«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: So, we lived in Riverdale, it was 1961. I had two babies, I was still working on the airlift, which started in 1959 and went to '63. A woman, I think her name was Leona Grant. She lived in Riverdale, and she was also an early member of Women Strike for Peace, which was not technically a membership organization, because we didn't have dues, or— Q: But let's get back to that day.
Weiss: But she came, and we sat in the living room together, and she talked to me about it. It sounded great.
Q: What did she say it was?
Weiss: Who knows what she said? Oh, I know what she said. She said that Dagmar Wilson, who was an artist married to a British Consular General in Washington, actually in Leesburg, Virginia, became enraged when she learned about the atmospheric testing of atomic bombs, because the bombs would come down and hit the grass and explode, and the cows ate the grass, and we all fed our babies cow milk.
Q: This was the Strontium-90 debate?
Weiss: So, I said, "Sign me up," or whatever to that effect. It moved very quickly. That was the very early, early days of Women Strike. So I talk about myself as among the founders, the early members.
Q: What did you do that day?
Weiss: We started a chapter in Riverdale.
Weiss: Then there was a chapter in the North Bronx, and people would come to meetings. I remember Ruth Messinger, who was a young mommy then also, coming, and we would change our babies' diapers on the living room floor together. That was long before she ever thought about being mayor of New York, or borough president. We had a New York City central office, or eventually we had a New York City central office. And I— Q: Let's get back to the Riverdale club.
Weiss: Whoever could make it on a given day, ten, twenty, twenty-five people.
Q: And what would you do when you met?
Weiss: We all studied Strontium-90. That was important. We had to be smarter than the people we were going to see, to ask them to campaign against atmospheric nuclear testing, and for a treaty to ban it. That was the goal. That was the agenda. So, we did. At a certain point, I can't remember exactly when, we all agreed to send our baby teeth—here's another name you're going to have to help me with—to a scientist at Miami University Medical School, was it called Miami University Medical School? In Cleveland, Ohio. I don't think it was called Miami University. I have to look that up.
Weiss: But the guy who was the scientist, whose name I ought to remember, eventually ran for president on the progressive ticket. He was very well-known.
Q: Not Dr. [Benjamin] Spock?
Weiss: He died a few years ago.
Q: Oh, God, I should know that name.
Weiss: He was very important. He eventually lived in Long Island, and worked against the nuclear power plants on Long Island. Barry Commoner! Anyway, he was terrific, and he collected baby teeth from all of us Women Strikers from all over the United States, and tested them for the presence of Strontium-90.
Weiss: We didn't know if it was our babies whose teeth showed up with Strontium-90, but he found Strontium-90 in baby teeth. That was the killer chemical in atomic bombs. There were many killer chemicals, but we focused on one.
Weiss: That gave us our cred, our credibility, to go out and say this is what's happening, and we have to stop the testing.
Weiss: Probably first to the Riverdale Press.
Weiss: Which was published and edited by a wonderful couple, David and Ceil Stein, who were liberal, and who agreed to—I mean, here's a story from the Riverdale Press, it's coincidental. But that's not from that time. This is from later, because they ran my op-ed— Q: These are the copies of materials from the Riverdale Press.
Weiss: Yes, but that was in 1995 when the Beijing conference on women happened.
Weiss: But the point is that it was a liberal— Q: Notice how you move it— Weiss: I do, but—
Weiss: Because I was talking about the Riverdale Press. So, we probably started with The Press, with a press conference. Then we probably had talks in the town. There was a ‘Neighborhood House’ where we could talk, and we mostly mobilized other women and went on a demonstration, either in the city or in Washington. We grew and grew, and had meetings. I became the representative to the city, and then the representative to the national. That was my launching pad.
Q: When you became— Weiss: My living room was my launching pad.
Q: When you became the representative from Riverdale to a city committee— Weiss: The citywide organization, which had representatives from all of the communities in the greater New York area.
Q: OK. Do you remember some of the personalities that you met at that first meeting, the second meeting, the third meeting?
Weiss: Bella Abzug, for example.
Q: Yes! Tell me about your first meeting with Bella Abzug. Bella Abzug is a person that
Weiss: Bella was a powerhouse, and I like to think, and it may be because I can't remember, but I like to think that I was one of the few people she never yelled at.
Q: [laughs] Weiss: I'm quoted as saying that somewhere. She did a lot of yelling, but she did a lot of doing.
She was interested in the legislative side. We were interested in the policy side, that the U.S.
should not invest in atomic bombs. She was interested in domestic politics, I was interested in international politics.
Q: That would have meant just—a disarmament conference.
Weiss: And the U.N.
Q: And you negotiated through the U.N.
Q: Negotiated treaty, the test ban treaty, well, what eventually became the test ban treaty.
Weiss: It's that after we had everything in common, those were our separating goals.
Q: Well, I would imagine, from her point of view, if you're interested in politics, then the question is, where do you go?
Weiss: She went to— Q: The Democratic Party.
Weiss: Becoming the party.
Q: Yes. Whereas— Weiss: And the elected. I was not going to— Q: Your question, where do you go? It was to the U.N.
Weiss: —get elected anywhere. Right.
Weiss: But many of my friends in my adulthood I made from those meetings, Amy Swerdlow, who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, Judy Lerner, who is with us. She's ninety-two or three, and still going strong. So I had a lot of women friends from Women Strike for Peace, because that became my social life and my political life. Then I became a public speaker, as a result of Women Strike for Peace.
