By Monica Scheifele
March 8 is International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of women. In thinking about the many accomplished women who have advocated for change and those who laid the foundations for women’s involvement in advocacy, I remembered hearing about an organization whose roots go back almost 60 years to the time of the Cold War. Perhaps it was their presence in Hanoi during the recent DPRK-USA summit that brought them to mind, but whatever the reason, this Women’s Day seemed the right time to highlight the organization known as Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW).
VOW has an interesting history as described in the documentary “Voice of Women: The first thirty years,” a film produced and directed by Margo Pineau and Cathy Reeves. The organization started in 1960 when nuclear war was a real possibility. As one early member, Anne Postans shared in the documentary, “I was appalled that we were playing at nuclear war instead of trying to find ways to solve our differences.” Women recognized how close the world was coming to nuclear war, so in May 1960 when Toronto Star columnist Lotta Dempsey challenged women to come together and do something, hundreds rallied, and by June an anti-nuclear organization called Voice of Women was born. By the end of its first year, it had over 6,000 members from across Canada.
Many of these first members had never advocated before as this took place in a time when women weren’t seen to have a place in the affairs of state. However, these women were not to be deterred. They produced newsletters, organized local meetings, public demonstrations, held forums, wrote letters to MPs, cabinet ministers, and local papers, as well as networked with women around the world.
In 1962 when Canada began to build bunkers to house nuclear weapons, VOW chartered a train and brought women from across Canada to Ottawa to confront politicians, particularly Prime Minister Diefenbaker, on the decision to accept 56 missiles capable of being armed with nuclear warheads from the US. VOW called on the government to declare Canada a non-nuclear state and to encourage the US to stop testing nuclear weapons. According to the film by Pineau and Reeves, politicians were non-committal but polite while the press was outraged referring to the delegation as “wailing women.”
In 1963 VOW sent a delegation to Moscow believing that women everywhere shared a desire for peace. On the way, they stopped in various European capital cities to meet with women and peace groups. In Russia, they attended an international congress with 7,000 women from 35 countries discussing strategies for international peace.
At home, the trip to Russia sparked allegations of communist infiltrations and take over. VOW members were accused of being ‘dupes’, ‘dirty Reds’ and ‘simple women who don’t really understand what they’re saying’. They were labelled traitors for talking peace and, as a result, lost many members.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the US and Russia tested over 200 nuclear weapons raising concerns about global contamination of the food chain. VOW initiated research into the effects of nuclear radiation from atmospheric testing of atomic bombs. They launched a campaign to educate the public about the dangers of fallout by having the baby teeth of thousands of children sent for testing of radioactive elements. This helped lead to the partial test ban treaty which stopped nuclear atmospheric testing, but not underground testing.
During the Vietnam war, VOW members visited North Vietnam in a show of solidarity with Vietnamese women and organized a campaign to knit blankets and baby clothing for Vietnamese children affected by attacks and bombings. Over 30,000 garments and blankets were shipped.
In 1969 VOW brought a group of North and South Vietnamese women to Canada for a storytelling tour. Since the delegation could not enter the US, several hundred American women came across the border to meet the Vietnamese women.
At the end of the Vietnam war, many women left VOW feeling their work was done while others remained, recognizing the need for further efforts to achieve peace and equality. Those who stayed helped found the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and the Canadian Peace Alliance. In 1978, VOW became one of the first Canadian peace organizations to be accredited at the UN.
As time went on VOW started looking at the root causes of war such as the way society condones and encourages aggression. As part of a campaign against war toys and TV shows with violence they met with toy manufacturers and attended trade fairs to educate others about the dangers of making war and killing a game. During the Gulf War, VOW organized demonstrations and went to Baghdad to speak to Iraqi women.
For VOW the goal for a safe, just, and peaceful world has never changed but over the years the agenda has expanded to include inter-related issues such as ending violence, halting arms production, strengthening the UN and Indigenous reconciliation. As Stella Le John said in the documentary, “Change is possible, but only if people want it. We have the power but have to recognize that we have it.”
For more information on what Canadian Voice of Women for Peace is doing today, check out their website.
– Monica Scheifele is the MCC Ottawa Office Program Assistant
Engage with Nonviolent activism with Dr. Emily Welty this spring at the Canadian School of Peacebuilding in Winnipeg! Dr. Welty is Vice Moderator of the World Council of Churches Commission on International Affairs and is the chair of the Nuclear Disarmament Working Group. She is a core member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), recipients of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. From June 17-21 she will teach a course entitled Generous Dissent: Nonviolent Activism and Resistance. Follow the link to find out more!