Love and death

It was 1981, the height of the Cold War, when Barbara Wiedner decided she needed to do something about nuclear weapons.

“I had never spoken up publicly for anything in my life,” said the housewife and mother of 10. “I had never held a protest sign or passed out a leaflet.” But she became so convinced of the peril of nuclear weapons that she walked out of her Sacramento kitchen one day and joined her first demonstration at Mather Air Force Base.

A “Grandmother for Peace” sign she held at the event (made for her by her granddaughter) was a stroke of marketing brilliance. A year later, when Wiedner joined others in getting arrested in an act of civil disobedience, the TV cameras fixated on her and the “Grandmother” placard. After five days in jail, Wiedner was released, went home and held a meeting in her living room. Eleven women, most of them over the age of 50, formed an organization that night—Grandmothers for Peace—that was destined to play a role in turning global public opinion against nuclear weapons during the dangerous and now almost-forgotten days of the Cold War.

While still figuring out what her organization might accomplish, Wiedner traveled to the Soviet Union with a group of professional women who were a bit intimidating to her—lawyers, doctors, professors, heads of government agencies. When she stood up to speak to the Russian women, she offered the only credentials she had: “I am the mother of 10 children and the grandmother of seven!” she proclaimed. The Russian women stood up and gave her a rousing cheer. That’s when she knew her organization had a kind of authentic power that others did not. “Grandmothers are disarming,” Wiedner once told an SN&R reporter with a laugh. “You can’t say no to a grandmother.”

Arrested in protests countless times, Wiedner also met with many world leaders, including many sessions with Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev. She orchestrated an International Grandmothers Walk for Peace in Moscow during the days when such things simply were not done. She traveled all over the world with her peace message.

Last week, Wiedner died at age 72 of pancreatic cancer. Her funeral Friday at St. Francis Catholic Church in Midtown Sacramento—celebrated by Bishop Francis Quinn and Father Dan Madigan—was packed with family, peace activists and fellow travelers. Standing before Wiedner’s coffin, Quinn suggested that, at this very moment, she was probably up in heaven “instructing God about how to bring peace into this world.” He referred to her as an “iron butterfly.”

Indeed, when Wiedner sent an e-mail to friends this past summer informing them of her terminal cancer, she thanked them for their love but advised them not to fear for her. She’d lived a full and happy life and was ready, she said, for her “next adventure.” And so it has come. Thank you and bless you, Barbara Wiedner.