Women Strike for Peace – and Equality

By Lara Track

Poster announcing the Women’s Strike for Equality and its three key demands. Rights held by Library of Congress.

On August 26, 1970, 50 years to the day after the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote in national elections, a new generation of women’s rights advocates took to the streets of America. In New York and many other U.S. cities, a broad coalition of feminist groups, headed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) as the main organizer, called for a Women’s Strike for Equality. In New York City alone, about 20,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue and demanded free childcare, access to reproductive care and abortions, as well as equality in education and employment.[i] The Women’s Strike for Equality constituted one of the major mobilizing efforts of the so-called second wave of feminism[1] and brought together factions of the women’s movement that did not always see eye to eye with each other.

Almost half a century later, Time Magazine celebrated the march’s 45th anniversary in an online post. The first archival photograph accompanying the article shows a group of women carrying a huge poster. It reads: “Women Strike for Peace – and Equality!”[ii] Beneath it, protesters hold up signs stating “I am no breeder for the man’s war” or “The women of Vietnam are our sisters.” The women shown here are members of the American protest network Women Strike for Peace. Clearly, they set out to convey a message that went beyond the official goals of the Women’s Strike for Equality, yet they had come out for the march. It is their story, and in particular their connection to women’s rights activists, that this post is about. Who were these women? How did they utilize traditional notions of womanhood in their protest? What was their connection to the feminist movement? And how did they combine the objectives of peace and equality? I argue that despite conflicts with members of the feminist movement, Women Strike for Peace focused on cooperation with different women’s groups throughout its history. In this process, the women peace activists expanded their notion of womanhood and approach to gender equality. Nevertheless, they maintained the goal of peace as their top priority. Finally, I will outline, that a perspective that combines demands from women’s and peace activists, e.g. that women must have equal participation in conflict resolution, has gained wider acceptance in policy today.

Who were the Women Strike for Peace?

During a period of heightened tension between the global political superpowers (think: Berlin Wall, August 1961), and after scientists had discovered the risks that nuclear fallout posed for people’s health, a small group of Washington-based women had enough: They mobilized private and activist contacts and called for a nationwide Women’s Strike for Peace on November 1st, 1961. Thousands of American women heeded the call and walked out of their homes or workplaces to join in local protest marches. They demonstrated in over 60 communities against nuclear atmospheric testing, appealed to the first ladies of both the United States and the Soviet Union, and demanded that their husbands and the respective governments “end the arms race, not the human race.”[iii]

Out of this effort emerged the network Women Strike for Peace (WSP) with chapters in urban centers as well as some smaller towns on both coasts and in the Midwest. Since WSP did not formalize membership before 1982, it is difficult to estimate a head count for the group at its height of activity in the 1960s. In 1989, a year before the organization would close its National Office, WSP’s national membership had sunk as low as 2000. This fact that this development alarmed the WSP leadership gives an idea that the count must have been much higher during WSP’s history.[iv] WSP circulated the figure of 50,000 participants in the November 1961 demonstration. However, historian and former WSP member Amy Swerdlow references about 12,000 protesters in 68 cities and communities.[v]

WSP protest in front of the UN building in New York City, 1962. By Phil Stanziola, rights held by Library of Congress.

Local groups were free to decide which goals to focus on and which protest forms to use – among the latter were demonstrations and sit-ins, lobbying of politicians, petition drives, or advertising for peace on billboards. Members described WSP as an ‘un-organization.’[vi] They claimed that there was neither an organizational structure, nor were there any designated leaders. Some women were wary of formal hierarchies, because they had previously had negative experiences in activist or political groups such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy or even the Communist Party of the USA. Nevertheless, individuals took responsibility in WSP, for example, as representatives of local chapters at state and national meetings. The WSP term for these women was ’key women.’[vii]

Women’s Peace Force March in the Netherlands in protest of the proposed NATO Multilateral Force (MLF), 1964. At the front, with tulips in their hands, are WSP leader Dagmar Wilson and German peace activist Elly Steinmann.[2] Source: Fotocollectie Anefo, Nationaal Archief.

