Peace Activist Women in the US in the 1980’s: Values, Vision and the Transformative Potential of Public Dialog

Ginger Hanks Harwood, LaSierra University

On November 17, 1980, 2,000 women assembled at the Pentagon to weave, dance, chant, demonstrate and perform civil disobedience to communicate to national leaders and military commanders that they regarded the defense plans of this nation to be lethal to the Earth. The Unity Statement of the Women's Pentagon Action that the women had crafted for that day proclaimed:

Every day while we work, study, love, the colonels and generals who are planning our annihilation walk calmly in and out of its five sides. They have accumulated over 30,000 nuclear bombs at the rate of three to six bombs a day. They are determined to produce the billion dollar MX missile. They are creating a technology called Stealth--the invisible, unperceivable arsenal. They have revived the cruel old killer, nerve gas. They have proclaimed Directive 59 which asks for "small nuclear wars, prolonged but limited." . . . We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and the imagination. We have the right to be afraid.1

The women, who would return with increased numbers again and again to mark the anniversary of their action with renewed demonstrations, symbolized the verve and potency with which women would address American militarism in the 1980s.2 Their presence at the very heart of military power served as a warning to those in high positions that women were going to take their place in the national debate concerning the shape of the future and the role of nuclear weapons within it. Women had determined to speak in their own voices and not leave the stage until they had been heard.

The 1980's witnessed an unanticipated revival of peace activism among women. In addition to long-standing women's groups and numerous actions and organizations such as the Great Peace Walk, Mobilization for Survival, the FREEZE, and SANE in which they labored beside men, women generated a host of new, women-specific projects and organizations. Women began creating new ways to take the peace initiative to the Capitol, to the missile site, to the Soviet Union, to the Summit Conferences, to the schools, to the coffee klatch, and to each other.3

While traditional peace church activists worked on the issues and feminist activists within the peace movement were growing increasingly vocal, visible and militant, their efforts were augmented suddenly by a passionate and unanticipated source. As the result of a raised consciousness around the significance of nuclear issues, (and perhaps a raised consciousness about women’s potential political power bequeathed to even non-feminist women by 20 plus years of feminist activism), thousands of women who had been outside of peace circles joined the peace movement. These neophytes not only found their way into established peace groups, but created a host of new organizations and actions designed to mobilize women. The National Peace Quilt, The Ribbon, Women's Party for Survival, Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament, Peace Links, Women for A Meaningful Summit, Women Against Military Madness, Mother's Embracing Nuclear Disarmament, and Grandmothers for Peace premiered and joined with the scattered assembly of feminist peace camps and conferences (such as the 1980 Conference on Women and Life on Earth: Eco-Feminism in the Eighties) to claim a more assertive role for women in national policy making. This paper focuses on the values and visions that motivated these activists and the transformative potential of the dialog they created.


The foundational premise of this work is that mass movements are dynamic social interchanges and that the keys to understanding these phenomena are located within the principles of human sociality and the processes fundamental to the formation of all culture and society. It presumes that human experience is shaped by community, mediated by symbols and expressed in socially intelligible patterns of response. Human choices are regarded as stemming from particular visions of the world, visions that are connected to a socially interpreted reality. Thus, the peace activists of the 1980’s are viewed as value-bearers engaged in a social endeavor, that of creating and sustaining a public dialogue and renegotiating the cultural consensus concerning international conflict management and resolution.


The study analyzes statements on the personal meaning of activism made by activist women from a wide range of peace groups during a series of one hundred hour long interviews conducted for this investigation between 1985-88. Many of the interviews took place during conferences, workshops, gatherings or other events when women from different regions were drawn together in one place, i.e. The Ribbon Action at the Pentagon in 1985, Movement for a New Society’s 1986 Feminism and Non-Violence Gathering held in Tucson, or Women for A Meaningful Summit’s Conference, "Women and Global Security: Forum 1986." Fifty women were interviewed who belonged to groups that used a gender-specific identifier in their name i.e. Women Against Nuclear Destruction or Mothers Embracing Nuclear Disarmament. These associations were categorized (based on their own self-understanding) either as radical feminist or traditional nurturing women’s groups on the basis of the images of women projected in the group’s name, literature or history. The other half of those included were fifty women from two separate types of gender-inclusive congeries: religious organizations and general peace groups. The interviews were recorded and transcribed; the quotations in this paper were excerpted from those and less formal conversations. The observations also stem from the author’s participation in various "peace" events, observation of planning and debriefing sessions for several actions and analysis of transcripts and notes from formal presentations at various women’s peace conferences. The literature from the various groups was collected and analyzed to obtain a more complete understanding of the worldview of the activists.

