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Conversation with Betty Williams

betty williams
Betty Williams, with Mairead Corrigan Maguire, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for their work to bring peace to Northern Ireland. She says, "The Nobel Peace Prize is not awarded for what one has done, but hopefully what one will do." In the 31 years since receiving the award, Williams has devoted her life to relieving the suffering of the world’s children. She founded the Global Children’s Studies Center in 1992. This evolved into founding the World Centers of Compassion for Children International, in 1997, in honor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who serves on the advisory board.


The following interview took place at the Women, Power & Peace Conference

Marianne Schnall: Why did you get involved with this conference? What was it about this event that attracted your involvement?

Betty Williams: Women. Very simple answer. Women are going to change the world – they most definitely are. And that was basically it! The more women that I can be with the better.

MS: And what is it like to be here with your fellow Nobel winners?

BW: We’ve been friends for years – Jody and myself and Rigoberta. We’ve been friends for many, years. And now we’re all involved in the Nobel Women’s Initiative. So it’s just great to get together with them whenever we can because we give each other strength. And we ask each other for advice and we love each other. Very much. It’s great to be here with all the girls for that reason.

MS: Tell me about the Nobel Women’s Initiative. What is its mission and how did that come to be, that you all got together?

BW: Well, last year Jody Williams sent me an e-mail and it said in the e-mail that Sherin Ebadi had this idea to bring all the living female laureates together – and I was so excited by that! We’ve all known each other, we all love each other, and we work together – we used to work together as often as possible. But to work as a unit – oh, that was a mind-bending thing for me. I nearly fell off the chair in the kitchen when the e-mail came in. And instead of e-mailing Jody back, I called her. And the both of us ended up crying on the phone. It’s an absolutely powerful idea.

And we have to talk about Aung Sun Suu Kyi. I mean she is the Nelson Mandela of the female world. And out of seventeen years, she’s been incarcerated for eleven of those. So, she’s part of this too, although she can’t physically be with us, but her representative was at our first conference in Ireland – we had our first conference in May of this year. It was an astonishing event. We had eighty women from thirty countries, and each of the women that were there were all activists. Palestinians, Israelis, Iraqis, Iranians – to see the power in that room. [she gets overcome by emotion and takes a moment here, her eyes filled with tears] I’m sorry. Those women – the dignity. Incredible. Absolutely incredible. I have never seen courage like that. I have never seen a man, even with a gun in his hand, have that kind of courage. It’s mind-bending. [gets choked up again] I’m so sorry – I didn’t mean to do this. And knowing that at the end of the conference – just like this one – they all have to go back, to those same circumstances. And I think with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, it gives them courage and strength knowing that we, each and every single one of us, love them, and will do whatever we can to help and support them. But it’s very hard to let them go – to know what kind of pain they’re going back to. [crying] I’m sorry I didn’t mean to do this.

MS: Yet, it must feel good to make those connections and know how much your love, hope and support means to them. That you can help them.

BW:And everybody keeps in touch now. I met the most incredible Israeli women, the most incredible Palestinian women, who worked together against all odds. Both of them had lost their sons, and before they met they absolutely hated one another. Because they didn’t know one another, you know? And they got together and started this organization of healing, and bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis together. And the biggest issue was to be able to forgive. You know? "I forgive you." That’s the hardest thing I think that we have to do, especially as mothers if we’ve lost a child – being able to forgive. And they’ve done that.

MS: That was one of my questions too – as activists, when you are confronted with so much suffering and injustice, what do you do with those emotions of anger, and despair, and even hate? As you are trying to fight these injustices, how do you deal with those human emotions that come up?

BW: I think you have to turn it around. I mean the thing that started the peace movement in Ireland was anger – my anger. It wasn’t anger, it was fury. And I’ve never been able to lose that. But to transform all that. It’s a lot of hard work. I mean, it’s not that I got up one morning and was suddenly peaceful. That’s so far from the truth it’s just not believable, you know? [laughs]

And I don’t think I’m yet peaceful because I have to struggle every day within myself when I see the suffering of the people of the world, the women and the children. And fury sets in. But I have to transform that, and take it out and do something positive with it – but I have to do that sometimes minute to minute. Some mornings I get up really angry and it takes me forever – by the time I’ve had my shower, put my makeup on, done my hair – I’m still angry! [laughs] I think to myself, I can’t start my day until I get rid of this anger! And I have to do the transformation to be able to do my own work. Daily. Second to second. I don’t think I’m naturally non-violence. I don’t think Jody is either. I don’t think any of us are! Maybe Rigoberta.

MS: There is so much inspiration and energy at this conference that you feel like if you could just bottle it and pass it out, you could transform the whole world.

