Women in Nuclear History: Bella Abzug

By Rachel Emond, Scoville Fellow

Bella Abzug: A young, empowered woman from the Bronx who grew up to be a founder of Women Strike for Peace, a woman-led organization that began lobbying for nuclear nonproliferation in 1961.

Perhaps one of my biggest pet peeves is when organizations, businesses, and individuals only focus on the contributions of women during Women’s History Month or on International Women’s Day. Don’t get me wrong; aside from February 13, aka Galentine’s Day (thank you, Leslie Knope), International Women’s Day might just be my favorite holiday. Every year, IWD serves as an all-day celebration of the millions of women from all over the world who are changing their communities for the better. Whether it’s providing support for victims of domestic abuse, championing a global health initiative, or changing the way policymakers communicate with and are viewed by the public, women everywhere are doing truly incredible things. I love that International Women’s Day gives me the opportunity to learn about these women and appreciate their success with people across the globe.

Realistically, though, women have contributed far too much to fit it all into one month, much less into one day. In the field of nuclear nonproliferation, women have had significant impacts through their work as activists, policymakers, lobbyists, researchers and diplomats. Instead of dedicating one or two pieces to a select number of women, I am excited to launch the “Women in Nuclear History” series for this blog. Together, we can learn about and honor the contributions of women, past and present, far beyond this one glorious day or month of female empowerment.

To kick it off, I want to recognize Bella Abzug, a female activist who played a leading role in founding a pretty incredible organization.

Bella Abzug is a Jewish woman originally from the Bronx. She was a force to be reckoned with from a young age, something that both her mother and father encouraged. When her father died, Bella was a teenage girl who was not traditionally allowed to say the Hebrew “kaddish,” a Jewish prayer that is often recited to mourn the loss of a family member. But Bella’s father had no sons to say these prayers for him, so she took it upon herself to stand up to her disapproving congregation.

In addition to her mother and father, Bella’s Hebrew teacher was similarly emphatic about her capacity to effect change. He recruited her to join a liberal Zionist labor organization and Bella not only joined, but also used her platform to give passionate public speeches to raise money for the organization. Blanche Wiesen Cook writes that she was, “A spirited tomboy with music in her heart and politics in her soul.”

In 1961, after a string of leadership positions (including student council president at Hunter College, editor of the Law Review as a student at Columbia University Law School, and practicing lawyer at a labor law firm), Bella helped to organize a group of women to create Women Strike for Peace (WSP). The organization was officially formed as a response to more than 50,000 women across the country marching to protest above-ground nuclear testing. Its efforts contributed to the successful passing of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) signed by the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR. This treaty banned the testing of nuclear weapons under water, in outer space and in the atmosphere. Amid Cold War tensions that were reified by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, it was an incredibly significant treaty.

Women Strike for Peace has left behind an important legacy. After helping build support for the LTBT, WSP continued to advocate for nuclear nonproliferation. WSP’s goal was to get the “average woman” to engage in activism for peace and nuclear threat reduction, specifically by framing nuclear issues as impacting children, mothers and families. In hindsight it makes sense that this would be a successful tactic in a post-World War II era.

In the early 1960s, women were playing new and important roles in the workplace on a large scale like never before. During WWII, women were called upon to take up traditionally male roles in order to keep the home front operating during the war. Government propaganda emphasized that it was a woman’s duty to do her part on behalf of the familial men in her life who were away at war. After the war ended, many women were back at home and looking for ways to stay engaged in civil society. Women Strike for Peace was able to turn this momentum of empowerment amongst women into action.

At a speech in 1984 addressing what she called the “gender gap,” Bella spoke on the societal inclusion of women.

“We are saying we are entitled to our shared economic resources of this country. We are entitled to equal pay for comparable work. We are entitled to jobs. We are entitled to opportunities in the political arena. We are entitled to have some hope for our family with a decent environment. We are permanently entitled to world peace, which is the only way in which we can rebuild and restructure this society to make it open to all people.”

It’s important to recognize that while WSP’s efforts were admirable, they weren’t without problems. In the beginning, their engagement approach largely excluded women of color, uneducated women, and women of lower socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, though some progress has been made, this type of exclusion still exists in feminist movements and the overall security policy community today. As we move forward with a mindset of deliberate inclusion, we must not overlook the diversity of backgrounds of the women we include. Issues related to human security affect marginalized communities disproportionately, so it’s important to hear from these women and to use their insight, experience, and expertise to create policies that are comprehensive and effective.

In the end, the significance of WSP isn’t necessarily in how they were able to include women, but that they intentionally included women. Today, the nuclear policy community again finds itself asking: How do we get women in the 21st century engaged? How do we make nuclear threat reduction matter to the “average woman” in 2019? For example, while the Limited Test Ban Treaty was passed in 1963 with the strong support of women, we are still fighting to globally ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. As we push for ratification from China, North Korea, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the United States, the question of how to best engage women remains relevant.

Nuclear risks are only growing, so there’s a lot of work to do. I think that what we should take from WSP’s legacy is that if we intentionally include women in our advocacy work, we can and will make major progress.

Editor’s note: Women in Nuclear History is a new blog series written by our Scoville Fellow, Rachel Emond.