Q: And how did that happen?
Weiss: I went out speaking. You know how things happen?
Q: Who said to you, "Cora, you should give the speech?" Weiss: Well, you sit around a table, and somebody says, "You do it." That's happened many times in my life, the most important one, of course, and I'm going forward, was The Hague Appeal for Peace. Six of us sat around the table, and somebody said to me, "You be president."
That's how things sometimes happen.
Q: [laughs] When you first met the women from New York, can you generalize about who they
Weiss: They were mostly white. I don't know if it was— Q: When you say mostly, that means there were one or two—?
Weiss: Because it means that I can't remember if there were one or two who weren't.
Q: Yes. Do you ever remember seeing— Weiss: It's why we created the Jeannette Rankin brigade later.
Q: Did you ever remember seeing a black face at any of these meetings?
Weiss: Probably not in the beginning, which is why we split off. [laugh] Q: Back there— Weiss: OK. But every action has a reaction, didn't some famous physicist say that? We were probably mostly middle-class. We were mostly Jewish, I don't know, maybe. But not exclusively. And mostly liberal, left liberal.
Q: Either from the Communist Party or the Trotskyist Party?
Weiss: Undoubtedly. Pas moi, not me, but others.
Q: At that age— Weiss: We had very strong meetings. We had very good political conversations. Where are we going? What are we doing? How are we doing it? What slogans are we going to use? We learned a lot together. We invented things, because nobody had ever done what we did before.
Q: Can you give me an example? What did you invent? Give me an example of what you felt you invented.
Weiss: We had a demonstration at the Pentagon, and because they didn't like us—this was about ending the war in Vietnam—they closed their doors for the first time in the history of the Pentagon. We took off our shoes and banged on the doors of the Pentagon! We had slogans that said, "Not our sons, not your sons." Which meant the Vietnamese mothers and the American mothers. We laid down in the streets of New York with signs on our chests with the names of Vietnamese dead!
Weiss: It was a die-in.
Q: Die-in. And you did that?
Weiss: We did it, of course, with high heels and gloves and proper suits.
Q: How many of you were there?
Weiss: Oh, that was dozens and hundreds. I mean, we didn't count, I don't think. But the newspapers recorded a long line of women lying on the street.
Q: Now, how did that tactic emerge? You were sitting around, and someone said, "We should do a—" Weiss: Yes. We were sitting around, and people make different suggestions, until one pops out as one that we all accepted.
Q: OK. Now, you had been involved in organized political activities, or organized social political activities, such as the airlift, and working at WSP. Those were in regular organized organizations that said “We're a hierarchy,” and, et cetera.
Q: What did that mean to you at that point in time? I would imagine, was that a new kind of phenomenon to you?
Weiss: It was an informal organization, as opposed to a movement. It was an organization within a movement. First, within the disarmament movement, and second, within the anti-war movement. But we were an organization that designated representatives. I became a representative to the coalition of the movement. I also became a representative to the national organization of Women Strike for Peace. I think our staff person was a hire, and we had to pay her salary. So we must have had contributions. But we certainly didn't have dues. It was a very unique way of— Q: Do you recall how you raised money?
Weiss: —achieving some social change—pardon me?
Q: How did you raise money?
Weiss: Like everybody! With a tin can.
Q: Among who? At a subway, or a—
Weiss: So, we would pass the hat at meetings, or people would send in a check. There was not a lot of money involved.
Weiss: Because everybody was a volunteer, pretty much.
Q: Did you like that disorganization? You talked about— Weiss: I loved Women Strike for Peace. Loved it.
Q: Now, other people who have been involved in Women Strike for Peace do not talk about the organization. They say, "Oh, yes, we have representatives, but that wasn't the important part of it.
The important part of it was our day to day action.” Weiss: That's true, but the only reason I talk about “representative” is because that became the ladder, which led me to more national activity. I became a co-chair, the only woman co-chair, of the National Mobilization against the war in Vietnam. I became the co-director of the Committee of Liaison on the prisoner of war issue during the war. What else did I become? I can't
Peace to the coalitions or to the national organizations that I became a leader, I guess you could say, in the larger movement.
Q: I'm actually curious how that occurs, going from this kind of amorphous, participatory group to an increasingly complicated organizational structure that actually has representatives too, and then local bodies, representatives, et cetera.
Weiss: Well, nobody got elected. But people were told, or it was suggested, "You go to that meeting."
Q: Key women? Is that the term that was used?
Weiss: Probably. I mean, Amy Swerdlow became the Editor of the Memo after Barbara Bick, I think. She was in Washington. Judy became the Westchester representative. I became the representative to the coalitions. We were never elected, it just happened, somehow. That was the nature of the loose "organization."
Q: But they must—when you were all sitting around a table, people must have had a sense, at a very deeply personal level, that this was the person to do that, this was the person— Weiss: I guess so, if the way you speak and what you suggest, what you say, would give you the job. [laughs] I've always said, "If you don't want to do it, don't make a suggestion!" [laughter]
Amy's done a great job on her book, which I think is the only book about Women Strike for Peace. It's where we all learned what we know. Most of the women, when it was all over, which would be after the war in Vietnam was over, went either back to school to learn a profession, or to a job. I was one of the few who stayed with the social movement, or the movement for social change. I'm still there.
Q: In these initial meetings, what did you bring to those meetings? Did you have any sense of the traditional women's peace movements at all? Or the women's movements at all?