BRATTLEBORO—Ask Vermonter Jody Williams about how she won the Nobel Peace Prize for days of tireless effort and she’ll instead tell you about how she wound up with it one night in her sleep.
It all started Oct. 10, 1997, when a Norwegian television staffer phoned at 4 in the morning to announce that Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines — a global network of individuals and institutions she helped coordinate — had won the world’s most prestigious humanitarian award.
Was Williams dreaming? A quarter-century earlier, she had skipped her 1972 commencement at the University of Vermont because, after changing her major five times, “I didn’t know what I was graduating from or to.” A long and winding road of temp jobs, graduate study and travel led to her work with the campaign, and then, during a fall stay at her Putney home, if she heard right, a life-changing call from a stranger six time zones away.
Williams didn’t have a television or radio, but she soon received confirmation: Satellite trucks were popping up like weeds on the field next to her beaver pond.
Throwing on the tank top and jeans she had worn the day before, Williams stepped outside. Reporters took one look — “barefoot in her rustic yard here, and bare-knuckled as ever,” The New York Times reported on its front page — and christened her a Rebel With a Cause.
“All of us who make up the movement to ban antipersonnel landmines should indulge ourselves in a moment of pure joy,” Williams emailed campaign colleagues. “Few years will likely be like 1997.”
Little did she know at the time of the ones that would follow. Williams, then 47, has gone on to circle the globe, travel to every continent except Antarctica and meet fellow laureates ranging from the Dalai Lama and the late Desmond Tutu to the rarer female winners (only 18 over the past 120 years) with whom she has formed the Nobel Women’s Initiative.
On this month’s 25th anniversary of her award announcement, Williams, now 71, has come full circle, having shed her longtime home in a Washington, D.C., suburb to settle back in Windham County.
Invited to speak at her alma mater of Brattleboro Union High School this past spring, the 1968 alumnus faced teenagers who weren’t yet born when she won, let alone aware that she fainted seven times at her first job as an oral surgeon’s assistant, somehow went on to work in war zones on four continents and ultimately accepted her 14-carat gold prize in a dress off a sale rack.
“I have to be careful because my pants are falling down,” the laureate, wearing an “Unarmed Civilian” hoodie, began her homecoming address.
The speech that followed echoed the frankness of her 2013 memoir My Name Is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize. Upon its release, a C-SPAN host stuttered incredulously upon learning the author — who wrote about, in her own words, “family tragedy, job burnout, idealism, heartbreak and grassroots activism” — didn’t seek anyone’s permission to tell all.
“Why do you think anybody wants to know this about a Nobel Peace Prize winner?” the broadcaster asked her on air. “There’s a lot of personal stuff — who wanted you to write this?”
Williams had a ready answer: She did.
“Too often for my taste, giants of change are stripped of the flaws, weaknesses and complexities that make us all human,” she went on to tell this Vermont reporter. “All buffed up and made almost saintly, they seem far beyond the reach of ‘ordinary’ people. It’s hard to believe we mere mortals could ever accomplish such things, too.”
And so Williams is sharing her story with a new generation — warts and all.
‘I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to do’
Williams starts with a fact she wants to forget: She was born Oct. 9, 1950, at what’s now the Rutland Regional Medical Center — as Jo-Ann Williams.
“I thought that was the cutest name,” her 92-year-old mother, Ruth, recalled recently. “But she said to me when she got older, ‘Cutesy and hyphenated? What was the matter with you?’”
Williams’ father, John, called his little girl “Jody-capody.” The rest, as they say, is history.
The family soon moved from the Rutland County town of Poultney to Brattleboro so their first-born son could attend the former Austine School for the Deaf. Jody, the second of five children, remembers defending her brother when bullies literally threw stones at him.
“Instead of my mousy self standing mutely by, shaking in my sneakers while they picked on my brother,” she wrote in her memoir, “righteous indignation overpowered my fear and I went after them, screaming like a banshee.”
It was one of the few times she spoke out growing up.
“I was pretty quiet in high school,” said the alumnus whose 1968 yearbook photo is accompanied by such credits as “Choir 1, Usher 2.”
Then Williams went on to the University of Vermont in Burlington.
“My mother’s convinced it was when I became a psychology major and started thinking that I changed.”
Williams soon turned the dinner table into a battleground over such generation-dividing headlines as Vietnam. Promoting peace to a father who served in World War II, she was clear on everything — except herself.
“I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to do.”
Skipping graduation, Williams returned to Brattleboro to take that first job as an oral surgeon’s assistant.
“I decided that it was not my calling — although I’m very conscious of teeth after that.”
Williams traveled across town to the School for International Training to earn a master’s degree in Spanish and English as a second language in 1976. She then snagged another, in international relations, from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., in 1984.
Williams went back to juggling odd jobs before finding her calling in Central America as coordinator of the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project and deputy director of Medical Aid to El Salvador.
“I saw war firsthand. I was chased home by a death squad.”
But she didn’t reveal her sexual assault there for almost two decades. She carefully worded a short, discreet account in her memoir.
“I felt it was time to use the example to tell women they didn’t have to let horrible experiences ruin their lives,” she wrote. “I didn’t let it ruin mine.”
