International Women’s Day 2021: Interview with Edith Ballantyne on women and peace

Edith Ballantyne, fast approaching her centenary, has invested much of her life in advancing policies essential to a world free of injustice, patriarchy, militarization and market-driven neo-liberalism that favours the wealthy, is disastrous for our fragile planet, and fuels us-versus-them politics. Born in 1922 in the German-speaking part of Bohemia, the teenage Edith and her family fled Hitler’s Europe and Nazi persecution in 1938. A year later, they arrived as refugees in Canada and were shipped to a remote Canadian Pacific Railroad Settlement in the northwest to clear and till the land.  After two years, with limited English-speaking skills, the refugees re-located to Toronto where Edith found work with a rich family; she was responsible for all the household work and care of two small children. Fortuitously, Edith met some activists from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) when they knocked on the door while conducting a survey. Shortly thereafter, WILPF provided a lifeline with educational support.

After marrying her sweetheart in 1948, the couple moved to Geneva, Switzerland where Campbell Ballantyne had a job with the International Labour Office. Working at the World Health Organization (WHO), life was busy with four young children, but two decades later Edith learned that WILPF was headquartered in Geneva. Working initially as a volunteer, Edith soon became its Secretary General, a post she held until 1992. From 1992 to 1998, Edith was WILPF’s International President.

United Against Inhumanity (UAI): Edith, it is a real honour to get your perspectives as we approach International Women’s Day (IWD) 2021 given your lengthy engagement on issues related to women and war.

It is 110 years, if my mathematics are correct given Gregorian calendar issues, since IWD was first celebrated in 1911 including here in Switzerland. In 1917, women in Russia on 8 March held a “Bread for Peace” event that helped trigger the Russian Revolution; they also demanded the end of Czarism and World War I. It was not until 1977, however, that the UN declared 8th March as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace.

Edith, when did you first become aware of discrimination that downgraded the value and rights of women?

Edith: I grew up in a household where my parents debated and supported efforts to secure the rights of women. Both were active in the Social Democratic party that challenged the rise of Nazism. My father was badly wounded in WWI and spent time afterwards in a military hospital. Subsequently, he was a metal worker and a trade union activist in a factory where my parents met. Their relationship was as much a political as a romantic partnership. My mother, Rosa, a bright and energetic woman, grew up in the Ore mountain area in a large family that was quite poor so she was mostly self-taught. As a young woman with two small children, my mother had her hands full. She was very active, however, in women’s rights issues; she was vocal on the outsize role of women in holding families together however straightened their circumstances.

When we arrived in Canada in 1939 in a remote forested area in British Colombia it was difficult to “till the land” without any prior agricultural or hunting skills; we were provided with tools. We were also given a gun but even if we knew how to use it, we would not have wanted to do so! After about two years, we moved to Toronto where the most accessible employment included jobs in garment factories – sweatshops actually – doing “piece work”; a worker got paid by the number of sleeves, collars, or cuffs one produced daily.

Everyone worked hard to survive and save a little to help relatives back in the Sudetenland where they had lost their country by the end of WWII. This also meant there was no hope of returning to our former homes. Some relatives, including my mother’s younger sister and brother, were helped to migrate to Canada.

So, to answer your question, from a young age I was aware that women and girls were often treated as second-class citizens and were routinely exploited. I was also aware of my parent’s activism and their commitment to equality and fairness. It was an important part of my education.

UAI: What do you consider the most important achievement, or disappointment, in terms of women’s rights and gender equity – fair treatment for women and men, girls and boys – in your lifetime?

Edith: This is an important question! The biggest achievement in my lifetime is that, today, it is well recognized in the law, including in international treaties, that females are entitled to the same fundamental rights as their male counterparts. The convention, for example, on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women requires that all states that sign on to this treaty, are obliged to be proactive in tackling discrimination and practices that undermine the ability of women and girls to enjoy their human rights. The clear enunciation of the rights of women and girls in the law is a major achievement.

The biggest disappointment is the very slow pace of applying these laws at the national level. We have not made enough progress in undoing deeply engrained inequalities and some achievements are fragile. Advances cannot be taken for granted and crises show that some of these newer laws are on wobbly ground. We always need to be mindful of the inequities faced by women and girls and work to strengthen measures that enhance the status and circumstances of females.

