Dagmar Wilson

Dagmar Wilson, the leader of Women Strike for Peace (WSP)
Dagmar Wilson addresses a WSP rally in 1962. ©Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

“The Mother of it All”

(January 25, 1916 – January 6, 2011)

Dagmar Wilson was the founder and de facto leader of Women Strike for Peace. Having called together acquaintances from SANE, it was in Wilson’s Georgetown living room that the six Washington, D.C. founders – Jeanne Bagby, Mary Chandler, Folly Fodor, Eleanor Garst, Margaret Russell, and Wilson – decided to call a national “Strike for Peace.”

Born in Manhattan in 1916, Dagmar Wilson’s father was Cesar Searchinger, a naturalized US citizen from Germany who worked as a CBS correspondent and hosted a respected radio show. Dagmar was brought up in Germany and England as a result of her father’s travelling for work. Here she developed a noticeable British accent, producing an air of measured authority and respectability that served her well in public speaking. She married Christopher Wilson and the couple had three daughters together.

Although frequently claiming to be apolitical, she was brought up a staunch pacifist by her father and worked for a number of political causes prior to WSP’s formation in 1961. After attending the Slade School of Fine Art in London, Wilson put her artistic talents to use in Nelson Rockerfeller’s Inter-American Affairs Committee, “turning statistics into graphic form,” before working as a children’s illustrator out of her Georgetown home. She joined the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) out of her antinuclear concerns. Although the driving force behind WSP, she only reluctantly took on the mantle of leadership. She implored her fellow WSP activists to take responsibility in their own areas and to think of themselves as “all leaders.” However, her determination, eloquence, and measured demeanor ensured that WSPers across the country idolized and revered Wilson.

Dagmar Wilson at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings against Women Strike for Peace (WSP) in December 1962
Wilson appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), December 13, 1962. ©Herron

Wilson proved a brilliant leading figure for Women Strike for Peace during the Test Ban Treaty Campaign. When the House Un-American Activities Committee challenged WSP over its attitude towards communism in December 1962, the media and public alike lauded Wilson’s performance on the final day of hearings. She calmly diffused ferocious accusations from Counsel Alfred Nittle with unique wit, intellect, and modesty. She continued to represent the national face of Women Strike for Peace during its opposition to the Vietnam War, but a further indictment by HUAC in 1965 reduced her willingness to continue as a leading figure. The sheer scale of work needed to maintain WSP’s activities consumed Wilson and she quietly withdrew from her leadership responsibilities in the fall of 1968.

Nevertheless, she remained committed to antinuclear and environmentalist causes for the rest of her life. She continued to campaign as a representative of Women Strike for Peace, but devoted more and more time to local issue groups in her hometown of Leesburg in Loudoun County, Virginia. She passed away January 6, 2011.

Archives:

  • There are an abundance of primary source materials concerning Dagmar Wilson held in the Women Strike for Peace Records at Swarthmore College Peace Collection. You can search these records here. Among these are speeches, correspondence, and news clippings. Acc. 2013-050 are Wilson’s own papers.
  • The Children’s Literature Research Collections in the TC Andersen Library of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis holds some of Wilson’s original sketches and illustrations. Information on this collection can be accessed here.

Books and Articles:

  • Adams, Judith Porter. Peacework: Oral Histories of Women Peace Activists. Boston: Twayne, 1991. pp. 193-199.
  • Coburn, Jon. “Making a Difference: The History and Memory of Women Strike for Peace, 1961-1990.” Ph.D. diss., Northumbria University, 2015.
  • Estepa, Andrea. “Taking the White Gloves Off: Women Strike for Peace and the Transformation of Women’s Activist Identities in the United States, 1961-1980.” Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 2012.
  • Swerdlow, Amy. “Ladies’ Day at the Capitol: Women Strike for Peace Versus HUAC.” In Feminist Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn, 1982). pp.493-520
  • Swerdlow, Amy. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Wilson, Dagmar. “Tainting the Antinuclear Movement: HUAC and the irrepressible Women Strike for Peace.” In The Price of Dissent: Testimonies to Political Repression in America, edited by Bud Schultz and Ruth Schultz, 278-288.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Further Information:

  • Dagmar Wilson’s 1989 interview with Judy Adams can be found at the Stanford University Archive of Recorded Sound, accessible here: Part 1 and Part 2.
  • A brief 1986 interview with Dagmar Wilson from the documentary A Step Away From War presented by Paul Newman (from 21:09).
  • Many newspapers reported on Wilson’s death in 2011, including The Washington PostThe New York Times, and The LA Times.