Dagmar Wilson and Women Strike for Peace

Dagmar Wilson. (Photo Credit: Washington Post)

In previous posts on the Pauling Blog, we’ve not only examined Linus Pauling’s role in stopping the atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs, but also the important part that Louise Reiss and the Baby Tooth Survey played. Today we will explore two more of the most crucial players in prompting the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty: Dagmar Wilson and Women Strike for Peace.

Dagmar Searchinger was born in Manhattan on January 25, 1916. Her father worked as a foreign correspondent for CBS Radio and, as a result, much of her childhood was spent outside of the United States. In 1937 she graduated from the University of London’s Slade School of Fine Art, and shortly thereafter married Christopher Wilson. The couple had three daughters and Mrs. Wilson began a career as a children’s book illustrator.

In the 1960s, Wilson and her family were living in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D. C.  One September afternoon in 1961, while reading the daily newspaper, she came across an article on Bertrand Russell‘s arrest for participating in an anti-nuclear demonstration in London. In a New York Times article dated November 22, 1961, Wilson recalled that Russell’s arrest “made me so mad I wanted to hire a jet and go over there and picket. Instead, I picked up the phone and called a few friends to see if they felt the same way I did.”  As it turns out, the friends did share Wilson’s opinion, and the group agreed that they should take action. As Wilson put it, “we decided it was up to the women because the men are trapped in the course of daily events.”

And so it was that, several discussions later, Women Strike for Peace (WSP) was created. The loosely organized movement wasted no time in becoming active, and ended up harnessing a large number of supporters very rapidly. On November 1, 1961, approximately 50,000 women marched in 60 U.S. cities to demand an end to atomic bomb testing. Wilson led the group of close to 1,500 that marched in Washington, D.C., and that same day received letters of support from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and from Nina Khrushchev, the wife of the Soviet Premier. President John F. Kennedy also took notice of the demonstration, and in a news conference held two months later, acknowledged WSP’s efforts.

WSP’s next major stand against bomb testing was very similar to Linus Pauling’s Nobel-worthy protest. The result of a major petition drive, WSP participants gathered over 50,000 signatures demanding a stop to nuclear testing, and in April 1962, Wilson and 51 other members traveled to Geneva where they presented the petition to the chairmen of a disarmament conference that was taking place between delegates from 17 countries. In August of the following year, Women Strike for Peace, Linus Pauling, and Louise Reiss were all elated to see their shared goal achieved, when the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which banned all atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs.  A few months later, Pauling was announced as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962.

As it turns out, Women Strike for Peace also provided a connection between Wilson and the Pauling family. Ava Helen, for one, was an active member of the international branch of WSP and both Paulings spoke at WSP-sponsored events on a number of occasions. Beyond this, Linus Pauling also represented a rather influential figure in Dagmar Wilson’s life. In a letter to him written on January 4, 1962 – the first correspondence between the two that we have on record in Special Collections – she noted that “it was your steadfast stand before the Dodd Committee two years ago that made me resolve to take the stand I did. Perhaps others will see their way to follow suit in the future.”

In 1965 Pauling likewise lent his support when Wilson and two other members of Women Strike for Peace found themselves in a similar situation.  The three women were called to testify about their peace activities before a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee and were subsequently convicted of contempt of Congress on account of their refusal to testify in a closed door hearing. The next year, an appeals court overturned the decision, but the entire affair stood out as a stressful and traumatic chapter in Wilson’s life, as had been the case for Pauling in his similar battles with the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1960.

Although the extant correspondence between the Paulings and Wilson is sparse, it is easy to see that their relationship extended well beyond their connection through Women Strike for Peace. In 1981 Wilson sent a birthday card to Linus Pauling, in which she wrote

Best wishes for many happy returns of your birthday. Fancy being eighty years old and still ahead of your times. Do you think that our world will survive long enough to catch up?!

Almost three weeks later, Pauling responded

It was good of you to write to me. Ava Helen and I had a fine time on our birthday – several parties. Our work on cancer and other diseases is going along well. I believe that the world will survive, but that it will be a close call, especially with Reagan in office.

The exchange not only provides an interesting look into the pair’s relationship, but also into the somewhat less-than-optimistic outlook on the world that these two long tenured and battle scarred peace advocates shared, at least at the dawn of the Reagan era.

Dagmar Wilson died on January 6, 2011 at the age of 94.

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