Women Lit the Fire That Burned Draft Cards

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Protesting the war in 1969.

(WOMENSENEWS)–By the fall of 1969, 40,000 U.S. citizens had died fighting in Vietnam and public opinion to end the war was strong. Activists called for a national “Moratorium Day” on Oct. 15, 1969, to pressure President Richard Nixon to pull out of Vietnam.

Events that day–the largest expression of public dissent seen in this country at the time–unfolded on many levels. Street demonstrations took place in Washington, D.C., on college campuses and in churches. The media focused on men like Dr. Benjamin Spock, convicted the previous year for counseling draft evasion; Rev. Martin Luther King; Sens. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern; Catholic priests Daniel and Phillip Berrigan; and spokesmen for the campus-based Students for a Democratic Society.

But the anti-war organizing was also being done by women of several generations and many political persuasions. Opposition to wars has always been part of women’s history: Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day march for peace filled the streets of Boston after the Civil War. By the 20th century, Women’s Strike for Peace had evolved out of the anti-nuclear movement into a visible force against the Vietnam War. Among its founders, and quite visible on Moratorium Day, was New Yorker Bella Abzug, soon to be elected to Congress, where her first official act would be to demand a date for withdrawal from Vietnam. In 1972, Abzug would demand Nixon’s impeachment for “defying the will of the people to end the war.”

As night fell in the capital city on Moratorium Day, 15,000 people carried candles around the Washington monument, led by Coretta Scott King, identified by the press, in the custom of the times, as “Mrs. Martin Luther King.”

Although young men captured the camera’s eye as they burned their draft cards, much of the work of organizing draft resistance was done by women. Singer Joan Baez performed protest songs everywhere with a banner behind her that read: “Girls say yes to boys who say no.” In Greenwich Village, the Peace Center, directed by writer Grace Paley, organized and counseled scores of conscientious objectors willing to go to jail rather than serve in the war.

Arrested with the Berrigan brothers for actions that included pouring blood and napalm on selective service records of men scheduled to be drafted was former nun Mary Moylan, who later went underground with them.

Eugene McCarthy’s failed campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 attracted many younger women who went on to become lifelong activists. In student groups, females were confronting a system where, in the parlance of the time, “men made policy and women made coffee.”

Behind the men standing at the microphones as the day’s events were televised, an emerging mainstream national women’s movement was visible if you knew where to look.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at louise@womensenews.org.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom:
http://www.wilpf.org/

War Resisters’ League:
http://www.warresisters.org/

Julia Ward Howe, Mother’s Day Proclamation:
http://www.peace.ca/mothersdayproclamation.htm

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