Women for Peace Going Strong After 40 Years

By Becky O’Malley
Friday December 05, 2003

As Madeline Duckles tells the story, she and a loosely organized group of Berkeley women were hosting an informational house party for neighbors, with the idea of spreading the word about the risks of American presence in Vietnam, when the television news came on. The Cuban missile crisis had started. 

The year was 1963. 

The casual student of recent history might think that opposition to the Vietnam War started somewhere in 1967. The more sophisticated student might think it began nearer to 1964, and connect it somehow to the beginnings of what became the Free Speech Movement. But the real genesis of the anti-war movement, in Berkeley and a few other parts of the United States, started in 1961, when mothers around the country became aware that fallout from above-ground testing of nuclear weapons was depositing radioactive Strontium 90 in their children’s teeth and bones.  

Madeline Duckles (then the wife of a music professor and mother of five sons) and some of her friends put together an informal coalition of concerned “mothers and others” to work against nuclear testing. They identified the problem as being not only nuclear testing, but militarism in general. Some of them were already member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an old pacifist organization which was started in 1915 by Jane Addams. But WILPF decision-making in those days was slow and bureaucratic, and the Berkeley women thought that quick direct action was needed. So they formed Berkeley Women for Peace to publicize the nuclear threat. 

“We had no leaders,” she said in an interview this week, “we were all leaders.” 

When the first reports of “American advisors” in Vietnam surfaced in 1963, they were ready to get to work. Forty-two years later, she and women like her are still working for peace. Only a few of the founding mothers like Madeline are still alive (she’s now a vigorous 87), but others have taken their place. In between, there have been many struggles, many victories and a few defeats. 

President John Kennedy ended atmospheric nuclear testing in 1963, but the war in Vietnam, continued un-derground nuclear tests and related issues have kept Berkeley Women for Peace busy for the last 40 years.  

They’ve made a lot of friends in unexpected places along the way. Madeline reminisces about taking the “gambler’s special” cheap flights to Las Vegas for one anti-nuclear demonstration in the desert in the 1980s. On the plane back, tired, dirty and sunburned, the demonstrators ordered drinks. The women in the flight crew were so sympathetic with the cause that they insisted that drinks were on the house.  

In recent years, Berkeley Women for Peace have turned their focus to the Middle East. They leafleted early against both Iraq wars, and continue to organize letter writing campaigns and demonstrations. Middle East peace is now one of their current study areas. 

At WFP’s annual fund-raising luncheon on Sunday, Dec. 7, Dr. Minoo Moallem, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Department Chair at San Francisco State University, will speak on peace and women’s and gender issues in the Middle East. The luncheon will take place at Berkeley’s Venezia Restaurant, 1799 University Ave. To reserve a place, call Women for Peace, 849-3020.