Dorothy Anne Stowe
22.XII.1920 – 23.VII.2010
Dorothy Stowe’s warm spirit, generous hospitality and cooking abilities were legendary. At Sunday worship in Vancouver Friends Meeting, she regularly introduced herself as one of the Meeting’s marriage registrars with a big smile and twinkle in her eye saying, “My name is Dorothy Stowe, and I am a marriage registrar for this Meeting. Business has been kind of quiet lately, so come on Friends, get busy!” Ever the optimist, she was never one to simply question “Why?” Rather, Dorothy’s general response to a good idea was simply, “Why not?”
Dorothy Anne Rabinowitz was born in Providence, Rhode Island on December 22, 1920 to parents who emigrated from Galicia (a region currently shared by Poland and the Ukraine). Her father Jacob was a jeweller who she described as “idealistic and political. He cared about others and about justice not only for Jewish people, but for everyone.” Dorothy’s mother, Rebecca Miller, taught Hebrew and inspired Dorothy to pursue an education and career. There were always important international visitors at the dinner table while she was growing up; Dorothy reported that even Chaim Weitzmann, the future president of Israel, came to their home for dinner.
Dorothy attended Pembroke College, Brown University’s women’s college, where she graduated in 1942 with a BA in English and Philosophy just a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her class received their degrees a few months early so that the young women could join the growing American war effort. During the Second World War she served as a purchasing officer for the Navy. In 1944, Dorothy landed a job as a psychiatric social worker with the State of Rhode Island and became horrified by the conditions faced by the poor in her home state. Her daughter reported that she would come home to her comfortable home and raid the family pantry, bringing every can of food to distribute to her clients.
She then became the first president of an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union local in Providence. As president of her union during the McCarthy era, she was mistakenly branded a “communist” by the Rhode Island governor for demanding a 33% pay raise for its members. She stood her ground, and the pay raise ultimately was won. “She wasn’t easily intimidated,” said her daughter Barbara. “I think the McCarthy era... really radicalized my parents.”
One of her tasks as union president was to sign the union cards of new members, including one Irving Strasmich, a young tax lawyer. Eventually the two fell in love, and became engaged in 1953. This prompted Dorothy’s mother to begin planning an elaborate engagement party, something that didn’t really suit Dorothy or Irving. The couple eloped on September 27, 1953 and spent their wedding night at a fundraising banquet and jazz concert to benefit the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a pro bono client of Irving’s and a central player in the U.S. civil rights movement.
According to their daughter Barbara, “They not only married each other, they married activism.” Rex Weyler adds “They were political soul mates.” During the first eight years of their marriage they lived in Rhode Island and became parents of two children, Robert (Bob) born in 1955 and Barbara, born in 1956. Dorothy also learned to cook, beginning an enduring passion for preparing and sharing good food around the table; it was a natural expression of her warmth and hospitality to be able to prepare gourmet meals for hungry friends and activists over the years. Around 1957, they also began attending Providence Friends Meeting, located on the campus of New England Yearly Meeting’s Moses Brown School. Struggling to find a religion that encompassed their values, they found that the Society of Friends fit the path they were committed to in life. “The Quaker principles of speaking truth to power and bearing witness were very appealing to them, basically standing up for what you believe in and fighting injustice,” said Dorothy’s son. They became members of Providence RI Monthly Meeting in 1960.
The Strasmichs had started campaigning against nuclear weapons in the 1950s when radioactive isotopes were discovered in mothers’ milk and nuclear “duck and cover” drills became a standard practice in schools. When the American government deployed nuclear-armed Polaris submarines, Dorothy and her husband saw this as a dangerous escalation of the arms race. Providence Meeting provided the family a Letter of Introduction and Transfer (dated 14-II-1961), and Dorothy and Irving moved their children (and their taxes) to New Zealand later that year. They were warmly greeted by Friends in Auckland, something which Dorothy never forgot.
In New Zealand, they led demonstrations at the U.S. embassy and protested French nuclear weapons testing in Polynesia. To further reflect their commitment to peace and justice, Irving and Dorothy changed their family’s surname to honour the Quaker abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. When New Zealand sent troops to Vietnam in 1965, the Stowes began to seek another home.
