Beyond the conventional gender roles: The Role of Women in Anti-nuclear Movements


Nuclear weapons have been at the core of all major international discussions since its creation. It represented a state of revolutionised human affairs and kept decision makers on their toes. The destructive potential of the weapon hit the human conscious when the United States of America dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which altered the nature of war thereafter. The seed for Anti-nuclear movements were sown almost immediately after the nuclear attack on the two Japanese cities.

The Anti-nuclear movements are social movements that raises questions about the existence of the nuclear weapons; the threat (physical and mental) revolving around it, its uses and the presence of knowledge regarding nuclear technologies. The goals of the movement range from peace to environmental, from moral to intellectual activism. Unlike most of the social movements that emerged after the Second World War, the Anti-nuclear movements were unique with two key characteristics- meticulous planning and non-violence. These characteristics could be channelled and practiced because most of these Anti-nuclear movements were led by women. I was quite intrigued to investigate how a destructive weapon often associated with masculinity, power dynamics and rationale was fought against by women to generate awareness about its deadly potential. Women did not only participate but also organised campaigns of varied forms to educate the masses about the deadly weapon. All of these were done through demonstrations, speeches, rallies, posters and songs. It is quite interesting to study how the methods adopted for the movement were in sharp opposition to the harsh aggressive and deadly nature of the weapon.

This article will analyse the varied roles adopted by women while voicing against the Bomb by considering four anti-nuclear movements- Women Strike for Peace, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Greenham Common Women’s Peace Movement, and Seneca Women’s Encampment for Future Peace and Justice. This paper will end on a discussion on the relevance of anti-nuclear movements in the world today and what are the ways through which awareness regarding nuclear weapons can be generated.

The dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 amassed a veil of horror across the world and received sharp criticism. A number of movements came up immediately to protest against nuclear weapons which were mostly led by men. However, the period between 1950’s and 1960’s witnessed some interesting turn of events which altered the conventional gender roles. Women started voicing against the presence of nuclear weapons and challenged the prevailing gender-power nexus through a number of movements. The following section will delve into a discussion on four types of role that women adopted during the Anti-nuclear movements.

Humanity with Responsibility

The involvement of women in anti-nuclear protests brought about a humanitarian dimension in understanding the presence of the destructive weapons. Ever since its introduction, the nuclear weapons have been associated with ‘Masculine’ attributions that even the initial movements against the weapons were led by men. The National Committee for Sane Nuclear policy, one of the first such movements and majorly led by men published in one of their Ads-“Act Now for Man’s Sake”. However, women realised the need to come out on the streets to voice not only against the weapons but the whole power dynamics around the nuclear discussions which were primarily dominated by men. In 1961, an iconic Anti-nuclear movement called Women Strike for Peace came up to demonstrate against testing of nuclear weapons. They were overcome by the fear of radioactive milk and where agitated by the inconsistency of the peace groups ran by men. The group comprised of educated middle-class women, mostly housewives led by Dagmar Wilson as they marched in thousands towards the White House, to demonstrate against the testing of the weapons and eventually, were able to push the power blocs into signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Women, who were perceived as peace lovers and intellectually subordinate to men, altered this conventional notion by adding their ‘womanly touch’ with a sense of responsibility. Women felt a special responsibility to protect the children and the future generations.

Struggle for Survival

The nuclear attack on the Japanese cities wiped out almost half of the population; but what was even more traumatic was the account of the survivors. Even after 75 years of the nuclear attack, its aftermath is still fatal and catastrophic. The survivors of the nuclear attack who are called the “Hibakusha” played a prolific role in protesting against the nuclear weapons. The testimonials of the women were heart wrenching. Sayoko Fujioka, a Hiroshima Hibakusha, who lost her six month old daughter said in her testimonial,

“The atomic bombing was unforgiveable, but it couldn’t be avoided.” She further added, “I don’t have a photo of Shigeko, or a piece of clothing.”

