If my T-shirts have anything to say about it, 1979 was the year of the nukes and, not surprisingly, the anti-nukes. The environmental movement wasn’t a priority with me; in fact, in the 1970s and into the following decade, I was more than a little suspicious of it. From Earth Day 1970 forward, it looked like a movement of mostly white middle-class people who got queasy if you talked too much about sex, race, or class. I’m glad to say that it’s become a lot more intersectional since then.
There was a strong environmental current within feminism, however, evidenced by works like Susan Griffin’s landmark Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her and Andrée Collard’s The Rape of the Wild: Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth. The identification, even equation, of women with nature, nature with women, was and continues to be problematic: patriarchal thinking has long associated women with nature, and not in ways that acknowledged their power. Men were rational; women and nature were not. Women, like nature, so the thinking went, were there for men’s benefit.
To embrace the connection was to risk being deemed an “essentialist” — believing that women had some essential, innate nature that distinguished us from men. However, one needn’t be an essentialist to wonder if men with fame, glory, and/or profits on their minds are capable of imagining the possible consequences of their actions. Their shortcomings in this regard are nowhere more evident than in their treatment of the environment.
I recently learned from Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout that in 1969 — almost a full decade before Three Mile Island — the Austral Oil Company partnered with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to use a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb to gain access to vast natural gas deposits under Rulison, Colorado. This bomb was “nearly three times the power of the bomb that incinerated the interior of Hiroshima and killed nearly half of its 300,000 residents.” The bomb did the trick, but fortunately the technology did not prove cost-effective for commercial fracking. It also made the natural gas “mildly radioactive,” according to officials.
It’s also worth noting that in 1945, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no one realized how devastating, long-lasting, and lethal radiation poisoning would be. In 1969 this was very well known.
So almost 10 years after Austral and the AEC tried to frack with nukes in Colorado, at 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, a cooling malfunction caused part of the core of reactor #2 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to melt down. It destroyed the reactor and released some radioactive gases into the atmosphere. At the time no one knew how much damage had been done either to the environment or to the people who worked in or lived close to the plant. Worst-case scenarios were on everyone’s mind.
The political, social, and psychological damage was huge. An immediate consequence was a massive march on Washington on May 6. That’s where I got the NO MORE HARRISBURGS! T-shirt. I don’t know how I came by the staff shirt, because I wasn’t a peacekeeper or otherwise officially involved with that particular action, which drew, according to this May 7, 1979, Washington Post story, “a vast crowd of at least 65,000 protesters reminiscent of antiwar throngs of a decade ago.” I think the ordinary march shirt was blue, with a similar design. The same WaPo story suggests that solar and wind power were on many people’s minds. It reports that in her speech physician and anti-nuke activist Dr. Helen Caldicott said: “I call on President Carter to pass a law requiring every new house to be built with solar energy.”
My younger sister, Ellen, who was living in D.C. at the time, was seriously involved in the anti-nuke movement. She and other members of her affinity group, the Spiderworts, were arrested for demonstrating at the North Anna, Virginia, nuclear power plant on June 3, 1979. As Ellen wrote in a letter from jail dated July 22 and published in the August/September issue of off our backs:
“At our July 17 trial, 109 of us were found guilty and given 30 days and $100 fine, of which the jail time and $50 were suspended on a one year probation. Ten of us immediately placed ourselves in jail, because of our moral opposition to paying fines.”
Why “Spiderworts”? According to a April 25, 1979, story in the New York Times, “a common, roadside wildflower” known to be sensitive to pesticides, auto exhaust, and sulfur dioxide, “could also be an ultra‐sensitive monitor of ionizing radiation.” A Japanese scientist had found that “in certain artificially raised or cloned species of the plant, cells of hairs on the pollen‐bearing stamens mutate from blue to pink when exposed to as little as 150 millirems of radiation. Radioactive isotopes sometimes emitted by nuclear activities give off radiation at about that level.” When it comes to radiation, then, spiderworts can be likened to canaries in coal mines.
