The First Strike: November 1, 1961

Only six weeks passed between WSP’s first meeting and the first strike. The “Call to Strike” penned by the Washington, D.C. founders spread across the country through “informal female networks, by word of mouth” and “Christmas card” lists. Some did not receive letters calling for a nationwide strike until early October, leaving even less time to rally support and plan their activities. Organizers initially feared a potential failure. Washington, D.C. founding member Eleanor Garst spoke of her “panic” and “sleepless nights” when thinking about the possibility of a “weak response.” Eventually, she consoled herself that “If I find myself out on the street alone on 1 November, I may be a fool – but at least I’ll be a fool trying…It’s unladylike, undignified, unbecoming. So is radioactive death for the planet.”

Garst need not have shown such concern. On November 1, 1961, thousands of women took part in loosely coordinated activities as part of a nationwide “strike for peace.” Delegations confronted their governors, mayors, and congressional representatives, carrying placards that urged the world to “End the Arms Race – Not the Human Race.” Nearly a thousand took to the street in Washington, D.C., led from the front by Dagmar Wilson. The Washington Post reported that “school girls, Government workers, mothers and grandmothers” came together in the nation’s capital, joined by “a score of children, half a dozen men and a Collie named ‘Candy.’” They demonstrated outside the White House and had a meeting at the Soviet Embassy. D.C. women sent identical letters to Jacqueline Kennedy and Nina Khrushchev to demonstrate their “impartial anger towards the leaders of both the United States and the USSR and belief in women’s civilizing influence.”

The strike took many forms around the country. In New York, Under the auspices of the Women’s Direct Action Project, separate delegations numbering in the hundreds picketed outside the Soviet Union’s UN delegation building and the Atomic Energy Commission’s New York operations office. Dr Frances Herring, Madeline Duckles, Alice Sachs Hamburg, Elsie Coggins, Frances Shaskan, Hazel Grossman, Leona Bayer, Lenore Job, and Pat Cody organized a series of events in the San Francisco Bay Area. Fifty women called on Mayor George Christopher in San Francisco while women targeted the Berkeley Public Health Department in East Bay. Mary Clarke and Ava Helen Pauling coordinated activities in Los Angeles. An estimated 4,000 women assembled at the State Building to hear an address by Attorney General Stanley Mosk before marching silently to City Hall and the Federal Building. Ethel Taylor and her fellow Philadelphia WSP founders coordinated a “public hearing” in a courtroom of the Philadelphia Federal Courthouse, challenging Senators Joseph Clark and Hugh Scott in a confrontation televised on NBC-TV. In Chicago, Shirley Lens orchestrated a march to the Illinois Civil Defense Office at the Museum of Science and Industry and embarked on an “impromptu political exchange” with Russian doctors supervising a medical exhibit there. One group of thirty WSPers met with Mayor Daley. In Winnetka, North Shore suburban women held a meeting at their community center with religious ministers before presenting a petition to Representative Marguerite Stitt Church. Not all branches of WSP took part in the first strike. Anci Koppel brought Seattle Women Act for Peace together, coordinating their first protest to coincide with President Kennedy’s visit to University of Washington on November 16.

WSP’s founders reflected that “response everywhere far exceeded expectation” and claimed that 50,000 women in 60 cities had taken part in the day’s activities. This figure quickly became engrained in the organization’s founding narrative. However, this figure is an over-estimation. Through her research, Amy Swerdlow “tallied the highest numbers I can find reported by the strike organizers,” but “even with this most generous method of estimation,” she could only arrive at a figure “no higher than 12,000.” Nevertheless, the public visibility achieved put Women Strike for Peace on the map.

The strike could not have been timed more perfectly. Circulating their appeal after the USSR had unilaterally broken the moratorium on weapons testing allowed their demonstration to reflect global concerns. Arguments over access to East Berlin in the final week of October 1961 led to a tense stand-off between American and Russian tanks. Newspapers continued to publish editorials on the crisis the day WSP marched. On October 30, the USSR tested the 50 megaton “Tsar Bomba,” creating the largest man-made explosion in history and galvanizing worldwide revulsion at nuclear weapons testing. Global protest swiftly followed. These events allowed WSP’s strike to be explained alongside a surge in public and political revulsion towards nuclear weapons. Demonstrating on November 1, a date selected arbitrarily by WSP’s Washington founders, proved unexpectedly fortuitous in cultivating support.

The news media endorsed the maternal image and domestic identity of participants, showing surprise at the apparent spontaneity of the event while reporting on the respectable, joyful, and overtly feminine activities. In an interview with news reporter Roger Mudd on the morning of the strike, Dagmar Wilson explained the simple demand for peace her organization wished to make. Mudd, responding to Wilson’s sincerity, replied “well, you couldn’t want better than that, could you?”  Women pushing baby strollers cemented the perception that WSP was an organization of “folksy,” politically inexperienced mothers. Janet Neuman and Donna Allen secured the eager support of journalists such as Art Hoppe of the San Francisco Chronicle, London Observer correspondent Joyce Eggington, and Guardian journalist Sophia Wyatt. Frances Herring and Ruth Gage-Colby, meanwhile, informed government contacts around the world of WSP’s plans, including the British MP Anne Kerr and future Secretary General of the United Nations U Thant. Gage-Colby used her affiliations to deliver a speech to the United Nations in which she extolled WSP’s virtues.

Nevertheless, the success of the first strike is testament to the unique organizational talents and skillful planning of WSP’s founding members. Each of WSP’s formative tenets, central to its cause and identity, arose from the deft political perception held by the group’s founding members. The founders’ insistence that they did not wish to organize members, but instead provide “a vehicle for individual effort,” enticed many who had become disillusioned with “the dogma and discipline required by sectarian groups.” WSP’s centering of a moral argument against nuclear weapons testing through an emphasis on the protection of children turned the day’s actions into a “human interest story” and led many to “become immediately involved.” Its “third-camp stance,” denouncing both the US and the USSR, proved popular to those who wanted to tackle the existence of nuclear weapons, rather than advance a political agenda. Finally, WSP also shrewdly balanced its position on feminism by creating a female-only space for protest while publicly distancing itself from notions that it wished to upset the established social order. Delighted with the response, leading WSP figures immediately began spinning the day into a central part of the organization’s folklore; a perfect encapsulation of the irreverent, respectable, and feminine critique of the nuclear arms race that came to epitomize Women Strike for Peace. On the night of November 1, participants unanimously called for continued action.