Not ‘just’ a housewife


Jon Coburn is Teacher in History at Newcastle University. He completed his PhD in 2016 with a thesis titled Making a Difference: The History and Memory of Women Strike for Peace, 1961-1990. Jon’s research investigates the history of women’s peace and antinuclear protest in the United States. He is particularly interested in the interrelationship between memory and identity and the way in which social justice activists define success.


In considering what leads women to be labelled “dangerous” it is often easy to ignore those who managed to disrupt conformity and draw scorn while abiding by strict gendered expectations of behavior. The experience of antinuclear activist Dagmar Wilson provides a fine example of one who stoically endured criticism simply by calling for calm at a time of hysteria.

In the autumn of 1961, Cold War tensions brought the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Civil Defense drills and government instruction trained the public to prepare for an apocalyptic nuclear attack that could occur without warning. Such circumstances warranted potent anti-communist hysteria – Communists were the enemy; patriotic Americans unquestionably supported their government and did not dissent.

Dagmar Wilson disagreed. The spate of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States and USSR during the 1950s had contaminated air, sea and land with dangerous radiation. Scientists found deposits of radioactive Strontium-90 and Iodine-131 in the milk teeth of American children. While the government implored housewives to protect their families by making adequate preparations for nuclear war, Wilson judged that the best way was to rid the world of the weapons themselves. For her, the threat to life came from the paranoia of political leaders on both sides who perpetuated nuclear brinksmanship through an inability to settle their differences with amicable discussion.

On a warm September night in 1961, Wilson invited six of her friends and colleagues to her house in Georgetown, Washington D.C. Talk turned to atomic war. Aggrieved by the perceived failures of existing peace groups, Wilson decided to gauge the level of interest in a women’s march for peace and disarmament. Her guests were enthusiastic. They decided to make a bold stand, calling on women across the United States to give up their jobs and housework and stage a one day “women’s strike for peace.”

On 1st November 1961, thousands of “housewives and mothers” took to the streets in 60 cities across America. Momentum pushed participants to continue their efforts under the banner of Women Strike for Peace (WSP).

Levelling equal criticism at the US and USSR, WSP rallied behind an apolitical denouncement of the arms race that called simply to spare the world’s children from nuclear apocalypse. Believing that mothers had a natural role to protect and nurture life, Wilson mobilised those who also felt a “special responsibility” to campaign for peace. They downplayed their prior experience of political organising and took pains to evade any image or rhetoric that could detract from their central message or result in a public backlash from anti-Communist red-baiters. Key to the group’s public appeal, they decided, was its representation of wholesome, respectable, middle-class housewives and mothers.

WSP deftly negotiated early 1960s gender politics, taking pains to avoid overt critiques of masculinity or to appear to subvert their expected roles as housewives and mothers. Members explicitly stated that once they had achieved their goals they would happily return to their “pots-and-pans and PTAs and all the duties and pleasures that we have since neglected”.

WSP activists assured their audience that “we are not striking against our husbands. It is my guess that we will make the soup that they will ladle out to the children on Wednesday”. Dagmar Wilson reflected that “we were educated, we were literate”, and had professional roles, but opted to speak “much more out of our everyday experiences” in order to evoke moral outrage at the threat to life.

Under Wilson’s leadership, WSP scored numerous successes. It’s first strike received plaudits from journalists and politicians alike. President John F. Kennedy personally acknowledged the influence of their campaign. In March 1962 Wilson led 50 representatives of the women’s peace movement to confront diplomats at the Geneva Conference of the Seventeen-Nation Committee on Disarmament. She personally lectured US diplomat Arthur Dean and the Soviet UN Security Council representative Valerian Zorin “like a schoolmistress” for their failure to act cordially with one another. UN Security General U Thant met with Wilson and gave personal thanks for her efforts in support of disarmament. Kennedy’s Science Advisor Jerome Weisner reportedly gave “the major credit” for the 1963 Partial Nuclear Weapons Test Ban “not to arms controllers inside the government, but to Women Strike for Peace”.

The true success of WSP was its ability to maintain a loosely coordinated, nonhierarchical structure – what activists called a “nonorganisation”. Women did not need to become members to participate in WSP’s activities, nor did they appoint or elect leaders to guide their protests. Even at the height of anti-communist hysteria, WSP remained inclusive and refused to ask contributors about their political views or prior affiliations.

Although an appeal as “housewives and mothers” blunted the severity of WSP’s critics, the group’s public inclusivity made it the target of suspicion from the authorities. In December 1962, 14 members subpoenaed to face the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on the charge that their group had been infiltrated and was being directed by subversive Communist agents. HUAC had a fearsome reputation. An accusation made by the Committee alone could tarnish reputations, cost jobs, and ruin lives.

HUAC’s intention was to shame, scorn, and ultimately suppress WSP’s activities. Instead, the hearings became the group’s finest hour. Far from running scared, activists responded with a united show of defiance. Nearly 100 women contacted the Chairman of HUAC, Francis Walter, asking him to subpoena them as well. “If Dagmar Wilson is a communist”, they declared, “so am I”.

Over three days of hearings from 11 to 13 December, WSP members brushed off the charges against them, belittling the investigators who had intended to score a soft victory. They ridiculed attempts to paint WSP’s activists as complicit in a grand Communist conspiracy.

