(ACTIVISM)“She was so sweet, she kind of had the feel of everybody’s grandmother. And yet she was so hardcore,” says a friend of Dorothy Stowe, a Greepeace co-founder and activist who passed away last Friday. — Global Animal


Vancouver Sun, John Mackie

Greenpeace co-founder Dorothy Stowe passed away Friday, less than three weeks after the death of another co-founder, Jim Bohlen. She was 89.

“She was the real deal,” said another early Greenpeacer, Rex Weyler. “She was the sort of person that actually made things happen.”

That she did. In her native Rhode Island, she organized a social workers union, and became its first president. When she threatened to call a strike, the governor called her a communist. But she prevailed, winning a 33 percent wage hike for the workers.

After arriving in Vancouver in 1966, she and her late husband Irving became fixtures in the local peace and environmental movements. When the American government announced it was going to test nuclear bombs on Amchitka Island, off the coast of Alaska, the Stowes and Jim and Marie Bohlen launched a protest group called the Don’t Make a Wave committee, which became Greenpeace.

“Who knew that four people at a kitchen table could give rise to a movement that has offices in 40 countries?” she said after Bohlen died. “You couldn’t possibly have predicted it.”

Stowe was born Dorothy Anne Rabinowitz on Dec. 22, 1920, in Providence, Rhode Island. After graduating from Pembroke, a women’s college at Brown University, she became a psychiatric social worker.

As president of the social workers local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, she had to sign the union card for a lawyer, Irving Strasmich. They married in 1953; the best man was jazz pianist George Shearing. On their wedding night, they went to a banquet for the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People).

The “peacenik” couple became Quakers, even taking the surname Stowe, after the great Quaker abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe. They became deeply involved in the peace movement, and in 1961, decided to relocate with their two children Robert and Barbara to New Zealand.

“[They wanted] to escape atomic fallout from atmospheric testing and avoid contributing to nuclear weapons proliferation through their taxes,” explained Barbara Stowe.

In the mid-60s the French government started doing nuclear tests in Polynesia, so the Stowes decided to move to Vancouver.

“My father saw Vancouver on a trip,” said Barbara. “It was spring, and it was so beautiful, so here we were.”

Irving couldn’t work as a lawyer in Canada when the family arrived, so Dorothy became the main breadwinner.

“My mother basically supported the family, as he got into activism full time,” said Barbara.

In 1967 Jim and Marie Bohlen met the Stowes at a peace march. The couples became fast friends and fellow activists. In 1970, they became alarmed at the prospect of a nuclear test at Amchitka. Sitting around brainstorming about ways to rally opposition to the test, Marie Bohlen suggested they might send a protest ship to witness the event.

“There was an American protest ship, a Quaker ship, called the Golden Rule that had been protesting the atmospheric testing,” said Dorothy. “Marie said that would be a good example, sending a ship up there to witness and let people know. Somebody [from the Vancouver Sun] phoned Jim and Jim said ‘We’re going to sail a ship up there.’”

To fund the trip, Irving Stowe hatched the idea of a benefit concert. Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Phil Ochs and Chilliwack did a concert at the Pacific Coliseum, and a ship, the Phyllis Cormack, was chartered.

The U.S. coast guard stopped the ship from reaching the test zone, but after conducting only three tests the US Atomic Energy Commission halted the tests.

Back in Vancouver, the Stowes’ Point Grey home became the de facto Greenpeace headquarters. Irving had a higher public profile, but Weyler said Dorothy was just as important in getting the organization off the ground.

“She wasn’t the person who was out in front and visible, but she was doing a lot of the work behind the scenes,” said Weyler. “She had all the files organized. Often they were working on a dozen campaigns: the rivers, the highway, oil tankers, all those things, and she had all that stuff organized and filed.”

Irving died of cancer in 1974, but Dorothy forged on as an activist.

“She became increasingly active in the Vancouver Society of Friends (Quakers), officiating at weddings and marrying gay and lesbian couples before most faiths would consider it,” said Barbara Stowe. “She helped found the first freestanding abortion clinic in Vancouver, and volunteered for many years at the Vancouver General Hospital Palliative Care unit.”

“It takes a special person to keep doing that kind of public service work throughout their lives,” said Weyler. “A lot of people think it’s for young people in their 20s. It was really inspiring for me to see Dorothy in her 70s and 80s so actively involved.

“She was so sweet, she kind of had the feel of everybody’s grandmother. And yet she was so hardcore,” Weyler said with a laugh. “She was just a lifelong activist for social justice, the environment and peace.”

Stowe’s fame in the environmental movement grew over the years; the Irish rock band U2 invited her to its show at GM Place in 2005, and singer Bono dedicated the song Original of the Species to her.

Unfortunately her health began to suffer as she advanced into her 80s.

“She fought heart failure, kidney disease, leukemia and diabetes for years, only choosing to decline life-prolonging treatments and nourishment when faced with the prospect of growing infirmity,” said Barbara.

She died at UBC hospital early Friday with Barbara and Robert by her side.

“One of the last things she did was put on a brunch for Kumi Naidoo, who’s the new Greenpeace International executive director,” said Weyler.

“This was only about a month ago. There she was, standing up in the kitchen, making brunch for everybody. She was so tiny and frail, she had lost quite a bit of weight by that time, [and] it looked to me like she could barely stand up. [But] that was her thing, that was her way. She was a worker.

“I got the feeling she summoned every last ounce of energy to make this happen, when Kumi visited Vancouver. I think it was a very heartwarming moment for her. An apartheid activist from South Africa who has worked in human rights issues around the world is now the executive director of Greenpeace. It was really good to see the two of them. It really felt like a real passing of the torch.”