The winter issue of Wisconsin Magazine of History features an article, "Women for a Peaceful Christmas," about a group of Wisconsin women who launched a movement in 1971 that caught on nationwide. The WPC (as it came to be known) was both a protest against the war in Vietnam and a protest against the commercialization of Christmas. Why spend all that time and money battling the crowds and buying gifts in response to the reminders --“Only X number of days until Christmas” -- when, as enterprising women, they could make their own gifts at home?
In a photograph accompanying the article, a wholesome 70s-era mother looks on with admiration as her three children produce original artwork for their own Christmas wrapping paper. Another woman is pictured making preserves at her kitchen stove, to be sold at a “Peace Festival” in Madison.
Their purpose was not to boycott Christmas shopping. According to Nancy Unger, author of the article, “They proposed something even more radical: Americans should purchase only essential goods and services, not only during the holidays but every day of the year. And those essential goods and services should pointedly not be purchases from businesses that profited from the war.”
By Christmas 1972, the WPC had gained nationwide momentum and the Madison-area women became overwhelmed keeping up with statewide efforts while responding to mail from women all across the United States asking how to get involved.
The Make-It-Yourself effort, which has long been part of American tradition, gained resurgence that year as a call for peace. “War is not healthy for children and other living things” was a motto reproduced on posters and necklaces. A WPC booklet, “Alternatives to Buying,” included the following suggestions, each within a box decorated with a holiday image:
*Share your car, boat, sewing machine, tools or summer cottage with someone who has none. Offer a large space in your home for someone to give a party in. Give a corner of your garden to a city friend next summer.
*Remember shut-ins, old people, prisoners, and orphans. Plan songs, an outing or regular visits to cheer them. Continue your interest after the holidays.
*Give up a treasured personal belonging.
*Organize a toy swap in your neighborhood. Have children spruce up and wrap outgrown toys, books and sporting equipment to exchange.
In 1975, with the end of the Vietnam War, the WPC movement ended, but those who promoted it continued their work with peace and justice issues. Although by their own admission they did not make “much of a dent in an economy that encourages over-consumtpion,” they “nevertheless demonstrated that a small group of wives and homemakers, aided by the new wave of feminist and environmental thought, could wield meaningful power and influence,” concluded Nancy Unger.
Unger, an associate professor of history at Santa Clara University, is working on a book to be published by Oxford University Press, Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History,
Well, there’s something I can add to my own Christmas list for 2010. And as soon as I finish reading Unger’s book, I’ll remember to recycle it -- as a gift to my local library.
Meanwhile, I see that almost four decades later, Jan Cheney is still working for peace and justice issues. She is pictured in the Wisconsin Magazine of History as one of the “Raging Grannies,” an international organization of senior women protesting war efforts, promoting peace.