Dorothy Marder's Activism in Historical Context
Women Strike Peace | Bella Abzug | Vietnam War Protest | Anti-Nuclear Protest | National Women's Conference
Women's Liberation | Women's Pentagon Action | Women's Encampment for a future of Peace and Justice
Lesbian and Gay Activism | Identity House
Women Strike for Peace
Women Strike for Peace (WSP) was formed in 1961 after over 50,000 women across the United States marched for peace and against the above ground testing of nuclear weapons. The women behind WSP wanted to protect their families from the threat of nuclear weapons and growing militarism. Leaders of the organization, including Dagmar Wilson and Bella Abzug, and many more are featured in Dorothy Marder's photography.
WSP is significant among peace organizations for its lack of official hierarchy and exclusive dependence on the volunteerism of women. Composed of mostly white, educated, middle-class women, the WSP utilized the socially aceptable, domestic roles of mother and wife to call women to advocate for peace for the sake of their children. Because of this core tenet of familial protection, WSP leaders believed they could convince the “average woman” to work for peace. In doing so, WSP women challenged Cold War era notions of militarism and gendered roles.
Counted as a important success for WSP, the passage of the 1963 Test-Ban Treaty agreement between the Soviet Union and United States prohibited above ground nuclear testing. By 1964, WSP members re-focused their energies on protesting the Vietnam War. Among their activities during the War, WSP women organized countless public demonstrations and rallies across the United States, met with women from North and South Vietnam, organized boycotts, met with United Nations and political figures, and counseled draft resisters. The group maintained a strong and concerted opposition until the War’s end in 1975.
Although WSP was led by strong women, feminism and Women’s Liberation were not facets of the organization until the late 1960s. But as the Women’s Liberation Movement grew in the 1970s, some WSP members became even further radicalized. In January of 1969, WSP joined with younger women from other parts of the anti-war movement and the Women’s Liberation movement to organize the first all-women’s march in Washington, D.C. to protest the war. Calling themselves the Jeannette Rankin Bridgade, after the first woman elected to Congress in 1917, hundreds of women marched in the nation’s capitol. Rankin herself joined the march and helped the women gain access to members of Congress. After the Vietnam War, WSP returned to its original focus, working against nuclear proliferation. Today, WSP's legacy of peace activism lives on in contemporary women peace organizations such as Code Pink. Today,
Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print.
Harriet Hyman Alonso, Peace as a Women’s Issue, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 202-210, 221-222. Print.
From the second month of WSP, New York activist Bella Abzug was integral to the political direction of the organization. Throughout her life Abzug was a vocal proponent of civil rights, feminism, and anti-nuclear proliferation. A Columbia University Law School graduate, Abzug was a powerhouse for social justice in the male-dominated of New York, and later national, political scene. Abzug successfully ran for the House of Representatives in 1970, with the strong backing of WSP support.
Literature: Amy Swerdlow. Women Strike for Peace.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print.
Vietnam War Protest
The Vietnam conflict originated between the formally French-backed Indochina Bao Dai government in the south of Vietnam and the communist Viet Minh of the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh. The French withdrew from their former colonies in IndoChina by the mid 1950s. As part of Cold War strategy to control the spread of communism and Chinese influence in Asia, the United States began sending aid to South Vietnam in 1955, in support of their opposition to the North Vietnamese. In 1960, President Kennedy sent some of the first U.S. troops to South Vietnam, as advisors to the government in Saigon. U.S. economic and military aid to South Vietnam increased throughout the War.
Although never officially declared a war by Congress, in reality, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam was recognized internationally as war. Opposition to U.S. involvement in IndoChina coalesced into a broad anti-war movement by the mid 1960s. It grew out of a coalition of groups previously opposed to atmospheric nuclear testing, the growth of militarism during the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, and student-led social justice organizations. As U.S. military commitments increased in Vietnam and spread to Cambodia and Laos, so too did the anti-war movement gain support across a broader spectrum of the American public. Objections to the war included moral opposition, concern for the fate of thousands of young American men killed or wounded, horror at the killing and maiming of millions of Vietnamese civilians and ecological destruction of that nation, practical concerns about the feasibility of defeating the North Vietnamese, and concerns over increasing international political instability.
Protests against the war included political lobbying,public demonstrations, destruction of draft and FBI records, and bombings. These protests ranged in scale from huge national demonstrations with tens of thousands attending, to a few people gathered on a corner block. Thousands of protests across the United States occurred during the decade of 1964 to 1974.