During a stopover in Vancouver on his way back from visiting relatives, Irving was so impressed with the city that he sent a telegram to Dorothy saying, “don’t renew any magazine subscriptions.” The Stowes arrived in Vancouver the summer of 1966 and settled into their home in Point Grey. Dorothy began working at the Family Service Agency of Vancouver and supported the family while Irving worked as a full-time peace activist. Taking on full-time work and the breadwinning role in the family did not stop Dorothy from continuing to work on peace, social justice and women’s rights.
The Stowes connected with Quakers in Vancouver, and met Jim and Marie Bohlen in 1967. They also met journalists Bob Hunter and his wife Zoe as well as Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe, who helped promote their campaigns. This group would later become instrumental in starting Greenpeace. The couple joined groups to protest oil tanker traffic, stop a freeway in Vancouver and save the Skagit River, with Dorothy acting as secretary for several of those groups.
In the summer of 1969, Lille d‘Easum, a women’s rights and anti-nuclear activist, called Irving to report that the bodies of sea otters were washing up on the B.C coast as a result of nuclear testing on Alaska’s Amchitka Island. To protest, the Stowes, the Bohlens and a university student named Paul Cote started the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, named for the tsunami they feared would result if further nuclear testing took place in the Aleutian Islands. Dorothy recruited social workers and women’s groups to organize a boycott of U.S. products until the nuclear tests were cancelled. When Marie Bohlen suggested sailing a boat into the test zone to bear witness for peace, the Stowes agreed. They hired an old halibut boat, the Phyllis Cormack, and re-named it Greenpeace to symbolize the merging of peace and ecology activism. The boat set sail in September 1971, was arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard and never reached the island. Nevertheless, the voyage created a public outcry, and in February 1972, President Nixon announced an end to the Amchitka nuclear tests. While Dorothy was not aboard the vessel, she was instrumental in supporting the effort. She recruited financial support for the mission, helped organize a boycott of U.S. products, and spent hours on the corner of Georgia and Granville streets selling buttons and t-shirts to raise money for the Greenpeace voyage.
The Greenpeace organization was officially founded in 1972, around the same time that tragedy struck the Stowe family. Irving was diagnosed with cancer the same year, and died in 1974.
Dorothy retired from social work in 1985 and began twenty years of volunteer work at the palliative care unit at Vancouver General Hospital. She continued fighting for social justice and was instrumental in establishing Vancouver’s first free-standing abortion clinic. She was also active among Friends in Vancouver, supporting the rights of same-sex couples to marry, hosting Valentine’s Day teas, as well as travelling around the world and, on behalf of Vancouver Friends, opening her home to dozens of travellers with Quaker connections. She was active on the Vancouver Friends’ Peace and Social Concerns committee and supported Jerilynn Prior and others from Conscience Canada in insisting that taxes for conscientious objectors to military service not be “conscripted” for military uses. She lent her support by hosting meetings at her home, making tea and by actively and supportively listening. For example, to support feminist research into women’s health she readily agreed in 2002 to become a Community Advisory Council member for the University of British Columbia’s newly formed Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research.
She continued organizing dinner and movie nights for family and friends; Dorothy’s passion for hospitality and activism, well-known among Friends and activists in Vancouver, lasted until her final days. Just a few weeks before she died, Dorothy cooked and hosted a brunch for the new Greenpeace executive director, Kumi Naidoo. Her son Bob said, “It really felt like a passing of the torch. We were very moved when he was appointed because he immediately expressed his intention to bring Greenpeace into the fight to end human suffering. That fit so perfectly with my father’s vision, as it did with my mother’s.” Naidoo reported “At 89, she was passionate, clear and committed to the values of Greenpeace and was excited by our collective vision of making the links with poverty, human rights, peace and democracy. Dorothy stayed true to the course until the very last moments. She would want us to succeed in creating a world where we live in peace with one another, and in peace with all forms of life on this precious and fragile planet we call home.”
Dorothy leaves her two adult children, Bob and Barbara, and her extended family. She died less than three weeks after fellow Greenpeace founder Jim Bohlen.
Eric Kristensen & Jerilynn Prior
Sources: Lindell, Rebecca, “A life dedicated to peace and social justice,” Globe and Mail, 7 August 2010. Weyler, Rex, “Dorothy Stowe: 1920-2010,: Greenpeace UK, 23 July 2010