Women Strike for Peace

A Review of Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s
by Amy Swerdlow

Author Biography

Amy Swerdlow was raised by her communist father in the early 1920s. Like many other women in the WSP movement, Swerdlow spent much of her life with peace activism and left politics. Before the strike, Swerdlow was another ordinary suburban housewife and mother, but now is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College where she teaches American and women’s history while serving as the director of the Women’s Studies Programs.

“To the brave women who made America listen. We too shall be heard.”1 Amy Swerdlow writes Women Strike For Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s, detailing women’s first outcry for peace in the name of their families with new insight, having partaken in the event herself. The Women Strike for Peace—WSP—occurred November 1, 1961, when women rose to strike against nuclear testings that left dangerous radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere. Swerdlow’s detailed account gives insight into the events before, during, and after the strike; the good and the bad; the setbacks and the strides. Most intriguing, Swerdlow insists and reiterates countless times the strong point of the WSP movement: its disorganization. Every detailed event was spread by word of mouth, woman to woman, across the country.

Swerdlow does an amazing job of recreating the strike in the first couple of chapters. A few weeks before the actual strike, women across the country were calling all the women in their phonebooks as to “appeal to all governments to end the arms race, not the human race.”2 Founders immediately listed their six demands: (1) an end to all atomic testings; (2) negotiations to place atomic weapons under international control; (3) a movement for worldwide disarmament; (4) the immediate allocation of as much of the national budget to preparation for peace as was being spent in preparation for war; (5) a moratorium of name calling on both sides; and (6) the strengthening of the United Nations.3 These demands stayed strong and clear in the minds of all those participating in the WSP movement and rang true in all hearts and minds. Swerdlow goes on to give a history of events up to and immediately before the WSP movement. While many WSP participants had no idea of the feminism their group mirrored, Swerdlow offers insight to the Women’s Peace Party (WPP).

Swerdlow goes on to introduce the leading women of the WSP in the third chapter. Dagmar Wilson, the thought behind the effort, is recognized as the main founder. Upon hearing the news of Englishman Betrand Russel’s jailing for “an act of antinuclear civil disobedience,” Wilson was outraged.4 Immediately, Wilson’s mind began turning, and three days later, Wilson was having tea with her friends, discussing and organizing a strike. With planning and preparation, the news of the strike traveled far and wide, reaching from coast to coast as women were eager to participate in the effort to stop the nuclear testing that was endangering them all. While many others were helpful in the founding and running of the WSP movement, they insisted there was no one leader or group of leaders, and that everyone would work together. If any woman had an idea, it was open for discussion. The fourth chapter deals specifically with the aftereffects of the strike. Many women were eager for the next event to demonstrate against nuclear testing, but were fearful to be a part of an organization. With the Red Scare at its height, women were anxious of a connection with anything that could smear their good names. Even the word “strike” was feared among the women, for it was commonly associated with the communist left.5 Even so, the movement pressed on, still identified for what it was: a women’s strike for peace.

The sixth chapter introduces the first blow to the WSP movement—the one thing many women feared. In November of 1962, just as the WSP movement began its second year, the House of Un-American Activities—HUAC— gave subpoenas to fourteen prominent WSP women. Naturally, the intent to destroy and shatter was in vain, as the WSP united to face the challenge combatively. However, the goal of destroying the WSP in turn strengthened it. It was obvious that HUAC’s motive was to “discredit the peace movement through its most active, and potentially it’s most influential force.”6 Also, WSP records clearly indicate that HUAC in no way demoralized its efforts, but strengthened them, increasing not only in adherents but in financial supporters as well. With the second anniversary, news for the WSP was bittersweet. While in 1963 the ban on nuclear tests was passed, women returned to the picket line with a new frenzy: the Vietnam War. The seventh chapter slowly shifts attention away from nuclear tests and onto the Vietnam War. This war became a sarcastic joke amongst the group of women, for as they accomplished one thing, they discovered a new disappointment, or in their words, “a not-so-funny thing happened to us on the way to disarmament— the Vietnam War.”7 The Vietnam War only strengthened the WSP movement further, as mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters held sit-ins, strikes, and others political movements. As the war progressed, women only continued to show their disapproval of the war that was killing their sons, nephews, grandsons, and brothers.