Apocalyptic Visions and Peace Activism

While peace activity has long been associated with one form or another of Christian millennialism, with or without the specter of a time of violent confrontation between the forces of good and evil, the 1980’s saw a popularization of a secular apocalyptic that lead to peace activism. This apocalypse was quite separate from religious affiliation (although probably not free from images bequeathed to American culture from Jewish and Christian sources). The genesis of several of the prominent women's groups initiated during this decade occurred as women (who had not previously been peace activists) had specific encounters that can be compared to conversion experiences.4 They were converted to an apocalyptic vision of the immediate human future.5 The vision they saw was one in which the history of the world neither spiraled forward in the marvelous progress proposed by modernists nor culminated in "the glorious coming of ‘the Son of Man’ as anticipated by the traditional Christian vision, but stopped dead in the wake of nuclear destruction. The result of the apocalyptic vision of these women, true to the observation of Richard Landes that "apocalyptic beliefs can launch mass movements capable of overthrowing (and forming) imperial dynasties and creating new religions," was the formation of groups directed towards the overthrow of the control of United States defense policy by military-political machinery and replacement with a more bio-friendly order (1996:49).


Several of the founders of women's peace organizations mentioned being stunned when they discovered the threat posed by nuclear weapons and the role that initial shock played in the genesis of their activism. As she noted during the study interview, Betty Bumpers attributes her decision to become active in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons and launch Peace Links with a conversation with her daughter. "I literally started because my daughter tuned me in to today and what she perceived as a lack of future. She simply turned to me as we were driving back to Arkansas one day," Bumpers recalls, "and said that she would like to get together during the summer and talk about what we'd do as a family in case of a national disaster that we survived." Mrs. Bumpers' personal shock by her daughter Brooke's appreciation of the nuclear threat is reflected in her reply, "It startled me so much that I thought I'd just handle it with levity and by saying, "Well, honey, I guess we'd just go back to Arkansas." Not to be so easily put off, Brooke Bumpers responded to her mother with a comment that expressed the gravity of the situation in her estimation. "And she said, "Don't be so stupid, Mother" (transcript #69). The revelation that her daughter viewed nuclear war or disaster as real or impending brought the issue home to Bumpers and was instrumental in motivating her to begin a campaign for peace.6 For Bumpers, as for many of the other organizers, the recitation of her "conversion experience" became a central part of her efforts to recruit others to peace work.

Barbara Weidner revealed a similar shock of discovery that led to the activism that eventuated in Grandmothers for Peace. "I'll tell you a little bit about how it started and why it started. I'm the mother of ten children and the grandmother of ten, so I've been busy. In 1982, I became aware of the fact that right outside my city, fifteen minutes from the house, at Mather Air Force Base, there were 150 nuclear weapons. Now," she explained, "I'd been busy all these years so I do have some good excuses for the fact that I was so unaware, but it didn't hold much water with me because it gave me a great sense of guilt that all of a sudden one day, I woke up and the world was in a ghastly situation and my children are in danger, and my grandchildren are in danger." She outlined the progression of her response to this realization as she explains, "So I joined a group that went to a vigil at this air base . . . Never in my life did I believe that by the time Lent was over and Good Friday had arrived," she emphasized, "that I would be so charged that I would kneel down right in the lane of traffic, stop the cars proudly praying with four of my friends, get arrested and go to jail. Well, I did" (transcript #72).

