Tarah Brookfield has set herself the task of uncovering the history of Canadian women’s public responses to the Cold War from the late 1940s through the 1970s. She has thoroughly mined the primary and secondary sources and constructed a compelling narrative that casts considerable light on a number of areas: on the understanding of how the Cold War impacted Canadian society, on the reemergence of feminist peace activism in the postwar era, and on the role of activist women in shaping public policy on children and the family in an era of conflict and threats of global nuclear annihilation. Cold War Comforts is a fine achievement. Thanks to Brookfield, we now know a great deal more about each of the areas she addresses.
In the early years of the east-west conflict, some Canadian women became involved in civil defense preparations. Women, who during the war had been drawn into “Rosie the Riveter” factory jobs, were called back, most often on a volunteer basis, by the Canadian state for active duty in preparing assistance for injured citizens, especially children and shattered families, in the aftermath of a nuclear war. It was women’s traditional roles as mothers and nurturers and their professional concentration in nursing and teaching that provided their entrée into a public role outside the home. As Brookfield makes clear, the motivating ideology in the first instance was very much maternalist. However critical more radical feminists might later be of this apparent reaffirmation of tradition, it is the particular strength of Brookfield’s analysis that she shows, quite convincingly, not only that maternalism remained a constant foundation of women’s peace movements but that the later radicalization of these movements and of the women involved in them was a dialectical result of the engagement of maternalist feminism with the politics of the Cold War.
Participation in civil defense preparations soon revealed a split between some women who accepted the dominant Cold War interpretation of world [End Page 180] communism as the enemy that had to be defeated, and those who, in growing numbers, identified the nuclear-armed east-west conflict itself as the greater threat to peace. In the 1950s energies were turned from civil defense to campaigning for peace and nuclear disarmament. Here a second theme emerged alongside maternalist feminism: internationalism. Canadian women, as citizens of a middle-power that was not a global hegemon like the United States, were particularly drawn to internationalist responses and to support of international organizations like the United Nations and its agencies such as UNRRA and UNICEF that supported children and families. Brookfield examines various peace-oriented organizations like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (which preceded the Cold War), the Voice of Women, the United Nations Association, and others.
The story of women’s movements to promote peace and disarmament is a story of the reciprocal evolution of women and the Canadian state. While we already know a great deal about the actions of the state, such as the Red-baiting and witch hunting that were directed at all movements critical of the Cold War, especially in the 1950s, Brookfield usefully alerts us to the longer-term impact of women peace campaigners on the state. In the 1960s campaigns mobilizing scientific evidence about the threat of radioactive fallout, as well as maternal concern over the health of babies, helped create a climate in which the super-powers felt compelled to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty. Meshing women’s internationalist concerns with the Canadian government’s emphasis on liberal internationalist diplomacy, peace movements helped steer Canada away from active participation in the Vietnam quagmire (although Canadian defense industries made a quiet killing, literally and figuratively, out of that ugly conflict). Above all, the maternalist theme provided legitimation in the public eye for movements that otherwise might have been dismissed as aiding the Cold War enemy.
Of course, women campaigners were never of one mind. Some, whose activism took them to visit war zones and...