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The Power of Women in the Anti-Nuclear Movement

By Holly Lindamood

Women have long been under appreciated for their role in organizing and leading social

campaigns. Throughout history, women have always been on the front lines of affecting social change, from organizing for fair labor policies and equal access to education, to the more recent Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements. In honor of Women’s History Month, I am highlighting the contributions of two women to the anti-nuclear movement—Dagmar Wilson, who founded Women Strike for Peace (WSP) in 1961, and Randall Forsberg, the force behind the Nuclear Freeze Movement of the 1980s. Both of these campaigns played an important role in the development of nuclear arms control and had substantial impacts on U.S. nuclear policy.

The 1950s and 1960s were characterized by a growing power competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union, heightened by a burgeoning nuclear arms race. Public opinion was generally supportive of nuclear weapons, and government officials framed nuclear weapons in terms of patriotism. Fear of communism and its supporters made speaking out against the government, particularly on issues of national security, a less than popular tactic. The government focused its efforts, with women in particular, on preparing for nuclear war, rather than averting it.

One of the original movements dealing with the issue of nuclear weapons, WSP developed out of Wilson’s concerns about the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing on the health of her children. Scientists at the time identified Strontium-90, a radioactive chemical, in the baby teeth of children, leading them to theorize that radioactive material was ending up in the milk supply as a result of nuclear testing. She was further galvanized by her anger following the arrest of Bertrand Russell in London during an anti-nuclear protest, which prompted Wilson to organize a small group of women. Out of this meeting came a strategy calling on women to strike for a day, from work both inside and outside the home, in protest of nuclear testing.

Using community networks, church groups, and the PTA, Wilson and WSP mobilized a force of more than 50,000 women across 60 cities to strike on November 1, 1963. Wilson also wrote letters to Jackie Kennedy and Nina Khrushchev (wife of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev), asking them to intervene with their husbands. The women of WSP publicized the issue by talking to newspaper editors about the effects of radiation. WSP even sent a delegation to a 1962 disarmament conference in Geneva, led by Coretta Scott King.

It was not without its challenges. Anti-war and anti-nuclear activism was strongly linked with support for communism in the 1960s. Speaking out eventually led to Wilson being brought before the House Un-American Activities committee. During her testimony, women, with their children in tow, flooded the chamber with flowers and requests to also testify. These women made a mockery of the proceedings, prompting one newspaper to publish the headline ‘Peace Gals Make Red Hunters Look Silly.’

What I find striking here are that these are average, everyday women. They weren’t activists, or agitators, or anti-government subversives. But they used their identity as mothers and their concern for the effects of radioactive material on their children, to ignite a movement aimed at eliminating nuclear testing. They bucked the existing national rhetoric at the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions to change the both conversation and what the public thought about nuclear weapons. Wilson and WSP are credited by many with both reframing the issue of nuclear testing as one that directly impacts women and their families, and with the creation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT). The LTBT, which entered into force on October 10, 1963, banned detonating nuclear weapons underwater, in outer space, and in the atmosphere. It was the first major nuclear arms control treaty.

Over the next twenty years, the seeds that Wilson and WSP planted bore fruit and inspired a new generation of women activists. In 1979, Randall Forsberg, a defense and disarmament researcher, founded the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Her manifesto, ‘Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,’ states

To improve national and international security, the United States and the Soviet Union should stop the nuclear arms race. Specifically, they should adopt a mutual freeze on testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons and of missiles and new aircraft designed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons.

Forsberg argued that, as nuclear parity between the U.S. and USSR had been achieved, a freeze would maintain that balance, thus stopping the arms race and providing for future disarmament talks. Her call was endorsed by major peace organizations, such as the American Friends Service Committee.

Opportunities for ending the arms race seemed limited in the early 1980s. The détente of the 1970s ended when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to declining relations, evidenced by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and ban of sales of U.S. grain. Arms control negotiations stalled after President Carter withdrew SALT II from Senate consideration. Under President Reagan, the arms race raged on with the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces and the introduction of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI, in particular, caused much concern for the Soviets, as it essentially would remove their second strike capability. The Reagan Administration’s rhetoric was decidedly anti arms control at the time, with administration policies aimed at strengthening U.S. defense capabilities and ensuring a balance of power weighted in favor of the U.S.

Within this context, the contributions of the nuclear freeze movement to arms control cannot be overstated. Their three-pronged strategy of building coalition support, raising public awareness on the potential for nuclear holocaust, and inserting nuclear weapon into national politics was clearly successful. Framing the nuclear arms race as a threat to national security enabled the campaign to change public attitudes towards nuclear weapons. In her manifesto, Forsberg argues

The weapons programs of the next decade, if not stopped, will pull the nuclear tripwire tighter. Counterforce and other ‘nuclear warfighting’ systems will improve the ability of the USA and USSR to attack the opponent’s nuclear force and other military target. This will increase the pressure on both sides to use their nuclear weapons in a crisis, rather than risk losing them in a first strike.

Over the next couple of years, number of state and local government passing nuclear freeze referenda; in 1983, the U.S. House of Representatives also passed a nuclear freeze resolution, catapulting the issue to the forefront of national politics.

Public disdain for nuclear weapons, combined with increasing pressure on the administration, led to a reversal in both rhetoric and policy, with Reagan embracing nuclear arms control. The campaign also found a sympathetic ear in the new Soviet Premier, and by the mid-1980s, nuclear arms control was back on the agenda. Throughout the next decade, a slew of nuclear arms control agreements was negotiated, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which eliminated an entire class of weapons, two nuclear arms reduction treaties

(START I and II), and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits nuclear testing. Although the CTBT has yet to enter-into-force, it played a key role in the U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing.

Today’s anti-nuclear activists owe a lot to these pioneering women. The two movements

served as the building blocks of a nuclear arms control regime that has strengthened over the years, most recently by the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Side note, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work on calling attention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and its efforts that led to the negotiation of the TPNW, is currently led by a woman, Beatrice Fihn. While women are still underrepresented in disarmament policy circles, they continue to remain at the forefront of anti-nuclear activism.


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