My group house sent at least one care package to our cohorts in jail. Beverly, one of my housemates and a chronic instigator, was almost certainly the one who organized the effort.
So that’s how I came by this Spiderworts tank top. I have very few tanks in my wardrobe, and apart from this one they’re all recent. Being big-boobed and physically active, I was never tempted to go braless in public, and with tank tops bra straps were forever slipping into view. Many, many years later bras started coming in colors, with straps that didn’t look so much like underwear. My happy medium back in the day was “muscle shirts,” which left your arms bare but concealed your bra straps. These were big in the 1980s and I have a bunch, but I don’t see them around much these days.
Coincidentally, my sister and I were both arrested at the age of 19 for political protests — eight years apart. On May 5, 1971, toward the end of the Mayday demonstrations against the Vietnam War, I got busted for sitting on the Capitol steps along with 1,200 others, even though we were sitting on the steps at the invitation of four members of Congress: Ron Dellums, Bella Abzug, Parren Mitchell, and Charles Rangel. I spent barely 48 hours in detention — and most of those hours were spent not in a jail but in the D.C. Coliseum along with hundreds of my fellow arrestees. I was one of the plaintiffs in Dellums v Powell, so almost 10 years later, thanks to the four representatives and the persistence of the ACLU, I received a $2,000 settlement for violation of my civil liberties.
Singer-songwriter-activist Holly Near was “On Tour for a Nuclear-Free Future” in the fall of that year, 1979, but this T-shirt is from the Boston performance. I definitely wasn’t there, but I was back and forth between DC and Boston two or three times a year and might have picked up the shirt at New Words Bookstore in Cambridge. D.C.-based Roadwork produced the tour, so I’m guessing the tour stopped in Washington. If it did, I would have been there.
It would not have been the first time I heard Holly live: that, I’m pretty sure, was at D.C.’s Gay Pride Day when it was still a block party on 20th Street NW between R and S, near where Lambda Rising bookstore was then located — maybe in 1978 or ’79?* She toured with Weavers alumna Ronnie Gilbert in 1984; I saw them at George Washington U., and the Lifeline album that resulted has never been far from my active playlist, first on LP and eventually on CD.
During the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, I got to hear Holly live on Martha’s Vineyard, at the Old Whaling Church. It was one of the rare times where my past and present crossed paths, and it’s no surprise that Holly was at the intersection. She has long been as well known in liberal and progressive circles as she is among feminists. I’m still quoting, or paraphrasing, something she said at that concert: that she didn’t expect perfection in any candidate for elective office, so she voted for the one she thought she could “struggle with.”
Totally unrelated to nukes and anti-nukes, the first national march for lesbian and gay rights took place on October 14, 1979. You bet my friends and I were among the estimated 100,000 marchers, but if there was a march T-shirt, I missed it. I do have one from the second march, in 1987; we’ll get there eventually. My strongest memory from that day is passing by the high wrought-iron fence at the south end of the White House grounds chanting “Two, four, six, eight, how do you know that Amy’s straight?” Amy Carter, the first daughter, was 12 years old at the time.
 Maddow, Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth (Crown, 2019), chapter 2, “The Genie”
 With four decades’ worth of hindsight, it seems that the quantifiable damage done outside the plant was minimal.
 Note that the ERA march that took place less than a year before drew more than 100,000. One can’t help wondering if the Post reporter noticed, but maybe it’s just that the majority-female throng in July 1978 looked less like the antiwar marches of yesteryear.
* Update from 11/30/2021: It was 1978. My memory was just refreshed by a story I wrote about the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus that was published in Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture in November 1985. More about the chorus, and Hot Wire, to come. Hot Wire‘s 30 issues are a precious trove of women’s/lesbian music through the mid-1990s, and they’re all available online as downloadable PDFs. You can find them here.
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