Similarly, Linda Smith pointed to a decisive experience at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in 1985 that brought the issue of war and the loss it represents to her consciousness. Seeing the names of the deceased soldiers who were her cohorts made concrete the human price of warfare as numbers and statistics were translated into the reality of individual lives and faces. "I got blown away at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. . . . I looked at the faces of the statues and I had a very intense emotional reaction. I began to cry. All of a sudden I thought, 'God, what did we do and what do we continue to do?' I knew," she insisted, "I had to make a commitment at that time to my children's future and the future of other children"(transcript #57).

Justine Merritt, initiator of the Ribbon Project, traced her peace venture back to a specific dawning of the magnitude of her concern for the life of the earth during a prayer retreat. "Back in February of 1982, . . . I was not working for peace and I did not want to work for peace . . . In February, however," she remembered, "I went on a retreat to pray -- literally -- for guidance for my life . . . But something happened . . . One morning, again in prayer, the poem 'Gift' was given to me, and even the frightened, stubborn child in me could understand that the path I was to follow led not to South America, but towards working for peace at home." She reminisced that on that day, "I faced the reality that the lives of my grandchildren are in jeopardy, Beethoven's melodies are in jeopardy, every flower and shell and bird is in jeopardy, and the planet is as vulnerable as I am" (transcript #40).

Whether these conversions may be viewed as products of a gradual awakening when concerns slowly made their way to the surface of consciousness or sudden transformations brought on by specific situations, events, or information, the consequence in each case was an altered understanding of the human meaning of living in a nuclear culture. The previously utilized, socially-provided lens that scaled the nuclear arsenal down to livable and acceptable proportions was replaced with a new set of glasses. Seen through the corrective lens, the presence and proliferation of nuclear weapons dominated not only the present landscape but threatened the future with devastation more awful than the scenes depicted in the Revelation of St. John. For those initiated into the apocalyptic vision, it was obvious that the current culture trajectory was leading to a humanly devised apocalypse bereft of redemptive side effects, even for the elect. From the perspective garnered by seeing the situation in a new way, it became clear to these women that there existed a real and present threat to the lives and well-being of those whom they valued.6 As one activist stated, "I think there are many issues worth being involved in and that need to be done to make a revolutionary change in our society, but I think that peace in the broad sense is the most important, and particularly anti-nuclear work, because it is the most potentially destructive at this point. Other problems can be solved if we don’t blow ourselves up in the next few years. But I feel very strongly that we are in peril." The very names of several of the new organizations reflected their perception of the problem and the critical nature of the situation: Women Against Military Madness, Women’s Party for Survival, Mother’s Embracing Nuclear Disarmament, and Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament.

In light of the perceived threat, the significance of having a voice in national decisions around nuclear issues became real and compelling. "Those nuclear weapons are aimed at you and me, our friends, our neighbors, our kids. We have to aim back with votes, with our petitions, with our voices, to tell the people in Congress, in the White House, in the Pentagon, here and in the Soviet Union, and all over the world, that people want to live," declared Bella Abzug at the National Women's Conference to Prevent Nuclear War in 1984. Reflecting the sentiment of both the radical feminist and other women's groups, she added that, "Women can afford to be nonpartisan about peace. We know the difference between national security and a profit motivated military megalomania that can destroy this world--SURVIVAL!"

From the activists’ vantage point, it seemed clear that they could no longer allow defense policy to be formulated without reference to their concerns. Women needed to become more involved at every level of the political process in order to work effectively for the creation of a society that reflected and respected their values as women. Their values, many of which can traced to cultural expectations for women and the experience of living out these cultural mandates, include nurturing, care and protection for children, the elderly, the sick and the vulnerable, family, community, relationships, religion/morals and love. These concerns can be seen as focusing on life-creation, protection, preservation and repair. Once the catastrophic implication of the nuclear paradigm of defense and safety was "brought home" to them, these women began to function as activist missionaries, spreading the gnosis and entering into the ongoing dialogue on national defense and international conflict resolution. An overwhelming conviction of the seriousness and magnitude of the threat nuclear weapons posed motivated these women to address the nuclear situation. These convictions needed to reshape the communal endeavor and be translated into national policy.


