New Society Publishers began in to bring out a “Barbara Deming Memorial Series” of books meant to highlight women involved in nonviolent action. The first book in the series was You Can’t Kill the Spirit by Pam McAllister, which included a chapter on women tax resisters, and another separate section on the Igbo Women’s War, which was also a tax resistance campaign in part.
Here are some excerpts from this book:
Injustice, Death and Taxes: Women Say No!
The world just didn’t make sense to thirty-two-year-old Hubertine Auclert. On the one hand she was considered a French citizen expected to obey the laws of her country and to pay property taxes. On the other hand, she was denied the citizen’s right to vote simply because she was a woman. The male rulers couldn’t have it both ways, Auclert decided. She began plotting a way to unhinge the system.
On election day in , Auclert and several other tax-paying women of Paris initiated the first stage of the action. They stomped past a line of startled men and presented themselves for voter registration. They demanded that they be recognized as full citizens of France with rights as well as responsibilities. They demanded an end to the injustice of taxation without representation. The men were amazed: there was nothing wrong with the system’s inconsistencies as far as they were concerned! The women were turned away. It was time for stage two.
Taking advantage of the publicity the women had generated, Auclert called for a women’s “tax strike.” She reasoned that, since men alone had the privilege of governing the people and allotting national budgets, men alone should have the privilege of paying taxes.
“Since I have no right to control the use of my money,” she wrote, “I no longer wish to give it. I do not wish to be an accomplice, by my acquiescence, in the vast exploitation that the masculine autocracy believes is its right to exercise in regard to women. I have no rights, therefore I have no obligations. I do not vote, I do not pay.”
During the tax strike, Auclert was joined by twenty other women — eight widows and the rest, presumably, single women. When the authorities demanded payment, all but three of the women ended their participation in the strike. The remaining women continued to appeal the decision. But when law enforcement officers attempted to seize their furniture, Auclert and the others gave in. They decided they had done the best they could to call attention to the injustice.
Auclert was not the first woman to organize against the taxation of women without government representation. Mid-nineteenth-century United States saw a number of women’s rights tax resisters.
In … Lucy Stone decided to publicize the injustice of government taxation of women who, because they were denied the vote, were without representation. , Henry David Thoreau had spent a night in jail for his refusal to pay the Massachusetts poll tax, an action he had taken in opposition to the U.S. war with Mexico. Now Lucy Stone decided to use the same tactic to publicly draw attention to women’s oppression as voteless taxpayers. When she refused to pay her taxes, the government held a public auction and sold a number of her household goods.
Like Lucy Stone, [Lydia Sayer] Hasbrouck’s radicalism led her to become a tax resister, refusing to pay local taxes in protest against the denial of her right to vote. A tax collector, so the story goes, managed to steal one of Hasbrouck’s Bloomer outfits from her house and advertise it for sale, the proceeds to go toward the taxes she owed.
Abby Kelly Foster had always been an active worker and speaker for women’s rights, but, in , at the age of sixty-three, she was newly inspired. She had just heard about Julia and Abby Smith, two sisters in neighboring Connecticut, who were refusing to pay the taxes on their farm in order to protest the denial of suffrage to women. This was just the sort of nonviolent direct action that appealed to Abby. Her husband, Stephen, agreed. That year, they refused to pay their taxes on their beloved “Liberty Farm” in order to give voice to the urgency and justice of women’s suffrage.
When they refused again in , the city of Worcester, Massachusetts took action. The farm was seized and put up for auction to the highest bidder.
Letters of support for the Fosters’ tax resistance poured in from the progressive leaders of the day. Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote, “Of course I need not tell either of you at this late day how much I appreciate this last chapter in the lives full of heroic self sacrifice to conviction.” Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton sent words of encouragement. William Lloyd Garrison, a pacifist abolitionist, wrote, “I hope there is not a man in your city or county or elsewhere who will meanly seek to make that property available to his own selfish ends. Let there be no buyer at any price.”