BW: Women will transform the world. The world will not change without us doing it, and I see it everywhere I go. We transformed Northern Ireland – completely and utterly transformed it. Not just because of the peace rallies - because Mary was married to Patty, we had our peace rallies on a Saturday. Patty used to go to the pub with the fellas, Mary was left to take care of the kids. Mary suddenly said, “Patty, there’s a peace rally today, you have to stay home with the kids.” So we actually freed an awful lot of Northern Irish women from that kind of "Patty ruling the roost to Mary having no say." We did.

MS: What is the mission and goals of the Nobel Women’s Initiative?

BW: Well, you can’t set too many goals, because that’s a stupid thing to do. We’re looking right now at the issues, that’s why we’re all here, you know? We are looking at the bigger issues that women deal with on a daily basis. First, our top priority is rape used as a weapon of war. Right now that’s number one on our list. As you heard last night, the United States army is way up there in the world – you wouldn’t believe that the GI Joe would use rape as a weapon of war? But all armies do that. And once that rape starts - and it always begins as soon as soon as an army invades anything – the demoralization of women begins, and they lose hope. Some of them want to die. It’s horrible, horrible. That’s a big priority – rape used as a weapon of war.

The freeing of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, so she can join us. Because Aung Sun Suu Kyi is the democratically-elected leader of her country. It’s not that she’s up there saying like "I’m a peace person". She was elected by a huge majority – a majority that no man in the world has ever taken – she got 83% of the vote – do you believe that? Not a man in the world has ever taken those kind of figures in a vote. But Aung Sun did.

And then the other issues of starvation and genital mutilation – there’s just so many issues. And we care about every one of them. But we have to take one at a time. And work with that one. And rape as a weapon of war is way up that list.

MS: With your presence here this weekend – what do you think is the most important message that you’re trying to get out to the masses?

BW: There’s nothing women can’t do. There’s absolutely nothing we can’t do. We’re far stronger in a lot of ways than men. Way, way stronger than men. And that’s my message to any woman I meet – that includes you – there’s nothing you can’t do and you know that. You see, you know that because you’ve done it. I know it because I’ve done it. We need other women to do what we’re doing. To know within themselves the great power that they have to change the world. Look at that Rigoberta Menchu Tum. She did not win this election. She didn’t win it, she didn’t want to win it – her point was, “I’ll win it next time. And I won’t take money from anybody. And I won’t do what they normally do. But I’ll win next time.” You know?

MS: What do you think the most important thing each of us can do to help bring about peace? Some people feel so overwhelmed by the complexity and largeness of the problem that they just sort of feel like, “Oh, well, little old me – what can I do?” What advice would you give to somebody who wants to see change in the world but doesn’t know where to start or doesn’t think what they do will make a difference?

BW: To be honest with you, people who say that to me are usually people who don’t want to do anything, you know? You could sit there and say, “Oh, the problems too big, I’ll never be able to change it.” That’s a cop out. It’s a responsibility to your brothers and sisters in the world, that should be your number one concern. You are responsible for what this world is, and how it is and all it is. And if you don’t want to help fix it, you’re part of the problem. You know, get off your horse and drink your milk – don’t tell me there’s nothing you can do. It’s bullsh-t! Absolute bullsh-t! And when people say that to me – now, that’s one of the things that makes me angry. “Oh, there’s nothing I can do, it’s just far too big.” It’s bullsh-t!

MS: I am writing a story about this conference for the Women’s Media Center which is a wonderful new organization looking to make important changes to the media, particularly for women. And as you know, I also run Feminist.com, which tries to spread awareness about these issues online. But you turn on the news and it’s all fear-based and negative programming, and it almost makes you feel powerless in so many ways. Why do you think some of these themes that we are hearing here at the conference aren’t part of the mass media? And what changes would you like to see?

BW: Well, Marianne, you’re already involved in changing. Setting the media things up that you have done – already, it’s a small change, but it will be - if you keep working at it – a huge change down the line. You don’t start a thing to see the result immediately. If you do, you’re a fool. I remember we started our work in Northern Ireland and media people used to piss me off. Like, “How long do you think it’s going to take you?” And I said, “I don’t know.” “Well, do you think there’s an answer..” I mean, stupid, stupid questions! I am working for the solutions, you’re working for the solutions, that finally will bring the answer. You started a media thing for females, god bless you, it must have been really hard work to get up and get that going. But you’re in it now, and it’s ongoing, and you and I are sitting together. Now when you started this – don’t get me wrong, it’s not ego, because I don’t believe there’s any famous people in the world – I think there are people who think they are. So it’s nothing to do with ego, but did you think the day that you started, that you would be sitting interviewing peace laureates?

MS: Well, no.