The UN Decade for Women (1975-1985) was about equality, development, and peace. Some women organizations were opposed to the peace element arguing that the focus should be on women’s rights. Of course, WILPF and I did not agree with this. The Decade did help legitimize the important role of women in and outside the home, but women need to be more active in pushing for peace in all its manifestations.

UAI: WILPF has played an important role in promoting and supporting agendas geared to recognizing the value of females and feminism while simultaneously challenging patriarchy in relation to issues of war and peace. Could you elaborate, please, why a feminist perspective is important for the realization of lasting peace?

Edith: WILPF is an offspring of the suffragette movement. It is fair to say that nearly all of the founding members were feminists. But when speaking of feminism, we need to be conscious that there are different feminist agendas including those pursued by socialists, Marxists and also by those who are hawks and are not pro-peace. In 1915, the suffragettes were set to have a big policy conference in Berlin that was cancelled by the leadership; they were fearful that WWI would splinter the movement. Groups in Europe and North America that opposed this decision figured that it was important to take a stance on the war. They were also of the view that acquiring the right to vote was not enough; it was important that women use their voice to protest the war.

Back then, technology and mobility were very different compared to today, but some leading suffragettes decided it was critical to meet and discuss how to stop the war and stop the slaughter. Within a month, more than 1,300 women met in the Hague and decided to oppose the war. They established a Committee to work on this and agreed to set up national sections. The Hague congress concluded that neutral countries should take the initiative to achieve a ceasefire and find a path to peace. They formed delegations to advance their agenda; the story is that US President Wilson was keen on some of their ideas. These were reflected in his Fourteen Point Programme on the rebuilding of the postwar world, that he presented to the Versailles Peace Treaty conference (1919) that led to the League of Nations.

These were intelligent and courageous women. They were also ridiculed; women were not perceived to have anything useful to say that could help end the war. Many of these leading women had different responsibilities in their own countries and used their position to advance the women’s rights struggle. So, this is how WILPF started in 1915. At the end of WWI – after four long years of terrible death and destruction – WILPF, in line with its pro-peace agenda, was keen to attend the Paris Peace conference. It wanted to feed in its ideas to the conference but France objected to the presence of a delegation from Germany. So, instead, WILPF met in Zurich where women from Germany could participate. WILPF also had a small group in Paris that could not participate formally but could lobby delegates. WILPF denounced the terms of the peace treaty; they saw it as sowing the seeds for another war. In 1919, WILPF decided that it would persist until a lasting and sustainable global peace was achieved. This meant working to build a just economic system, sharing of the world’s natural resources, and protection of people and the planet. In many ways, they were ahead of their time.

Jane Addams, chair of the Hague Congress and founding member of WILPF, won the Nobel Peace in 1931. WILPF’s first International Secretary, Emily Greene Balch, also became a Nobel Laureate in 1946 when it was noted that if the men at Versailles had listened to women, the world might have avoided the horror of WWII.

UAI: Notwithstanding the rapid pace of globalization in recent decades, UN mechanisms developed after WWII to facilitate and foster multilateralism are facing tough times these days. What is your advice for everyone interested in IWD, and the values it represents, to correct current trends?

Edith: Erosion of the concept of multilateralism stared quite some time ago. When I arrived in Geneva in 1948 there was great enthusiasm to build a new world order under the UN Charter. It was a much smaller UN community then; in 1950, there were 60 UN member states. There was lots of hope that the UN would bring nations together to build a collective peace. There was a lot of sharing of ideas in a bubbling, enthusiastic environment. Multilateralism was not just about nations but also about acknowledging and benefiting from the diversity of people of different social, cultural, political and economic systems and backgrounds.

Decolonization was beginning to happen, and this was a huge priority. As many colonized countries became independent nations, they joined the UN where they collaborated in pushing for measures to address poverty; economically, they remained colonized. Thus, we saw the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Group of 77 (now 134 members), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and a series of policy-making conferences giving rise to the call for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in the 1970s. There was a lot of hope that the unity of purpose of the newly independent states would win the peace but, of course, this is not what happened and different camps emerged. It was difficult for these new states to overcome the strength of their former political and economic masters and we saw the return of the divisions of the 20th century between capitalism and socialism.

