Muriel Duckworth: the Peace Movement's Best Friend

By Marion Kerans | 1988-10-01 12:00:00

Kay Macpherson, a longtime associate, describes Muriel Duckworth as "the person everyone wants to claim as their best friend." Anyone who has ever met Muriel comes away convinced that this warm, friendly woman is interested in them. She listens intently and reacts spontaneously, often laughing at the funny side or openly weeping as she identifies with another's sadness. Sometimes her conspiratorial naughtiness shows, as she enjoys a joke about some stuffy politician. She makes no effort to conceal her indignation at injustice or duplicity, no matter what the occasion. Who but Muriel would use an opportunity to lunch with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to make him acknowledge that the cruise missile tests then being conducted in Canada were not an obligation to NATO but were being done at the request of the United States?

Muriel stepped into a large and gifted group of women in preparation for the first VOW-sponsored international conference in Montréal in 1962. Her presence meant the presence of standards - adherence to procedures and impeccable minutes. Muriel never raised her voice or lost her temper in meetings that were often contentious. Ursula Franklin, who has known her for 30 years, describes her as living a radical vision in a civilized way, with consistency between her life at home and in public.

Sitting on the veranda of her old cottage adjacent to the farm, Muriel reminisced about her lifelong commitment to the peace movement. She was born October 31, 1908, in the Eastern Townships at Austin, Quebec, the third of five children. Her family moved to the town of Magog, eleven miles down the lake, and Muriel came to love the rhythm of the seasons. Relatives and friends often gathered in their home for hymn sings, card games, good meals, and political debates. She traces her feminist roots to a mother who read Nellie McClung, who turned her china cabinet into a bookcase to start up a community lending library, and who helped earn the money for her children to go to university by running a tea room and renting rooms to summer boarders. Muriel's two maiden aunts provided strong models too: One was a public health nurse and the other an English teacher at a girls school that Muriel attended one year before going to university.

The Studying Years

Muriel credited the SCM (Student Christian Movement) at McGill as the most important part of her university education. She was active in small study groups, in opposing anti-Semitism on campus, and in helping raise money for European student relief. At the SCM she met Jack. They married the week of her graduation in 1929 and both did graduate studies for the next year at Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York.

The atmosphere at UTS was vibrant with the open relation-ships of students and progressive faculty members. It was a time when the "social gospel" permeated theological studies, when the sudden market crash threw the economic system into question, when psychiatric concepts were being introduced and students were exposed to speakers from other world religions. There was even a beginning dialogue between Christians and Marxists. Students engaged in field work. Muriel's eyes were opened by her weekly sessions with teenaged immigrant girls at a community church in Hell's Kitchen on the Lower East Side. From this came a lifetime ability to instill confidence in young women.

The Family Years

Returning to Montréal, Jack went to work for the YMCA and Muriel became secretary to the SCM until their first child, Martin, was born in 1933. She was busy with the family for the next few years Eleanor was born in '35 and John in '38), yet she found time to work with Jack in the League for Social Reconstruction - forerunner to the CCF and later the NDP. She attended the conference out of which came the CCF. The Duckworth home was the site of meetings for two other organizations, the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order, a graduate version of the SCM, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization begun in Britain after the First World War. Remembering the lessons of that war, Jack and Muriel actively resisted the advent of World War II. Jack was a declared pacifist and Muriel supported his stand, over the objections of friends and family. Instead of engaging in volunteer activities supporting the war effort, Muriel remained busy throughout wartime, starting up children's nursery schools, home and school associations, children's art classes, and working with the Canadian Girls in Training. The horror of war was very personal. Her younger brother Norman, who had joined the Air Force, was killed returning from a raid over France in 1943.

The family moved to Halifax in 1947 when Jack became the general secretary of the new family YMCA. Muriel did volunteer work in community mental health activities and human rights for blacks. For fourteen years she worked as Program and Parent Education Adviser for the Nova Scotia Department of Education, resigning only to become National President of the Voice of Women in 1967. Her interest in international affairs had developed through participating in the YMCA's International Affairs Committee. Her pacifism also was expressed through her association for the past twenty-five years with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

Working for Peace

Of the many organizations with which Muriel worked, none captured her imagination more than the Voice of Women (VOW). Responding to the call from Toronto women to form a women's organization to do something about the failure of the Paris Peace talks in 1960 (after the U2 scare), Muriel eagerly joined VOW. She and Peggy Hope-Simpson soon had a Halifax branch going and, within a month, they had called a public meeting to successfully contest the dumping by a private concern of nuclear waste off the coast of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Muriel chaired the Women's International Peace Conference in Montréal in 1967 - a VOW centennial project - and that same year became President of VOW. During her term, the Voices, who were opposing the Vietnam War, captured public attention when they brought three South Vietnamese women from the National Liberation Front to Canada. Muriel accompanied them across the country to packed public meetings in the major cities and at border points between Canada and the United States. There they met with delegations of U.S. peace women.

Muriel led a delegation of Voices in 1968 to meet with the Director General of the Suffield Experimental Station to protest Canada's involvement in chemical weapons testing. The women went to find out about the agreement between Canada, great Britain, and the U.S. on chemical and biological warfare research and its connection to U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam.

Muriel represented VOW at conferences in Paris in '67, Moscow in '68, Mexico City in '75, and Copenhagen in '80. In 1982, she chaired a delegation Canadians who presented

125,000 signatures of the Women's Petition for Peace to Ambassador Pelletier during the U.N. Special Session on Disarmament. In 1983, she visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1984, she returned to Moscow to film "Speaking Our Peace." She was a moving force in the Women's International peace conference in Halifax in 1985 and in Central America that year.

Many institutions have recognized Muriel's contributions to adult education, community development, human rights, and to women and peace studies. She has received eight honorary doctorates from universities, is a member of the Order of Canada, and received the Person's Award in 1981. It is typical of Muriel that whenever she is honored, she manages to turn the award into an occasion for honoring others. When she received the Order of Canada in 1983, she described it as a symbol of recognition for the women's peace movement in general.

The Canadian peace movement is celebrating its best friend's eightieth birthday on October 31. Happy birthday, Muriel!

Marion Kerans is a member of Voice of Women in Nova Scotia.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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