‘They thought we were tree-huggers’
Back in the United States, Bobby Muller — a former Marine lieutenant shot in the chest and paralyzed below the waist in 1969 — was founding the Vietnam Veterans of America service organization. He knew that even when a war ends, tens of thousands of civilians are maimed or killed by forgotten mines.
Muller, hoping to ban the weapon, hired Williams to coordinate an advocacy campaign in 1991.
“We started in a room, three people on a Sunday on Thanksgiving weekend,” she recalled.
For years, few listened.
“They thought we were tree-huggers, do-gooders who don’t know what we’re talking about.”
But Williams and a growing number of colleagues kept speaking up.
“The landmine stays in the ground and it can kill people for generation after generation after generation,” she said again and again. “The soldier today who plants the landmine and walks away and forgets where it is can literally blow up his great-granddaughter.”
In October 1996, her group was formally welcomed into the conversation for the first time when Canada hosted diplomats from 50 countries. There, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy said he’d had enough of such sessions. He challenged the world to return a year later and sign a treaty banning the use, production, trade and stockpiling of mines.
Williams and the campaign spent 1997 phoning, pumping hands and harnessing the press and public in hopes of convincing world leaders to sign an agreement that December. Passage was anything but a given, as ban supporters faced such opponents as the U.S. military.
“The smug Williams is entirely indifferent to the welfare of her countrymen, who might find themselves, for instance, along the Korean demilitarized zone, a flashpoint where mines help to deter war,” a U.S. Naval War College professor wrote in a syndicated newspaper column. “But such an attitude is to be expected from an aging flower child whose moral posturing is protected by individuals who give up many of the benefits of liberal society in order to go abroad to defend it.”
Soon the military wasn’t alone in taking aim at Williams. Unbeknownst to the press and public, Muller was unhappy with what The Boston Globe later summed up as her “brashness” and “bluntness.” Saying “I’m her boss — she works for me,” he quietly fired her just before her Oct. 9 birthday, The Washington Post would report.
“A clash of personalities, or a difference over policy?” The New York Times asked in its own story, headlined “In Fighting Land Mines, Friendship Is Casualty.”
Enter the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Behind closed doors some 3,500 miles away, it decided to award the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize to the campaign and its founding coordinator in hopes of fostering “even wider support” for their efforts.
That’s when, in the dark of the night, the phone rang.
‘Nobody changes the world alone’
In Williams’ hometown of Brattleboro, people soon were talking about how her parents opened all their windows and sounded an alarm the minute they heard their daughter had won.
John and Ruth Williams later clarified that, while proud, they were reacting more to their new carbon monoxide detector that inexplicably sounded when she called with the news.
The win didn’t change the Williams family. They all flew to the award ceremony in Norway, then returned to see John trade his suit and tie for a more casual fashion statement: “My daughter won the Nobel Peace Prize,” it said, “and all I got was a lousy T-shirt.”
The win also didn’t change Williams — much to her decorum-loving mother’s chagrin. When President Bill Clinton, a treaty opponent, bucked protocol by not offering congratulations, the laureate roasted him as “a weenie” in a remark she thought was off-the-record but was reported worldwide. That sparked a series of stories that noted Williams was not, as one writer observed, “Mother Teresa, the Sequel.”
“Muller told several campaigners that he was worried that she was ‘getting too big for her britches,’” The Boston Globe wrote. “She couldn’t believe that he was firing her just as she was on the verge of accomplishing her mission.”
The collective reports of men in power questioning an outspoken woman who they said didn’t understand her place haven’t aged well over the past quarter century.
Williams nevertheless went back to work — after she got her job back. Muller may have fired her, but the campaign of more than 1,000 nongovernmental organizations had other ideas. Members named Williams an “ambassador” and accepted her offer to pay herself with her prize money.
More than 160 nations have gone on to sign the treaty adopted at the end of 1997. The United States, Russia and China are among the 32 that haven’t, although President Joe Biden pledged this summer not to use mines anywhere in the world except on the Korean peninsula.
In the years since, Williams has expanded her focus to promote a wide range of peace, equality and justice issues. Most recently she traveled to Ukraine with fellow laureates Leymah Gbowee, who led a women’s peace movement that ended a Liberian civil war in 2003, and Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni founder of Women Journalists Without Chains and first Arab woman to win the peace prize.
“I want to promise,” Williams was quoted by the National News Agency of Ukraine, “that we will not allow the world to forget about Ukraine, about the problems and needs of Ukrainians amid the fight against the aggressor.”
This month, Williams is back home and celebrated her 72nd birthday on Oct. 9 with her mother, brothers Stephen of Brattleboro and Mark of Guilford and sisters Mary Beth Peterson of Putney and Janet Lucier of Townshend. (The family lost its patriarch when John died in 2004. But Williams gained a husband in 2001 when she married Stephen Goose, a director at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Human Rights Watch.)
Williams found herself benched from her usual globetrotting during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. She nevertheless offered talks online for the Windham World Affairs Council and outdoors at her former elementary and high schools.
“Sometimes I’m introduced as ‘Jody Williams, a woman who changed the world by herself,’” she told a Brattleboro Union High School assembly this past spring. “No, I didn’t. I changed the world working with 1,300 nongovernmental organizations. Nobody changes the world alone.”
Anyone roused before dawn to receive the Nobel Peace Prize would have reason to retire. But 25 years later, Williams has yet to rest on her laurels.