Last week, Edith Ballantyne invited WILPF International to her cosy flat in Geneva to discuss peace, activism and how the organisation’s view of women’s obligations in politics has shifted over the years. The exuberant 89-year-old has been involved with WILPF in one way or another for most of her life, making her the perfect interviewee on our organisation’s history, goals, and future success.
Born in what was formerly Czechoslovakia, on 10 December 1922, Edith and her family became refugees after Czechoslovakia’s incorporation into Nazi Germany. After fleeing to England, they eventually found refuge in Canada, where they were settled as farmers in Northern British Columbia.
Edith spent much of her youth working for the Canadian Pacific Railroad Company, clearing and ploughing the land before moving to Toronto to work as a housemaid. It was in Toronto, at the age of nineteen, that she had her first encounter with WILPF.
Edith’s first introduction to WILPF
‘One morning the doorbell rang and I opened it, and there was this woman who introduced herself from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She said they had been following us.’
The WILPF Section in Canada was incredibly active in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Edith, they had taken a leaf out of WILPF founder Jane Addams’ book. She was a social worker who devoted her life to settling immigrant children in Chicago and protecting their living conditions.
The Canadian women working for WILPF had mirrored Jane Addams. They were aware of the political refugees that had come to Canada and discovered their names and addresses so that they could find and assist them.
And this assistance proved invaluable to Edith’ s own future in activism. ‘I owe them. If I’m here, it’s really because of that group of women. They started giving us English lessons and they really taught me. They told me about WILPF and about the history. I joined them and became a member, and I was very, very close to them. They practically adopted me.’
Interestingly, however, this did not signal the beginning of the rest of Edith’s working life with WILPF. In 1945, she moved to Montreal and lost track of the WILPF women who had taken her under their wing.
For the next two decades Edith had no connection to WILPF! She worked for the German section of Canadian International Radio Service for a year, and eventually worked for their newspaper.
In 1948 she followed her husband – an employee of the International Labour Organisation – to Geneva. She worked as a sub-editor for the World Health Organisation for 5 years, before taking time off to raise her four children.
It wasn’t until a chance encounter with a family friend in the 1960s that Edith realised WILPF was based in Geneva and decided to see what the organisation were doing.
‘I started to work for WILPF. I worked for them for 29 years. Bit by bit, we built up the organisation and got it active again, and started being visible in the UN.’ Edith became Secretary General of WILPF in 1969 and remained in this position for 23 years, before becoming WILPF President from 1992 to 1998.
Having worked for the organisation for so long, it makes sense that Edith’s vision for WILPF is clear and precise. Her eloquence, when speaking of WILPF’s original aims, enables a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the organisation and the inextricable ties between its goals and its historical context.
‘Going back to the origin of WILPF, when the women met in The Hague, they came together to stop the war. They had no intention of having an organisation at the time. They were particularly anxious to get neutral countries to take an initiative and find a peaceful way out of the conflict.’
‘When you look at the resolutions they were all aimed at stopping the war but at the same time they were beginning to look to see what is necessary to build a permanent peace.
Edith is emphatic in her belief that the route to peace is political: ‘When you talk about peace, when you want to work for peace, it’s not just human rights. Human rights are just one part of a whole big thing. The political framework within which that is possible is very important.’
This focus on achieving peace through the consideration of social, economic and political contexts could be a lesson learnt from the WILPF women in Canada whom Edith knew in her youth, as they mostly ‘had a political interest’.
‘I personally have always regretted that the Human Rights Council was established, instead of continuing with the Commission, which was part of the economic, social council, bringing together more organically the women’s issues, the social issues, the development issues and the human rights issues as one inter-related.’
Peace activism is clearly suited to Edith’s compassionate nature, winning her the Gandhi Peace Prize in 1995 and the first International Peace Woman Award in 2003.
Interestingly, she holds a more philosophical opinion on the role of women in peace-building activities, both when WILPF first began and its endeavours today.
Peace and women
‘When the women who eventually became WILPF women decided to hold the conference in The Hague, it was because the feminist movement did not want to get into politics.’
‘Nowadays, everything has to be done through a woman’s perspective. Well, a woman’s perspective is not always different from a human perspective. We are all human beings and probably three-quarters of what we need to understand is as true for men as it is for women.’
‘This, one can argue, but I think for many of the younger women particularly, their equal rights is the most important issue, rather than questioning, “what is the important issue that needs to be resolved, and therefore I, as a woman, am going to insist that I have the right to say something about it.”
For Edith, the WILPF women took the suffragette movement one step further, not only asserting their rights as women but also utilising these rights to try and make a change.
Her admiration for the women who worked alongside her at WILPF is evident.
‘Quite honestly, the people I most learnt from and whom I still think of with great warmth are some of the WILPF women I worked with. They didn’t hold any big office, they didn’t make any big noise but they were always there, they always had the right reactions, they always supported the right things. In their own quiet way, they would give directions and were honest in their arguments.’
So with WILPF nearing its 100th anniversary and Edith on the brink of celebrating her 90th birthday, what does the WILPF veteran hope and envision for the future of the organisation?
‘I really do hope it will grow again and we will get more membership. I think WILPF is a membership organisation in essence and we do want to bring women along, not just to fight for their rights, but to really look at the world and bring their voices to the table.’
‘This, for me, would be WILPF’s capacity building role: to bring women not just to the table but also to think and challenge, and pose important questions, and insist on being heard on important issues.’