Friends and Family First

After internally clarifying the nature of the threat posed by nuclear armaments and why this was a salient issue to them as persons, these women began sharing their concerns with immediate family and members of their associational circles. Drawing upon their previously established networks of social relations, they turned for support to women they knew shared their values and priorities. As a founder of Feminists International for Peace and Freedom (1983) recollected concerning the collective effort of her friends in the genesis of that group, "We were in the living room when we started to talk about how to form it over a cup of coffee." Her story resembled that told by the initiators of the Center for a New Creation, who referred to the rudimentary explorations of the group of friends as the "birthing process of the Center." According to one of the founders, when it began "we used to meet once or twice a week in our kitchens on a rotating basis, whoever needed to be home because of a sick child or something."

When speaking of the genesis of Peace Links, Betty Bumpers related the role of her social network in the debut of the organization. "After about a year of thinking about it, because at first I was just overwhelmed when I realized that the best plan we had come up with was mutually assured destruction, I got together with a few of my friends and our Christmas lists," she remembers, "and started the basis for Peacelinks. Four years later, we have somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 names and addresses of people who have found us."

Justine Merritt shared a similar story concerning her project. "Well, first I had this idea, the first week of March `82, shared the idea with a few friends, felt affirmed in the idea, made a little flyer in the spring of `82 and mailed it to everybody on my Christmas card list . . . "

Linda Smith related that immediately upon returning home to California from the Washington, D.C. trip to the Vietnam Memorial she utilized her established social connections in San Diego as the basis for her initial sorties into peace activism. "I got home, called 50 friends in about three days, and they showed up at my house on May 1, two weeks later. And we started to organize a march in San Diego."

In each of cases, the original group was moved to widen their circles to include other women whom they assumed had similar interests, experiences and values and would perceive the same threat. Based on their personal conversion experiences and subsequent activism, these women believed that an individual's subjective assessment of a situation could be altered by exposure to new information (gnosis). They also believed that the information they now possessed concerning the human meaning of the arms build-up would prove to be decisive evidence when delivered to pertinent groups of women. They saw their own apprehensions and reservations regarding nuclear weapons as being more than personal issues and identified themselves and their concerns as representative of a particular class of people, i.e. women, particularly those in nurturing roles. Barbara Weidner, reflecting on her decision to organize a peace group, stated: "I said, `Wait a minute, if I can do this, other grandmothers all over the world can do it!' Other women were asking me, `Do you have an organization?' I said, `No,' but after I got out of jail I said okay to the women who were asking." Linda Smith, using similar reasoning that her experience touched concerns that were characteristic of mothers in general, was led to found an organization for nurturers. "Now in San Diego, California, I knew I'd have a challenge on my hands. We're a naval town. We're a conservative town, but I felt that my maternal instinct was what brought me to this and how can my feelings be any different from any of my friends in this town?"

Entertaining Strangers

For women such as those mobilized by Linda Smith, Betty Bumpers and Justine Merritt, women who had concluded that "mutually assured destruction" was a "mad" scheme, activism was a necessary expression of their concern that such destructive policy not be carried on in their name, justified as a necessary tactic to protect their integrity and interests. It became clear to them that larger segments of the population must mobilize if the trajectory towards nuclear confrontation were to be stopped. While each of them turned first to their previously established social networks, they felt the need to reach broader circles of people who shared a set of values and concerns similar to their own. As Mrs. Bumpers asserts, "I decided that what we needed to do was make peace an acceptable main-stream activity."

Each of these new groups endeavored to expand its influence by recruiting from beyond the reaches of known contacts. The next step was the equivalent to the sawdust trail of Christian evangelism: new participants were recruited through arranging attention-grabbing public events during which the audience could be proselytized and converted. Many of the events also featured another aspect of the evangelistic routine: the call to decision and change. Ann Cahn, the director of CNS, provides an example of this when she addressed the LA Women’s Conference on National Security in 1985. Moving beyond information communication, Cahn charged the women present with responsibility for engagement in the political process. "We, You and I, have to ask what is it all about? What is it all for?" she explained. "We have tolerated and we have endured. Now we need to confront and to change."7