Swerdlow concludes her book with closing of the last active years of the WSP. In the election of 1964, WSP used a peace ballot as its identifying mark against Barry Goldwater, voting for President Lyndon Johnson, and calling its mark “the women’s vote is the peace vote.”8 However, as 1965 approached, women soon became ashamed and betrayed with their choice, as Johnson, who promised peace, bombed Vietnam. Fifteen hundred women joined a mass lobby in Washington in January of 1966, with signs that read, “Mr. President, We Voted Peace… You Gave Us War!”9 WSP participants held many struggles in the effort to stop the war, and with the draft, new fears arose. Women across America rose up, crying out “not our sons, not your sons, not their sons: hell no, we won’t let them go!”10 The issue with the draft raised not only fear, but also enrollment of women into the WSP, fighting to keep their sons at home. The final issues facing the WSP movement were not political issues, but issues within the group. Over the years, the WSP movement had become an international movement, beginning with the link to the women in Soviet Russia to convince their government to ban nuclear testing as well. Nevertheless, as the years progressed, women in various countries began to express different ideas that the WSP should be focusing on. Through diverse international conferences and meetings, the overall concept of worldwide peace was a priority for all.

Swerdlow’s thesis is clearly stated and reiterated throughout the book. As she interprets and details the WSP movement clearly and visibly, Swerdlow identifies the goals of the movement early on and uses them throughout the book. With the successes and failures of the movement, Swerdlow examined the movement, illustrating the political, social, and gender reasons for the shift of ordinary housewives to take action in the name of motherhood. Swerdlow writes for the reader to understand the impact of the event as though they lived through it. Swerdlow aspires for the reader to have the same shock that society must have felt when an “estimated fifty thousand women walked out of their kitchens and off their jobs in an unprecedented nationwide strike for peace.”11 As one of the thousands of women who stood up to tell the world the destructive nature of the atomic testings, Swerdlow has the details very few have, as well as the vivid memory she helped to introduce to the world. The historiography seems clear; while not published until 1993, the WSP movement was more than an event in the past to Swerdlow. The movement was a memory and an event she participated in, helping the goals of many become the reality of all.

Numerous critics have had the opportunity to read and review Swerdlow’s Women Strike for Peace. Suzie Siegel of the Tampa Tribune commented in 1995 that Swerdlow’s book was an inaccurate account and that when “society forgets groups like the WSP, it ends up reinventing them.”12 While everyone is entitled to an opinion, Siegel’s thought of Swerdlow exaggerating or hyperbolizing in an effort to interest readers seems difficult to believe; the Women Strike for Peace movement hardly seems to be an event that can possibly be reinvented. Wini Breines of the Women’s Review of Books made an assessment of Swerdlow’s accounts of the decade, giving credit to Swerdlow’s accurate portrayal of the participants of the Women Strike for Peace movement as “fantastically energetic and effective.”13 However, Breines felt that Swerdlow failed to specify that much of the success that came to the WSP movement was because its members were white women.

Swerdlow’s depiction of the 1960s, the decade in which women rose up and found their voices, illustrates a deeper insight into the strike, and the personal reasons and goals. Swerdlow identifies that, while the movement was a political action, many of the women who participated in the strike were ordinary housewives who spoke out in the name of motherhood and followed their maternal instincts. The entire movement was woman-made, and achieved through women’s will power, and the power to involve “tens of thousands of women in direct action at short notice.”14 These are women who, without the strength of unity, would have fallen back to the ways of the past, allowing things to happen because they thought they would have no choice or say in the matter. Giving the reader ample information, with plenty of background into past feminist projects that failed and prospered, Swerdlow gives no room for confusion or questions. However, while the book gives detailed accounts of everything, portions contain too much detail that seem unnecessary to the thesis and context of the book. Although details are important, portions seemed dragged out and too complicated. Swerdlow’s main accomplishment was keeping the tone of the book consistent, always demonstrating that the WSP movement was indeed an internationally political event based off motherhood and maternity.

