing that women bring to the table?
Weiss: Women, or good women?
Q: Well, Tea Party women, organized women, civil society women.
Weiss: I don't think we'll— Q: What is it that they bring to the table that makes it so special that they are women?
Weiss: Well, I don't think that there's a homogeneity among women.
Q: Oh, yes.
Weiss: I don't think you can say, "They." I mean, not all men are alike, why should all women be alike? So, the good women, the peace women, the two women who sat at the Irish peace talks,
making. We have to have a peace-based decision making. I mean, it depends on who the women are. But, I think to put us all in one lump is a huge mistake, because it doesn't recognize that there's no unanimity among the testosterone crowd. Why should there be among the estrogen crowd?
Q: Do you have many contests with women, say, in the Tea Party organizations? Or, women in the various apparatuses of the right at all?
Weiss: No. They don't live in the neighborhood.
Q: All right. Well, if you were in the political arena, you would have to— Weiss: Which I'm not. I'm in the social change arena, not the political party arena.
Q: Along a different kind of track, your discussion of civil society and non-government agencies resonates to my mind with a lot of what [Alexis] de Tocqueville talked about, about the nature of American society, that it is just the spontaneous organizations that arise all the time, nongovernment agencies.
Weiss: That's true. But, when you keep saying, "Non-government," it means that the government is the important.
Weiss: Who wants to be a non-something? You like to be a pro-something. So, I think civil society is more important. It's a power, if it's well-organized and determined. We were a power to get a—we didn't get the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty because it hasn't been ratified yet, but it exists if the Congress would only ratify it, the Senate. That came from civil society, from the pro civil people, not the non-people.
Q: Right. Do you see yourself as some kind of a middle personality between the agencies of Civil Society and the political process itself, in which you're the lobbyist, the contact? You know, especially with political women?
Weiss: I'm not a lobbyist. That's not a good word in my book. I have friends. I support candidates. I have friends among the elected officials, I support candidates. I don't think it's a secret, but I've just been asked to help Chirlane [McCray], who is the mayor's first lady, get mentored in speech making. I'm not going to do it myself, but I'm going to help her get somebody who will, because that's not been part of her poetry past. It's important, because she now has opportunities to speak publicly. I guess there are tricks that you learn when you speak
Q: We'll talk about those.
Weiss: We will?
Q: Yes. Yes. How could I—after reading your speeches— Weiss: I apparently— Q: —not talk about how you speechify? We'll talk about that eventually. We'll get to that.
Weiss: I've made a few, I think.
Q: I'm particularly interested in the role that you've carved out for yourself, because you say you're not a lobbyist.
Weiss: I'm an enabler, maybe.
Weiss: I'll try to think of other words.
Weiss: Well, yesterday, I attended a planning meeting of the Methodist women, United Methodist women, who have started to work on a program for September in New York, which would be the first meeting of a series of meetings that's taking place as the U.N. opens its new General Assembly session. They've invited me to be in on the planning. It'll be sponsored or cosponsored by about a dozen civil society organizations, including the International Peace Bureau, which I represent at the U.N. as a representative, and which I was president of for six years. So, I proposed speakers.
I said we have to discuss climate change, we have to discuss development and maybe create a people's agenda for the post-2015 development agenda, because the agenda that the U.N. is going to propose is going to have deficits. And we're not going to like it. It won't be strong on women, it won't be strong on peace as a requirement for development. It's a wonderful opportunity for me to help influence, and they love everything I say, or almost. I see it appear on paper, later, as agreed upon. For instance, they wanted to talk about peace and security as an agenda item. I came back and said, "Why don't we talk about human security, because the word 'security' emerged after the Second World War as ‘national security.’ And it means militarism. It means military." That's not what we want. We want human security, which means the things that enable people to live, starting with literacy and employment and food and water, and safety. And it was right there, in print, right after I said it. So— Q: Go back to John Wesley roots.
Weiss: The building that I work in is owned by women. It was built by women, and it's owned by women. The United Methodist women. That's always been a comfort zone for me, because it’s a place where only non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, have offices. So The Hague Appeal for Peace has an office.
Q: Now, when the Methodist women, who are organized, come up with their statement and present it to the U.N., will you feel any responsibility to join them in that to— Weiss: Oh, we all will.
Q: You all. So you— Weiss: Join? You mean go with them?
