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.”