WILPF’S herstory is in many respects the herstory of women finding their voice and learning to speak and act together as a powerful force for peaceful coexistence. WILPF was and is a part of that continuum that was born in The Hague in 1915 during the First World War.
I, Carolyn Kline, first learned of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom at the home of friends, and shortly thereafter I encountered a few WILPF women leafleting in front of the Vancouver Public Library. Week after week they stood silently before a large banner reading WOMEN’S INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE FOR PEACE AND FREEDOM. If a passer-by asked a question, a WILPF member would drop out of the line to respond. Before long I was a member of that organization and increasingly involved in its programmes. Always our emphasis was on militarism and the need for discussion rather that war to resolve conflicts. Our pamphlets were intended to be educational and descriptive of the inherent dangers of the race for nuclear arms. WILPF Vancouver is considered to have been founded in 1921 by Social Democrats including Lucy Woodsworth, although an early Vancouver suffragist and social activist, Helena Gutteridge, claimed that she was a founder of the Vancouver Branch of WILFP in 1917. By the late 1920’s Laura Jamieson volunteered to serve as the Canadian secretary of WILPF and designated Vancouver as the national office. The 1930’s saw six Canadian branches: Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary and Edmonton. The Vancouver Branch itself was very small. In fact at many of our formal meetings there would be only three or four women present. Sheila Young, formerly from England, would call us together and then hand someone an outline of subjects for the meeting. (She would never refer to herself as the president, but always the secretary.) And then she would take over the meeting and read letters she had received and the replies she had sent. THAT was the meeting.
She had a profound effect on me. Sometimes I would say, “Sheila, why don’t we hand out application forms so that we could increase our membership?” And she would look aghast. “But we wouldn’t know who they were!” She took her work very seriously. Always dressed impeccably and wearing hat and gloves, she would set up a card table in front of some building downtown and collect signatures to a petition opposing war and the development of weapons. These signatures were methodically tabulated by her and sent to the U.N. and legislators in Washington.
In these days words of violence were often directed against would-be peace-makers. And understandably they targeted Sheila. One day when she was handing out leaflets and seeking signatures for her petitions in a nearby town, one such person let out the air from her tires. This she saw as a small victory, vindicating her opposition to militarism.
1990 was a year celebrated by WILPF branches everywhere because it marked WILPF’S 75th anniversary. Despite Sheila’s reluctance to accept strangers, members world-wide were continuing to join WILPF branches. In fact, by then WILPF had branches in 35 or more countries (the number fluctuates) and the Vancouver branch was greatly enriched by their membership. Several times we met with other branches. I especially remember attending the 1991 National Congress at Bryn Mawr College. Locally our expanded membership brought some very talented women into the Vancouver branch. e.g. Margaret Stortz from West Vancouver. As secretary of the Vancouver Branch she wrote a potent article to the Vancouver Sun urging the editors “to consider a feature article on the work of the United Nations and initiate a weekly column on the UN which will keep the public up-to-date on the vital work it is doing in the quest for world peace.”
WILFP Vancouver was the organizer of the Women’s Peace Train which carried hundreds of women to the UN Beijing Conference of women in 1995. Our members cofounded the World Peace Forum, which brought women including the International WILFP Executive to a weeklong conference on peace. In 2008 the Vancouver branch organized a two-day forum on “Challenging Militarism, Women, War and Social Justice” (see the link on the home page) and we continue to march, speak out, and work with peace organizations around the world, calling for an end to war and the redirection of tax dollars to social justice, environmental sustainability and economic equality.