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Birth of Sally Lilienthal, Founder of Ploughshares Fund

December 19, 1919
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Sally Lilienthal.
Photo courtesy of the Ploughshares Fund.

A spunky child expelled from a tony private school for passing a note in class that contained dirty words.  A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College who grew up in a family where “there was some kind of message … that doing good was somehow naughty.”  Precursors for a troubled life?  Not for Sally Lilienthal.

Instead her “life was spent in homage to art and opposition to armament,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote when she died on October 24, 2006. 

Trained as a sculptor at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute, she worked in clay, plastic, and modeled resin.  Appointed to the San Francisco Art Commission in the early 1960s, she later went on to co-found the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Rental Gallery, whose mission was to support artists while giving art lovers a chance to enjoy artworks for affordable fees. 

But her sculpting career ended when political and global issues came to the fore.   She worked with the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund and founded Amnesty International’s Western Region, advocating for the release of political prisoners. 

In 1981, she founded the Ploughshares Fund as a way to get funds quickly to people with practical ideas for stopping the buildup of nuclear weapons.  "The possibility of a nuclear war was the very worst problem in the world," she told the Chronicle on the occasion of the Ploughshares Fund's 15th anniversary. "I thought that if a lot of people felt the same way I did but didn't know what to do about it, we might get together and search for new ways to get rid of the nuclear weapons that were threatening us all." Founded in her living room, the Ploughshares Fund has since distributed millions in modest grants to fight the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry.

Lilienthal had the distinction to be associated with two organizations awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—Amnesty International in 1977 and the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines in 1997.

As her friend Eleanor Friedman put it, “She never did things halfway, the normal way—only the unprecedented, outspoken way.”

See also: “Sally Lilienthal, Activist, Founder of Ploughshares Fund, 1919 – 2006,” in We Remember; “Sally Lilienthal – brief biographical sketch”

Sources: “Sally Lilienthal,” Ploughshares Fund; “Sally Lilienthal – founder of the Ploughshares Fund,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 26, 2006; “Sally Lilienthal, 87, a Leader in Opposing Nuclear Weapons, Dies,” New York Times, December 1, 2006.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Birth of Sally Lilienthal, Founder of Ploughshares Fund." (Viewed on April 17, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/19/1919/sally-lilienthal>.