Unfortunately, Osgood Plummer, a politically conservative neighbor, bid $100 for the farm, but he retreated when Stephen Foster chided him. Later, Plummer wrote a letter to the local newspaper explaining that he had only wanted to teach the Fosters a lesson about obeying the law.
With no other bidders, the deed to Liberty Farm reverted to the city. For the next few years, Abby and Stephen lived with the fear and uncertainty of losing the farm, but they continued their tax resistance until Stephen’s ill health became an overriding concern. In , the Fosters ended their protest and paid several thousand dollars to save the farm. The point had been made.
In , the Women’s Tax Resistance League of London published a little pamphlet entitled Why We Resist Our Taxes… “The government of this country which professes to be a representative one and to rest on the consent of the governed, is Constitutional in its relation to men, Unconstitutional in its relation to women,” wrote Margaret Kineton Parkes, author of the pamphlet. Parkes did not mean all women, however. She hastened to reassure the reader that the tax resisters were not in the least radical but only fair-minded, concerned with votes only for women householders, certainly not for all women. The League, she claimed, was about passively resisting the unconstitutional government ruling England. Because they had been granted the municipal vote, women tax resisters were more than willing to pay local “rates,” and they promised they’d have equal willingness to pay “imperial taxes” as soon as they were granted the parliamentary vote.
The London tax resisters devised a new way to reach beyond those already enlightened members of the public who attended suffrage meetings. They began making suffrage speeches at public auctions, a tactic that had unexpectedly good results. Many people were converted to the suffrage cause once they had the chance to hear the argument from the resisters themselves. The auctioneers not only permitted the women to make their speeches, but sometimes actively invited the speeches and even addressed the cause in their own words. One auctioneer who openly supported the tax-resisting suffragists ended his remarks by saying: “If I had to pay rates and taxes and had not a vote, I should consider it a great disgrace on the part of the Government, but I should consider it a far greater disgrace on my part if I did not protest against it.”
Since the granting of suffrage, women’s tax resistance has most often been undertaken to protest a government’s military spending or its involvement in a specific war — such as the U.S. war in Vietnam. For part of her life, Barbara Deming was a war tax resister. In her essay “On Revolution and Equilibrium,” she explained the rationale for this form of nonviolent noncooperation.
Words are not enough here. Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action was “satyagraha” — which can be translated as “clinging to the truth…” And one has to cling with one’s entire weight… One doesn’t just say, “I don’t believe in this war,” but refuses to put on a uniform. One doesn’t just say “The use of napalm is atrocious,” but refuses to pay for it by refusing to pay one’s taxes.
At , Juanita Nelson threw on the new white terry cloth bathrobe she’d recently ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog and answered her door. Two U.S. marshals informed her that they had an order for her arrest. What a way to start the day.
Juanita and her husband Wally, who was out of town that day, had not paid withholding taxes nor filed any forms for , so it was, in one sense, no big surprise that the government wanted to see her. “But even with the best intentions in the world of going to jail,” she later wrote, “I would have been startled to be awakened at 6:30 a.m. to be told that I was under arrest.”
She explained to the bright-eyed government men that she would be glad to tell the judge why she was resisting taxes if he’d care to come see her. Then she proceeded to explain why she would not willingly walk out of her door to appear in court.
I am not paying taxes because the overwhelming percentage of the budget goes for war purposes. I do not wish to participate in any phase of the collection of such taxes. I do not even want to act as if I think that anyone, including the government, has a right to punish me for an act which I consider honorable. I cannot come with you.
