Agents of beneficial change: Women have played—and must continue to play—a key role in the nuclear disarmament movement

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Jennifer Allen Simons

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2012 Volume 33 Issue 1

Originally prepared for the Global Zero Blog, October 25, 2011.
Jennifer Allen Simons, C.M., Ph.D., LL.D. is President of The Simons Foundation and Founding Partner of Global Zero.

The greatest danger to humans is the existence of nuclear weapons. Yet it is a danger that seems to be banished from conscious awareness. Jonathan Schell believes this is because we cannot bear to face our own death. For the most part, it is in our dreams that our fear of nuclear annihilation manifests itself and as Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, said, the world is “sleepwalking to Armageddon.”

My own experience as an educator, advocate, activist, and funder for nuclear disarmament and for the prohibition of nuclear weapons began 26 years ago because I was horrified to learn that my young daughter was having nightmares about nuclear war. I undertook some research and learned that fear of nuclear war had become part of the psyche of young people in North America. Two psychological studies—one of kindergarten-age children in New York and one of San Francisco college students—confirmed that when these young people reported their dreams, nuclear war featured in all of them and yet none of them, in discussing their concerns, expressed anxiety about nuclear war.

I then established The Simons Foundation and the first grant was to endow a doctoral fellowship for women in physics, imagining—chauvinistically, perhaps—that a woman researching in physics, rather than being an Edward Teller, whose lifelong focus was in advancing thermonuclear weapons and the hydrogen bomb, would be a Madame Curie, seeking medical applications for human health.

My view was that women are more inclined to care about human life, about human security rather than state or military security, and have always been agents of beneficial change.

Women have played an important and effective role in the global nuclear disarmament movement since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They have participated as individuals, in groups, and many within women-specific organizations in active opposition to nuclear weapons.

Early mobilizations in the 1950s were the responses to atmospheric nuclear testing. And women drew on their experience as mothers as both justification and motivation behind their activism. Their many actions included the one-day strike in the U.S. against nuclear testing and the establishment of peace camps around the world modelled on U.K.’s Greenham Common to protest nuclear weapons placement and activity.

In the 1950s, women in the United States discovered that their breast milk was contaminated with traces of radioactive Strontium-90. And in 1958 many young mothers participated in the St. Louis Baby-Teeth Survey—a successful and very important civil movement for nuclear disarmament. These mothers mailed their children’s baby teeth to a research team for testing for radioactivity. The teeth of children born between 1945 and 1965 showed levels of radioactive Strontium-90 that had risen a hundredfold, and rose and fell in correlation with atomic bomb tests. This resulted in a campaign to ban testing, and acted as a spur to President Kennedy to negotiate a treaty to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in space, and in the water.

In 2001 a set of 85,000 of these teeth was discovered in storage and was given to the Radiation and Public Health Project, which then tracked the individuals. The results are quite disturbing. They showed that those children who later died of cancer before the age of 50 had levels of Strontium-90 in their stored baby teeth that was twice the level of those who were still alive at age 50.

These consequences of early nuclear testing provide a sinister snapshot of the potential for any survivors of a nuclear explosion of current weapons, which are of far greater magnitude than the early test weapons and would also be directed at a target.

The problem with nuclear weapons is that all of us—men, women, and children—are collateral damage in a nuclear incident, whether from a nuclear war, an accident, an accidental or malicious launch of a nuclear weapon, or those ticking time bombs like Chernobyl and now Fukushima, whose radiation effects are currently terrifying so many people around the world. Yet the effects from a nuclear power plant, though grave, are minuscule when compared to the catastrophic consequences of one nuclear weapon.

Concern about the issue has died away since the end of the Cold War. However, the dangers have remained and have, in fact, become more complex and thus accelerate the danger. The United States and Russia maintain their Cold War nuclear war plan and their nuclear forces are poised—on alert for immediate launch. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of nuclear weapons states has grown; nuclear capable states have grown in number; nuclear technology is proliferating and is also trafficked illegally; and terrorists are seeking acquisition to nuclear materials and nuclear weapons.

I am a Founding Partner of Global Zero. Global Zero has an Action Plan to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2030 and to ban them. We are encouraging women to return to this issue of enormous concern—to be in the forefront as they were in the past—to bring the concern, energy, and spirit that made the women’s movement for nuclear disarmament successful in the past.

I invite you to sign the Cut Nukes petition at and to join us in pursuing a world without nuclear weapons by 2030.

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