Dorothy Marder’s photography during the period of the early 1960s to mid 1970s documented the “real” anti-war movement, particularly in New York City. Marder believed that the large news corporations covered only national demonstrations, distorted the reality of the anti-war movement, and neglected the small or local protests. Her photographs in the Vietnam War section document this more local face of anti-war activism. In addition, there are images of more Vietnam war era demonstrations on display in the Women Strike for Peace section.
Charles DeBenedetti, Charles Chatfield. An American Ordeal. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990. Print.
After the end of the Vietnam War in the mid 1970s, peace groups, such as Women Strike for Peace, renewed their focus on protesting nuclear testing and the escalating Cold War arms race. Concerned with the survival of the human race, activists aimed to educate the public concerning the harmful effects of nuclear weapons, advocate for nuclear disarmament, and legislate nuclear power. With the 1979 Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station accident, outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, many in the U.S. became aware of the potential dangers of even civilian nuclear power. Anti-nuclear activists believed that the material created at civilian-run nuclear power plants could be used by the military to create weapons. Well-regarded scientists, such as physicist Carl Sagan and Australian pediatrician Helen Caldicott, spoke out in the media about the horrors of “nuclear winter” - the complete destruction of the earth and human life in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
Protest against nuclear weapons was manifested in demonstrations, legislative efforts, and destruction of military property. The anti-nuclear movement was the largest social/political movement to date in both Europe and the U.S., throughout the decade of the 1980s, with protesters numbering in the millions at some larger events.
As a logical extension of her Vietnam War protest and feminism, Marder was an activist in the anti-nuclear movement. She was involved in the movement with WSP, as well as taking part in some of the more radical protests of nuclear facilities; including, the Women’s Pentagon Action, the Women’s Peace Encampment for A Future of Peace and Justice at the Seneca Army Depot in Romulus, New York (1983), and protests at nuclear power plants such as at Indian Point in New York (1980), Stoneham in New York (1979), and Seabrook in New Hampshire (1978). Her photography uniquely captures the determination and community found in the movement.
Harriet Hyman Alonso. Peace as a Women’s Issue. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 202-210, 221-222. Print.
Charles DeBenedetti, Charles Chatfield. An American Ordeal. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990. Print.
Women’s Liberation, 1960s,
In the years after World War II increasingly women entered the paid work force, even after marriage, despite ubiquitous discrimination and cultural pressures to remain in the home. A variety of political and cultural shifts in the 1950s revitalized social awareness of women’s roles and the need for a new emphasis on women’s rights. President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women (1960) attempted to document discrimination against women in the work place. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963) was one book published early in the 1960s which helped focus attention on the plight of American women. Friedan’s work a powerful and controversial book exposing the mass discontent of many middle-class women and challenged post-war ideas of domesticity. Feminists who had long fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and other rights for women were able to lobby successfully for the inclusion of Title IX in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title IX was a huge victory for women’s rights, making it illegal for institutions or corporations receiving federal funding to discriminate based on sex.
The 1960s were an era of social consciousness, political activism, reform, and radicalization and women were significant activists in the growing anti-nuclear movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. Women’s Liberation was a broad-based movement of radical and progressive women, and fostered female activism. In 1965, feminists including Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Flo Kennedy, and many others, founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), an influential, progressive organization focused on fighting for equality for women in all aspects of U.S. society. During the 1970s and early 1980s NOW led the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment to the federal constitution which would have outlawed discrimination based on sex. Only 35 out of the needed 38 states ratified the amendment, and the ERA did not become law. Issues women raised in this “Second Wave” of feminism grew to include equality in education and the workplace, marriage, legalizing abortion and reproductive rights, questioning of male militarism, and female sexuality.
More radical feminists, who believed that a transhistorical and transnational patriarchal system primarily oppressed women were active on a broad range of issues outside of legislative and institutional politics, especially after the late 1960s. Throughout this period Dorothy Marder continued to be active in progressive and radical feminist circles, as well as more traditional women’s organizations such as Women Strike for Peace.
Literature: Mary C. Lynn, Ed. Women’s Liberation in the
Twentieth Century. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 1975.
National Women's Conference, 1975
The re-newed fervor of women activists in the 1960s and 1970s forced the presidential administrations of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter to establish various federal commissions to explore the issues of equal rights for women. President John F. Kennedy created a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in the 1960s, and President Lyndon Johnson appointed a Citizen’s Advisory Counsel on the status of women. . The United Nations declared 1975 to be “International Women’s Year”; and later declared 1975 to 1985 the Decade for Women. When he became President, Jimmy Carter appointed Congresswoman Bella Abzug to head the Commission. Abzug later proposed a National Women’s Conference.