BW: There you go, you see? So you’re growing, and growing and growing. And what happens is – my Daddy used to say, you creep up on them. Because all of a sudden you’re better and bigger than they are. Who the hell watches Fox News anyway? Nobody in their right mind turns on Fox News – it’s owned by the Bushes.

MS: By the way, just to clarify – while I founded Feminist.com, and support and write for the Women's Media Center, I wasn't one of the founders - it was actually founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem.

BW: Gloria interviewed me many, many moons ago. I loved her to death. She’s a doll. She came to Ireland and interviewed Mairead and myself about thirty years ago. God, what a woman! She was the one – because of her coming to Ireland and interviewing Mairead and myself, we became known in the United States. We were known on CBS, ABC, NBC – everybody was over filming the marches, the rallies and that. But she gave us content. She sussed out the women that we were and wrote about the actualities. Because let’s face it – we were a good story. We happened in media silly season, you know, August – there’s not too much on, and these two women get up and are all brave and all that. Anybody would think we hadn’t got a brain in our head. I remember the media referring to Mairead and myself and our women in the rallies – God forgive them – to call us “Petticoat Brigade?” That’s what they did! Like we’re out dodging bullets and bombs [laughs] and they call us the “Petticoat Brigade”?

And I usually don’t – if it’s a female interviewer I’ll usually give the interview. Because I don’t normally give interviews - you haven’t seen me do a lot of interviews for a long, long time. Because I don’t like the media. I think they can do you an awful lot of damage. But if it’s female media, it’s the opposite! They stretch to do you good! That’s the difference between your media and their media. They’re two different worlds! You’re not going to damage my work, when we’re sitting on the end of this bed. I know that I can trust you enough to know you’re not going to do that! But I wouldn’t feel the same about CBS, NBC or – Fox News – protect us all! [laughs].

MS: What special qualities do you think that women bring to the dialogue and efforts for peace that are most needed now?

BW: Their emotion. Their heart. They’re not afraid to let another female see them shed a tear. When these conferences are going, there’s a build up of, I call it, of ecstatic love, that goes on among the women. You see it grow. The first time that they meet, you know, they’ve never met before, they’ll hug each other and all the rest. But by the end of it, there’s something very special happens in the department of love. That word “love” is so badly abused – it has such sexual connotations and all that. But when women love each other, there’s a purity in it that’s magical. You can’t touch it – it’s palpable. You can feel it. And these conferences do that.

What I get out of this conference is I get sustenance to continue the work I’m doing. I get the hugs I need. And I listen to the other women and I get a lot of education. Every time I listen to Rigoberta, and I’ve heard her hundreds of times, I get educated one more time. I want to be just like her when I grow up! You know? As gentle as she is, as good as she is – because I’m not like that. I mean, I’m just the opposite of her in that respect. My temper’s shocking! And Rigoberta has an angelic streak which is absolutely real – there’s nothing false about her goodness. And I have to pretend now and again to be good, you know what I mean? [laughs]

MS: You’re pretty amazing yourself, but I know what you mean - but I guess all of us bring who are to what we do, and probably because you had that feistiness, you accomplished things that needed to be accomplished in the way that only you could do.

BW: I guess so. We all have different strengths, I’m never quite sure – but right now, the work that I’m doing now, it’s an enormous work because we’re building the first city of peace in the world, in the Region Basilicata in Italy. About five years ago, Berlusconi was donating this gorgeous land, which we now own, to be used in the dumping of nuclear waste. It’s way down in the boot of Italy. And the area’s called Matera. And I happened to be in Rome and was listening to the news and reading the newspapers of all these hundreds of thousands of women who had gotten out in that region to protest the dumping of nuclear waste. So I went down and joined them. Because of the Nobel label, it opens a lot of doors – I said, “Geez, I’ve got to get down to these women and get some doors open for them! You know? [laughs} Because they were getting treated rather like the "petticoat bridgade" too, you know? But then, I got involved with them, and then I did a lot of political work in Italy for them – and anyway, to cut this long story short, we got the land. And we had a campout on it – I mean they’re still camping out in the land. If Berlusconi ever gets backs in power they won’t [laughs].

But this little woman, I swear to God, I wish you could have met her Marianne, she’s about yay big, and she’s round – she’s as broad as she is tall. And she said to me [mimics fierce Italian voice], “Senora Williams! I fought the Nazis – I fight Berlusconi!” Eighty-two! Eighty-two years old. And she’s out fighting for that land. What kind of strength is that? She fought the Nazis, now she fights Berlusconi.

But I’m saying that we got the land – it was a lot harder than that, to get the land. Eventually the region signed the land over to us. And if you look on our web site, you will see the whole city’s designed, we’re ready to go, we just finished the feasibility study, and we now have a wine for peace campaign, cheese for peace, bread for peace, olive oil for peace. And De Filippo, who’s the President of the region Basilicata has been really, really wonderful. And then we’ve got a fabulous man in the European Parliament and I was over meeting with him last week, so we’re almost there to start laying the first bricks.