Swerdlow’s depiction of the sixties and early seventies is that represented in history textbooks. The period of feminism, during which women finally voiced their opinions and stood up to protect themselves and their families against the dangers of nuclear testings, marks a new beginning for women in Swerdlow‘s eyes. This movement was essential for women, using motherhood to gain attention and reactionary outcomes for foreign policy. Swerdlow acknowledged that even the WPP, a more radical feminist group did not have as strong results as the WSP held. The author emphasizes the decade, and especially the movement itself, helped women across the nation stand up for what they believe. In doing so, their fight for international peace seems more motherly than radical or feminist. Swerdlow identifies with William Ladd, who declared, “it was the duty of women to persuade both sons and statesmen to apply the familial values of nurturance, conciliation, and harmony to affairs of the state.”15 Women in the sixties finally stood tall and gained their long overdue respect. No longer thought of as ordinary housewives, women who participated in the WSP movement helped achieve a realistic attitude and belief that women could make a difference. Swerdlow deems that these advances guided women into a new light, allowing not only men, but also doubtful women, to understand that women have a place in this world and a say about the affairs of it. Swerdlow desires to emphasize the lasting effects of the WSP movement in present society, which without, women might still be considered ordinary housewives who belong in the kitchen and out of politics.

The sixties and seventies marked a definite watershed in American cultural history pertaining to women. The fifties slowly allotted women the chance and opportunity to stand, but the early sixties WSP movement brought abrupt changes, showing that women were not going to stay in the kitchen; they were going to work and work hard to make their ideas become realities. The movement changed previously held values in the eyes of both men and women. The fact that the women who participated had never seen anything like the strike in their lifetimes is incredible. Women, for the first time, took on a challenge that not even they themselves had thought plausible: to save the world—literally.16 After only two years, the major goal of banning nuclear tests succeeded, through struggles and hardships nonetheless. To think that this event occurred just a few decades ago seems unfathomable, for women have taken such strides in society beginning with this movement. It is hard to picture where and how women would be if this movement had not occurred—if women had not found the strength to stand up to those above them and fight for their families’ protection. Women today face no inequality in the gender arena, and often take for granted the actions of the past generations which brought women to where they are today. One simple strike allowed a complete alteration of history.

Amy Swerdlow’s Women Strike for Peace offers a clear depiction of a historical event with insight that very few historians actually offer: first hand experience. The details offered and feelings described were more than just researched and recorded—the details were personal. The strike for peace began as a political movement and turned into a war for women, which “is intimately related to the struggle by women everywhere for dignity and equality.”17

review by Melissa Kearns

  1. Swerdlow, Amy. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993, 108.
  2. Swerdlow, Amy 18.
  3. Swerdlow, Amy 20.
  4. Swerdlow, Amy 57.
  5. Swerdlow, Amy 74.
  6. Swerdlow, Amy 103.
  7. Swerdlow, Amy 129.
  8. Swerdlow, Amy 143.
  9. Swerdlow, Amy 149.
  10. Swerdlow, Amy 159.
  11. Swerdlow, Amy 15.
  12. Siegel, Suzie. “Women against War” The Tampa Tribune 1995.
  13. Breines, Wini. The Women’s Revie of Books 1994.
  14. Swerdlow, Amy 70.
  15. Swerdlow, Amy 28.
  16. Swerdlow, Amy 48.
  17. Swerdlow, Amy 230.

© 2006 Irvine High School

Optimized for viewing in Mozilla Firefox, 1024x768