Two years later, the first National Women’s Year Conference was held in Houston, Texas. Women from all 50 U.S. states and territories attended. Notable women in attendance included Grace Paley, Betty Friedan, Maya Angelou, Corretta Scott King, Bella Abzug, Margaret Mead, Elizabeth Holtzman, and among others. Later, Dorothy Marder would write:
"It was the first time in American history
that so many women from so many different backgrounds…were able to
assemble together in one place to talk and to hear each other…We
connected with each other in a profound way." (55)
Conservative women and men were also a presence at the Conference, including anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly and her supporters, pro-life supporters, the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazi Party, and the all-white delegation from Mississippi (a state with an African American population of over 36% in 1970).
A National Plan of Action was voted on at the Conference proposing action on important national women’s issues, such as domestic abuse, welfare, Equal Rights Amendment, disability, minority rights, reproductive rights, and education. 25 of the 26 resolutions of the National Plan of Action were passed.
Dorothy Marder documented this historic event by photographing what she calls, “the ‘ordinary’ woman, who, of course, was extraordinary”(50) who attended the conference. Attending the Conference was particularly influential for Marder’s own personal and political growth. She wrote, “Houston was indeed a turning point for me. Although I had photographed dozens of conferences in the 70’s, this conference had a very special meaning for me.”(56) Marder was particularly touched by the testimonies at the Conference of lesbians oppressed “at work, in school, in the military…fears of being ‘found out’ by husbands during divorce proceedings… [and] losing their children.” (56) And she found empowerment at the Conference in the community of women “all feeling free to be who [they were]” (57).
After the National Women’s Conference (1977) Marder prepared a spread for a liberal women’s magazine, The Feminist Bulletin, and included this photograph. However, the editor objected to publishing this photograph because of its homosexual content. Marder, in turn, refused to let her other photographs from the Conference to be published without this photograph. Marder explained to the editor that the word lesbian had been used to oppress all women, who “allowed [themselves] to be strong, independent, assertive, and yes, aggressive.” (57) To embrace the word lesbian is empowering for all women because at its core it means a woman who loves other women (57). This withdrawal of her photography was Marder’s first public activism for lesbian rights and an early coming out experience for Dorothy Marder herself.
Marder, Dorothy. “Houston: IWY National Women’s Conference 1977.”Dorothy Marder Collection, Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Folder: Life Experience Portfolio for Fordham University, 1989.
Mississippi Census Data: <http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0056/tab39.pdf>
Women's Pentagon Action
The Women’s Pentagon Action (WPA) was an east coast organization founded in the late 1970s by radical feminists who connected the issues of feminism with a gendered analysis of ecology, peace, and militarism. When the U.S. government announced plans to deploy in western Europe a new generation of nuclear missiles capable of reaching Soviet soil within minutes, nuclear war seemed imminent. In response to this escalation in U.S. nuclear policy, feminists organized two protests (in November of 1980 and November 1981), during which hundreds of women surrounded the Pentagon military complex (Washington, D.C.) attempting to close or disrupt “business as usual.” The members and supporters of the WPA came from women’s liberation groups, radical feminists, lesbian feminists, peace activists, and ecofeminists.
Street theater, with large puppets and mock tomb stones erected on the front lawn of the Pentagon were some of the powerful tactics employed by the protestors. Women encircled the Pentagon and closed the front gates with string, which symbolized the web of connectedness between all living things that would be destroyed in a nuclear war. Supporters of the WPA wrote one of the first feminist statements connecting the patriarchal oppression of women with war and environmental destruction. Their “Unity Statement” represented the voice of all women and emphasized outrage at the government’s militarism and nuclear policies that threatened all human life and health of the planet. This feminist-organized nuclear protest fostered women around the country as well as British women to protest U.S. nuclear policies. Notably, two women from WPA returned to England and went on to led organization of the Greenham, England U.S. Air Force base protest. Many women from WPA continued on to take part in the Seneca Army Depot encampment (see below).
Women’s Pentagon Action Records, Swarthmore College Peace Collection
Harriet Hyman Alonso. Peace as a Women’s Issue. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, NY, 202-210, 221-222. Print.
Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice
The Seneca Army Depot located in Romulus, New York was a transshipment facility housing short-range nuclear missiles destined for deployment to western Europe. Protests by peace activists at the facility began in the early 1980s. By 1983, feminist peace activists planned for a summer-long series of protests at the Army Depot. The women were in part inspired by the 1981 march and subsequent long-term women’s camp protesting at the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common, England.
In the summer of 1983, thousands of women from diverse backgrounds and various peace and feminist organizations came together to set-up an all-women’s peace camp on purchased land next to the Depot in Romulus, New York. The peace camp was known to the activists as “Seneca”. These feminists connected militarism with a patriarchal assault on the environment and human life.
