- Cold War Comforts: Canadian Women, Child Safety, and Global Insecurity by Tarah Brookfield
Tarah Brookfield’s Cold War Comforts: Canadian Women, Child Safety, and Global Insecurity examines the work of prominent women and women’s organizations during the Cold War. The book provides well-researched and accessibly written documentation of women’s roles in shaping political life in Canada from 1945 to 1975. Brookfield’s work makes an important contribution to a much-neglected area of Canadian history.
The book is broken down into two sections: “At Home” and “Abroad.” The initial chapters cover the ways white, middle-class, heterosexual Canadian women were targeted in government initiatives to ensure the safety of Canada by preparing for a new war, keeping family safe, and raising idealized citizens. Brookfield gives nuanced attention to ways gender roles were reinforced and resisted through the maternalistic work of these women and organizations. She argues that although the Cold War cannot be understood to have “radically altered power structures in the home, workplace or state . . . three decades of continuous activism influenced the direction of the Cold War at home and abroad and helped legitimize women’s presence as [End Page 625] political actors” (19). While government initiatives gave primacy to women’s roles as wives and mothers, this focus did at times work at cross-purposes with governmental intention. Brookfield describes how “the state’s promotion of civil defence as a women’s issue provided women with a solid education about nuclear issues that contributed to building a loud and active female-driven wing of the Canadian movement” (68–9).
Chapters in the second section cover the un and child welfare organizing, the Foster Parent Plan program, care for children in Vietnam, and international adoption. Brookfield critically examines the philanthropic movements, which, however well-intentioned, took place within racialized, colonialist frameworks. For example, in the Foster Parent Plan, women in Canada acted as “foster mothers,” offering long-term relationships, including financial help, with children in countries such as Korea. While there was undoubtedly an impetus of care, these relationships were also framed as helping to stave off a communist threat in the next generation. In this way, the children were understood as symbols of potential outside threat. This is further explored in the analysis of Operation Babylift, wherein 700 children were taken from Vietnam orphanages at the end of the war. Placing children in Canadian homes was motivated by an entanglement of beliefs about what a Canadian family was and what communism would do to children. Brookfield documents how Canadian ngos failed to ensure that children taken in Operation Babylift were, in fact, permanent orphans before placing them with Canadian families. One of the strengths of Cold War Comforts lies in Brookfield’s original oral histories with activists and with adults who were removed from Vietnam during Operation Babylift. Including their voices helps to avoid framing any one group as monolithic or as symbols of a struggle rather than as individuals.
It is in light of these strengths that I raise a critique of Brookfield’s claim that her book captures the activism of Canadian women. Brookfield states, “The goal of this study was to explore the different ways women responded to Cold War threats and fears and to understand what their activism represented” (227). While she observes that the women in the study represent mainly white, middle-class heterosexuals, their activism is then read as representative of Canadian women. Such a reading can, in turn, be understood to equate Canadian womanhood with whiteness, heterosexuality, and middle-class social positions, thus failing to challenge normative ideas about Canadian nationhood and gender. While the women themselves may have projected “their identities as both Canadian citizens and as women” [End Page 626] (3), these identities were defined against those “segments of the population deemed to be ‘others’: communists, radicals, homosexuals, and immigrants” (10). To then frame their activism as emblematic of a nation risks taking part in the very universalizing of experience that Brookfield critiques throughout the book. That the women...