The government men were not moved. They called for back-up assistance while Juanita considered her situation. Should she get dressed? Would getting dressed be a way of cooperating? Quickly she called a friend on the phone to let others know what was happening to her, and just as quickly she was surrounded by seven annoyed law enforcement officers. There was a brief exchange about her still being in her bathrobe, and one uncomfortable officer asked her whether or not she believed in God. She answered in the negative. (“He did not go on to explain the connection he had evidently been going to establish between God and dressing for arrest,” Juanita later reported.) Suddenly, a gruff, no-nonsense officer said, “We’ll just take her the way she is, if that’s the way she wants it.” He slapped some handcuffs on her and lifted her off the floor. In maneuvering her into the government car, he apparently tried his best to expose the nakedness under her bathrobe while another officer tried to cover her.
As the car carried her into the heart of Philadelphia, she tried to think. “My thoughts were like buckshot,” she wrote of her experience, “so scattered they didn’t hit anything or, when they did, made little dent. The robe was a huge question mark placed starkly after some vexing problems. Why am I going to jail? Why am I going to jail in a bathrobe?” The only thing she was sure of at that moment was that, until her head cleared, she would refuse to cooperate with her jailers. When the car stopped, she was yanked from the back seat, carried into the federal court building, dragged up a flight of stairs, and thrown behind bars.
[S]everal friends stopped by to visit her. (Her phone call had been a good idea.) The first visitors were two men, tax-refusing pacifists like herself. They thought it best, for the sake of appearances, to go to court in the proper clothes. They offered to get some clothes for her, and she agreed — just in case she decided she’d feel more at ease in them.
After the men left, a woman friend stopped by. “You look like a female Gandhi in that robe!” she said. “You look, well, dignified.” Juanita grinned.
When they finally came for her, Juanita, still refusing to walk, was wheeled into the courtroom in her bathrobe. The clothes the men had brought were left behind in a brown paper bag. The judge gave her until to comply with the court order that she turn over her financial records or be subjected to a possible fine of $1000, a year in jail, or both. Juanita Nelson went home.
came and went. Many Fridays came and went. The charges were dropped and she heard nothing more. Every now and then, the Internal Revenue Service sends her a bill or tries to confiscate a car, but so far the government has met a wall of nonviolent noncooperation. They should have known when they saw Juanita in her bathrobe: nothing will make her pay for war.
Most people who take any notice of my position are appalled by my lawbreaking and not at all about the reasons for my not paying taxes. Instead of trying to make me justify my civil disobedience, why do they not question themselves and the government about a course of action which makes billions available for weapons, but cannot provide decent housing and education for a large segment of the population?
Like the ascetics of old, Eroseanna (Rose or Sis) Robinson was singularly unburdened by material possessions. She had no bank account, owned no real estate, and when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tried to seize her personal property, they found that all she had was an ironing board, a clock, a quilt, and some clothes.
Robinson took seriously her membership in Peacemakers (an organization founded in to promote radical, nonviolent direct action). She had been a war tax resister since the early fifties, filing no statements of income and ignoring the various notices and certified letters sent by the IRS. In , thirty-five years old, single and black, Robinson was a skilled artist and athlete; creative, too, in finding ways to live in the United States without paying for the U.S. military. She tried to keep her earnings below the taxable level and for a period managed to spend less than $3 per week for food. She also arranged to earn a withholding-free income from several different work situations. Even with the little money she made, Robinson regularly sent sums greater than the taxes she owed to groups that worked for peace and social justice.
On , federal marshals descended on Robinson at a community center in Chicago and demanded she come with them. When she refused, they carried her bodily out of the center and to the district court where she was seated on a bench before a judge. She refused to accept the services of a lawyer and asked instead that they lay aside their roles as judge and defendant and speak to each other as two people with genuine concerns. When the judge agreed, Robinson talked. “I have not filed income taxes,” she said, “because I know that a large part of the tax will be used for militarization. Much of the money is spent for atom and hydrogen bombs. These bombs have a deadly fallout that causes human destruction, as it has been proved. If I pay income tax, I am participating in that course. We have a duty to contribute constructively to life, and not destructively.”
After making this statement, she was handcuffed, put in a wheelchair because she refused to walk, and taken to jail.