Women went to the Seneca peace camp both to protest nuclear missiles and to live in feminist community. They valued environment, peace, cooperation, and unity and saw the possibility of creating an alternative to male patriarchal and militaristic society. Protests included jumping fences to invade the base itself and directly challenging the U.S. military with a constant oppositional presence.
The sense of community fostered at Seneca had a lasting impact for many of the women who spent summers at the peace camp. The camp, drawing in thousands of women for a few days or the whole summer was run cooperatively; all of the women were responsible for maintaining sanitation, food preparation, and logistics. The protests, political discussions, and community building inspired many women to carry their feminism and political activism into many other arenas. Women remained at the camp protesting the nuclear weapons throughout the 1980s.
In 1995, the encampment was turned into a retreat center and women’s community called Women’s Peace Land. As of 2010 Women’s Peace Land reverted to the local county government for unpaid back taxes. The Seneca Army Depot closed in 2000 and the land was transferred to the Seneca County government.
Wendy E. Chmielewski, “Resisting Nuclear Madness: The Utopian Vision of the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice,” [unpublished paper], Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, 2001.
Lesbian and Gay Activism
Marder’s photographic career documents the fluid progression of her activist interests: from Vietnam War protest to anti-nuclear and women’s liberation to lesbian and gay rights. Although superficially different participant and cause, Marder’s activist involvement and photography had the consistent aim for human rights and a concern for the individual activists. Her photography of Gay Pride Parades, Dyke Marches, and Lesbian Feminist Display, maintained her artistic eye, high quality shot, and psychological involvement seen from the beginning of her career. But by the late 1980s, the woman in front of her lens had been exchanged from a strong 1970s WSP member in a pea coat protesting the Vietnam War to a topless, proud lesbian marching for gay rights.
Coming out as a lesbian was a liberating experience for Marder and was a vehicle for self-exploration, as well as political activism. Membership in the gay and lesbian community, political activism, and desire for visibility is evident in her photography. As with her entire body of artistic work, Marder documented the people, activism, and events of New York City Gay Pride Movement during its early years.
Many have identified the June 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City as the start of the Gay Rights or Gay Pride Movement. The AIDs tragedy of the 1980s and beyond fostered and renewed unity between gay men and lesbians in the movement (Stein). However, other historical events also informed the political stance of many gay and lesbian activists of the 1970s and 1980s. During the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, gay and lesbian activists “believed they were waging a revolutionary struggle to free the homosexual in everyone” (Stein, 32) But the sexual revolution and 1960s feminism were rarely inclusive of homosexuality (Stein). In the 1970s, many lesbians identified with the changing women’s movement instead of the gay liberation movement. Radical feminists in the 1970s more frequently identified themselves as lesbians, or rather lesbian feminists – women who reject the values and culture of men and traditional masculinity, choosing women and egalitarian values instead (Stein, 43). Some lesbians believed that women had to separate from men, including gay men, in politics and in every day life. Women of color were largely excluded from the lesbian feminist movement, which incurred backlash from the community (Stein, 125). Bringing race and class into the conversation of lesbianism shifted focus onto multiple facets of oppression and broadened the lesbian identity (Stein 125).
Dorothy Marder was always active on issues of race, class, and gender, and in her personal life and photography she often bridged several lesbian and gay identities. Her work as a peer counselor for Identity House gave her insight and compassion for the whole spectrum of the New York City lesbian and gay community. Although not specifically lesbian events, with her images of the Women’s Pentagon Action and Seneca peace camp,Marder made statements on separatist feminism. Yet, she also documented Gay Pride Marches which were inclusive of both men and women.
Stein, Arlene. Sex and Sensibility: Stories of Lesbian Generation. 1997. University of California Press, Berkley.
Jeffreys, Sheila. Not a Passsing Phase: Reclaiming Lesbians in History 1840-1985. 1989. The Women’s Press Ltd, London.
In 1983, Marder became a peer counselor at Identity House in New York City. Identity House was an open door, non-profit organization offering support for the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community. Marder invested much of herself into Identity House – counseling, leading workshops, and organizing events. A sampling of titles of workshops she led are “Body Image and Personality,” “Lesbians are Natural Deconstructionists: Books & Life,” “In the Realm of the Sense: Reading/Writing/Speaking on Desire.” Regina Colangelo, therapist at Identity House, described Dorothy as “skillfully attuned to the internal and interpersonal dynamics of the clients.”
Marder, Dorothy. “Counseling.”Dorothy Marder Collection,Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Folder: Life Experience Portfolio for Fordham University, 1989.
Writen by Elizabeth Matlock and Wendy Chmielewski, 2010-2011