150+ Canadians Day 139: Alice Chown

Alice Chown contributed to peace by advocating for women’s rights and pacifism before and during WWI.

‘Personal relations have taught me that there is a life force in every individual urging to order, harmony, beauty.  We may set this wonderful force for righteousness free by granting to all freedom to live out the truths inherent in them. Society makes an institution and thinks it is a permanent dwelling, instead of a tent in which to abide for night before passing to the next stage in its journey.” 

Alice Amelia Chown (1866 -1949) was born in Kingston and educated at Queens University. She was a suffragist, pacifist, socialist and writer.  She was brought up in a strict Methodist family, and remained at home until she was forty attending her mother. Her Mother did insist that Alice receive an education equal to that of her brothers. Amelia studied political science and economics at Queen’s University, and graduated with a BA in 1887.

She was an early proponent of education for women as a device to broaden their intellectual talents, and free them from ghettoization as homemakers. While she believed that the role of women in the home was important, she did not want it to be the sole defining role of any one women’s life.

When she left her family home Chown embarked on a life of activism and travel, leading a very unconventional life for a woman at the time. She was an original and iconoclastic thinker, and became one of the leading social feminists of her day. She was highly critical of the Methodist Church, and the place of women within it. Her article on the training of Methodist deaconesses was scathing it its analysis of the church’s desire to infantilize women in service of men.

In 1912 Chown helped organize support for strikers at Eaton’s department store in Toronto. She picketed alongside the strikers, and was thrown into a paddy wagon alongside them also. She tried to use her position in society to persuade the Toronto papers to discuss the strike, which they were reluctant to do for fear of losing advertising revenue; and to get support for the strike from the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Society. The Society did not want to be damaged by association with an “unpopular” strike. The great majority of the strikers were Jewish, and the Society understood its own social capital as tenuous and its cause as exclusive.

Chown was a committed pacifist during World War I. She thought that pacifists “have glimpsed the coming world ideal.” In 1915 she was a co-founder with Laura Hughes and Elsie Charlton of the Canadian Women’s Peace Party. Chown’s pacifism caused conflict with other Canadian feminist leaders. In 1917 she moved to the United States, where she taught at a trade union college for the next ten years. Later she traveled in Europe and Russia. Chown founded the Women’s League of Nations Association in 1930, dedicated to education in pacifism. She organized teas at which Jews and gentiles could meet. In 1945 she was elected honorary president of Toronto’s United Nations Society.

She is best known for her journal, The Stairway, published in 1921. It includes her essays on settlement and co-operative movements, trade unionism, suffrage, dress reform and sexual freedom, women’s right to higher education, home economics education, urban improvement, universal brotherhood and world peace.

Alice Amelia Chown died in Toronto in 1949.

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