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Happy birthday Edith Ballantyne!

December 11, 2012

On 10 December, WILPF International held a reception to commemorate Human Rights Day and the 90th birthday of former WILPF International President and Secretary General, Edith Ballantyne. The hugely successful night was made even more special by the tributes given to Edith by her many friends present. 

Felicity Ruby, the former UN WILPF Director, began the warm wishes with the following speech. 

I am so happy to bring the warm greetings from all the WILPFers in the Australian summer to celebrate Edith’s 90th Birthday here in snowy Geneva.

Felicity Ruby and Edith Ballantyne

Felicity Ruby gives speech to Edith Ballantyne

Today, 90 years ago, calculated last night to be 32,871 days ago, Edith’s parents Rosa and Alois celebrated the birth of their daughter Edith Müller in Jagerndorf, Silesia.

While many of us might like to think of ourselves as quite Bohemian, Edith is a true Bohemian, born and raised in Bohemia until one September afternoon in 1938, after a long struggle against the Nazi ideology poisoning her school and community, the family left.

On that September afternoon Edith was 16 years old and walking home from the train station after school she was met by her mother and aunt.  Together they went back to the station to catch a train to Pilsen where they spent some weeks before a remarkable and fairly scary journey across Poland to get on a boat to England, and after some months there, onto Canada.

Edith has had a fascinating life in so many ways – she has used her 32,871 days to the full – she has been such a busy woman, but those of us who know her through her work in WILPF, in CONGO and in so many of the movements and efforts for peace and justice, including the Committee’s around the UN may forget that she brought four wonderful children into the world in five years.

Her daughter Morna wrote to me this morning and said that she especially wanted it to be acknowledged here tonight what a wonderful mother Edith was to Aiden, Linda, Derek and Morna.

Morna wrote:  “She was devoted to us all her life. She gave us unconditional love and support and comfort and still does to this day.  She was the glue that held us together as a family and taught us to be good citizens – she always said that this was the most important task as a parent.  She has touched so many people around the world – we are so privileged as her children (and grandchildren) to have been lucky enough to be born into her world.”

Many of us feel a similar sense of luck to have been brought into Edith’s world, as her friends and colleagues, whether that be around the meeting or conference table, but especially around her dinner table, her breakfast table, her lunch table.

How many of us here tonight, and how many people scattered all over the world can remember learning from the debates, and discussions and arguments around Edith’s dinner table?  So very many visitors to Geneva have enjoyed Edith’s generous hospitality, have been invited to dinner or to stay for some days or weeks in her home.

And each has been moved and affected by the vibrant ideas discussed and the extremely good food and wine.  It’s a humble table, dark wood, it folds out to accommodate more people, more fondue, more raclette, more wine, more salad, more inquiry into how we can solve the problems of our world, how we can organise, agitate, educate and move this world away from profit, greed and war to one where people can live decently and with dignity.Photo of Edith Ballantyne

My first breakfast at Edith’s table during this visit we discussed many issues – we discussed the surveilliance state and the erosions of our privacy and rights.  We discussed drones.  We discussed the crack down on whistleblowers, we thought about Bradley Manning and what he is going through for revealing war crimes, for showing us how US military power thinks and works today.  We discussed what Kruschev said at the 20th Congress and from there we thought more violence on the internet and its impact on young people, and we also covered the Ottoman Empire and the arbitrary lines on maps its break up caused, and how they continue to cause problems today.

I recount this menu of breakfast discussion items because it is typical of Edith’s mind and preoccupations.  Like the early WILPF women, she thinks and speaks and acts on big issues, as a woman.  She is not limited in any way, or restricting herself.  Country situations, military posture and spending, geopolitical dynamics, poverty, racism – these are what Edith feels women and men together should seize the opportunity and the responsibility to change.

When the Second World Conference on Women was held in Nairobi Kenya, Edith was a driving force in creating the Peace Tent where every issue could be discussed.

At one point that tent was nearly shut down by some governments complaining about the political discussions being held on particular issues, possibly these governments would have preferred that women stick to talking about women only, but Edith held strong to defend the autonomy and right of NGOs and women to talk about whatever they damn pleased.

And it is that attitude and determination that brought her into working with so many others to defeat Apartheid in South Africa, and to work to this day for justice in Palestine, for disarmament, and human rights and recognition and respect for the Indigenous Peoples of this world, so many of whom call Edith friend.

Edith is a Canadian citizen, but like her accent and also her politics, Edith is really an international citizen.  Her home in Geneva has so many items from every continent, and people from every continent visit her, call her, email her and send her the news of the world – from the Middle East, the Pacific, from the Americas – she has never retired from the work.

And the work for Edith is not the glamorous speaking opportunities or which famous person she met or worked with – and there are many.  For Edith the work is simply what needs to be done next.

Sometimes that is picking someone up from the airport, sometimes that is writing the minutes, emailing a reminder, translating some text, or organising a peace tent, or chairing the meeting or writing an article or finding the right words to resolve the debate about a resolution or a statement.

