Before it was co-opted by sellers of greeting cards and flowers, Mother’s Day was an occasion for women to march for peace and to stage public anti-war protests.

Julia Ward Howe organized a Mother’s Day peace march in Boston after the Civil War and it became a national tradition in the late 19th century. Feminists in decades since have followed in Howe’s footsteps. In May 1982, Mother’s Day in northern California saw a gathering that would have startled the somewhat staid Howe.

The site was the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, run by the University of California. Livermore was one of two places in the United States that was designing and developing nuclear weapons. Although there was a long history of anti-nuclear protest across the country, an alarming near-meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania in 1980 had swelled the anti-nuke movement, which included many feminists. In California, especially, an evolving feminist spirituality movement had brought ecology-minded activists and practitioners of the ancient craft of Wicca into a tide of people determined to save the earth, starting with the elimination nuclear power.

The women who gathered at the gates of Livermore on Mother’s Day included Jackie Cobasso, who had been involved in Vietnam War protests as a student, and Starhawk, a Wiccan who had been leading rituals in political contexts and getting arrested for civil disobedience for some years. Many demonstrators came that day in costumes depicting death or adorned in clownish attire, but there were also gray-haired women in conventional skirts. In previous actions, demonstrators had stood at the main gate in costumes and carrying signs, waiting to be arrested, but this time a cordon of police were waiting.

Eighty-one women sat down in the middle of the road, refusing to move. Some employees, prevented from driving in, menaced the women with their cars. Four demonstrators chained themselves to the gate and poured blood on the ground. Those arrested gave their names as Karen Silkwood, the era’s famous whistleblower who had revealed contamination in nuclear plants and died mysteriously.

The arrests provoked larger protests. The women returned in June, along with the largest number of people in the San Francisco Bay area willing to go to jail over nuclear arms. Cobasso went on to become director of the Western States Legal Foundation, active to this day on environmental issues. Starhawk drew more adherents and wrote many books about the power of spirituality as protest. Livermore is still there, protestors still at its gates.

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 [email protected].

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For more information:

Julia Ward Howe, Mother’s Day Proclamation:

“Wilson Declares National Holiday for Mothers”:

“Mobilized Mothers Demonstrate Power of Heart”:

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