On November 1, 1961, women across the United States — homemakers and factory workers, clerical workers and waitresses — interrupted their daily routines and took to the streets in the Women’s Strike for Peace.
That day, the women didn’t make beds or pack lunches. They didn’t type the bosses’ letters or file any papers. They didn’t milk the cows or work on their dissertations. Fifty thousand women in over sixty cities called on the world’s governments to “end the arms race, not the human race.”
In Washington, D.C., over 1,000 women picketed the White House, leafletted, and sent delegations to the Soviet Embassy. Letters were dispatched to Jackie Kennedy and Nina Petrovna Khrushchev inviting these “first ladies” to join the Women’s Strike for Peace and help end the arms race.
That night, just as they’d hoped, they made headlines. An article in The San Francisco Chronicle began, “Plodding doggedly through a faintly radioactive drizzle of rain, 200 San Francisco women carried their plea for world disarmament to city, federal, and school offices here.”
The symbolic strike by women was the brainchild of Dagmar Wilson, a children’s book illustrator and mother of three daughters. A few weeks earlier, she had read a statement by Bertrand Russell, winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature and a philosopher some called the spiritual leader of the civil disobedience movement in England: “I cannot bear the thought of this beautiful planet spinning timelessly in space — without life.” That sentence resonated with Wilson.
The next morning, she called five friends and asked them to join her for coffee in her garden. There, they discussed their frustrations with the latest insanity: the Soviet Union and United States had accused each other of breaking a moratorium on nuclear testing.The women didn’t care who broke it. They cared about what the radioactive strontium 90 did to their children and were outraged with the government’s promotion of a fallout shelter program. They cared about the “Duck and Cover” civil defense drills their children were rehearsing at school.
Before they’d brewed a second pot, the women had prepared lists of names to call announcing a women’s strike against the bomb. Then, they got busy drafting, typing, mimeographing, and distributing the call to action.
The women didn’t want to form an organization with board meetings, dues, membership lists, and committees. They envisioned an action that would be the equivalent of a scream loud enough for the world to hear.
Not Just a Onetime Thing
Though it was conceived as a one-day action, the Women’s Strike for Peace (WSP or WISP, as it was sometimes called) continued long past November 1, 1961. Rather than get bogged down in the trappings of an organization, WSP mobilized women to join already established peace groups and to spread their influence on a local level through the Parents and Teachers Associations (PTA), churches, and bridge clubs. WSP set up pickets, demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns. It promoted nationwide boycotts of milk after every atmospheric nuclear test to protest contamination from fallout.
Amy Swerdlow, a founder of New York WSP, watched the tone and style of the movement change over the years. Remembering the early years, she told a New York Times reporter:
In a sense, we used the “feminine mystique” to our advantage … We were doing a job of being good mothers by becoming involved in political action for the sake of our children’s survival.
In 1962, Wilson and others involved in WSP were subpoenaed to appear before the house Un-American Activities Committee. The women took over the proceedings — cheering and applauding each other much to the bewilderment of the senators, but that and other outrageous tales about WSP will have to wait for another day.
To Go Deeper
Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s by Amy Swerdlow (University of Chicago Press,1993)
“No Nukes: Women for Peace, 1961” (2 minutes)
“Duck and Cover” (1951) Bert the Turtle Civil Defense Film (9 minutes)