Ann Cahn’s April 1985, Los Angeles Women's Conference on National Security, sponsored by the Washington-based Committee for National Security (CNS), was very typical of many of these educational, public outreach conferences. The two-day conference, located on the campus of UCLA, was an intensive exposure to issues surrounding Soviet-American relations, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the economics of defense, arms controls strategies and the problems of nuclear proliferation. The group brought in military and international relationship experts, such as former director of the CIA William Colby and 1978-79 chief U.S. negotiator at the SALT arms control talk, and movie star Margot Kidder to join established women activists in the presentations, thereby arousing the interest of a range of individuals that might not ordinarily be attracted to listen to women talk about defense. The stated goal of the conference was to "educate a broad spectrum of women about national security issues and to encourage them to participate knowledgeably in the decision-making process."

Many other women’s group used similar models, inviting distinguished militarists, political office-holders, book authors, journalists, and movie stars to attract a broader base of participants. Other meetings drew together the leaders of the various new women’s peace organizations along with women in political office. Still other groups created conferences featuring speakers from professional organizations discussing the impact of military spending or the possible nuclear holocaust on a specific area of concern (teaching, health care, child welfare, etc). The goal was to attract an increasingly wide base of women and tie the peace agenda of the group to the lived experience and concern of the listeners, while creating a larger (more powerful) coalition.

Their efforts to raise public consciousness through leafleting, formal presentations of arguments, teach-ins, public lectures, talk shows and petitions functioned to bring the subject into public view, paving the way for further dialogue.8 As they began to present their arguments and rationales for the necessity of limiting military imagination, they were engaged in establishing a moral basis for change.

Initial attempts to gain political representation for their antinuclear convictions revealed that they had to overcome several obstacles if they were to be taken seriously as a political force. As political novices, they had to learn how to participate actively in the policy making process. This entailed learning how to resist the forces that they identified as conspiring against the life they valued and acquiring strategies for recruiting others to their view. They had to demonstrate that significant numbers of politically active women believed that the arms race and nuclear weapons are not in their best interests and convince national political leaders to respond to their voices. They had to believe that they could understand the issues involved and stand up to male authority without being intimidated or discounted. They had to find the courage to venture out of the private sphere and into the male dominated world of technology, throw weights and military strategy. Most importantly, they had to clarify and articulate what it was they that wanted and what they would accept as "enough" change to avert the impending apocalypse.

The small, nascent gatherings of concerned individuals gradually grew into visible and viable organizational forms capable of tapping resources beyond the previous circle of intimates. The challenge of maneuvering into a position of political efficacy required education in both the issues and political process. In order to claim space in the public dialog on national defense policy, the women involved had to become more informed, more sophisticated and more confident in the public arena.

Attracting Women As Women to the Public Arena

Even a cursory review of the preceding sections reveals that women's recruitment to peace activism in the Eighties drew heavily upon traditional gender images and roles. The culturally engraved images of woman (and the effective energy around them) were employed to precipitate engagement. In the interviews and literature alike, cultural ideology concerning the nature, roles and sphere of women frequently were utilized to justify women’s mobilization against military projects. Traditional gender rhetoric supplied a set of well-developed arguments concerning female moral sensitivities and responsibility to protect the vulnerable. While this gender-mandate was employed to justify and stimulate women’s participation, it also performed a second function: it countered the inherent legitimacy of current governmental policies and programs by associating them with masculine priorities and endeavors. As one bumper sticker popular among the activists notes, "A Mother’s Arms Are Not Nuclear Arms." The women interviewed felt that women were neither responsible for nor invested in male-planned military strategies that disregarded their own highest priorities. This left them with a greater perceived freedom to critique and resist the nuclear armaments that they had not generated.

During the interviews, activists consistently employed traditional images of female being and task in their explanations of their activism. Concern for the well-being of children appeared as a motivational theme in sixty-seven percent of the interviews, and was identified as the prime reason in thirty-six of the hundred interviews.9 In a response typical of the one-third of the sample who listed children as their prime reason for activism, one woman offered, "I feel like I owe it to my kids to give them a chance at an excellent life. They may blow it, but I don’t want anyone else to blow it for them" ((transcript #9). The persistent concern for the welfare of children as a motivating factor that appeared in the interviews is consistent with the stories related by several women who started national peace organizations and the recruitment literature designed to encourage women to redefine the meaning of responsible parenthood in the nuclear age.