The dissolution of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) signaled changes that saw the rise of corporate power and reduced the influence of peoples’ movements and disarmament processes. This obviously had an effect on multilateralism. The Non-Aligned Movement never realized its full potential even though it was clear that a large part of the world objected to being dominated by an economic model that was disadvantageous to it. These global divisions became more dangerous as expenditure on war and weapons increased and did not jive with meaningful multilateralism. It is a problem that is never fully acknowledged including, for example, in terms of the World Economic Forum (WEF) and, subsequently, the World Social Forum that emerged in opposition to the WEF.

Divisions and divisiveness in the world have increased as the UN has shifted to embrace corporate power and more resources are invested in armed conflict than in addressing the conditions that drive inequality. This provoked street protests as happened in Vancouver (2010) when demonstrators challenged G8 policies, declining investment in essential social services and deepening of neo-liberal agendas.

Multilateralism was also given a stab in the back by the UN itself when it opened its doors to the private sector and powerful corporations. As the Secretary General of WILPF, at the time, I was very involved in the Geneva-based NGO community and saw, firsthand, how NGOs were made to mimic the corporate world. At the same time the UN has met increasing difficulties as it was asked to do more with less. Also, some donors have pulled their funding if they consider that their interests are not being met. This is far from the original spirit of cooperation at the UN; smaller member states have lost influence.

The sidelining of the UN on many critical issues is very detrimental to multilateralism and beneficial to the rise of militarism. Women and everyone interested in peace need to re-organize to challenge current trends and rebuild the conditions that enable people to work together and not let corporate monopolies determine our future.

UAI: Edith, you have a unique advantage, if I can call it that, of having overcome the experience of needing refuge in a foreign land. The number of uprooted and displaced people, globally, continues to grow but many States, particularly in the rich world, invest in impeding the arrival of people fleeing persecution and armed conflict. What do you say to the mostly young people who are on the frontline of search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean or risk being treated as criminals when they challenge anti-refugee policies that often prove deadly?

Edith: As more people are pushed from their homes and those responsible add to their plight – at least there was some sense of responsibility when I was a refugee – we need to conclude that the world cannot afford war, morally or otherwise. We need to acknowledge the sources of armed conflict and invest in addressing them. We need a different kind of global leadership in and outside the UN. We need to work for conditions where people are not obliged to flee their homes. We need to end the machinery of warfare.

Search and rescue teams and everyone who assists people whose lives are at risk are real heroes! Everyone who has a conscience must join with others and organize to change things. We must stop the destruction of the planet and the armaments industry. We must stop the war industry. Young people must look to the future and help shape a different world.

UAI: One final question, Edith, please, if I may. Traditionally, and still today, women are routinely stereotyped as nothing other than “victims” in the context of warfare. Unquestionably, most war-affected people, whatever their gender, suffer tremendously even as their circumstances differ. But history shows that women are often agents of change and play a critical role in holding families and communities together. What are your views on the perspective that war often erodes patriarchal structures or armed conflict propels women to take on tasks and roles that were not available or viable in the pre-war situation?

Edith: I agree that war changes things including for women, but I do not agree that war is needed to change things for the better. International Women’s Day is actually a good time to remember that the struggle for the emancipation of females involved women getting organized, marching in the street, participating actively in the trade union movement, and going on strike when this was necessary. IWD is an important reminder that history is still being written when speaking of the rights of women and that genuine security is not about militarism and war but, rather, it is the realization of fair and just societies where the rights and wellbeing of everyone are respected and upheld.

If I look at my own experience in Canada as a young refugee, the war industry was booming in Toronto so many women left domestic service to work in factories. So, yes, war in that instance opened up opportunities for women that enabled them to work in relatively well-paid jobs outside the home. But if our societies are organized differently and we invest more in education, for example, women will automatically have better opportunities. And we need to acknowledge that it is not just in war zones that females are victims of rape for example; this also happens a lot in non-war settings and we need to invest more in addressing this problem.

We must also remember that history is told through wars. Everywhere we see statues with men on top holding guns but women who are central to the survival of families and communities are nameless. Unquestionably, women are key agents of change and make a huge contribution to society whatever the setting. We still have a long way to go in terms of gender equity, but we know where we want to go. Let’s invest in getting there!


With many thanks from UAI to ©Ahlam Almulaiki @cnvschq for the illustration of Edith Ballantyne.


The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of United Against Inhumanity.

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