The First Meeting: September 21, 1961

September 21st, 2016 marks 55 years since the first meeting of what would become Women Strike for Peace. Taking place in the Georgetown living room of Dagmar Wilson, this gathering saw WSP’s founders come together for the first time to plan a one day “strike for peace.”

The story of WSP’s founding became a legendary tale. On a warm September night, six friends – Dagmar Wilson, Margaret Russell, Eleanor Garst, Jeanne Bagby, Mary Chandler and Folly Fodor – sat in a comfortable Georgetown living room and discussed atomic war. Atmospheric nuclear testing had contaminated milk supplies; radioactive compounds were accumulating in the bones of children; world war loomed as world leaders could not settle their differences through reasonable conversation. The women assembled in Wilson’s house did not think of themselves as activists, but as housewives and mothers. Yet they decided to make a bold, unpopular stand, calling on women across the nation to stage a “strike for peace”. Contacting friends through “word of mouth” and “Christmas card lists”, the six Washington, D.C., founders rallied support for their action. Six weeks later, on November 1st, 50,000 women took to the streets in 61 communities. And so, Women Strike for Peace was born.

Although exact details of the September 21st meeting itself are sketchy, the story of WSP’s founding is a little more complex than the traditional tale. Wilson became dismayed after Bertrand Russell’s protest against the resumption of nuclear weapons testing resulted in his arrest in London. Perceiving a lack of urgency from the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), of which she was a part, she arranged a get together to discuss a potential women’s action. Margaret Russell, a close friend of Wilson’s and a fellow member of SANE, spread word to several of her activist friends who she thought may be interested in taking part in an alternative action. Although Wilson initiated and hosted the meeting, it was Russell who invited its most prominent guests. Joining the six founding members at the first “exploratory meeting” were two Quaker gentlemen, including Lawrence Scott, head of the American Friends Service Committee. Mary Sharmat, fresh from her own, well-publicized protests against the Operation Alert Civil Defense drills in New York, also attended. A notable absentee was Donna Allen, another influential member of SANE who later became a prominent feminist activist and vocal advocate for press freedom. Although she could not attend that night, Allen was approached before hand and considered herself a founding member.

According to Eleanor Garst, the first meeting grew out of the concerns of every attendee. They were all dissatisfied with the inaction of various organizations of which they were a part – SANE, the WILPF, the League of Women Voters, the United World Federalists – who appeared hamstrung by their rigid structure. “By the time all the organizations went through committees to boards and agreed on action,” Garst wrote, “there might be no world left.” Wilson’s initial thought of a group called “Women for Peace” lacked dynamism. Attendees “groaned: it sounds so wishy-washy, soap opera.”

Then, the meeting discussed something occurring across the country in Oregon. Carol Urner, an activist from Portland, mobilized 200 women into a “non-organization” that called on each individual to act together as a “human dynamo.” Calling itself “Women for Peace,” Urner’s group met with the governor of Oregon, telegraphed their senators, and wrote to Congress. The women in Wilson’s living room passed around press clippings of these activities and became enamoured in Urner’s style of grassroots organiszing.

The group arrived a plan: a joint, one-day demonstration, in which women across the US could take responsibility for activities within their own local communities. They could decide on any action, as long as it took place on November 1st and counted itself as a part of a larger movement. Inspired by the recent Greensboro Sit-Ins, Lawrence Scott suggested that the protest be labelled a “strike.” “That’s it!” exclaimed an attendee, “we’ll strike for peace!” It was then that Women Strike for Peace was born.

Plans developed over the next few days. Eleanor Garst wrote a flier to be sent to acquaintances and known activists across the US. Dagmar Wilson, somewhat reluctantly, took on the mantle of leadership. On November 1st, just six weeks after the first meeting, Women Strike for Peace planned to take to the streets…

 

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