Activists co-opted cultural myths and symbols to legitimate proposed counter-cultural activity. They supplied connectors between each of these major identity constellations and the present need for purposive action, thus assisting the uncommitted to redefine the meaning of the central components of their female identity in light of the nuclear threat. Endeavors to draw a larger constituency of women into the debate frequently specified that the discourse on nuclear weapons was laced with suppositions that contradicted and undermined the values with which women have been symbolically associated (and form the basis of women’s gendered moral imperative). They argued that this provided women with a culturally legitimated (read moral/religious/spiritual) mandate to question and resist the nuclear arms enterprise (read: act salvifically).


Groups that focused upon the activation of women's networks, emphasizing "women's" values, experiences and responsibilities served to establish a common ground from which a dialogue could be initiated between women from diverse life-experiences. The basic assumption of these groups was that gender, or motherhood, was the most significant identity component for women. The invitation was to join in a dialogue that recognized the distinct hermeneutic that may arise from a life of nurturing and to probe the current requirements of responsible female personhood. The women's groups and conferences provided a concrete social space in which women investigated and clarified their life experiences, value systems and information on the situation in community with other women. Most significantly, these groups signified a conscious intent to explore and continue the cultural conversation on violence and national ethics from the basis of their own experiences as women. Women's conferences, gatherings, retreats and symposia probed women's resources for the generation of a social corrective.

Within women's peace circles, individuals were requested to bring the attributes and values associated with women--feelings, intuition, caring and understanding of interconnectedness of all--into the discussion to reposition the dialog. Women were asked to examine information on the current situation and evaluate it in light of their values and commitments. They were given space and opportunity to articulate their own vision for the community (nation) and the changes that needed to happen in order to achieve it. In the conversations, women’s experience and concerns were privileged, and contrasted with the military model of relations that determines the current defense programs. In various meetings and conferences, speakers probed the implications of incorporating traditional women’s values into national policy. The supposition was that acting on "women’s values" would create policies premised on different values and priorities than the ones currently informing national choices, making a "new age or era" possible. The actions of these groups corresponded to what Phillip Lamy has called "secular millennialism," in that they built "an organization of ideology, politics and an alternative plan for society"(p.256). Their work was, on one level at least, a clear example of millennial hopefulness: they would avoid the apocalyptic specter and move into the millennium of security.


Several outcomes of the women’s peace movement of the 1980’s can be identified. First, the apprehension of threat (the apocalypse) resulted in value clarification (what is important to me, what can I not bear to be thought of as lost forever by a nuclear holocaust?) From that clarification came a reaffirmation of values, (this is what I value and what I am about as a woman)[i.e. The Colorado Woman’s Agenda: In the Year 2010] and a vision of what it means to embody those qualities (value sets) in the current situation. It also resulted in action, as a value, to be a value, must not only be prized but also acted upon. Within the movement, the catastrophic consequences of inactivity (not acting) were perceived to be so dire as to call into question the veracity of claims to value life and be a nurturer or religious person if one did not commit personal resources to transforming the national trajectory.

The urgency of the situation necessitated reaching beyond the socially arranged separations of race, belief system and class. Activists were forced to ask questions about who (which groups of women) were not present in the circle and why, and to establish mutual ground with those who did not respond to their initial recruitment efforts. As activists succeeded in gathering a coalition of women to enter into the national debate and resist the nuclear trajectory, they were required to appreciate some of the real differences in women's daily lives as well as their commonalties.

Many women who had been content with their situations and roles as women were forced to reappraise gender stereotypes. The sphere in which they operated was outside the circle of policy-making. The decisions concerning national defense were located within an arena in which they had limited access and their voices as women possessed little effectiveness. In endeavoring to exercise their political voice, they discovered that politicians and military policy makers did not take them seriously. In their own uncertainty when confronting individuals elected by their votes, they discovered that they had internalized the belief that women have nothing significant to say about the military endeavors of the nation.

