Margaret Russell played an instrumental and unheralded role in WSP. An orchestrator of the first strike and persuasive voice on anti-Vietnam War activism, Russell was an “indispensable co-ordinator” who was intent on combining “a multitude of voices” into “one great anti-war chorus.” Despite WSP’s appearance as a maternalist peace organization, Russell never succumbed to the trappings of domesticity and rarely advanced the “ideology of motherism” commonly associated with her group. Ian McKay, whose writing on Margaret Russell informs this piece, argues that “she was neither thoughtless nor innocent but rather a seasoned political historian long fascinated with empire, democracy and grassroots mobilization.” She continuously extolled the virtue of liberal rights and freedoms and worked tirelessly to awaken “humanitarian outrage about the suffering of other human beings.”
Born in 1909 in Malden, MA, Russell grew up in Halifax, Canada. She attended Dalhousie University, excelling in English and History, completed an M.A., and then won an Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire scholarship to study in England. She unsuccessfully pursued a doctorate in history before returning to Canada in 1932. Russell’s interest in history saw her work as an archivist and historian in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia for thirteen years. She wrote numerous historical works, often expressing scepticism towards authority and moving from “a quite conservative politics” to support for social equality and the expansion of the state.
After embarking on an around-the-world tour from 1936-1937, Russell embraced a critical, anti-war war outlook. She wrote a book-length work about her trip that documented her memories of talking politics with locals. On her return to Halifax, she started to promote grassroots liberal democracy and, throughout the 1940s, was active in the Halifax Co-operative Society and its experimentations with alternative retailing. She worked briefly as a teacher before, in 1955, she married Ralph Russell, a US government economist, and moved to suburban Washington, D.C. It was at this time that Russell met and developed a close friendship with Dagmar Wilson.
McKay writes that the “sufficient security” afforded by her relationship to her husband allowed Russell to pursue anti-war activism as a full-time career. She joined the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and served on the local executive. In August 1960, following SANE’s public purge of suspected communists, she split from the organization and condemned its behaviour. “Why are some people who so glibly talk about democracy really so afraid of it,” she remarked.
While Dagmar Wilson receives plaudits as “the mother of it all” for calling WSP’s first meeting in September 1961, it was Russell who sourced the majority of the meeting’s participants. In 1981, Wilson revealed that “all the names” invited to attend were suggested to her by Russell, as she was “much more politically active than I.” Russell’s immersion in peace activism allowed her to draw on her contacts within SANE and from the wider community. Of the “six “founders” that took WSP forward, Margaret Russell (along with Eleanor Garst) was the most politically active and seemed to take charge of “all arrangements” for the first strike. Although her role in WSP’s formation is often overlooked, members held deep respect and admiration for Russell’s influence.
WSP’s decision to challenge US policy in Vietnam also arose from Russell’s intelligence and persuasive influence. Having travelled in the region extensively in her youth, Russell felt strong solidarity with the population of South East Asia. She drew on her skills as an archivist and historian to produce a “comprehensive information kit” replete with citations and sources explaining the circumstances of the war. Her concern was so far ahead of public opinion that many WSPers were reluctant to address the issue and Russell’s attempt to galvinize early opposition provoked some scorn from those who opposed her wish to further politicise WSP.
Nevertheless, Russell’s persistence helped the group cement its status as the vanguard of opposition to the Vietnam War. Dividing her time with the Washington Area Committee on Vietnam, Russell worked tirelessly to extend WSP’s international associations. Her efforts culminated with a visit to Indonesia in July 1965 as Russell joined her WSP peers in traveling to meet Vietnamese women at the Jakarta Conference. The visit marked a historic and unprecedented feat of citizen diplomacy as WSPers became the first members of the US peace movement to meet with their Vietnamese peers during the war. For Russell, it also signified a “return” to Asia following her “world tour” in the 1930s. As Ian McKay explains, where the younger Russell experienced Indonesia as a “realm of innocence” and “validation of her liberal, middle-class values,” her attitude had changed by the time she made it back.
Russell’s health declined after 1965 as she dealt with the onset of Alzheimer’s. Although only in her mid-fifties, her activist years drew to a close and, with it, her influential place in Women Strike for Peace. Her indispensable role in the group’s history deserves greater recognition. Ian McKay’s thoughtful discussion of her background, politics, and activism provides a perfect coda to her life:
“In April 1967, when thousands of people came to Washington as part of the Spring Mobilization against the War in Vietnam, there were few mentions of the complicated Canadian who, six years earlier, had helped break the Cold War consensus by bringing antiwar women to the doors of the White House. But the marchers of 1967 were following in her footsteps.”
(This piece is informed by the excellent discussion of Margaret Russell and Women Strike for Peace by Ian McKay. See Ian McKay, “Margaret Ells Russell, Women Strike for Peace, and the Global Politics of “Intelligent Compassion,” 1961-1965,” in Worth Fighting For: Canada’s Tradition of War Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror, Lara Campbell, Michael Dawson, and Catherine Gidney (eds.) (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015), pp.119-134.)
- Details of Margaret Russell’s life of activism are sparse, but she appears fleetingly in documentations found in the Women Strike for Peace Records, 1961-1996 of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Eleanor Garst’s draft history of WSP that is currently held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin’s Records, 1958-1982, and in Joan Drake’s 1989 oral history interview with Dagmar Wilson accessible via the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.
Books and Articles
- McKay, Ian, “Margaret Ells Russell, Women Strike for Peace, and the Global Politics of “Intelligent Compassion,” 1961-1965,” in Worth Fighting For: Canada’s Tradition of War Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror, Lara Campbell, Michael Dawson, and Catherine Gidney (eds.), (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015), 119-134.
- Coburn, Jon. “Making a Difference: The History and Memory of Women Strike for Peace, 1961-1990.” Ph.D. diss., Northumbria University, 2015.
- Swerdlow, Amy. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993.