«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: I don't think I knew it, then. And I didn't study gender in university. I'm not sure that gender studies was in universities in the '50s. Not until what year?
Q: Well, it was, but it was all men gender!
Weiss: That's a good point. [laughter] So no, I did not know women's history at that time.
Q: Had you ever heard— Weiss: I only learned about Bertha von Suttner recently.
Q: Had you ever even heard of [Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom] WILPF?
The Women's International— Weiss: Oh, yes.
Weiss: That we knew, because that's why we created WSP. For some reason, Dagmar, who started, she was absolutely the point person who started Women Strike for Peace, WSP, decided not to join WILPF. WILPF brought baggage, political baggage. We were interested in doing one thing, just getting rid of atomic bombs.
Q: What kind of baggage did they bring?
Weiss: I think they brought political baggage. They were party members, and I don't remember everything. But I know we wanted to start fresh. The two organizations existed parallel, side by side. But we distinguished between them, and Women Strike attracted—we never counted, but there were thousands of women across the country who participated at the local level in Women Strike chapters. Twice, we splintered. The first time was when the Vietnam War started to break
When Cardinal [Francis J.] Spellman was given a check for $10,000 to go and hire the South Korean army to go in our place, to South Vietnam. Women Strike women split because some of them wanted to stay with the disarmament issue. The majority of us wanted to get involved in the anti-war issue. That splinter lasted for a few years, and everybody eventually came into the antiwar movement. That was very important for me, as a national figure in Women Strike, and a lot of interesting things happened as a result.
Q: You were on the side— Weiss: Of the anti-war.
Q: The Vietnam War, that we consider, that we have to move toward concentration on the war.
Weiss: Right. And on July 4th, 1969, we met with the Vietnamese women in Canada on our most patriotic holiday. We had a huge number of women from the United States going up to Canada.
We were barred first by the Canadian customs officials, and somehow negotiated our way in, I can't remember how that happened. But Mrs. Benjamin—Mrs. Dr. Spock was with us, and an
with the Vietnamese women there. And that's when they said to me, "Will you come to Vietnam, and bring two women?" So that— Q: Let's see how far we've moved. When you said— Weiss: Well, we can't stay in 1961 forever!
Q: No, but you said there were two splits.
Q: The first split was over the Vietnam War versus a much more generalized disarmament.
Weiss: Right. And then I'll tell you about the second split?
Q: Second split.
Weiss: OK. The second split was a few years later when a number of us in Women Strike realized that we couldn't grow, unless we adopted a domestic issue as well, agenda; and unless we reached out to women from the religious community, and women from the African American community. So we adopted the name Jeannette Rankin. She was the first American woman
World War, and none of us were ideological pacifists. Nuclear pacifists, yes; but not other kinds of formal pacifism.
Q: That contrasts, say, the Quakers, or people— Weiss: Right. We were not Quakers.
Weiss: We were not anti-Quakers, certainly.
Weiss: But we supported the Second World War. And we talked about just wars. The Jeannette Rankin brigade started with four or—[interruption] I'm sorry. So, the Jeannette Rankin brigade was named for Jeannette Rankin. The object was to bring together women from the religious community, which we did; women from the African American community, which we did; and talk about: “End the war in Vietnam, and racism and poverty at home.” So, that became the dominant issue in one sentence. We had a demonstration in Washington where we were all together, black and white, Catholic and Protestant and Jewish.
I don't know if we were Muslim-conscious then. Probably not. The Jeannette Rankin brigade was
sustainable. Why, I don't know. But neither was Women Strike for Peace sustainable. I mean, after the war was over, everything went either back, or to new places.
Q: Yes, I was trying to look for the definite end to the Jeannette Rankin brigade, but I couldn't find a moment where that happened.
Weiss: I don't know if there was a moment. I think it petered out.
Q: Get back— Weiss: But we made new friends.
Q: But, getting back now to the Washington march, it was a march to the capital, rather than just a march in the city.
Weiss: That's right.
Q: Which, of course, was against the law.
Weiss: But we didn't have a license, permit?
Weiss: Oh, there was a court—you're very smart! If I had read my own history, I would know about that, but I haven't! [laughs] Q: The capital police posed a limit.
Weiss: That's right.
Q: Which was appealed, and lost in court. So, there was a limit beyond which you could not go.
Q: So the rally was held, and then afterwards, there was a conference. Do you recall the— Weiss: I have a photograph of Coretta [Scott] King and Jeanette Rankin. It's a terrible photograph taken with a very old, small camera, and me and Amy sitting at a dais, in a hotel, I think. Probably in a hotel, and we were talking.
Q: Do you remember that meeting?
Weiss: Not very well.
Weiss: Really? Tell me why.
Q: Because it was the first confrontation that many women in Women Strike for Peace had— Weiss: Ever had.
Q: —with the second wave of feminists.
Weiss: Oh, really? The stockings, whatever they were called?
Q: Well, there were women there who were arguing that the issue was patriarchy.
Weiss: Right. Well, now we're smart, and we know that patriarchy plays a role.
Q: And in that conference, they, a number of women, organized a group that split off.
Weiss: Oh, of course. That I remember.
Q: And carried out of burial of traditional woman in Arlington Cemetery, or moved to. Do you recall that at all?
Q: You don't recall your reaction to that?
Weiss: No. Well, I didn't go with them.
Q: That's one of the most vivid parts of Amy's book.
Weiss: Oh, really?
Weiss: I read that book a long time ago.
