An Interview with Jean Lee by Marijke Vander Klok
Imagine: It’s 1963. Together with twenty four other women, all passionate members of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, you embark on the trip of a lifetime. You’ve never been in an airplane before, and you take off from Toronto Pearson International (a shack in a field compared to how it looks today!) to fly across the Atlantic and taste Europe for the very first time.
In London, England, you are invited to the homes of well-to-do individuals who identify themselves as communists. You share a meal with them, discussing peace and gender equality. Back in North America, in the throes of the Cold War, it is practically a criminal offence to be affiliated with the Communist Party, but in London, it’s nothing to be a communist.
In the Netherlands, you join the meeting of a Dutch women’s group. Here, women take the initiative to get together to talk, gossip, and share their experiences of the war – World War II being an all too current influence in their present day lives. Recalling the liberation of Holland by the Allied forces, the first thing families did at the sight of the foreign soldiers was to lock up their daughters! Even though the Canadian and American armies were coming into their country to expel the German occupation, they were treated with initial mistrust and fear; common sense, in short, in this war-torn continent. One woman stands up to share her story, how after engaging in a romance with a Canadian soldier during that time, she was ostracized by her family and community. It’s nearly twenty years later, yet now women from both countries sit in a room together, swapping yarns.
You reach Sweden on the summer solstice, to discover the streets of Stockholm all but empty while everyone is away on holiday. In Norway, you visit the place where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded; holy ground for your group of women impassioned by the idea of achieving world peace. In Warsaw, Poland, you join a potluck in the heart of a city totally rebuilt in the image of its former glory, the Warsaw before the war. You arrive in Paris on Bastille Day, the squares congested with military parades as if in an entirely ironic welcome for this delegation from a peace organization.
It is a whirlwind of new experiences, a wealth of explorations and acquaintances. It is a time of women coming together, sharing their stories, and asserting their voice.
These memories were shared with me over a cup of tea by Jean Lee, member of VOW since its conception in 1960. She had recently graduated from the University of Toronto in 1958, where she had studied psychology and social work. As a student, Jean was engaged in the peace movement through her church and school involvement. With the threat of nuclear warfare steadily on the rise throughout the 1950s, Jean joined many others in retaliation against the international climate of hostility and aggression. In a reaction to the building of bomb shelters and school bomb drills, people organized peace rallies and community meetings. Jean remembers walking annually in a peace march every Easter Sunday through Sunnyside Park. She also formed a women’s peace group that met at Jean’s home.
It was through her involvement in VOW that led Jean to this tour across Europe. With a group of twenty four fellow Canadian ladies lead by Helen Tucker, the president of VOW at the time, Jean toured around Europe for one month, travelling by train and plane, visiting various women’s organizations in ten different countries. This voyage led up to the VOW members’ participation in the 5th World Congress of Women in Moscow, on July 24-29, 1963.
The VOW group passed a week in Moscow, where the International Democratic Women’s Federation (WIDF) was hosting the World Congress of Women in the Kremlin Palace. Women from all over the world attended, most, Jean commented, of communist party affiliation. During their stay, they were entertained at the Canadian embassy by the ambassadors to Russia and treated to unique features of the Soviet Union, such as visiting a communal farm and tasting local food. At the conference, Russia put on display their recent achievements in the race to space; pictures of the moon were exhibited and Valentina Tereshkova, Russia’s first woman cosmonaut, was an honoured guest speaker. There was another side to the success of Russian socialism, Jean mentioned; no one commented on Russian oppression. While the Russian faction of the International Democratic Women’s Federation put on display the highlights of gender equality and recognition of women’s success throughout the country, especially in light of the recent space flight, the comparative climate of gender struggles in other countries, namely the United States, revealed an atmosphere of protest marches and serious social resistance in the name of gender equality and rights for women. This comparison failed to mention, however, the fact that American women had at least the right to organize marches, protest, and speak out – even if their attitudes went against the governing power.
Jean had married after graduating from university, and she and her husband have two children. Having kids took her away from VOW for some time, Jean confided in me, but she was sure to mail all of their baby teeth to Helen Tucker. An unusual tooth fairy: at that time, Tucker was part of a team conducting a research project that detected levels of strontium 90 in Canadian baby teeth, a discovery lending important support in the instigation of the Partial Test Ban, a United Nations treaty that prohibited nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in space.
Today, Jean continues to be active in the peace movement, in particular addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2010 she traveled with Code Pink, a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement, joining about 1500 people struggling to enter Gaza from Cairo. Additionally, she joined VOW at its last open meeting, urging the organization to engage in more political critique and to continue its work – a work no less important or imperative now than it was at VOW’s beginnings in 1960 – in the peace and disarmament movement.
Speaking with Jean gave me true inspiration and encouragement in my engagement in the global movement for peace. Her trip across Europe and participation in the 5th World Congress of Women represented a life-changing experience as it connected her with fellow members of VOW and women across the globe, all embracing the struggle for peace and all taking responsibility, as women, for the future of this conflict-ridden world. The memories Jean shared with me brought to mind a quote from Isak Dinesen: to be a person is to have a story to tell. Exemplified by the woman in the Netherlands who loved a Canadian soldier, by Valentina Tereshkova returning from her rocket ship, and by Jean herself – this idea reminds us that it is through raising our voices that we can express ourselves, share our hopes, and even change the world.