Ask Jody Williams for her thoughts about winning the Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago this month and the native Vermonter replies with her trademark candor.
“Not trying to be difficult,” she says, “but I’ve had too, too, too many interviews over the past few weeks and I’m sick to death of them.”
Reporters, alas, don’t seem to sleep. Williams recalls Oct. 10, 1997, when one called her Putney home at 4 a.m. to say that she and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines — the nonprofit organization she helped launch — had won the world’s most prestigious humanitarian honor.
“By midmorning, the field in front of the house overlooking the beaver pond was studded with satellite feed trucks,” she writes in her 2013 memoir. “I’d never had such an experience with the media before in my life.”
Much has changed since that sunrise when Williams sat barefoot on her front step and fielded questions from journalists who, before the advent of the iPhone and Gmail, had to make their way to the end of her mile-long unmarked dirt road.
Williams, one of only 16 female winners in history, now chairs the Nobel Women’s Initiative, an alliance of eight laureates “united to promote peace, justice and equality.” No longer in Putney, the 66-year-old now splits her time between Westminster and a Washington, D.C., suburb when not traveling to every continent except Antarctica while commenting on Twitter.
“War is NOT heroic,” she recently opined in one tweet. “People can be heroic in war. But war sucks.”
“It all seems bad,” she wrote in another, “but there is much beauty that can’t get lost in the ugliness of what humans do.”
Williams also posts on topics that include her home state’s climate change group 350.org (“So proud to be born and raised a Vermonter”), violence against women (“Basta ya con violencias contra las mujeres,” she recently posted in Spanish) and do-it-yourself ways to save the world (“Weeds in paths? Use vinegar, not Roundup”).
Williams didn’t foresee her life sprouting up this way. Born in Rutland in 1950, the self-described “quiet kid with a tendency to fear authority” grew up in Poultney and Brattleboro before going on to the University of Vermont. There she changed her major five times before graduating to odd jobs ranging from waitress to oral surgery assistant, quitting the latter after fainting at the sight of blood.
Williams recovered to earn master’s degrees from the School for International Training in Brattleboro and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore before receiving an invitation from Bobby Muller, head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, to create the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Starting with a handful of people in 1991, Williams helped build a network of supporters in some 100 countries. They won passage of a 162-nation treaty prohibiting the use, production, trade and stockpiling of land mines, which kill or maim an average of 18 victims a day.
Williams, accepting her 14-carat gold prize in a sale-rack dress, joined the ranks of fellow laureates Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. That said, she has remained her own person. Talking with the press upon her win, she called then-President Bill Clinton a “weenie” for failing to overrule the U.S. military and endorse the ban.
“My unthinking smart-ass side blurted out that remark even as I heard myself saying it,” she wrote in her recent memoir, “My Name Is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Two decades later, her mother, Ruth Williams, says her “tell it like it is” daughter has grown “more mellow.”
“She has always been able to handle everything, yet she is very human,” the 87-year-old Brattleboro matriarch says. “But I would not stand directly in her line because she’ll still bulldoze her way right through.”
Take current President Donald Trump.
“Don’t get her going on that,” Ruth Williams says.
Asked to comment, the Nobel laureate simply replies, “Mom nails it.” Read her tweets (“Washington Post mentioned Trump’s ‘unilateral moral disarmament’ — my quibble is I’m not sure he ever had morals to disarm”) and it’s evident her mother knows of what she speaks.
Jody Williams is equally vocal about 1991 Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in an article titled “What Happened to Myanmar’s Human-Rights Icon?” in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine.
Ten years ago, Williams expressed support for Suu Kyi, a leader of the National League for Democracy party who was held under house arrest by the country’s military for 15 years before her release in 2010.
“I managed to enter Burma and meet with Ms. Suu Kyi in her Rangoon home to discuss what the international community should do to help her people,” Williams wrote in a 2007 Wall Street Journal commentary. “She was quite clear that her party’s call for the strengthening of economic sanctions against the military junta remained unchanged; that all investment in Burma should cease; and that tourists should not spend their money or provide some sense of legitimacy to the regime by visiting her country until democracy is established.”
A decade later, Suu Kyi, now her homeland’s de facto head, has said nothing as more than half a million minority Rohingya Muslims flee a military action the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Williams and four other laureates have sent their peer a letter asking her to address the situation.
“The Nobel Peace Prize, to me, is supposed to represent our best efforts at creating a better humanity,” Williams told the Public Radio International program “The World.” “She is not acting like a beacon of hope for democracy, in my book. Nor is she protecting the human rights of all of the people of Burma/Myanmar. I would not be able to keep my mouth shut.”
Many of those fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh are encountering land mines, Williams says, bringing her, two decades later, back to the beginning.
“Since this is the 20th anniversary of the mine ban treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize, I have to say that we are very proud of all of the progress that has been made in the world on land mines and removing them from the ground,” she told the BBC World Service “Newshour” broadcast. “But when something like this happens, it reminds us all that the work isn’t done yet.”