Dagmar Wilson, founder of women's peace group, dies at 94

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 8:44 PM

When the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race accelerated half a century ago, a concerned Georgetown mother of three named Dagmar Wilson took a page out of the PTA playbook. She started a telephone tree, urging her friends to call their friends to marshal support for a one-day demonstration in support of peace and disarmament.

Less than two months later, on Nov. 1, 1961, a loose network of 50,000 mothers, grandmothers and other women left their kitchens and their offices for demonstrations in 60 cities across the country.

Calling on President John F. Kennedy to "End the arms race - not the human race," the women won wide attention from world leaders and the press. They built such a groundswell of support for nonproliferation that Kennedy credited them with helping to force the Cold War superpowers to eventually sign a partial nuclear test-ban treaty.

Mrs. Wilson, who co-founded the Women Strike for Peace movement that later grew to claim a half-million members, died Jan. 6 at the Washington Home and Community Hospices. She was 94 and had congestive heart failure.

She was a homemaker and successful children's book illustrator when, spurred by news that the Soviet Union planned to resume above-ground nuclear testing, she became an activist. In late September 1961, she called everyone she knew and then started sending mimeographed copies of a call to strike on Nov. 1.

"I decided there are some things an individual can do. At least we can make some noise and see," she once said.

Mrs. Wilson became the de facto spokeswoman for Women Strike for Peace, which had no hierarchy and no paid staff. She headlined the inaugural 1961 rally in Washington, and, while hundreds of women and girls picketed the White House, she and three others delivered a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy, asking the first lady to use her influence to end the nuclear arms race.

An identical letter for Nina Khrushchev, wife of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, was delivered to the Soviet Embassy.

"We gave them our propaganda, and they gave us theirs," one striker, Margaret Russell, said upon leaving the embassy.

"And a funny thing," Mrs. Wilson added. "It sounded very much the same."

Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Khrushchev both answered the letters, and President Kennedy acknowledged at a press conference that he had seen the "extremely earnest" picketing women through a White House window. Their message had been received, he said.

Less than two years later, he signed a partial nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company