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

By Emma Brown
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.

In an age of anti-communist fervor, Women Strike for Peace was a force of middle-age, middle-class women who wore white gloves and fine hats.

These were not leftist radicals but mothers, speaking about the dangers of radioactive material in children's milk and of the need to overcome political divisions for the sake of future generations.

"Nations disagree as families disagree," read an early call to action from Women Strike for Peace. "Women believe that nations can solve differences as families do, without killing each other."

'Peace Gals' before HUAC

In 1962, Mrs. Wilson and a handful of members of her group were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Charged with rooting out disloyalty, the committee and its blacklists had destroyed the careers of countless Americans. But Mrs. Wilson and her colleagues approached their testimony with irreverence, humor and creative resistance. Their performances, part of a series of events that led to the committee's demise, were much admired in the press.

"Peace Gals Make Red Hunters Look Silly," said one newspaper's headline.

The hearing room was packed with 60 women who laughed and applauded when they pleased, ignoring warnings from committee members seeking order. Each time a woman rose to testify, a supporter presented her with a bouquet of flowers.

Alfred Nittle, the committee's counsel, tried to establish that the women's group was being unwittingly manipulated by communists. He asked Mrs. Wilson whether she would allow Communist Party members to occupy leadership posts at Women Strike for Peace.

"My dear sir," Mrs. Wilson replied, "I have no way or desire to control those who wish to join our efforts for peace. Unless everyone in the world joins in this fight, then God help us."

Nittle persisted. "Would you permit Nazis or fascists to join?" he asked.

"If only we could get them," Mrs. Wilson quipped.

Years later, she described that day as a "great moment of my life."

"I had the opportunity not only to confront my accusers but also to make them look like idiots," she said. "To us, they seemed so absurd. But it can be a terrible danger when that which is absurd becomes accepted truth."

Two years later, after she helped a Japanese professor and peace activist secure a visa to visit the United States, Mrs. Wilson was again called to testify before the committee - this time in a secret session.

Mrs. Wilson and two others refused to testify unless the hearing was made public. They were cited for contempt of Congress, but the charge was overturned on appeal.

Dagmar Searchinger was born in New York on Jan. 25, 1916. She was raised largely in Europe, where her father, Cesar Searchinger, was a music critic and journalist.

She graduated from the Slade School of Art in London in 1937 and then worked as an art teacher until she moved back to the United States in 1939.

Mrs. Wilson eventually settled in Washington, where her husband worked as a cultural attache for the British Embassy.

Heeding the advice of Benjamin Spock, Mrs. Wilson stayed home to raise her three daughters. She worked occasionally as a freelance illustrator and in 1946 drew the pictures for "While Susie Sleeps," a best-selling children's book.

She worked on more than 20 children's books before starting Women Strike for Peace. She continued to be a leader of that organization until the late 1960s, when she returned to a more private life as the group shifted its attention to protesting the war in Vietnam.

She and her husband moved to Loudoun County, where she painted oil landscapes of the region's vanishing farmland. She remained outspoken about local environmental and political issues.

Her husband of 46 years, Christopher Wilson, was killed in a car accident in 1985.

Survivors include three daughters, Sally M. Ballin of Burlington, Vt., Clare Wilson of Silver Spring and Jessica Wilson of Mount Gilead, Va.; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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