The Canadian Voice of Women for Peace is the oldest women’s organization in Canada. It began as a response to a call-out from Canadian journalist Lotta Dempsey. Lotta wrote columns in the Toronto Star asking women to write her if they were willing to “do something” about the imminent danger of nuclear war. Four women — Jo Davis, Dorothy Henderson, Helen Tucker, and Beth Touzel — met with Lotta, and unceremoniously, the “Voice of Women” was established. Peggy Hope-Simpson helped launch the Voice of Women in Nova Scotia. Also identified with this group were Grace Hartman, former president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), politician and social activist; and Thérèse Casgrain, the long-time feminist crusader who carried the banner in Québec. Maryon Pearson, wife of the Leader of the Opposition, became an honourary member. Her husband, Lester B. Pearson, was leading the fight in Parliament against nuclear weapons in Canada. The Voice of Women was soon joined by other voices around the country and the world as individuals, and peace groups rose to the challenge.
The Voice of Women was officially founded on 28 July 1960 at a mass meeting in Toronto’s Massey Hall. Its aim was to promote peace and disarmament, and in particular, to crusade against the threat of nuclear war. The group was comprised of women and designed to appeal directly to women. In September 1960, a national office opened in Toronto (Ontario). Numerous branches were established across the country ,and their activities were co-ordinated by the National Central Committee, which was the policy-making body of the Voice of Women. By the end of its first year, VOW had 6000 members.
The Voice of Women lobbied Canadian and foreign governments as well as other national and international organizations, in the interest of promoting world peace. It sent delegations of women to Ottawa and around the world, gave press conferences, held public meetings, produced radio and television shows, wrote letters, and published newsletters. Prime ministers, cabinet ministers, Members of Parliament, and other officials were contacted. Members met with other women’s organizations and women’s peace groups and attended many national and international conferences. The Voice of Women attempted to unite women around the world in the cause of peace.
Voice of Women members travelled to many parts of the world and participated in exchanges with women from such countries as Vietnam and the USSR. It organized an International Women’s Conference in September 1962 – the first meeting in Canada to include women from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. Conference delegates called on the UN to designate a World Peace Year. The idea was taken up by Prime Minister Nehru at the UN, and 1965 was proclaimed International Cooperation Year.
VOW raised funds for the Canadian Peace Research Institute. It also supported the international call for a Test Ban Treaty, which resulted in the Partial Test Ban in 1963. VOW members were well aware of the dangers from radioactive fallout. They had presented a brief to the Canadian Government on the subject and participated in a research project in which they collected thousands of children’s baby teeth to test for strontium 90. In 1964, VOW joined the NATO Women’s Peace Force at The Hague and later went to Paris where women from all NATO countries protested the proposed multilateral nuclear force.
Gradually, the Voice of Women took up a variety of social issues, including the status of women; the preservation of the environment in the face of increasing development; the preservation of the Canadian north; the dangers of atomic energy and of biological and chemical warfare; the safeguarding of human rights and civil liberties; the treatment of prisoners in Vietnam, Chile, Greece and Spain; violence on television and war toys; the economic domination of Canada by multinational corporations; the political domination of Canada by military alliances, and the testing of nuclear weapons. Studies were undertaken and briefs presented to special boards and committees such as the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, and the Senate Science Committee, as well as to NATO, NORAD, and UNESCO. Some Voice of Women members were appointed to organizations such as the Science Council of Canada, the Human Rights Commission, the Council on the Status of Women, as well as university senates, school boards, and city councils.
VOW’s work to end the war in Vietnam began in 1964 with demonstrations and the provision of humanitarian aid to the victims. This led to exchange visits with Vietnamese women and the Ontario Voice of Women knitting project, which over ten years sent thousands of knitted garments and other aid to the children and other victims of the war. This project involved hundreds of women in the United States who had no other way to express their concerns about US destruction of Vietnam. VOW members also took in young men who resisted the US draft or who deserted. The use of natural resources for war materials and the horrifying destruction of Vietnam led VOW to investigate the dangers to native people and to the environment of oil and gas development in the North
Other Voice of Women activities included participation in International Co-operation Year and International Women’s Year. During Canada’s Centennial Year in 1967, VOW hosted delegations from the Soviet Union and Indochina and held a conference of Women for Peace attended by women from thirty countries. In 1978 VOW participated in the UN Special Session on Disarmament held in New York. VOW also presented briefs to External Affairs supporting Trudeau’s “Strategy of Suffocation” and on foreign aid, the new international economic order, refugees, human rights, arms control, NATO and the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles, nuclear free zones, nuclear safeguards, and against the NORAD agreement.
During 1979, International Year of the Child, Ontario VOW had an elementary school project, visiting schools with a “Peace and Brotherhood” lesson based on the rights of the child. In the spring of 1980, VOW joined with other women’s organizations in International Women’s Day activities in towns and cities across Canada. Protests were mounted against the proliferation of nuclear power stations, including a hunger strike by two members in New Brunswick. British Columbia VOW supported the “Stop Trident” campaign.
During 1982, the year of the Second Special Session on Disarmament, a brief was submitted to the Standing Committee on External Affairs and National Defence with regard to Canada’s position. A statement from the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace was sent to the United Nations, and busloads of VOW members and friends went to New York for the June 12th rally. Over 125,000 signatures were collected from across Canada on the Women’s Petition for Peace, presented to women Senators and MPs and to the UN Secretary General. Halifax VOW coordinated this event and the “Mother’s Day for Peace” campaigns.
