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Sally Lilienthal

Activist, Founder of Ploughshares Fund
1919 – 2006
by Eleanor Friedman

There's no quick nor easy way to fathom the loss to the world of Sally Lilienthal's departure on October 24, 2006. She was a mover, a builder and a leader with many followers. She left the world a tangible legacy of visionary ideas that became local and global institutions. The short list includes the Ploughshares Fund (founded in her living room in 1981 at the height of the Cold War), which is dedicated to funding the prevention of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of war, The San Francisco Rental Art Gallery of Modern Art and Artists and the Northern California Chapter of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Anyone who cares about a better, safer, educated, art-filled, sustainable world will always be in Sally Lilienthal's debt.

Her energy and drive, her clarity of purpose and positions, her always stated opinions and her brilliance for finding "the best"—best minds for a project, best art for a wall, best Napa lettuces for a salad—made her an unforgettable force of nature. I don't think Sally knew how to give up—or give in to nonsense.

No one could write a letter about nuclear proliferation the way she could. They were readable, informative, compelling, intelligent narratives—and several pages long. Nor could anyone write a solicitation letter the way she did. She taught me more about the fundamentals of fundraising than anyone else: "Never ask someone else for money if you haven't given yourself." "Let your donors give to the program and practice; get your Board to cover the overhead costs." "Always add a personal note to donors." "Use a different color ink for any added personal remarks." (She preferred blue ink to accent the black, formal type) Even though she wanted to turn swords into ploughshares, she wielded her own kind of sharp weapon: an inveterate (and sometimes intimidating) intelligence. She had an eye for detail as well as a sweeping perspective that always saw the bigger, more critical picture—and what was missing from it.Her eye for contemporary art and beauty were equally advanced and ahead of the pack. Not surprisingly, she was a sculptor-in her spare time! Her standards—about almost anything and everything—were high. She never did things halfway, the normal way—only the unprecedented, outspoken way.

She "left behind" a tribe of impressive children (7) and grandchildren (11), staff members and board members, scholars and politicians who learned from and benefited from her tameless passion for living and changing the world-for the better.

May her memory keep us energized and inspired for as long as we live.

Eleanor Friedman is the co-founder of the New Israel Fund and Chairwoman Emerita of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. She currently resides in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Brief biographical sketch

The Ploughshares Fund was founded in Sally Lilienthal's living room in 1981. Under her leadership, it set out to prevent the use and spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In the Fund's first year, Lilienthal raised $100,000 to distribute to individuals and small organizations to study and educate others about arms proliferation issues. Ploughshares was a major supporter of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, which led to the treaty that was signed by 122 countries and won the campaign a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. By 2006, Ploughshares had distributed more than forty million dollars and had been instrumental in questioning the effectiveness of Patriot missiles during the Persian Gulf War, fighting the use of landmines, and in facilitating agreements on how to verify nuclear test bans.

Born in Portland, Oregon, Sally Lowengart grew up in San Francisco. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1940. During World War II, she worked in Washington D.C. in the Office of War Information writing radio dramas. Returning to San Francisco after the war, she married Arthur Cohen Jr., studied sculpture, and became a working artist.

Her first husband died in 1953. A second marriage ended in divorce. In 1970, she married Philip Lilienthal and worked with him to found the northern California chapter of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Lilienthal also co-founded the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Rental Gallery and was serving as national vice-chairwoman of Amnesty International when that organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1972.

She had five children, two stepchildren, and eleven grandchildren.

1 Comment

Good article, great woman. There was no mention of her being Jewish though, so was she a Jew or not?

Sally Lilienthal
Full image
Activist Sally Lilienthal.
Courtesy of the Ploughshares Fund

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Sally Lilienthal, 1919 - 2006." (Viewed on November 15, 2018) <>.

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