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Confronting Militarism is Early Twentieth Century Canada: the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom

If the Woman’s Institutes were like tea parties, the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) was a boisterous rally. It had been founded in The Hague in April, 1915. Immediately thereafter, a branch was formed in Toronto by a small band of suffragettes; it was disbanded in 1917, but re-established in May 1919. By the mid-1920s, branches were added in Vancouver (1921) and Winnipeg (1925) with general support of individual farm women in Alberta and Saskatchewan. During the 1920s the WILPF offered an expansive, and radical, vision of a co-operative world of international and sexual equality—a vision remarkably articulated by the “mighty mite” of Saskatchewan, Violet McNaughton.

Women’s concerns were interwoven and interconnected. If women fought for temperance to stem the tide of violence and articulated a caring vision of home and community, it made sense to fight for a peaceful and co-operative big world. They took as their main educational goal the education of public opinion. Beverly Boutilier states that the “educational emphasis and the strategies which it adopted to attain its goals reflected both a strong faith in the powers of education to change society and reflected its own membership’s past activities in feminist politics.” Vision engenders projects and projects find methods. For the WILPF, this meant focusing on personal and group study, public education as well as the education of children and youth.

The WILPF had taken on a fierce enemy. Militarism intertwined with a competitive capitalist system, underpinned, they believed, by a skewed understanding of masculinity. This confrontation separates them from more liberal feminist organizations. How would one change such historically deep-rooted structures of war and male character? Is it even possible? The WILPF thought their educational radicalism could erode the acculturated habits and attitudes of war instilled in children by story books glorifying war and the egregious cadet parades in the schools. Their educational reform strategy was two-fold. They worked to prepare curricular materials to counteract militarism in the schools to enable a “perspective transformation” in the minds of youth and their teachers. And they engaged in a wide range of projects to unsettle the regnant ideology of militaristic capitalism.

Perhaps the WILPF can be characterized as the most utopian of feminist reform movements in this era. They wanted to overturn the “spirit of hatred” polluting men’s (and women’s) souls, and demanded nothing less than “moral reconstruction of society.” Theirs was a civilizing mission in a most difficult of times—post-World War I ultra-nationalism and fear of radicalism (the infamous “red scare” was on the prowl). This utopian search for peace in the lifeworld and the system was perceived by most feminists of the time as a natural female preoccupation. Thus, many women’s organizations turned attention to the educational system. But could children really be society’s redeemers?

The public education of the WILPF used several devices, or methods. They produced and distributed a wide range of peace literature. For instance, between 1919 and 1921 the Vancouver and Toronto branches produced eight different pamphlets that were distributed to other branches and women’s organizations in western Canada and Toronto. The emergent core of feminist journalists wrote newspaper articles. They organized public speeches. But the most innovative social pedagogical form used by the WILPF was the all-day peace conference. In 1928, the Vancouver branch led by the indomitable Laura Jamieson, opened up this public sphere to influence the Canadian federal government, as signatory to the Kellogg-Briand Act, to act upon its disavowal of war. Other conferences were held in Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Women’s groups, once hostile to each other, joined to deliberate in a series of round-table discussions.

Here, the WILPF has expanded communicative action towards the creation of a global public sphere. Women learned to challenge their own viewpoints as they listened to those of others. Vancouver and Winnipeg branches even held pageants bringing together a variety of ethnic associations in order to create “good will” between nations and cultures. But it was the insistent and dogged efforts to de-militarize the schools that distinguish the WILPF from other groups. Jamieson’s persistence paid off: in 1927 the provincial government of BC eliminated cadet drills in the schools. Her political supporters, Agnes MacPhail, the first woman elected to national parliament, and JS Woodsworth, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) leader, would have been pleased.

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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