By Alex Boulton
On 15 January 1962, nearly 2000 American women and their children picketed the White House in the pouring rain, posting soggy letters to incumbent President John F. Kennedy while juggling umbrellas, placards and strollers. With signs that read ‘Never Say Die’ and ‘When it rains, it pours- Strontium 90’, the women were members of Women Strike for Peace (WSP), a protest ‘unorganization’ created to put pressure on the US and USSR to end atmospheric nuclear testing. Motivated by studies that found the radioactive isotope, Strontium-90, in breast and cow’s milk, WSP dominated press coverage of the anti-nuclear movement, a feat primarily achieved by framing their activism around middle-class motherhood.
Numerous studies, such as Todd Gitlin’s popular analysis of coverage of the New Left on CBS and in the New York Times, have found that media outlets typically trivialise and demonise movements, acting as agents of social control due to their position within dominant power structures. Reporting WSP’s White House protest, the New York Times, considered fair and reliable by 90% of Washington journalists in 1962, featured the President’s response on its front page. Asked whether or not he thought the protest was useful, Kennedy replied: ‘I think these women are extremely earnest’ and ‘I considered that their message was received’. The editorial decision to frame the story around these positive comments, even featuring them on the front page, reveals an effort to legitimise WSP’s action and a clear break from the mass media’s typical treatment of social movements.
Coverage in the New York Times utilised a range of frames that also acted to validate the movement, one dominated by white middle-class and middle-aged wives and mothers. A profile of Dagmar Wilson identifies the WSP founder as ‘a petite 46-year-old mother of three teenage daughters’, her career as ‘an illustrator of children’s books’ is given far less emphasis, while a different article describes another protestor as ‘a Princeton psychology professor’s wife and grandmother of four’. Despite the fact many WSP protestors had links to existing peace groups such as SANE and WILPF and were the red-diaper babies of former United States Communist Party members, they were presented as apolitical wives and mothers, exclusively motivated by ‘an emotional drive’. One article argues ‘they stress femininity rather than feminism’, while their placards, including ‘clean milk and dirty bombs don’t mix’ and ‘we plead for our children’s lives’, are quoted throughout coverage. Whereas participants of other social movements of the 1960s were portrayed as countercultural oddballs, a tactic that worked to obscure their message, the New York Times presented the women of WSP as mainstream Americans fighting for a noble cause, wives and mothers that ‘were well-dressed, good-natured and obviously proud of what they were doing’.
However, it would be a mistake to give exclusive credit to the New York Times’ journalists for this positive, legitimising and extensive coverage. Rather than passive actors, WSP actively cultivated their media image to the extent that it was ‘an obsessive goal’, according to historian and former member, Amy Swerdlow. Swerdlow argues that the organisation planned action to gain as much favourable coverage as possible, such as the letters sent to Jackie Kennedy and Nina Khrushchev, the wives of the leaders of the US and USSR respectively, asking them to ‘join with us to end the arms race instead of the human race’. Their replies, both published in the Times, were remarkably similar, leading Wilson to conclude that ‘we have a common concern, the welfare of our children.’ Swerdlow also argues another vital part of their media strategy ‘depended on projecting a ladylike, ordinary image’ and making ‘a special effort to dress and behave in a stereotypical fashion’. Fresh out of a decade known for its familial consensus and political conformity, the novelty of middle-class housewives dressed in gloves and hats, protesting with their children guaranteed column inches. In interviews, the women were self-deprecating and used non-ideological language, such as: ‘frankly, I’m ignorant about politics’ and ‘I am not a professional peace worker and I am not an organiser’, further minimising the perception of any threat or organised left-wing involvement.
The ability of WSP to connect their anti-nuclear protest with the hallowed and respected institution of motherhood meant the organisation attracted positive coverage and was able to overcome the red-baiting and fear of communist infiltration that dominated public discourse during this period. When subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in December 1962, an investigative committee that attempted to unearth communist infiltration in American society, WSP were able to stay just within the bounds of political credibility. The New York Times reported that their ‘responses evoked laughter’, especially when Wilson, ‘a pert and attractive brunette wearing a red dress’, joked that ‘the spontaneity of the feminine peace movement was “hard to explain to the masculine mind”’. Overall, the women called were able to secure sympathetic coverage that criticised the affair as a moral embarrassment for HUAC, winning a rhetorical victory in the name of middle-class motherhood.
Certainly, WSP contributed to pressure that assured the US, alongside the USSR and UK, signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty that prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in space, underwater and in the atmosphere in 1963. More widely, Swerdlow argues WSP was ‘a harbinger of the second wave of the women’s liberation movement’, while its participatory structure, one that rejected bureaucracy and hierarchy, can be said to have predated the thinking of SNCC and the New Left. Probably owing to the seemingly contradictory nature of traditional gender role ideology and activism, WSP have largely been forgotten from the histories of women and social movements, a legacy that should be re-examined.
Bracker, Milton, ‘50 Women Striking for Peace Fly to Geneva to Present Views’, New York Times, 2 April 1962, p.3
Hunter, Marjorie, ‘President Responds to Pickets for Peace’, New York Times, 16 January 1962, p.1
Love, Kennett, ‘240 Here March in Peace “Strike”’, New York Times, 31 January 1962, p.3
Molli, Jeanne, ‘Women’s Peace Group Uses Feminine Tactics’, New York Times, 19 April 1962, p.26
Shuster, Alvin, ‘First Ladies of US and Soviet Back Husbands as Peacemakers’, New York Times, 15 November 1961, p.1
‘Close-up of a “Peace Striker”’, New York Times, 6 May 1962, p.251
Smith, Hedrick, ‘Pacifist Testifies Nazis And Reds May Aid Group: Her Answers Applauded Responses Evoke Laughter’, New York Times, 14 December 1962, p1
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Gitlin, Todd, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley, 1980)
Rojecki, Andrew, Silencing the Opposition: Anti-nuclear Movements and the Media in the Cold War (Champaign, 1999)
Swerdlow, Amy, ‘Ladies’ Day at the Capitol: Women Strike for Peace versus HUAC’, Feminist Studies, 8.3 (1982), 493-520
Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago, 1993)