In 1962, a first nationwide WSP meeting took place in Ann Arbor, MI. After intense debates, the attendees landed on the following wording to describe themselves and their organization: “We are women of all races, creeds, and political persuasions.”[viii] This statement expressed an intention rather than a reality; in fact, the majority of WSP members were white, middle- and upper-class women who belonged to Jewish, Christian, or Quaker denominations. The term “political persuasions” refers primarily to the fact that WSP women refused to exclude communists as long as they supported the WSP’s goals. Unsurprisingly, the political backlash did not take long to catch up with the women, as only about half a year later, the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed 14 WSP members for breach of conduct. However, the ladies wore elegant outfits to the hearings, brought flowers and babies along, charmed their way out of the interrogation, and received such favorable press that they considered the event as a major triumph over the agency.[ix]

The WSP’s handling of HUAC illustrates the women’s strategy to present themselves as respectable citizens, rather than dissenters: They framed their protest in the name of future generations and portrayed their arguments as mothers striving for a safe future for their children.

Motherhood and more

The basis of maternalist concepts, that center on motherhood as a source of moral strength, dates back to social reform movements from the late 18th century onward. They depicted women, and particularly mothers, as moral guides whose disposition differed essentially from their fellow male citizens. Peace and suffrage movements of the early 20th century portrayed women as inherently peace-minded contrary to war-mongering men. The concept proved successful in mobilizing and legitimizing women’s activism, but since it bases character traits on gender, feminists have heatedly debated whether maternalism constituted a hurdle rather than a help on the path to gender equality.[x]

In WSP, maternalist rhetoric facilitated the participation of women who had no previous experience in activism and at the same time debunked critics who defamed the women as communist. A group of ladies in their Sunday best appeared harmless to most fellow citizens. However, contemporary feminists such as Betty Friedan, author of the bestseller “The Feminine Mystique,” criticized WSP activists for their maternalist argumentation: “It is, perhaps, a step in the right direction when a woman protests nuclear testing under the banner of “’Women Strike for Peace.’ But why does the professional illustrator who heads the movement say she is ‘just a housewife,’ and her followers insist that once the testing stops, they will stay happily at home with their children?”[xi]

Over the course of the 1960s, new legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 advanced women’s equality, and the women’s movement became a force to be reckoned with. Pauli Murray, Betty Friedan, and 26 other feminists founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, and a multitude of groups demanding women’s liberation sprang up all over the country. Meanwhile, WSP activists focused their energies on protesting against American involvement in the war in Vietnam. In January 1968, they teamed up with the first female member of Congress and a life-long supporter of peace, 87-year-old Jeannette Rankin, to call for an all-women demonstration and conference in Washington, DC. Calling themselves and the march the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, the organizers brought together women from a myriad of different groups. During the event, a faction led by radical feminists split from the main gathering. In protest of the roles the peace marchers assumed, some of which styled themselves as widows, they staged a so-called burial of traditional womanhood. In the aftermath, Shulamith Firestone, one of the radical feminist leaders, explained: “They came as wives, mothers and mourners; that is, tearful and passive reactors to the actions of men rather than organizing as women to change that definition of femininity to something other than a synonym for weakness, political impotence, and tears.”[xii]

The Jeannette Rankin Brigade, among other events, gave WSP women pause to consider their positions on feminism, womanhood, and their relations to the women’s movement. At a retreat in October 1968, WSP leader Dagmar Wilson admitted that WSP had “never really come to grips” with the concept of “woman power”.[xiii] WSP’s goal was, first and foremost, peace. Therefore, the women debated to what degree they shared the objectives of the women’s movement and if standing up for women’s rights would interfere with their work for peace. On the one hand, many peace advocates were concerned about children’s welfare and therefore argued that to support them, one had to support mothers, too. On the other hand, some regarded feminist goals, such as equal pay for equal work, as petty, when they perceived their main benefactors to be affluent women.[xiv]

Peace and Women’s Rights

The Women’s Strike for Equality of 1970 provides an example of WSP’s considerations regarding women’s rights. The nationwide WSP publication, Memo, announced the large-scale protest and called for its readers to participate. However, it also criticized the organizers of the Women’s Strike for Equality for ignoring the concerns of women beyond the United States: “How can American women who believe in sisterhood be concerned only about equality for themselves, and not for their sisters in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia who are being bombed, burned, raped and murdered?”[xv]

Women Strike for Peace at the Women’s Strike for Equality, Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, August 26, 1970. Image: Eugene Gordon, Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

The author did not question the protest’s three major demands concerning abortion and reproductive care, daycare for children, and equality in education and employment. Instead, she argued that the status of American women was economically linked to the war in Vietnam. The high military budget, she explained, absorbed resources that could otherwise be invested in public health care, child care, as well as educational and career advancement for women. Thus she combined the objectives of the women’s movement and WSP, and presented peace as the foundation for the emancipation of American women: “We believe that it is essential to stop American militarism and repression abroad, or American women will never achieve equality and liberation at home.”[xvi] Accordingly, she added a forth demand to those laid out by the protest organizers, and on August 26th, WSP members hit the streets to support both women’s equality and peace.