The next day she was wheeled into court again, where she encountered a different judge. This judge ridiculed her and her supporters who were standing in a vigil in front of the courthouse. He accused her of having an attitude of “contumacious criminal contempt.” He committed her to jail until she would agree to file a tax return and show records of her earnings.
Not only would she not agree to file a tax return, she also would not agree to cooperate in any way with the prison system. She would not walk. She would not eat. She did agree to see one visitor one time — her friend Ernest Bromley, a radical pacifist and member of Peacemakers, who had come to see her in Cook County Jail. He wrote while she dictated a message for all her supporters on the outside:
I see the military system and jail system as one thing. I don’t want to give up my own will. I will not compromise by accepting a lawyer or by recognizing the judge as judge. I would rather that no one try to make an arrangement with the judge on my behalf. I ask nothing from the court or the jail. I do not want to pay for war. That is my main concern. Love to everyone.
On , Robinson was again wheeled into court. It was clear that she would not compromise her principles to spare her own discomfort. The judge sentenced her to jail for a year and added an extra day for “criminal contempt.”
On , she was moved to the federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. There she continued her fast, though prison officials began to force-feed her liquids through a tube inserted into her nose. She refused to cooperate in any way with her own imprisonment nor did she try to send letters through the system of prison censorship.
Ten members of Peacemakers, including long-time activist Marjorie Swann, set up their tents just beyond the gates at Alderson and issued a press release on . They explained that they were there to show support for Robinson and that most of them intended to fast just as she was fasting. They invited anyone who wanted to talk to stop by the gate where they were camping. The pacifists propped up signs along the stretch of dusty road — “No Tax for War,” “Peace Is the Only Defense,” “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and “Rose Won’t Pay Income Tax.”
After fasting for , Robinson was suddenly and unconditionally discharged from prison on . The judge who ordered her release said Robinson had become a burden to the prison medical facilities, adding that he felt she had been punished sufficiently. He didn’t mention the picketers camped outside.
When Robinson was released from prison late afternoon, the first thing she saw was a huge banner held high by her friends — “Bravo Rose!”
A number of women have become war tax resisters in reaction to a specific war. Mary Bacon Mason, a Massachusetts music teacher, became a war tax resister in after World War Ⅱ. She told the government she would be willing to pay double her tax if it could be used only for aid to suffering people anywhere, but would accept prison or worse rather than pay for war. The only possible defense, she said, is friendship and mutual help. Of World War Ⅱ she said:
I paid a share in that cost and I am guilty of burning people alive in Germany and Japan. I ask humanity’s forgiveness.
In , Caroline Urie of Yellow Springs, Ohio, bedridden and elderly, gained national attention and inspired many people to consider war tax resistance when she withheld 34.6 percent of her tax. She sent an equivalent amount as a donation to four peace organizations and wrote an open letter to President Truman and the IRS
Now that the atomic bomb has reduced to a final criminal absurdity the whole war system, leading quite possibly to the liquidation of human society, and has involved the United States in the shame and guilt of having been the first to exploit its criminal possibilities, I have come to the conclusion that — as a Christian, Quaker, religious and conscientious objector to the whole institution of organized war — I must henceforth refuse to contribute to it in any way I can avoid.
Eighteen years later, and in response to a new war, another woman from Yellow Springs, Ohio, Doris E. Sargent, wrote to the Peacemakers newsletter with a new war tax resistance tactic. She noted that the government had reintroduced a federal tax attached to telephone bills. The money was earmarked specifically for U.S. military expenses. Sargent proposed a radical response — that all those who demanded an end to the fighting in Vietnam ask the phone company to remove their phones in protest. If everyone who opposed the war were willing to make such an extreme sacrifice, real pressure could be put on the government. Then Sargent suggested a less extreme idea — that people keep their phones and pay their bills but refuse to pay the federal tax. Phone tax resisters could send a note with their bills each month, stating that the protest was not directed at the phone company but at the government which was using the phone tax to support war. The idea caught hold, and phone tax resistance became a popular way to protest the war in Vietnam. It is still used as a form of war tax resistance.
