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Want to Prevent Nuclear War? Look to Women and our History

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

November 1st is the anniversary of the Women’s Strike for Peace. On this day in 1961, nearly 50,000 women took to the streets in cities across the country to demand an end to the Cold War nuclear arms race. We know from this moment in history and from many others that when women work together, they can successfully advance peace.

Photo of @Elissa_Malcohn of Women Strike for Peace (by Dot Marder)

When the machinery of war “progressed” so far as to create nuclear weapons, all of a sudden becoming a casualty of war threatened entire countries. Women did as we always do: they rose to the challenge. As the United States tested nuclear weapons across the country, mothers were moved to action to protect their children from the radioactive isotopes found in their milk. All over the world women’s groups held demonstrations and created organized actions against nuclear weapons. The organizers of the Women’s Strike for Peace marched under the slogan “End the Arms Race — Not the Human Race.”

These efforts are credited with influencing President Kennedy’s decision to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty. In 1962 at their first national conference, Women’s Strike for Peace adopted the declaration, “We are women of all races, creeds and political persuasions. We are dedicated to the purpose of general and complete disarmament. We demand that nuclear tests be banned forever, that the arms race end and the world abolish all weapons of destruction under United Nations safeguards.” Their goals were lofty, and many remain unmet.

On the 57th anniversary of Women Strike for Peace, women can look back at their peace-building achievements with respect and pride. They can also rejoice that women today are running for political office in larger numbers than ever before. But once again we are called on to do far more.

The structures we have in place to contain the world’s nuclear weapons — always subject to accidental use — are now newly threatened by uncertain leadership in the U.S. and new threats of their use by smaller countries that have acquired nuclear weapons to defend themselves from other nuclear powers. The United States has violated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Deal) and will withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The President thinks nothing of tweeting nuclear threats to other countries. This Administration is trying to convince us that newer, smaller nukes that they consider “more usable” are necessary to make us safer. Today we still live under a system known as “mutually assured destruction.” How did we accept this dangerous and senseless stalemate?

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such daunting evidence that we are backsliding into an arms race. However, it is dire that we recognize our inherent power, as the fate of the world may depend on it. Helen Caldicott, who started WAND in the 1980’s when the chances of nuclear war looked bad, used to say when we were working together “We have the power, Sayre, all we need to do is take it!”

Today the recognition that women are inseparable from successful peace-making is growing. The Women, Peace, and Security Act was signed into law in 2017. A public grant-making foundation for anti-nuclear weapons work has announced a “Women’s Initiative.” They are designing programs for correcting the history-long exclusion of women from matters of war. The truth women have always known is about to take center stage! But we need all women, from all walks of life, to join in this fight.

On the anniversary of Women’s Strike for Peace, women from across the country must once again take up the mantle of peace.

Sayre Sheldon, founding president and current board member of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), an organization that works to build women’s political power to advocate for security and peace with justice, founded in Cambridge, MA in 1982.

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