Today the Voice of Women For Peace celebrates its 50th Anniversary with a free conference at Hart House and a gala dinner.
My last book Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution starts in the early 1960’s with the emergence of an extraordinary group called Voice of Women for Peace that challenged the anti-communist monoculture of the Cold War with a warm embrace directed towards the women who were supposedly our enemies. The Voice of Women, as pioneer feminist Ursula Franklin points out below was the seedbed for the feminist revolution in Canada and we were lucky it came before preparing the ground in many ways.
The Voice of Women for Peace founded in 1960 is widely recognized as the first women’s group of the modern women’s movement in Canada or what scholars call second wave feminism. It was as its name says a group of women who were speaking out for peace. Many of the women who were active in the Voice of Women in the early 60’s like Kay MacPherson and Moira Armour played a key role in calling for the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and in the founding of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. It was the presence of these left-wing women in the early agitating for women’s rights that promoted an alliance between young radical women just beginning to recognize their oppression as women and older women who had been working for women’s rights and peace in the early part of the decade. In celebration of their 50th Anniversary here is an excerpt from Ten Thousand Roses of pioneer feminist Ursula Franklin talking about the early days of the Voice of Women
In the early 1960s I became involved in the women’s peace movement and the Voice of Women. I worked with and through them. One of the early events was the baby tooth campaign.1 If one wanted to demonstrate anything from nuclear fallout, one had to go to the mother and not the dentist to get the research material. The mothers gave us the teeth with the information needed. It was an incredible linking between science and the women’s community.
I don’t think I was ever anything but a feminist. Feminism isn’t an employment agency for women; it’s an alternative way of ordering the social space in which women are the prototype rather than the men. It is based on collaboration rather than competition. As a youngster I still remember my feeling of joy that one can look at the earth differently.
Everything is differently oriented and that’s feminism. Seeing the same world through different eyes.
Voice of Women had a large organization dealing with policy and community and the tooth study was something concrete that could be done that wasn’t marching or pitting one side against the other. I have always been concerned with not creating adversarial situations. One has to confront principles but I’d rather create situations that can illustrate conflicting principles through common practice. The tooth study went on for 18 months and this was done before there were grants. We had to create everything in small steps. It was local and regional and was done out of sheer necessity. It was larger than our locality. “I gave my tooth to science” was a button with a slogan and this venture was one of the first campaigns that involved women working together.
The women in Voice of Women considered themselves feminists. Lotta Dempsey was the first columnist who wrote about the atmospheric testing and called for a ban on it.
It was the stupidity of the male policy makers that wouldn’t let this go. We worked all the time on a generally better system of decision-making. It was the decision making process that let it come to the point of testing nuclear weapons. The use of public money for war, atmospheric testing and defence spending were all illustrations of the inadequacy of the male hierarchal system. Nobody forgot that this was the system that gave us our textbooks and our cadet corps. We needed a change in structure, education and a changing of the guards.
The Voice of Women invited Soviet women to come to Canada and talk about early childhood education in ’62 or ’63. This was during the Cold War and they were the enemy. We had to raise all the money and it took great courage from both the Soviet women and the Canadian women. We had very impressive women come and they were apprehensive. When we met them, I noticed one had a cold, so I grabbed my handbag and gave her some vitamin C and she smiled with relief. They saw that we were human and that we shared giving vitamin C to our children and that broke down barriers. Now what man would do that to break down barriers? That commonality is also part of feminism.
We protested the Pearson government on nuclear testing and that lost us members and we lost members bringing in the Soviet women. We were convinced that the conventional tit-for-tat measures would never bring about peace. What were needed were the linking and the transfer of power. We did this in the full knowledge that it was difficult and controversial and that we’d lose members. We never had charitable status, which would have made fundraising easier. The government said that to protest war and promote peace and understanding is not charitable under the Act.
Basically it was an enormous contribution to the liberation of women that would show women on the practical level that you could take these risks and survive. Many women feared that their public gestures would affect their kids at school. There were some divorces, but we didn’t lose our jobs. There was an enormous friendship among these women. Kay MacPherson and I were exceedingly close. Voice of Women was about politics and sharing food and resources and there was a great deal of friendship on a daily basis. The empowering part of it came out of doing something that was so uncommon and unpopular and surviving and doing it cheerfully. We made considerable gains of knowledge, social perspective and friendship.
I feel an obligation to say that Voice of Women was the seedbed for the second wave of feminism, the Feminist Party and the environmental movement. Women learned how to organize through Voice of Women, how to hold a press conference. Voice had always been a bilingual organization. We worked out the language differences by having people speak in the language they were most comfortable in and placing bilingual people with those who weren’t. Later women went into politics, consciousness raising, equity and the law, NAC, the environmental movement, and a lot went into the fight against nuclear power.
The Canadian women’s movement has done it while doing something. By doing something you try to work out the modus vivendi — you work it out through an activity that is constructive. For example, you’re knitting something for the children in Vietnam and in the process of that work out the problems of representation, identity etc. You can work them out because you’re actually working on something else.
I remained active in Voice of Women and the peace movement. The conference with the Vietnamese women was a key moment in the second wave (of feminism). Nobody had any sense of reality about Vietnamese women. The women who came were apprehensive because of what was going on back home. They were educated, wonderful, graceful women. They spoke fluently both English and French. I remember standing here in Toronto with the women who were going to meet the American women but they were apprehensive. I stood with one of them and I told her not to worry, that she was amongst friends. “Please remember that you’re on a continent that has never seen war.” She said that no one in her country who was 25 or younger had ever seen peace. Nothing could demonstrate more the commonality and the difference.
We brought peace people from the US to the conference. Being for peace was more daring than whether the delegates were Black or Latino. The early feminists worked with Black women with little difficulty. We had Asian women as well and they all felt that they were treated with equal respect.
The Voice of Women also took on an early project to see that the UN should hold an international year of women. So we met with women from all over the world. Having women from different worlds was part of the early fabric of Voice of Women. Women traveled all over the world and we had input from aboriginal women as well. The respect for women from different cultures was essential if you wanted peace and we always treasured the women of colour who came with different cultures and language. Nothing we could do would work without them.
 The Voice of Women was part of a North American campaign to collect baby teeth to show the high levels of Strontium 90, radioactive waste contained in nuclear fallout. In a few years this campaign proved that above ground nuclear testing, happening at the time in Nevada, could have potentially devastating effects on children through radiation.