The war in Vietnam turned many people into war tax resisters. Pacifist folksinger Joan Baez set an example as a tax resister early in the war years by withholding 60 percent of her income tax. She was instrumental in persuading countless others to follow her example. In , she explained:
We talk about democracy and Christianity — and we try out a new fire-bomb. We talk about peace and we move thousands more men and weapons into Vietnam. This country has gone mad. But I will not go mad with it. I will not pay for organized murder. I will not pay for the war in Vietnam.
In , life-long Quaker Meg Bowman wrote a letter to the IRS to explain why she had decided once again not to pay her federal income tax.
“Do you carefully maintain our testimony against all preparations for war and against participation in war as inconsistent with the teachings of Christ?” ― Query, Discipline of Pacific Yearly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
The above quotation is from the book that is intended to give guidance to members for daily living. The book repeatedly stresses peace and individual responsibility.
It is clear to me that I am not only responsible for my voluntary actions, but also for that which is purchased with my income. If my income is spent for something immoral or if I allow others to buy guns with money I have earned, this is as wrong and offending to “that of God in every man” as if I had used that gun, or planned that bomb strike.
When I worked a five-day week it seemed to me that one-fifth of my income went to taxes. This would be equivalent to working one full day each week for the U.S. government. It seemed I worked as follows:
- Monday for food.
- I felt responsible to buy wholesome, nourishing items that would provide health and energy, but not too much meat or other luxuries, the world supply of which is limited.
- Tuesday for shelter.
- We maintain a comfortable, simply furnished home where we may live in dignity and share with others.
- Wednesday for clothing,
- health needs and other essentials and for recreation, all carefully chosen.
- Thursday for support of causes.
- I select with care those organizations which seem to be acting in such a way that responsibility to God and my brother is well served.
- Friday for death,
- bombs, napalm, for My Lai and overkill. I am asked to support a government whose main business is war.
Though the above is oversimplified, the point is clear. I cannot work four days a week for life and joy and sharing, and one day for death. I cannot pay federal taxes. I believe this decision is protected by law as a First Amendment right of freedom of religion. If I am wrong it is still better to have erred on the side of peace and humanity.
“The only thing of which I’m guilty is financially supporting the war in Southeast Asia against my better judgment until ,” said Martha Tranquilli when she was charged with the criminal offense of providing false information on her income tax forms.
At , Tranquilli stood on the steps of the state capitol building in Sacramento, California and addressed the 100 supporters who had gathered. After a short Unitarian service held on her behalf, the aging white woman with a long gray braid told them in her calm, soft voice that she envisioned the day when scientists and workers would join in refusing to pay war taxes or do war work.
I was very much afraid of going to prison, but I think I have overcome that fear. I plan to read, write letters, and meditate as much as possible. I’m going to try my best to make an adventure out of this thing.
One after another, friends and strangers attending the rally came up to embrace Tranquilli and offer words of encouragement. After some spirited singing, they accompanied her to the federal building where she turned herself in to the federal marshals.
Hers was a media image made to order. “63-Year-Old Tax-Resisting Grandma Goes to Jail” shouted the headlines, and the war tax resistance movement didn’t mind the national publicity Martha Tranquilli generated.
Tranquilli was opposed to the Vietnam War and all the suffering the war was inflicting on the people of Vietnam, the people of the United States, and on the earth itself. She had therefore decided to withhold the 61 percent of her income taxes (amounting to approximately $1,100) which she believed would go to pay for the war.