In 1987, two VOW members, Kay Macpherson and Madeleine Gilchrist, joined thirty women, members of parliament, defence experts, and peace leaders from thirteen NATO countries to interview the permanent NATO representatives on questions of defence. Eighteen Canadian women were initiated into UN structure and functioning at VOW’s second United Nations visit. Several VOW members prepared a brief on the Defence White Paper. As a contribution to the Hiroshima Day remembrance, an easy-to-read pamphlet dealing with this Defence White Paper was prepared for distribution to the public.
In 2000, VOW moved into the field of human rights education with training that began in Toronto and then broadened out domestically and internationally. In 2003, VOW established the de-legitimization of war as a priority. In 2007, in collaboration with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, VOW launched a coordinated bilingual touring exhibit “ Building Peace Making History” comprised of five large display panels documenting a century of Canadian women’s peace activism. It has travelled widely and is made available to other groups to use in their own peace work.
Internationally, VOW calls for the cessation of the exploration and mining of uranium; and since 2009 it has maintained a public education campaign riding on the “Achilles heel” of nuclear weapons – nuclear energy. Established in 2010 at the University of Toronto, Young VOW helped to launch VOW’s half century celebrations. VOW turned fifty in 2010 with many celebrations, including the launch of two plays centred around two themes -The Person’s Case and Security Council Resolution 1325; a documentary film; and a book about VOW.
The use of media and propaganda in most countries to stifle legitimate protest and exposure of injustice had taught women how difficult it is to speak against powerful interests. VOW members learned, and are learning, much about the political realities, and some have gone on to work in the fields of human rights, welfare organizations, citizen’s groups, and politics.
VOW initiated summer peace camps across the country to support future generations of young peace-builder women.
VOW participates in the global women’s peace movement at all levels within those national and local networks, and is responsible for a variety of programs from coast-to-coast.
VOW conducts consultative study tours each year to the UN to support the implementation of UN resolutions on women’s equality, especially UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace, and security. VOW was a full participant in the lead-up and successful adoption of this historic resolution.
VOW continues to strengthen its mandate in ways which address our core understanding that the military industrial complex is best left to whither. VOW seeks opportunities to address disarmament concerns, reduction of military budgets, and linkages to environment and health issues.
Collaborations Across Borders
VOW has always had a close bond with American “peace” women. Many lasting friendships have resulted from common concerns for peace. Its members have also taken part in actions with the women of Greece, Cyprus, Indochina, Chile, Bolivia, Africa, Japan, Britain, and many others. One noteworthy collaboration is with Women Strike for Peace, founded in the USA in 1961. On 24 May 2015, thirty women peacemakers from fifteen nations undertook the March for Peace along the borders of North and South Korea. The idea of this walk for peace and reunification came from a decade-old dream of writer and principal organizer Korean-American Christine Ahn. The initiative aptly named “Women Cross the DMZ” fit the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace mandate beautifully. This mission gained international media attention. The peacemakers included Janis Alton, co-chair of VOW, Nobel Laureates Mairaed Maguire (Northern Ireland) and Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), and pioneering American feminist and author Gloria Steinem.
Contributed by Sylvia Grady, Treasurer for VOW (Ontario), 2011-2015
The above overview draws on material from the Canadian Voice of Women fonds at Library and Archives Canada R2846-0-X-E and from http://peacemagazine.org/archive/v03n5p26.htm
Visit the current website of the Canadian Voice of Women at http://vowpeace.org/.
Secondary Sources on VOW
Alton, Janis. Introduces Canadian Voice of Women for Peace https://vimeo.com/39715498
Ball, Christine. “The History of the Voice of Women/La Voix des Femmes: The Early Years, 1960-1963.” PhD diss. University of Toronto, 1992.
Blaak, Ryan Allen. “The Voice of Women: Gendering the New Canadian Nationalism.” M.A. thesis. University of British Columbia, 2003.
Kerans, Marion Scott. Muriel Duckworth: A Very Active Pacifist: a Biography. Halifax: Fernwood, 1996.
Lowen, Candace. “Mike Hears Voices: Voice of Women and Lester Pearson, 1960-1963.” Atlantis 12 (2) (Spring 1987): 24-30.
Macpherson, Kay. When in Doubt, Do Both: The Times of My Life. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Macpherson, Kay. “Persistent Voices: Twenty-Five Years with the Voice of Women.” Atlantis 12 (2) (Spring 1987): 60-72.
Macpherson, Kay and Meg Sears. “Voice of Women: A History.” In Women in the Canadian Mosaic, ed. Gwen Matheson. Toronto: Peter Martin Associates, 1976: 70-89.
Monet Chartrand, Simonne. Les Québécoises et le mouvement pacifiste, 1939-1967. Montreal: Éditions Écosociété, 1993.
Osborn, Cheryl. “Speaking their Peace, Feminist Pacifists in the Nuclear Age: the Voice of Women, 1960-1972.” M.A. original essay. Concordia University, 1999.
Pineau, Margo and Cathy Reeves. Voice of Women: the First Thirty Years. VHS video. Montreal: Pineau Productions, 1992.
Sweet, Marilyn Selma. “Purls for Peace: The Voice of Women, Maternal Feminism, and the Knitting Project for Vietnamese Children.” M.A. thesis. University of Ottawa, 2007.
Toms, Marcia Elizabeth. “‘Into the Sunlight of a New Day’: The Beliefs and Work of Two Women Peace Activists in the Vancouver Area During the Cold War,” MA Thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1993.
Voice of Women (VOW) Documents
|Voice of Women – History Overview – 1976 and Update
|Voice of Women – Proposal and History – February 1983