Witnesses’ refused to be intimidated by the charges against them and instead reveled in the occasion. Blanche Posner could not help but laugh at an accusation that she had once worn “a coloured paper daisy” to identify herself as a WSP activist. She apologised for her “giggled” reply, explaining that “it sounds like such a far cry from communism it is impossible not to be amused”.

In one instance the committee produced ominous evidence that Ruth Meyers had signed a Communist Party nominating position while living in Brooklyn. “Are you the Ruth Meyers who executed that petition?” inquired Counsel Nittle. Meyers duly informed the hearings that it was not her, joking that her husband “could never get me to move to Brooklyn”. Her response to the mistaken identity drew raucous laughter from the gallery.

Committee representatives struggled to understand the group’s loose coordination, asking “if a group has no organisation and has no members, how in the world does it function?” Iris Freed quipped, “it is quite remarkable. Sometimes I wonder myself”.Anne Mackenzie similarly defused the severity of the Committee’s claims, explaining that WSP’s organizing was “something that you have given great stature to and made it sound almost as important as a congressional committee. In Connecticut, we don’t take it very seriously. Perhaps we should”.

While defiant, witnesses remained utterly courteous in their response to questioning. Miriam Chesman channeled the image of demure motherhood to highlight the questionable legitimacy of the Committee. “You know, I haven’t much experience with this sort of thing,” she explained, “you will have to be patient with me”.

Inadvertently scheduling the hearings for perfect dramatic effect, the Committee opted to call WSP’s leader as the last witness on the final day of hearings. Wilson’s entirely well-mannered dismissal of the Committee’s suspicions proved the perfect finale as she happily frustrated Counsel Alfred Nittle’s attempts to portray WSP as a dangerous Communist front.

Asked whether New York activists exerted more influence than others, Wilson teased “Heavens, I think the women in other cities would be mortified if I said that!” When Nittle handed a report to Wilson and explained “it is not dated”, she playfully replied “oh dear”, maintaining deference to the courtroom setting while subtly mocking the overblown severity of the occasion.

Wilson’s genial responses belittled Nittle’s desperate attempts to implicate WSP activists in a grand, malevolent conspiracy. Throughout her entirely well-mannered and factual testimony she gently discredited the committee’s paranoia, explaining that investigators had made WSP’s prosaic activities “sound terribly dramatic.”

Nittle could not grasp that WSP did not appoint leaders or insist on organized membership. Enduring repeated charges that Communists had taken leadership of WSP, Wilson repeatedly tried to explain that that scenario was impossible since “we are really all leaders.” Under interminable questioning, she conceded that she found it “very hard to explain to the masculine mind” how her women’s group functioned.

The hearing’s closing exchanges proved Wilson’s coup de grace. Nittle cornered his witness by asking whether she “would knowingly permit or encourage a Communist Party member to occupy a leadership position in Women Strike for Peace.” Surveying the scene, journalist Mary McGrory wrote that such a question “would bring a man to his knees with patriotic protest.”

However, Wilson proved a more stoic opponent. “I would like to say”, she emphatically declared, “that unless everybody in the whole world joins us in this fight then God help us”. Her supporters in the viewing gallery rose to their feet with rapturous applause.

WSP’s triumph at HUAC elicited widespread acclaim and admiration. Journalists proclaimed “Ladies Day at the Capitol” and celebrated the respectful manner with which witnesses ridiculed the feverish charges against them. Historian and WSP activist Amy Swerdlow applauded her group’s stand against a body that represented “the awesome power of an agency of the state.” Eric Bentley contended that WSP had dealt such a blow to the Committee’s standing that it could be referred to as “the fall of HUAC’s bastille.”

Wilson’s noteworthy performance drew special praise. Mary McGrory wrote that she had patiently tolerated her accuser “as if he was a rather trying dinner partner”. Wilson later explained that WSP had simply “ridiculed away” the charges against them.

WSP’s ability to navigate the rigid gender expectations of the 1960s demonstrates the “latent political power” of the institution of motherhood. Under Dagmar Wilson’s leadership, WSP managed to disrupt the Cold War consensus and quell the harsh terms of contemporary political debate. However, the opposition the group encountered shows that, even while abiding by traditional gender roles and engaging in reasoned dialogue, women have still been labelled “subversive” and “dangerous” by their detractors.

Dagmar Wilson’s consummate modesty made her unwilling to accept credit for the role she played. Throughout her life she chose to describe herself as a “mere housewife”. But Dagmar Wilson was not ‘just’ a housewife. She was a dangerous woman.

 

Further reading

Jon Coburn. “Making a Difference: The History and Memory of Women Strike for Peace, 1961-1990”. PhD Diss., Northumbria University, 2016.

Amy Swerdlow. “Ladies’ Day at the Capitol: Women Strike for Peace Versus HUAC”. In Feminist Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn, 1982), pp.493-520.

Amy Swerdlow. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

“Dagmar Wilson”, in Peacework: Oral Histories of Women Peace Activists. Judith Porter Adams ed. Boston: Twayne, 1991. pp. 193-199.

Ethel Barol Taylor. We Made a Difference: My Personal Journey with Women Strike for Peace. Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1998.

Women, Militarism, and War: Essays in History, Politics and Social Theory. Jean Bethke Elshtain and Sheila Tobias, eds. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990.

Harriet Hyman Alonso. Peace As a Women’s Issue: A History of the U.S. Movement for World Peace and Women’s Rights. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1993.