Barbara Deming (1917 - 1984)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Barbara Deming

Peace and civil rights activist, pacifist-feminist, lesbian, writer, born in New York City on July 23, 1917 and died in Sugarloaf Key, Florida, on August 2, 1984.

Deming was educated in Quaker schools through high school and studied literature and theater at Bennington College in Vermont. After holding a variety of jobs, she was hired in 1942 as a film analyst for a Library of Congress project. Her first book, Running Away from Myself - A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the '40s, written during this period, was not published until 1969.

In the mid-1940s she began to devote herself to writing essays, theater reviews, poems, and short stories. A Humming under My Feet: A Book of Travail, an autobiographical book based on a year of travel in Europe, was begun in 1952, completed years later, and published posthumously in 1985.

After traveling to India in the late 1950s, Deming read Gandhi's work and began to identify as a pacifist, but it was her trip to Cuba in 1960 and a personal encounter with Fidel Castro that pushed her toward both nonviolent activism and the role of journalist. That same year, Deming was inspired by members of two radical pacifist groups, the Committee for Nonviolent Action and the Peacemakers. Her subsequent activism in the 1960s ranged from fasting for the abolition of the CIA in 1961 to numerous arrests and imprisonments for anti-war and civil rights protests.

In 1964, Deming joined the Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Walk for Peace. The protesters were arrested in Albany, Georgia, for attempting to walk through the town as an interracial group. Prison Notes, written during her month in Albany jail, was published in 1966 and is widely regarded as a classic prison narrative. During the war in Indochina, Deming spent eleven days in North Vietnam with three other women and returned home to speak and write about her experiences of U.S. bombing raids. Deming's best-known essay, "On Revolution and Equilibrium," published in Liberation in 1968, articulated her argument for nonviolence, using as counterpoint Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. In the summer of 1968 she lived in Resurrection City, a community established by poor people on the mall in Washington, D.C.

Deming was seriously injured in a car accident in September 1971, and struggled with physical frailty and ill health for the rest of her life. She turned to letter writing as a form of activism and became a respected voice in the emerging feminist movement of the 1970s. Self-identified as a lesbian since the age of sixteen, Deming publicly came out in 1973 and added her pacifist perspective to the new movement for lesbian/gay rights. In 1975, with money from a settlement she received after the car accident, Deming established the Money for Women Fund to provide grants to feminists in the arts.

Books by Deming published in the 1970s and 1980s include: Revolution and Equilibrium (essays, 1971); Wash Us and Comb Us (short stories, 1972); We Cannot Live without Our Lives (essays, letters, poems, 1974); Remembering Who We Are (essays, letters, poems, 1981); and a collection of writings, We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader (1984).

In the summer of 1983, Deming was one of fifty-four women arrested at the Seneca Women's Peace Encampment in upstate New York. Her essay about that experience, “A New Spirit Moves among Us,” was published posthumously in 1985 in the book Prisons that Could Not Hold: Prison Notes 1964 - Seneca 1984.

Grace Paley called Deming "a great reconciler with a wonderful stubborn streak," and Judith McDaniel, executor of the Barbara Deming Archives, wrote that Deming's work "was to highlight for us the connection between issues of oppression."

Pam McAllister, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Barbara Deming
  • Meigs, Mary. "Remembering Barbara Deming." Women's Review of Books 2 (October 1984).
  • Meyerding, Jane. "Introduction." In We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader, edited by Jane Meyerding with a foreword by Barbara Smith. Philadelphia: New Society, 1984.
  • Segrest, Mab. "Feminism and Disobedience: Conversations with Barbara Deming." In Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, edited by Pam McAllister. Philadelphia: New Society, 1982.

Related Resources


Read selected quotes by Barbara Deming

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    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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