She is quite humble and quite honestly a worker bee, not a queen bee. But how lucky for WILPF that she came to work in this building 43 years ago.

When Edith arrived in Canada in 1939 as a refugee the Canadian railway gave a German-speaking group of Bohemians work at almost the end of the national railway line in northwest Canada. After the farming and railway life proved impossible to sustain the family found their way to Toronto in 1941.

Edith was discovered working as a charwoman by activists from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, who were seeking to find out the fate of these political refugees that had been admitted to Canada.  The WILPF women taught Edith English and helped her generally to know and assert her rights.

It’s hard to imagine how important these women and their efforts were to Edith – but this was an act of solidarity by WILPF women, and a highly political act – to support refugees in sucha tangible and practical way.

This lifeline helped Edith to become established in Canada, to get more interesting work in a newspaper, a political party, and to be politically active in her new country.

After moving to Montreal and working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s international service into Germany, after marrying dear Cam Ballantyne, moving to Geneva in 1948, raising her four children and a brief stint working for the World Health Organization (WHO), Edith reunited with WILPF, discovering its headquarters in Geneva almost by accident in 1968.

The accident occurred around the dinner table when a guest talked about WILPF. Edith had been in Geneva since 1948 but had no idea WILPF’s headquarters were here and as soon as she did she wanted to give back to the organisation that had helped her all those years ago.

She met with the secretary and offered to give voluntary assistance. It was partly in gratitude for the help she had been given by the organisation many years earlier, in Canada, and partly because it gave her an opportunity for political peace activity of which she was deprived as a foreigner living in Switzerland.

So she came in as a volunteer and went on to be appointed as staff soon thereafter.  One of the early things she did for WILPF was prepare a paper about the benefit and costs of having an office here in Geneva.

I think she made a pretty good case for why WILPF should have a presence and be very involved in the work of the UN in Geneva, and in the Committees and NGO collaborative efforts that help the United Nations live up to its Charter, because WILPF is still here and here to stay!

Edith worked for the organisation for twenty-three years as Secretary General and then served six years as its President and continues her activities in WILPF.

It’s impossible to recount all the work – as President and Secretary of CONGO – the Conference of NGOs – or in the sub Committee on Racism, Decolonisation and Apartheid, her establishment of the International Women’s Day Disarmament Seminars, the work on and around the UN’s conferences on racism, women, human rights, environment or the special sessions of the General Assembly on Disarmament.

There are so many stories to tell. Maybe Edith will tell a few herself, but I want to close with some tributes to Edith from friends who could not be here but whose words really sum up how we all feel here tonight.

Patricia Lewis, formerly the Director of UNIDIR, currently Director of Security Research at Chatham House says: Happy Birthday! How important you are to all women who work for peace and disarmament. You remain the role model par excellence and if I reach your age and look and think as beautifully as she does, I will be a happy woman.

Phyllis Yingling, Catonsville, MD WILPF, USA:  I would like to wish Edith a very happy 90th birthday. CONGRATULATIONS, EDITH ON A LIFE WELL LIVED!!!I  I think of Edith as a true peacemaker…..especially among the peace-makers in WILPF.  She has a calm, cool and diplomatic manner that leads her sometimes squabbling flock back onto the path to achieving our ultimate goal….peace among the  peoples and nations of the world. MANY THANKS, EDITH, FOR YOU KINDNESS AND SKILLFUL GUIDANCE.

Barbara Lochbihler, WILPF Germany: Ranjith and myself, we send you very warm and best birthday wishes! What a great opportunity to congratulate a woman like you to her 90th birthday!!! May you have many more birthdays to come and we wish you to stay healthy, active and with a clear political mind.  Looking back on your life, you can be proud and satisfied with many things you did and do. For us, your left and thorough analysis of the root causes of poverty and wars is a great chance to learn and an inspiration to go on with the fighting against it, even in times (most of the times) when things don’t develop or even are going in the wrong direction. Thank you Edith for your friendship.

Michael Urminsky, former tenant in Geneva, living now in Canada:  Tell Edith I try to remember and apply all the lessons I learned at the dining room table at Secheron.  Give her also my love and best wishes.

Libby Frank, WILPF USA says what many of us know about working with Edith:  Dear Edith, What a dear, wonderful comrade you have been for many years.  I remember many things, but most, our trip to the Middle East. We not only acted politically, but we had fun!  How much I admire your energy!!   Your politics are so perceptive, everyone should listen and learn from them.  I did and got much strength from them and from your fortitude in explaining and defending them. There’s an old Yiddish saying — “May you live to 120!”  We need you for at least that long.  Happy Birthday dear Edith, it is such a privilege to know you, to learn from you, and to realize through observing your life that the struggle for justice and peace and freedom is one that makes the world better and our lives so much richer.

We are all richer from knowing you, richer in the ways that truly count – in thinking and experiences and inspiration to continue the struggle!

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