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Pay Heed To Countervailing Forces

Thirty-six years after a group of American mothers warned that radioactive iodine in milk - fallout from above-ground nuclear testing - might harm their children, the National Cancer Institute has warned that at least 75,000 of these children, now in their 40s and 50s, may develop thyroid cancer. I can imagine these mothers, now in their 60s and 70s, raging and fuming to America, “We told you so, but you just wouldn’t listen.”

Sometimes the most important social movements disappear from our collective historical memory. The group Women Strike for Peace, which drew the nation’s attention to the danger of radiation in milk and demanded a comprehensive nuclear test ban, is a case in point.

In 1961, as a radioactive cloud from a Russian nuclear test hung over the United States, some Americans began to fear the potential health hazards in nuclear fallout. Five women who had met in the peace organization SANE decided to take direct action against the nuclear threat. On Nov. 1, seemingly out of nowhere, an estimated 50,000 women in more than 60 cities walked out of their kitchens in a one-day strike. The organizers had announced the strike through female networks: the PTA, the League of Women Voters, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. They even used Christmas card lists.

After a decade of containment and the Cold War, with citizen dissent silenced by McCarthyism, Women Strike for Peace stunned the nation. Where had they come from? Who had organized them? They looked deceptively commonplace. As Newsweek explained, the strikers seemed like “perfectly ordinary women, with their share of good looks, the kind you would see driving ranch wagons, or shopping at the village market, or attending PTA meetings.”

The women tried to appeal to other mothers. Worried about strontium-90 contaminating milk, Women Strike for Peace activists carried placards demanding such modest goals as “Pure Milk, Not Poison” and “Let the Children Grow.” Around the neck of a little girl in a baby buggy hung a sign, “I want to grow up to be a mommy some day.”

These women were not as politically naive as they appeared. Some had been union activists, peace activists and fellow travelers during the 1930s or ‘40s. They constituted a liberal, educated and civic-minded group of women who had devoted much of the 1950s to raising their children. More than 61 percent worked as housewives and most of them still had children at home.

Women Strike for Peace activists, as historian Amy Swerdlow has observed, chose to use a simple language, “the mother tongue,” because they believed that the special status of mothers could persuade the nation that the health of the next generation was in jeopardy.

But their claims of maternal saintliness did not prevent the House Un-American Activities Committee from launching an investigation into their activities. The mothers refused to grant the investigation legitimacy. Employing a politics of humor, irony, evasion and ridicule, they turned the hearings into a circus. They brought cribs, suckled infants and created an instant child care center. They hoped to persuade the public that their defense of children was morally superior to the arms race.

Women Strike for Peace’s opposition to membership lists, central organization and hierarchical leadership made HUAC’s arcane search for communists an exercise in futility. Many historians agree that the Women Strike for Peace’s irreverent tactics delivered the final blow to HUAC. Two years later, emboldened by the growing anti-nuclear movement, President Kennedy signed a nuclear test ban treaty.

The story of Women Strike for Peace is a reminder of the political power women can wield, especially when they defend the health of the next generation. Children, who cannot vote, have become a dispensable “interest group” for both the president and Congress. Yet today’s children face even greater dangers than strontium-90.

Children living in poverty and without adequate child care will lose more than their health. Children who live amid drugs and violence may forfeit their future.

Vindicated by the National Cancer Institute, Women Strike for Peace provides an important object lesson for our generation. Don’t dismiss the activists who warn about global warming, the disappearance of thousands of species, the indiscriminate use of pesticides or the destruction of wetlands, rain forests and old growth woodlands. These people are not lunatic tree huggers, but activists who have inherited the formidable legacy of the WSP.

Next time, listen to mother.