IN just three years, Betty Bumpers has managed to capture the interest of thousands of women at the grass-roots level and motivate them to work toward nuclear disarmament. ``It all started in 1982 with a small group of friends gathered around my kitchen table in Washington,'' explains the wife of Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas. ``We determined our purpose, set forth an agenda, and chose the name Peace Links.''
Several other congressional wives were with her at that kitchen launching, and in the years since dozens of other wives of senators and congressmen and state governors have continued to help bring leadership and support to the Peace Links idea.
In New York recently, Mrs. Bumpers explained that it was when her own l9-year-old daughter expressed worry about the nuclear arms race that she decided it was time to do something about such concerns.
The purpose of Peace Links, she says, is to reach and activate an entirely new constituency of middle-class women -- many of whom have never before been involved in the peace movement nor been politically active at all.
The philosophy of Peace Links is very simple, she explains. ``It is that there is an alternative to a nuclear holocaust. We still believe we can win the battle for peace. We firmly believe that our country can and will furnish leadership in finding a way out of the nuclear dilemma. We believe that when we make our voices heard, then leadership will respond.''
A major goal of Peace Links, she says, is to get peace on the agenda of every major organization of the United States, from the Senate wives to labor unions. ``We are not a membership organization, as such, but rather an organizing strategy, or a conduit of information,'' explains Bumpers.
``We provide information, explanation, how-to instructions, and lots of encouragement. But it is the women themselves in the communities where they live who form local organizations. Today, Peace Links groups exist in 33 states and we give seed grants to many to help them hold forums and publish newsletters.''
Mrs. Bumpers developed the organizational model for Peace Links in Little Rock, Ark., where she already had access to an established network of 3,000 women with whom she had worked on previous volunteer efforts.
``We staged a big meeting and 162 representatives came from counties all over Arkansas. By October of that first year we had gotten a foundation grant to pay salaries to two employees and were able to stage our first Peace Day featuring a roster of important speakers.''
During the past three years, Betty Bumpers and Peace Links have involved more than 40,000 women in the search for new directions for peace. Today, many of these women are participating in peace panels, inviting friends to coffee parties and brown-bag lunches to discuss community efforts for peace, writing letters to their elected officials, and working with schools to institute peace studies. Many are also registering their opinions about the latest developments in the arms race with the White House public comment desk (202/456-7639).
``When women say to me, `I relate to what you are saying, but I feel so frustrated and powerless,' I tell them that they can begin where they are and that Peace Links will help them,'' says Mrs. Bumpers.
Patriotism, she tells women, ``carries with it an obligation to inform ourselves and participate in our democracy, not just sit back and wring our hands when there's a problem.''
What Peace Links is trying to say to women, she explains, is that they should ``learn as much as you feel you need to about nuclear weapons and the arms buildup in order to be comfortable talking about the issue. We provide a bibliography, but even if you have time to read but one article or one book, it will help demystify the subject.''
Then women are advised to ``face the issue and do something about it. And don't get drowned in doom and gloom. Of course we can make a difference.''
Mrs. Bumpers continues to travel all over the country, speaking to groups and raising funds for Peace Links from foundations and private donors. She was recently given the 1985 Woman of Conscience Award by the National Council of Women of the United States.
The award, focused last year on nuclear disarmament and world peace, helped mark the United Nations International Year of Peace. It honors each year an American woman who exemplifies the merits of innovation, leadership, and dedication toward improving the world.
``Women at the grass-roots level are often intimidated by sweeping movements and huge organizations and weighty intellectual discussions,'' said Eleanor Donnenfeld, president of the National Council, in presenting the award. ``Yet they yearn to live in peace and freedom. Betty Bumpers assures them that, with the help of Peace Links, they can become individual peace links right in their own homes, community organizations, and schools.''
A small Peace Links service office (at 747 Eighth Street, SE, Washington, D.C. 20003) handles all requests for information and compiles and sends out a twice-a-year newsletter called Connection. The Peace Kit it furnishes inquirers gives instructions in the governmental process and the addresses and phone numbers of congressmen and women; it also suggests numerous steps that women can take for the cause of peace right where they are.
This past fall Peace Links launched a mail campaign to raise funds to help bring a group of Soviet women, ages 38 to 65, to the United States to meet thousands of Americans in 14 different communities.
The Soviet women were accompanied throughout their trip by several congressional spouses involved in the Peace Links movement. ``Neither the Soviet women nor the American women who met them will ever feel the same again about the issues of war and peace between their two countries,'' says Mrs. Bumpers.