It was in Mound Bayou, Mississipi that Martha was tried and sentenced for tax fraud in . Like other war tax resisters, Tranquilli withheld her taxes by listing unusual dependents. Tranquilli listed seven peace organizations as dependents, including War Resisters League, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Friends Service Committee. (Another war tax resister in claimed 3 billion dependents, explaining to the IRS that he felt the population of the earth depended on him and on others to refuse to pay war taxes. That case went to court and the tax resister was acquitted by a court of appeals of the charge of willfully filing a false and fraudulent W-4 form.)
Tranquilli was found guilty of tax fraud, but the judge was reluctant to send her to jail and indicated he’d give her a suspended sentence if she would only apologize and promise not to do it again. When Tranquilli refused this offer she was sentenced to nine months in prison and two years probation. The Mississippi Civil Liberties Union helped her appeal the case and, while the appeal was pending, she moved to California. Both the Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear her case.
On , after making national headlines and being cheered on by supporters, Tranquilli began her stay at Terminal Island Prison in San Pedro, California. She quickly got involved in the life of the prison community…
After her release, Tranquilli wrote to a friend: “Be sure to say that I did not suffer in prison. It was a learning experience.” Tranquilli continued her tax resistance as well as her work for peace and justice until her death in .
For Mason and Urie it was the Second World War. For Baez, Bowman, and Tranquilli it was the war in Vietnam. it is the U.S.-backed war against Nicaragua that motivates many new war tax resisters. In in Brooklyn, New York, tax resister Donna Mehle wrote an open letter to the IRS which was published in the local newspaper. She cited a religious basis for her tax resistance, protesting the war against Nicaragua.
The decision to come into conflict with the laws of my country is very difficult, but it is a decision rooted in my Christian faith. As a Christian, I am called to affirm life and reject violence… My commitment to tax resistance deepened in the past year when I travelled to Nicaragua. There I saw first hand the effect of my tax dollars ($100 million in Contra Aid ). I vowed to myself and to the Nicaraguan people I met that I would not be complicit in the U.S. backed Contra war, a war which targets innocent civilians and children.
Mehle informed the IRS that she intended to redirect the money she would have owed in taxes to an alternative fund “which supports life-affirming projects in New York City.”
In , some women in the United States proposed a specifically feminist perspective on war tax resistance. In New York City, the Women’s Tax Resistance Assistance distributed a brochure which read in part:
We can’t keep working for disarmament, for women’s rights, including an end to lesbian oppression, and for racial equality while paying for a male-dominated government which impoverishes and exploits us now and threatens to eliminate the world’s future.
On , this group performed street theater on the steps of Federal Hall. Some of the women dressed up as pieces of the federal budget “pie” while others, dressed as waitresses, explained the military menu to passersby and handed out leaflets.
In Canada in , sixty-eight-year-old Edith Adamson made headlines with her tax resistance. A lifelong pacifist and the coordinator of the Peace Tax Fund Committee of Canada, Adamson was one of approximately sixty Canadians who hoped to prevent the government from using their money to make war. Not that Adamson and the others wanted to keep the money for their own use: they wanted to redirect their dollars into a peace tax fund. With the adoption of the new Charter of Rights in the Canadian Constitution, there was a guarantee of freedom of conscience. “This means,” Adamson explained for news reporters, “that the government should provide a legal alternative to war taxes for those who object to killing on religious or ethical grounds.” Since , Canadian war tax resisters — who call themselves “Peace Trusters” because they trust in peace, not war — have petitioned their government to develop a peace tax fund which would allow citizens the option of directing their money away from the military budget. They asked for a simple tax form which would allow taxpayers to check whether they want a portion of their taxes to go for warmaking or peacemaking.
In , Edith Adamson explained her involvement:
In a nuclear war, you wouldn’t have a chance to be a conscientious objector. And, being an old lady, I wouldn’t be drafted, so it seemed the peace tax fund idea was a sound way to get at the root of the problem.
I not only want to exempt myself from the killing, but I want to try to influence the government to look at this problem — and other people as well to examine their consciences. A nuclear war would involve everybody and mean total destruction and I couldn’t just hide under my little exemption and stay alive.