Q: Because it was the first time, she was quite shocked by these women, and she said it was a very—a turning point in the history— Weiss: Well, we all, actually, resented is the right word? Didn't like their interference. I know a group of—I can't say feminists, because we were all feminists. We didn't call ourselves feminists yet, but we did, later.
Q: No, but—
Q: These people did—the radical feminists, right.
Weiss: Right. Exactly.
Q: This was the first time you met the radical feminists.
Weiss: Right. They tried to interfere in Canada at one point, at some of the meetings with the Vietnamese women and the Vietnamese men, and were very shocked, because they didn't have radical feminists in Vietnam. So, they didn't have that experience at all.
Q: Was that the meeting in which someone raised the issue of what happens with lesbians in Vietnam?
Weiss: In Vietnam? Probably. We really objected to that. I mean, we were protecting the Vietnamese women from them, I guess. But you know, I don't think that became a huge thing in life for me. They were there, but we kept doing our thing. So, those were the two splits. The first one to drop disarmament in favor of anti-war, the second one to—we didn't drop Women Strike.
We just brought Women Strike as much as we could into the Jeannette Rankin brigade. The women that we met with then became lifelong friends. I remember Anne [McGrew] Bennett, who was the wife of the president of Union Theological Seminary. I can't remember too many other names. But in any event, that's when I first met, I think, Maxine Waters, whom I spent time with afterwards. All of that cascaded into Women for Meaningful Summits [WMS], Women in
Q: Let's stick to the movement, the anti-war movement. Starting with the Jeannette Rankin brigade, that you said it was organized, and you wanted to bring in new constituencies. There were religious women. What role did you think—how did you relate to the religious—I don't want to say element, because it was such a strong part of the peace movement. But the religious impulse within the peace movement?
Weiss: We had enormous respect for them, because we recognized how much of an enormous impact they could have on public opinion, and because they were nice women. So, we had a woman from the Jewish Women's Congress, there's another word missing from there between Jewish and Women. National Congress of Jewish Women.
Q: Jewish women, yes.
Weiss: I think something like that. We had a woman who was very active in the United Methodist Church. We had a woman who was the wife of the Union Theological Seminary president, and others. We really worked together. We were very respectful of each other. We organized in consensus fashion. They were important, and as a consequence of all of that, I became a delegate of the World Council of Churches [WCC] to the Nairobi—to the 1985 Women's Forum. I went to the Beijing Women's Forum also, in 1995, but it wasn't—it was as a delegate of the International Peace Bureau [IPB]. The Nairobi meeting was very important in my
Q: That's who the religious group is.
Weiss: Right. But that was religious, because I was representing the WCC.
Q: Back to the religious grouping. The religious grouping was made up of some very different kinds of characters. Were you aware of those differences, say, between the Quaker Peace Groups and the Catholic anti-war movement?
Weiss: Well, the Catholic anti-war movement was the pacifist movement.
Q: Yes, it was the pacifist movement. But it was— Weiss: Yes, and it was radical pacifist.
Q: —much more activist, much more, you know—the Medea, Pennsylvania, when they broke in.
Weiss: Right. That's an important point that you raise. We opposed civil disobedience, but we didn't oppose them, the civil disobedient people. My role very frequently was to make demonstrations safe for women and families. I wanted to see families come to demonstrations, and they would be put off if there was going to be CD, civil disobedience. Or, at least if the civil disobedience wasn't going to be separated, somehow—and I had a hard time persuading the mostly-men organizers of those national demonstrations. I remember once going to a meeting in
and the two of us wouldn't let them go forward in the conversation, until they could assure us that it would be safe for families. That was an important contribution, I think, and I think it helped make the demonstrations grow.
We certainly didn't have any—you're not going to like this—on June 12th, 1982, in Central Park, when we came back to disarmament. That was the major anti-nuclear demonstration, where we had a million people. We never would have had a million people if there was going to be civil disobedience.
Q: Yes. And increasing as the '60s wore on, especially within the student movement. And actually, some of the more radical men's movements, there was a conscious attempt to provoke the police. A conscious attempt to provoke police action.
Weiss: Some of us thought those were police people moving in on us.
Q: Next time they'd— Weiss: We were aware of FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] interference. Very much so.
When we had the Ring Around the Congress, where Joan Baez and I were kind of central characters, we definitely had interference. Do you remember that at all? Ring Around the Congress?
Weiss: Am I allowed to go there now? [laughs] Q: Yes! You can go to the Ring Around the Congress, because that's still within the purview of— Weiss: Totally. It was pouring rain, and all of a sudden— Q: First, what was the goal of it?
Weiss: The goal was to get enough women together who, holding hands, could ring the congress the building, which is quite large in Washington.
Weiss: I yelled out, when the last woman came to me, and I was at the microphone, "We've rung the congress!" Joan was with me. It was an amazing feat. The whole thing was to stop the war in Vietnam. But the night before, we were threatened that anybody who came into Washington would have to pay a tax, "a poll tax," and we were told that it came from the African American community, saying this. This threw us into a tizzy!
Weiss: We had a meeting in the basement, or in the ground floor of a motel the day or the night before. It was pouring rain, they were predicting rain forever, and roads would be closed. And we had this threat.
Q: How did it come to you?
Weiss: A message. I can't remember how. But somehow, we all were told that this was the demand. It didn't occur to anyone yet that this was a hoax, and that it was something that the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] or the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], or one of the DIAs [Defense Intelligence Agency] was putting out to try to stop our demonstration. It showed how strong we were. [laughing] So that was a very huge almost-interruption, because we decided to go ahead, and there was no tax. But that took a lot of work, to make that decision.
Q: But it also speaks— Weiss: Because we were legitimately scared.