WSP remained active on the national level for another 20 years. Until 1990, the activists led campaigns for peace and nuclear disarmament and continued to cooperate with women’s organizations in the United States and worldwide. In 1977, the National Women’s Conference in Observance of International Women’s Year[3] took place in Houston, TX. WSP national coordinator Ethel Taylor served on the National Commission that organized the event, and representatives of all big WSP chapters attended. They used the conference as a platform for peace as they had done with the Women’s Strike for Equality, but also supported its (overwhelmingly feminist) goals. In the first half of the 1980s, as Cold War tensions mobilized large crowds of anti-nuclear protesters, a new generation of female peace advocates emerged. Some flocked to WSP, others founded their own women-led peace organizations such as the Women’s Pentagon Action or the Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament (now called the Women’s Action for New Directions). WSP cooperated with these groups and supported women’s peace camps in the United States and Europe. In 1985 WSP leaders called for an initiative of women in the movements for peace, ecology, and women’s rights. Under the name of ‘Women for a Meaningful Summit’, they demanded that summit meetings between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union make substantial steps toward peace and nuclear disarmament.[xvii]

Women and Peace in the 21st Century

The story of WSP and the women’s movement is partly one of conflict, but also, and increasingly so, one of cooperation. While WSP activists utilized stereotypical women’s roles to their advantage, and received critical reactions from observers, they increasingly incorporated feminist demands into their portfolio and supported various efforts of the women’s movement. Throughout the WSP’s history, members remained committed to their priorities – protesting for peace – but kept close ties to women’s organizations and the feminist movement. They argued that peace and disarmament were the bases for all other social change, and chose to support women’s rights along the way.

One of WSP’s major demands was that women should have an equal say in international politics and questions of war and peace. Meanwhile, this goal has been met by a string of steps in the international community and national legislation. In 2000, UN-resolution 1325 consolidated women’s part in conflict resolution. It stipulated equal participation of women in conflict prevention, peacebuilding, humanitarian interventions, and post-war reconstruction processes. It further mandated protection from gender-based violence against women and girls in war zones as well as the inclusion of gender perspectives in UN peacebuilding programs and operations.[xviii] Building on this resolution, the United States advanced a National Plan of Action on Women, Peace and Security in 2011. In 2017, Congress passed the Women, Peace, and Security Act; the U.S. government also implemented a national strategy on Women, Peace, and Security in 2019.[xix]This is not to say that there is nothing left to be done for today’s women peace activists. For example, in the United States, a broad coalition of civic organizations and foundations are calling for a feminist foreign policy. Still, women’s active role in conflict resolution, as well as the implementation of a gendered perspective on war and peace, are much more established today than they were during the height of the WSP’s protests in the 20th century.


[1] Historians debate whether or not to call the women’s movement that emerged in the 1960s the second wave of feminism. It would take too much space to line out the arguments here. As an introduction to the discussion, I recommend Hewitt, Nancy (ed.): No Permanent Waves. Recasting Histories of U. S. Feminism, London/New Brunswick 2010.

[2] For further information on transnational connections between WSP and German women’s peace organizations, see Track, Lara: Frieden vernetzt. Transnationaler Frauenfriedensaktivismus und der Gleichberechtigungsprozess in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, in: Ariadne. Forum für Frauen- und Geschlechtergeschichte 75 (2019), p. 126-141.

[3] For more information, see here, here, or here.


About the author

Lara Track finished her PhD studies at the University of Heidelberg’s History Department in 2022. Her dissertation explores WSP’s relations to the American women’s movement through the lens of WSP’s transnational connections. It was awarded the Obama Dissertation Prize by the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies in 2023. Her book was published in March 2024 (https://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-7093-6/frieden-und-frauenrechte-im-kalten-krieg/). If you are interested in women’s and peace history, protest movements, or the Cold War, feel free to contact Lara on LinkedIn.


References

[i]       N. A.: Women on the March, in: Time. The Weekly News Magazine 96 (10) (Sept. 7, 1970), p. 12-13; Evans, Sara: Women’s Liberation. Seeing the Revolution Clearly, in: Feminist Studies 41 (1/2015), p. 138-149, here p. 147.

