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'Vietnam Summer' Activism Seeded Women's Movement

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Summer 1967: Female activists help push rising opposition to the Vietnam War and campaigned door-to-door.

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Summer 1967: Female activists help push rising opposition to the Vietnam War and campaigned door-to-door.
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(WOMENSENEWS)--During the 1960s many women in political movements grew tired of being relegated to making coffee instead of making policy. The male-dominated anti-war movement in particular obscured women's work for peace and by the end of the decade, it would be clear that women needed a movement of their own.

In the summer of 1966, the fledgling National Organization for Women, launched by Betty Friedan and others, was gathering steam, while a lot of younger women headed for San Francisco or elsewhere bedecked in beads and humming Janis Joplin songs for "The Summer of Love."

But as the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam rose to nearly 500,000 and the majority of Americans said they did not know why the troops were there, what came to be called "Vietnam Summer" absorbed the energies of still more women. All summer long, volunteers across the country knocked on doors and educated citizens about the human, moral and economic costs of the war and the legitimacy of dissent.

Who were those women? Since nobody signed attendance sheets, participants in Vietnam Summer show their faces serendipitously. A recent obituary of Dr. Barbara Haumpt Mohrov, a Massachusetts professor of German literature, reveals her among the hundreds of anonymous female participants: "Starting with the local activities of the national movement 'Vietnam Summer' (1967) she participated in many vigils, protests and other activities attempting to promote peaceful resolutions to U.S. military actions."

Vietnam Summer took its name from the civil rights movement's "Freedom Summer" of 1964, when thousands of people went south to register black voters. Many civil rights activists joined the war protests. Among them was Diane Nash, who had orchestrated freedom rides to Mississippi three years earlier and was a firm believer in non-violence.

Along with writer Barbara Deming, whose history of non-violent activism stretched back to protests against nuclear bombs, Nash joined a delegation of women traveling to Vietnam to meet with the Vietnamese Women's Union. A delegation from the older Women's Strike for Peace--Dagmar Wilson, Mary Clarke and Ruth Krause--did the same in 1967.

The women's delegations returned to expose the government's deception about the extent of bombing and its damage to Vietnam and its civilians. They also promulgated a new chant among younger activists in the streets: "The women of Vietnam are our sisters." And, as delegate Vivian Rothstein said, "The trip thrust me into the role of public speaker for the peace community and changed my sense of my personal power forever."

At the end of Vietnam Summer, the young activist movement gathered in Chicago, Ill., to shape its future course. Women there were ignored and ridiculed. Some, including Vivian Rothstein, left to form a group of their own that became the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. A new political movement was being born.

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.

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