Using Memory to Explore US Women’s Peace Activism

Jon Coburn, University of Lincoln

Is there such a thing as a women’s peace movement?

Recent studies of peace history illuminate the leading role played by women. There are organizational accounts of individual women’s peace groups set alongside histories of interconnected campaigns; distinct local, national, transnational, and international histories of women working for peace around the world; insight into the intersectional identities, racial politics, and feminist ideologies of activists themselves. All of which affirm the significance of women’s peacework to the context and achievements of twentieth-century social movement activism. 

For my part, I am fascinated by social movement memory – how activists speak of their past on their own terms; the eager productions of their own history; the dialogue between organizational narratives and individual life stories; changes to remembrance, both subtle and grand, that occur over time. For many years, activists themselves produced the only histories of women’s peace activism. They authored books and articles, ran and supported extensive oral history projects, conducted personal interviews, and penned detailed autobiographies and memoirs Activists also spent much of their time creating intra-organizational historical narratives – anniversary journals of organizational newsletters, celebratory dinners, reflective keynote speeches to conferences, artistic exhibitions, and community education endeavors. Each production forwarded a narrative of group and individual history, and each production offers a glimpse into who these activists think they were and had been. 

Reference to the women’s peace movement and women’s peace activism does not simply suggest that women acted within the peace movement, but defines a separate sphere of women’s protest altogether. Yet there remain questions over whether a substantive and distinctive peace movement exists separate from other progressive social campaigns. This raises a pertinent question – does a women’s peace movement exist? Is it a distinct and definable sphere of protest separate to women’s campaigns for other causes? 

Despite its storied past, women’s activism towards peace can plausibly be cast as a part of social justice and women’s rights campaigns that just incorporated peace issues into their broader aims. Many of the most high-profile women’s peace protesters could, for example, be accurately described as social justice and women’s rights campaigners.

I am both fascinated by, and argue against, these claims. The benefit of examining memory is that it illuminates the contours of this movement on activists’ own terms. For example, while historians use movement to describe the collective historic efforts of women’s peace activism, the term takes on more authority when campaigners themselves frame their history in this way. As discussed in my article, “Basically Feminist: Women Strike for Peace, Maternal Peace Activism, and Memory of the Women’s Peace Movement,” the leader of Women Strike for Peace Dagmar Wilson exhorted that she was a part of a “movement.” Many others represented themselves as “emissaries of the US women’s peace movement” when talking about their past. 

Autobiographies are especially revealing in this regard. Life stories are recorded with a particular goal in mind, determining what people recall and how they recall it. For activists, this is often about recruiting new members to a cause, providing an inspirational model for new followers, and advertising ongoing campaigns. What is telling in the memoirs and life stories I have examined is that women’s peace activists can be identified and delineated from those in other spheres. Even when deeming their peace work to be a feminist enterprise, or an effort towards women’s liberation, women’s peace activists foreground peacework in their life stories, showing that they identify more as women’s peace activists than as women’s rights activists, or even as peace activists in a broader sense.  

Yet there is a surprising disconnect between activists proudly identifying as part of a women’s peace movement and the apparent absence of a movement-wide shared memory, as occurs elsewhere. A useable folklore, shared stories, and historical consciousness are important for group cohesion, but they are also significant identifiers for a social movement’s existence. The civil rights movement, for example, drew upon numerous events and figures to create a sense of lasting memory and shared purpose. Contemporary activists in the women’s movement also use moments in history to inform a shared social movement identity. 

Studying the individual and collective memories of women’s peace activists reveals the absence of a useable movement memory. In their personal reflections and autobiographies, activists themselves rarely note the historic efforts of past campaigns and individuals. In fact, they actively questioned whether any women had ever done anything to further peace before. This is not because of a lack of history, and activists could draw upon any number of events, individuals, and achievements to inform their movement’s memory. The absence of memory could suggest that a sustained, continuing movement does not itself exist.

Instead, the apparent “historical amnesia” among declared women’s peace activists reflects other intriguing attributes of their social movement. Perhaps, as those like Amy Swerdlow avowed, it’s because the peace movement is heavily dominated by “male-led” histories and the personal testimonies of men and women’s peace history is still catching up. Another suggestion is that it reflects the way in which concern for war and peace ebbs and flows, reducing the ability for folklore and stories to become established and passed on.

Even these absences in memory suggest that women’s peace activists are distinct, definable, and identifiably separate from their peers. For example, they do not allude to moments associated with the women’s liberation movement to inform their own sense of self, such as the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique or the formation of the National Organization for Women. Nor do they recall previous peace initiatives as a part of their ancestry, such as the Aldermaston marches or anti-Civil Defense “strikes.” In fact, women’s peace activists overtly reject and separate themselves from the history and memory of other social movements, suggesting that they want to be positioned as an independent movement. Women’s peace memory may be narrowly tied to individual or organizational experience rather than to a shared movement, but it is nevertheless distinct enough to identify it as separate from other forms of social movement activism. My article delves into the varying presence of feminist ideas, identities, and memories among activists in Women Strike for Peace, specifically, and my fascination with that particular group continues (as it does in my monograph, which should (ahem) be drafted over this summer). I hope that, by exploring the memories and recollections of activists themselves, I illuminate peace activism as a rich, vibrant sphere of women’s campaigning in the twentieth century.