This peace tax would be an extension of conscientious objector status for the military. It’s more appropriate today because war now depends more on money than on personnel; it only took twelve men to drop the bomb over Hiroshima, but it took millions, perhaps billions of taxpayers’ dollars in Canada, Britain, and the United States to develop that bomb.
By there were approximately 440 Peace Trusters in Canada who were withholding a portion of their taxes and putting that money into a peace tax fund. They had agreed to waive the interest on this money in order to pay the court fees involved in taking on a test case to establish the legality of the peace tax fund. The claimant Jerilynn Prior, a physician and Quaker originally from the United States where she was also a tax resister, now lives in British Columbia. In a press release, Prior said that paying for war violates her freedom of conscience and religion.
This deep conviction rises from my commitment to work for peace. I try to live my life that way — as a mother, a physician, a teacher, a woman, a citizen of this world community. It would be hypocrisy to voluntarily allow my tax contribution to be used for war or the military or pamphlets about bomb shelters…
Each of us can work for peace in our own life, with our own resources, and in our own way. This tax appeal is the way I must work for peace.
Nigerian women used song in to ridicule, protest, and pressure a man and, by extension, the system he represented.
In , women streamed into Oloko, Nigeria from throughout Owerri Province. Word had been sent via the Ibo (Igbo) women’s network that it was time to “sit on” Okugo, the arrogant warrant chief of the Oloko Native Court. “Sitting on a man” was the figurative expression given a traditional process of punishment during which women gathered in front of a man’s home to sing songs which outlined the women’s grievances or insulted the offender. The women would dance and sing all day and all night, and sometimes, for the most serious and unrepentant offenders, give added impetus to their words by dismantling the roof of the hut until the man promised to cooperate.
On , the women prepared as their mothers and grandmothers before them had prepared for the traditional settling of grievances: they bound their heads with ferns, smeared their faces with ashes, and put on the short loincloths tradition ordained. Each woman picked up a sacred stick wreathed with young palm fronds. These sacred sticks were necessary for invoking the spirit and power of their female ancestors. Thus attired, they massed on the district office to “sit on” Okugo until he got the message.
Just days before, the women had met in the market to discuss the new taxation rumors. They remembered that , after promises to the contrary, the British had taken a census and begun collecting taxes from the men. The women were worried that taxes would soon be imposed upon them as well, especially since a district officer had ordered a new census in which they and their property would be counted. At the marketplace meeting the women had agreed to spread the alarm and act if any of them were approached for information.
And could anyone doubt their cause for alarm now? Just Warrant Chief Okugo had approached Nwanyeruwa, a married woman. He had asked to count her goats and sheep. She had spat back an insult, “Was your mother counted?” In anger, Okugo had attacked Nwanyeruwa who had immediately set in motion the women’s network. Now the women were ready to act. Nwanyeruwa’s name became the watchword, Nwanyeruwa herself the catalyst.
Carrying their sacred sticks high, thousands of women marched on the district office. They danced. They sang songs of ridicule and protest, they chanted, and they demanded Okugo’s cap of office, taking from his head the symbol of his authority over them. A British officer who witnessed the event claimed that the cap, tossed into the crowd of women, “met the same fate as a fox’s carcass thrown to a pack of hounds.”
After several days of such protest, the women secured written assurances that they were not to be taxed. They also succeeded in having Okugo arrested, tried, and convicted of physical assault and of unnecessarily worrying the population.
When the news of this victory spread through the women’s networks, thousands of other women throughout the region organized to “sit on” their local warrant chiefs. The protest spread to Aba, a major trading center along the railway. The women in Aba, like those in Oloko, dressed in their traditional ferns, ashes, and loincloths and carrying the sacred sticks to invoke the mothers, gathered to dance, sing, and demand the cap of the warrant chief.