[ii]      Cohen, Sascha: The Day Women Went on Strike, in: Time Magazine (August 26, 2015), URL: https://time.com/4008060/women-strike-equality-1970/

[iii]     N. A.: Flyer “Women Strike for Peace!”, in: American University, Bender Library, D.C. Office of the Women Strike for Peace Records, Box 3, Folder: Strike 1961.

[iv]     Frank, Libby: Dear Sisters (October 20, 1989), 4 pages, here p. 1, in: American University, Bender Library, WSP Papers, Box 3, Folder: Regional Meetings 1987 – 1990.

[v]      Swerdlow, Amy: Women Strike for Peace. Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Women in Culture and Society), Chicago/London 1993, p. 15 and 247, footnote 1.

[vi]     Concerning WSP’s internal structure (or lack thereof) see ibid, p. 70-96.

[vii]    Ibid, p. 75.

[viii]   N. A.: Excerpts from Report on the National Conference, June 8-10 (Reprint from Women’s Peace Movement Bulletin of June 17, 1962), 4 pages, here p. 1, in: Swarthmore College Peace Collection, DG115, Series A1, Box 3, Folder: National Conference 1962, Ann Arbor MI.

[ix]     Swerdlow, Amy: Ladies’ Day at the Capitol: Women Strike for Peace versus HUAC, in: Feminist Studies 8/3 (Fall 1982), p. 493-520.

[x]      Leitz, Lisa und David S. Meyer: Gendered Activism and Outcomes. Women in the Peace Movement, in: The Oxford Handbook of U. S. Women’s Social Movement Activism, ed. by Holly J. McCammon et al., New York 2017, p 708-728.

[xi]     Friedan, Betty: The Feminine Mystique, New York/London 2013, p. 311. For a discussion of WSP’s use of maternalist strategy in the 1960s see Coburn, Jon: ‘Just a Housewife’. The Feminine Mystique, Women Strike for Peace and Domestic Identity in 1960s America, in: History of Women in the Americas Bd. 3 (September 2015), p. 46-60.

[xii]    Firestone, Shulamith: The Jeannette Rankin Brigade: Woman Power?, 2 pages, here p. 1, in: Notes from the First Year (Juni 1968). Archived in: Smith College, Sophia Smith Collection, Women’s Liberation Collection, Series 2, Box 18, Folder: Women’s Liberation – Pamphlets, Position Papers, Notes from the First Year – New York Radical Women, 1968.

[xiii]   N.A.: Washington WSP ‘Retreat‘ Meeting at Folly Fodor’s. Saturday, October 5, 1968, 50 pages, here p. 4, in: Swarthmore College Peace Collection, DG115, Series A,4, Box 3, Folder: Transcript from WSP retreat at Folly Fodor’s home (1968).

[xiv]   Ibid.

[xv]    N.A.: August 26. Women’s Strike for Equality –And Peace!, in: Memo (Summer 1970), p. 1-2, here p. 1. Archive: Smith College, Sophia Smith Collection, Peace Collection, Series III, Box 6, Folder: Memo 1964-1973.

[xvi]   Ibid., p. 2.

[xvii]  My dissertation traces WSP’s relations to the American women’s movement through its transnational connections from 1961 to 1990. It is forthcoming with the publisher transcript in 2024.

[xviii] UN Security Council: Resolution 1325 (October 31, 2000), in: UN Women Website, URL: https://www.unwomen.org/en/docs/2000/10/un-security-council-resolution-1325, last assessed 15 July 2023.

[xix]   Obama, Barack: Executive Order — Instituting a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (December 19, 2011), in: Website of the White House during the legislature of Barack Obama, URL: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2011/12/19/executive-order-instituting-national-action-plan-women-peace-and-securit, last assessed: July 15, 2023; U.S. Congress: Women, Peace, and Security Act. Public Law 115—68 (6. Oktober 2017), in: Website of the U.S. Congress, URL: https://www.congress.gov/115/plaws/publ68/PLAW-115publ68.pdf, last assessed: July 15, 2023; U.S. Department of State: The Department of State’s Plan To Implement the U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security, in: Website of the U.S. State Department, URL: https://www.state.gov/the-department-of-states-plan-to-implement-the-u-s-strategy-on-women-peace-and-security/, last assessed: July 15, 2023.


Images

Header image: Women Strike for Peace at the Women’s Strike for Equality, Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, August 26, 1970. Image: Eugene Gordon, Collection of the New-York Historical Society.



Cite this blog post
The Editors (2023, July 26). Women Strike for Peace – and Equality. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg68

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