MS: With all the women at this event representing different countries - it feels important that we begin to see ourselves as a global community – to see these problems from a global perspective and realize our interconnectedness. Do you feel like that this shift is taking place?

BW: Oh, I see it – it’s monumental. I mean you go into the little villages anywhere in Africa and there will be a female in there. Strong. Like that beautiful woman from the Congo [Christine Schuler Deschryver]. She is breathtaking! She is absolutely breathtaking. And she has taken huge, huge problems on in the Congo. And is solving them! Women are great problem solvers.

This is a great story, but it’s a gospel true story. Every woman that marched for peace in Northern Ireland were superb, but we had some that were just incredible. We had this one wee woman – there are a lot of wee, tiny women [laughs] and Molly Montgomery was her name. The Irish linen industry was going under, big time. Because they were producing damask linen tablecloths – now do you know what they cost? They’re up near $1,000. I wouldn’t pay $1,000 for a tablecloth – I’d rather go to K-Mart and get one that washes, you know? [laughs] But we were having a meeting, and it was 29 years ago, now maybe 30 years ago. And I took Molly to this meeting with me with the directors of the linen industry trying to see what we could do to salvage jobs in certain areas. Because if the factory went under, the people went under.

So Molly’s sitting there, she didn’t say much for a while. I’m looking at her, and I knew when Molly was getting mad – you could almost see the steam coming out of her ears. And she sitting like this, and then the fingers and I think, “Sh-t, she’s ready to blow here,” [laughs] and she was. “Excuse me? Mr. – what was your name?” He’s sitting there in his gorgeous suit and a silk tie and the whole nine yards. She said, “Where were you educated?” And so he told her. And she said, “Well, I’ll tell you something. Sound common sense would tell you that you shouldn’t be producing all this damask because there’s warehouses full of damask that nobody’s buying. Why don’t you do the wee tea towels? 'May the sun raise to meet you', 'May the wind always be at your back, yada, yada.' She said, “Now don’t get me wrong, sir. I’m not a big economist. All I know is as a wife and a mother, about 20 pounds coming in, if I spend 21 I’m in big trouble. But if I’ve 20 pound coming in and I spend 19, I’m allright.” That factory, literally, from her, they got the people in to design the tea towels – have you ever seen all those Irish tea towels with all the funny sayings on them – they all sell at Shannon Airport and you can hang them on the wall. I mean, they’re really, really funny. And they did that! They took her advice – turned the whole factory, the whole thing around. And they’re selling like hot cakes, still 30 years later at Shannon Airport. But one little woman’s idea. That’s all it took! One woman. To say just, “You’re doing the wrong thing! This is what you should be doing.”

MS: Are you optimistic when you look out at the world, given all the various problems the world is having, that we can turn things around?

BW: Not everyday. I’d be a liar – I don’t want to tell you a lie. There are days when I just say, Jesus! The cruelty. The inhumanity. The suffering and all of that. But I know myself, having been to the regions that I’ve traveled to – last year, and this year, I’ve circumnavigated the globe four times for the work that I do. And I have met, all over the world, women like you, women like me, women like Rigoberta, Jody. And they are making monumental changes. There’s where my optimism lies – that one day, we will indeed – the givers of live will truly become the protectors. That’s what I see happening. Nothing’s going to change until the women have absolute authority. Not power - I hate that word power. But the authority that they need. And they’re aiming for it, they’re working for it.

MS: I think one of the things this conference is trying to express here, in having amazing women like you here, is that it lies within all of us the capacity to do something worthy of winning a Nobel prize, and yet so many times women are just not even aware of their own inner power. Sometimes you have to witness something, as you did, that rallied you. What message would you most want get out to women?

BW: Just what I said to you earlier, there’s nothing you can’t do. There’s nothing in the world that women can’t do. They can do it all.

MS: What is your vision or prayer for the future?

BW: That when women really become leaders – not followers – that we will have a more just and peaceful world. That sounds like a pontification – I didn’t mean it – it came out the wrong way [laughs]. The inner strength and the beauty of the womb... I often think, if God had wanted procreation through men, he would have given them the womb. But he had more sense than that. He gave it to us. And the fruit of my womb – because it is a fruit – a child is an angelic fruit born of your womb. And when women realize that and protect that fruit of their womb, the world will change.

MS: It really feels like there is a rising of women and the feminine taking place.

BW: And the love that we share. I mean, I could sit here and tell you honestly, “I love you,” because we have much more in common than we would ever have to divide us. And that’s the womb!

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Other interviews by Marianne Schnall

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©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.

Marianne's new book based on her interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.

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