Some of the survivors who immigrated to North America started documenting their survival stories which became a source for other women to empathise and join in the Anti-nuclear protest. The impending doom surrounding the weapons made the struggle for survival from a cataclysmic attack among women even more. In Japan, housewives launched the widespread petition campaign that resulted in the formation of Gensuikyo. The women within The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament came up with slogans like “Let Britain’s Women Lead” to counter against the male domination and slack in pushing for disarmament. Women are identified as caregivers and the effects of the weapons on children, pregnant women and unborn child terrified their thought.

Hysterical motherhood

Gender plays a significant role in understanding the dynamics around the nuclear weapons. A very prominent and striking role adopted by women during the Anti-nuclear protests was that of ‘motherhood’. Helen Caldicott, one of the key proponents of the anti-nuclear movements in one of her addresses stated,

“I want you to sit down tonight and write a letter. If you’ve got your own children: to them. If you haven’t: to the children of the earth.”

It addresses the women as ‘mothers’ to unite and urges them to save their children. Many of these movements were explicitly run by women where the ‘child metaphor’ was prominent. In the famous Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, women identified themselves as ‘mothers’ to give legitimacy to their protests for the safety and he future of their children. (Shepherd,8). The women are passionate, quite hysterical when it comes to their child. The collective identity of ‘women as mothers’ were a great way to make women emotionally connect, empathise and to save the future generation. It highlighted their importance in the public sphere as moving beyond the ‘kitchen space’.

Altering power dynamics

A very significant change in the 1960’s was the Second Wave of Feminist Movements which coincided with the Anti-nuclear protests. It encouraged women to question the existing power dynamics at the political level. Starting from state leaders to diplomats, from policy makers to even the presence of the nuclear weapons, everything was dominated by men. Women were considered intellectually subordinate to men and were attributed with the qualities of peace, love and calmness. Women realised the need to raise their voice within the public sphere to bring about gender equality. The Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice was a movement against nuclear weapons, militarism and patriarchy. It supported the need for Nuclear Education for all and brought about the discourses on Ecofeminism and Non-Violence. Women came forward to eliminate the distinction between the ‘private and the public space’ and to deconstruct the existing notion of power dynamics in the international system.

The nuclear weapons which emerged during the Second World War period thrived and prospered during the Cold War and continue to dominate in the post-Cold War period. The Anti-nuclear movements posed a challenge not only to the existence of the weapons but also in the other politico-social dimensions. The critics of these movements were sceptical about its success in bringing about disarmament. However, one cannot deny the substantial amount of influence these movements had on some of the major nuclear arms control treaties during the Cold War period. Therefore, as long as the weapons exist the prominence of anti-nuclear movements will persist. What is more crucial in this century is to acknowledge the fact that there are more nuclear power nations and therefore the threats are higher. In the context of South Asia, there is a major need to bring about Confidence Building Measures to ensure transparency and stability.

Some of ways in which nuclear awareness can be build are- through nuclear education, discourses within the academia, varied levels of diplomatic talks, awareness campaigns in schools and engagement between different civil society bodies. As Tenuko Ueno, another hibakusha says, “…the first step is to make the local government take action,” it all starts at home. Women have played significant roles in generating awareness about the weapons and have paved the path for the future generation to carry forward the baton.

Saanjana Goldsmith
Saanjana Goldsmith
Saanjana Goldsmith, currently pursuing MA Politics(International & Area Studies) at Jamia Millia Islamia University , New Delhi.


Pressure Tactic has little results

Political and diplomatic processes regarding the unrecognized Islamic Emirate...

The Plight of Christian Communities in Africa: A Tale of Persecution and Hope

Across the African continent, Christian communities have faced profound...

Counterintuitive Palestinian politics: Is Hamas treading a path paved by the PLO?

Spanish philosopher George Santayana didn’t have Palestine in mind...

Will the IMEC Survive after New Delhi G20 summit?

To comfort people who doubt the future of the...