Weiss: Oh, yes. I've gone—we once had—I can't remember what year it was—a petition, which we presented to the president of the General Assembly who was from some newly independent state, an Eastern country, East—I can't remember what it was. Anyway, I have done that. And I
Weiss: I was the only civil society speaker in 2010, in the General Assembly at the podium where normally, only member state representatives speak. That was kind of heady.
Q: How did you get to have that?
Weiss: Well, because Anwarul Chowdhury organized a Culture of Peace event. The ambassador from Bangladesh was involved, and the Secretary General came, and officials came. Helen Clark from UNDP [United Nations Development Program] was a speaker. I think she and I were the only two women in the morning session of officialdom. Then we were followed by dozens of guys representing member states. But the initial talks, the initial speeches, were made by U.N.
agencies, a government and civil society. I was the only one. I was grateful to Chowdhury for picking me. It was very heady to have the SG [Secretary General] looking down on you, wondering “Who is this person?” Civil society organizations came to listen, but they were relegated to the balcony way in the back. But I got a lot of applause, and I think the only laughs of anybody speaking. Laughter is very important.
Q: Tell me about the laugh. What did you—
Q: [laughs] Weiss: But I said, obviously must have said a few things that were funny.
Q: How many speeches do you usually give?
Weiss: Don't ask.
Q: Ever count them?
Weiss: I do have a list. Did I give you the list?
Q: Oh, I've got—yes. I've got lists [laughs]— Weiss: But I don't have the early speeches, which I wrote on yellow legal pad, in hand.
Q: Some of them are in— Weiss: At Swarthmore?
Q: Yes. That's why I said, in your handwriting—
Q: —on the yellow pads.
Weiss: Oh, and they don't have dates?
Q: No, no, unfortunately, they don't.
Weiss: That's the problem. But they were all early, early '60s.
Q: Yes. Yes. When did you first begin to speechify? Do you recall the first couple of speeches you gave? Or, under which aegis it might have been?
Weiss: Well, you know, in high school, I was the co-chair of the assembly committee, and I was only in ninth grade. My co-chair was another wonderful woman, whom I liked very much, who died of ovarian cancer, very prematurely. She was in tenth grade. So, we probably at least introduced the speakers that we invited. They were all school assemblies. But I don't have those on yellow legal pad. [laughs] Then, at the University of Wisconsin, I was the person responsible for speakers from the International Club, I think. Whether I spoke, I don't remember, but it wasn't yesterday, you know.
Weiss: So I might have spoken there. But, I think my first talks were probably associated with the African American Students Foundation, what we call the Airlift, because we had events, and I have photographs of me standing behind a microphone.
Q: This would be welcoming remarks, and things like this?
Weiss: Whatever. Whatever they were.
Q: Yes. Did you give speeches for Women Strike?
Weiss: Oh, that's where I did the most.
Q: Do you remember a few of the first ones? Who you spoke to? What your topic was?
Weiss: I think the topic was Strontium-90, because that's the first thing we did in Women Strike.
We used to get together in living rooms and try to learn as much as we could about the deadly ingredients of an atomic bomb, and why that was affecting our babies, because they drank the milk that came from cows that ate the radiated grass.
Weiss: But I did huge numbers of talks under the banner of Women Strike as the Women Strike
Q: Well, what would have been the venue?
Weiss: Living rooms, community rooms, centers, neighborhood houses, universities. I think I'm going in order of evolution.
Q: Right. Church groups?
Weiss: Universities, church groups? Yes. That's how it went for years. It evolved from subject matter, the Partial Test Ban treaty, which we got signed. Not just exclusively, "We," but we were very key, I think, to helping promote public opinion about that. That was 1963, October, as I recall, when the president, President Kennedy, signed the Partial Test Ban treaty. Then, the Vietnam War. And the demonstrations against the war. I not only helped to organize them, and to co-chair them, to speak at them.
Q: Did you ever take a course in public speaking?
Q: How did you learn to do that?
Weiss: I'd love to give a course in public speaking. I've often thought that if I ever retire, I might
Q: And what would you say? What are the four or five principles— Weiss: The first thing that a woman says when she gets up to speak, invariably, is, "Can you hear me?" Have you ever heard a man get up to the mic, and before he opens his mouth on his speech, say, "Can you hear me?" It is a gendered experience. That's number one. Number two, don't hold a pencil in your hand when you talk. And number three— Q: Why? Because you bounce it around, or—?
Weiss: Because you're not aiming at people. You don't need a pencil anymore. You've written your talk, or you know what you're going to say. It's an extra piece of distraction.