Remembering Dagmar Wilson
In 1961, Dagmar Wilson was so afraid of radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing endangering her children’s health, as well everyone else’s, that she called some women friends to her Georgetown back yard to organize around the issue and founded Women Strike for Peace. The movement, without political ideology or hierarchy, was dedicated to the elimination of nuclear testing but eventually evolved to call for the end of the war against Vietnam and the abolition of war itself.
Dagmar's fear was fueled by anger over the British jailing of Bertrand Russell, the Russian resumption of atomic tests and the Berlin Wall crisis. The strikers called on President Kennedy to “End the Arms Race—Not the Human Race,” the mantra coined by her husband Christopher. The theme of the strike, Wilson said, came from President Kennedy’s own words: “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”
Six weeks later, on November 1st, a one-day strike organized by WSP brought 50,000 women in 60 cities out into the streets. Dagmar was also a successful children’s book illustrator and a freelance graphic artist. She died at the age of 94 on January 6.
How did women find out about the strike before faxes or email? Lorraine Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard, remembers listening to jazz one evening when someone handed her a flyer. “I never participated in any political action, certainly not in a demonstration,” she told me. “I was political in my mind not in action. I lived a club life. I called the number on the flyer and Dagmar answered. She inspired me. We all had children we didn’t want to sit under desks at school. She was addressing both the Russians and Americans to stop testing atomic bombs.”
Mothers responded similarly when Barry Commoner, who was then a scientist at Washington University in St Louis called for baby teeth to be tested for the presence of Strontium 90. We never heard of Strontium 90, but Commoner had the idea that atmospheric testing was raining radioactivity on the grass that the cows who gave milk to our babies eat, and that baby teeth would thus show signs of the deadly poison. So, after the tooth fairy did her thing, mothers and fathers, encouraged by Dagmar, collected baby teeth, sent them to Barry and, there it was.
Our peace education began. Women gathered in living rooms and kitchens, studied nuclear radiation and decided to talk to newspaper editors to teach them to spell Strontium and urge them to write about the danger of nuclear testing. We decided it was women’s responsibility to protect their children from radioactivity. It was time for women to speak out, Dagmar said.
“It wasn’t easy for me to be the daughter of Dagmar," said Clare, her middle child. "I wanted my mom at home. I came home to find TV cameras. Once I found Coretta Scott King in the living room. I went with mom to all the demonstrations and thought she was great and respected her a lot. How dearly she wanted to protect us and her future grandchildren’s lives. She didn’t just moan, she got out and did something. Her role models were her mother’s friends. Betty Swing, a Suffragette, was arrested and force fed through the nose in jail. That happened during Dagmar’s childhood. Mom believed in making noise non-violently. I remember her voice on the telephone, speaking with such passion.”
Clare told me that once when she attended the Parsons School of Design, she was reading the Sunday New York Times and saw that her mom had been arrested in front of the Pentagon. She had no phone in her apartment and had to find a pay phone to call home and find out what happened.
“Mom was a feminist but didn’t identify as one”, said Sally Ballin, another daughter living in Vermont. “She had the same energy that mobilized women to analyze their status to become first-class citizens.” WSP insisted on being respectable, that women dress properly, wearing gloves and a hat. WSP was about asserting womanhood and diffusing conflict. “She believed in facilitating cooperation,“ Sally said. “What women do with their families all the time.” Sally teaches public speaking at her local community college. Her mom was a fine public speaker.
I wondered if Dagmar’s political life affected her husband Christopher's job in the trade division of the Embassy. Sally said their dad “caught some flack.” “Can’t you control your wife, Mr. Wilson, sort of thing.” The youngest daughter Jessica told me that Christopher belonged to an ice skating club and they went together on Sundays. A Russian family from the embassy also belonged and Dagmar invited them for dinner for which Christopher was admonished by his government. “She reached across lines to promote dialogue and understanding.”
WSP was born in the Cold War and the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy's Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. SANE, the NAACP, the ACLU and the CIO all bent to the pressure to adopt an exclusionary rule to purge their membership of Communists. WSP refused to exclude anyone for their political beliefs. Dagmar saw communism as a “stuffy old doctrine,” Amy Swerdlow recounted in her fine book
Women Strike for Peace (University of Chicago Press) “It’s a pity we have such a blind terror of it because communism is out of date,” she said, but nonetheless refused to impose political litmus tests in the movement she sparked.
WSP became the target of a witch hunt. “The CIA’s most ridiculous waste of money,” declared Mary McGrory. Dagmar and WSP decided to embarrass the members of Congress on HUAC. When she was called to testify, loads of women asked to testify, too. Flowers filled the hearing room, women brought babies and bottles, strollers filled the aisles. One headline read, “Peace Gals Make Red Hunters Look Silly.” The FBI collected volumes of records during a “long…but fruitless effort to characterize the group as ‘subversive,’" according to Bud and Ruth Schultz's The Price of Dissent, (Univ. of California Press, 2001.)
WSP was devoted to disarmament, but the civil rights movement could not be ignored. Mrs. King issued a statement in May 1963 supporting the test ban treaty. But it took until the fall of 1967 for any reciprocal response. Then Dagmar joined a small group of WSP women who gathered with African-American women and women from a diverse group of religious organizations to form the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, named after the first woman member of Congress. Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, Ruby Dee, Ella Baker and women leaders of Jewish and Methodist organizations and the National Council of Churches marched with Dagmar and other WSPers under a common banner: We Oppose the Vietnam War and Racism and Poverty at Home.
In 1968 I joined Dagmar, Ethel Taylor and Mary Clark in signing a letter to the Soviet Women’s Committee protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Dagmar also was an early visitor to North Vietnam, bringing mail home from POW’s. Many in WSP decided to put nuclear disarmament on the back burner and plunged into activities to bring an end to the war. Dagmar was part of our effort to make protest safe for families. She spoke at every opportunity.
Dagmar Wilson was one of those responsible for what Alice Munro calls the “great switch in women’s lives.” She was creative and courageous. She inspired women “who [had] seemed content," as Munro recently wrote in The New Yorker, to become caring informed activists. WSP was a great training school. Thousands of women are forever indebted to Dagmar for her leadership, her unique initiative and her vision of women being able to change the world.
Photo credit: Bud Schultz