The forum created by women from disparate backgrounds interacting around nuclear issues led to a more in-depth deliberation and investigation of the situation than originally envisioned by the founders of many of the antinuclear groups. Conferences, associational meetings and coalition rallies designed to encompass women from diverse situations, asked each participant to bring individual perceptions and key life experiences into the group discussion. These exchanges resulted in a larger understanding of the daily impact of the construction of the nuclear weapons on real lives. Thus, the internal dialog among women resulted in an increasing understanding of the nature of the situation in which the issue of nuclear armaments was located, the interconnectedness of various social maladies, and the nexus between the political and the personal. Women who had begun activism in an attempt to protect their own children from a nuclear holocaust (the coming apocalypse) discovered that "the bombs were already falling" in many neighborhoods, thus redefining the situation from future to present event. Issues previously identified as individual concerns were redefined as social problems necessitating group action.

The interchange among diverse women resulted in the evolution of the dialog and an increasingly sophisticated analysis of the situation, and the utility of reflecting on individual experience in the formation of social critique. (Does this social arrangement, or this policy, or this practice, reflect my values? How does it affect them and the things or people I care about? How would this need to change to serve my interests and values? How is this arrangement experienced by other women in the conversation? What perspectives do their respective locations bring that inform or critique my own?) It also produced an unanticipated reassessment of their own millennial vision and the social implications of their values and lived experiences.

These discussions moved from the private sphere of the home to the quasi-open space of the church or club and them fully into the larger public sphere of the town and nation. The evolution of individual and group analysis, strategies and vision reveals the potential of public dialog on social issues and the key roles of vision and values in the task of mobilizing a population to transform an established social paradigm.


The women’s peace movement of the 1980’s did not usher in a new age characterized by just and right relations, the hope of all millennialists, nor avert permanently the possibility of nuclear disaster. At the same time, it is impossible to calculate the effect of the various demonstrations, petitions, letters to politicians and other forms of direct activism. The groups did succeed in mobilizing large numbers of a previously uninvolved population in the effort to prevent a holocaust and convince the government to reduce numbers of nuclear weapons.

The significant contributions of these groups may lay in the movement made towards demotic millennialism, where an increasingly empathetic model of relating towards the "other" was built into the project. Conscious efforts to expand the activists’ circles resulted in a redefinition of the project and objectives beyond the initial concern to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons to that of creating a community at peace. Women who were jolted into activism initially by the perception of an immediate threat to their own children evolved a commitment to the long-term project of moving towards peaceful and just relations at every level of social interaction. Women who previously lived their values in the private sphere took those standards to the public arena and began the slow, hard work of multi-dimensional, multilevel social transformation. From Betty Bumpers’ Citizen diplomacy to Mennonite work with conflict resolution in schools, mediation in domestic relations, Israeli-Palestinian dialogues and voter registration drives, women applied the information they received in public dialog toward the creation of a more just and peaceful social order.

While millenarian expectations and apocalyptic apparitions come and go, they can bring with them a public dialog of group values and social vision. Movements arising from such moments can articulate the current trajectory of the society and press for alternative paths. While one cannot expect results to exceed the clarity and breadth of the social vision of a movement, the vision itself can be educated. The experience of the peace groups studied indicates that vision is clarified through dialog, action and reflection. The story of women’s peace activism in the 1980’s is a testament to the transformative potential of public dialog.

Works Cited

Beyette, B. (1985). "Women Speak Out in a Nuclear World, The Majority that’s No Longer Silent." Los Angeles Times. 1 May.

Bumpers, B. Founder of Peacelinks

Caldicott, Helen. Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War

King, Y. (1985). "All is Connectedness: Scenes from the Women’s Pentagon Action, USA". Keeping the Peace. 56.

Landes, R.A. (2000). Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements. New York: Routledge.

Sheldon, S. (1985). "Organizing a National Campaign: Women’s Party for Survival, USA". Keeping the Peace. 30-39.

Trinity, M. (1983). "Women Share Leadership". Nuclear Times, 1, 7. 15.

United Statement of the Women’s Pentagon. Action 339 Lafayette St. NYC, NY 10012


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