Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman...

Posted by rachel.murray — 8 March 2011 at 4:28pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace
Rachel stuck in a hard spot

Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day and for several weeks I've been thinking about what Greenpeace can do to support it. I know that to many people, Greenpeace looks like a macho organisation, and it has to be said that the world of non-violent direct actions in Greenpeace is a male-dominated world. I've been wondering why is it like that? How can we change it? What would it look like if there was a better balance?

When I started with Greenpeace in 1998, I joined the direct actions unit. There were seven men and brand new me. I was the assistant and general dogsbody. Coming into such a macho (and these are manly men!) team made me recognise the need for balance and how it was difficult for women to break into this world unless they were exceptionally driven and determined to stick with it.

The first direct action after I arrived in my new job, I remember opening the back gate for the men as they left the warehouse, and I stood at the gate and said goodbye, they said "we'll see you later" and drove off.

It wasn't long before I had an opportunity to get out there and 'prove' myself. My very first action was dumping several tonnes of GM soy at Downing Street and I drove a minibus full of people. I was so nervous, mostly about getting lost or being late! But I didn't, and I wasn't, and afterwards, it felt like one of the most powerful - and peculiar - things I'd ever done.

I've participated in many Greenpeace actions since then - climbed incinerators, pulled up GM crops and sailed on the ships in the UK and over the world. I've met some amazingly strong and inspirational women in that time - deck hands, captains, mates, engineers, campaigners and activists.

I have seen how having balance on our direct actions has improved the atmosphere and diffused tense situations. And I hope that having greater balance will encourage more women to get involved in direct action with us or other groups.

Being the only woman in the team for the first few years, I was keen to encourage and support other women to get involved in Greenpeace actions. So one day, when I sent one of our female volunteers off to the post office with a job and she came back with it all done and everything organised, I encouraged her to get more involved as an activist.

Since then she became an assistant in our team, appeared in newspapers across the country when she climbed over the edge of the Kingsnorth power station tower, and is now coordinating direct actions for Greenpeace. I feel really proud that I've helped to develop someone who might not have had a chance to do it otherwise.

While we're training and organising activities, we look for dedicated and talented women who we can support and develop to fill key roles in our actions. We're striving for gender balance in the specialist activists we train and I want to make sure we are encouraging and training women in these areas.

The position I now occupy, head of the actions unit, gives me the ability to influence this balance and encourage more women to get involved. The team is now three women and five men, our climb team is 50/50 men and women, and our boat team nearly is. Still some work to do there!

Becoming an activist with Greenpeace is becoming more and more accessible to everyone. And this is more important than ever.

Climate change will affect women more than men. Women will have to walk further for their water, and raise children in increasingly difficult circumstances. It's so important that we realise our own power and take that first scary step into a new world of direct action - the strength that living in this new world gives us is incalculable.

Taking a stand and doing something makes you realise you can do anything. Take what's left of today to think about your power and your potential and do something that scares you a bit. I did and I've never looked back!

You go girl nice to be driven with a sense of purpose

Made me wish I was 50 years younger. I just realised it is nearly forty years since I took my little children to a demo against a new highway in Sydney Australia and got sat on by a policeman because they didn't want to arrest a woman with children !
My kids screamed the place down so they let me go. Had to dock my own wages for time off work as I was the payroll person. ( I refused to be called either the Paymistress or the Paymaster. I was very touchy in those days)

Great stuff Rachel and despite the fact that I am a good few years older than you I would love to get involved, but I recently heard that the essential Greenpeace Non Violent Direct Action training is on hold at the moment. Can you confirm that this is the case and how long for?

Our NVDA programme is on hold at the moment but not for any sinister reasons. We have decided to pause the programme so that we can figure out the best delivery mechanism as there are some structural changes happening in the office. The NVDA programme will be up and running again by the summer - keep in touch until then!

Now until recently I've always struggled with the opposite problem at Greenpeace.

Over the years as a volunteer, and now as a staff member I've put a fair amount of time into helping people build activist networks. I'm also unashamably a Londoner, and so most of that energy has gone into London (don't worry I have colleagues in the North and the West of the country)

There are 10+ active Greenpeace networks in London and periodically the coordinators of each network get together to plan joint activities, skillshares and mobilisations. Collectively they coordinate perhaps 250 Greenpeace volunteers, so they're a fairly powerful group of people.

About 2 years ago, I clocked that I was the only man in the room, that every active Greenpeace group/network in London was being coordinated by women, and that perhaps men were simply a bit crap. Sorry guys.

Luckily the worm was turned, men are slowly coming back on the scene, to the point where although women still outnumber men 60/40, I'm not quite so outnumbered at those London meetings, and perhaps there's hope for the male half of the species yet.


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