Greenpeace co-founder, social justice advocate

Greenpeace co-founder Dorothy Stowe passed away at 03:00, July 23, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada, at the age of 89.

Dorothy Stowe, Co-founder of Greenpeace. © Greenpeace / Alan Katowitz
© Greenpeace / Alan Katowitz

Dorothy Anne Rabinowitz was born in Providence, Rhode Island on December 22, 1920, from Jewish immigrant parents from Russia and Galicia. She described her father Jacob as “idealistic and political. He cared about justice not only for Jewish people, but for everyone.” Dorothy’s mother, Rebecca Miller, taught Hebrew and inspired Dorothy to pursue an education.

Dorothy attended Pembroke College in the U.S., majored in English and philosophy, became a psychiatric social worker, and served as the first president of her local civic employees union. During the repressive McCarthy era, when she threatened a strike, the state governor erroneously called her a “communist,” but she stood her ground and won a pay raise for her union.

In 1953 Dorothy married civil rights lawyer Irving Strasmich. They celebrated their wedding dinner at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the organization that launched the U.S. civil rights movement.

They changed their family name to Stowe in honour of Harriet Beecher Stowe – pioneering feminist and abolitionist, who helped end slavery in the U.S. The Stowes had two children, Robert, born in 1955 and Barbara in 1956, both now living in Vancouver.

In the 1950s, Dorothy and Irving Stowe began campaigning against nuclear weapons, adopting the Quaker ideas of “bearing witness” to wrong-doing and “speaking truth to power.” The Quaker boats, Golden Rule and Phoenix in 1958 influenced the Stowes’ decision twelve years later to sail a boat to Amchitka Island nuclear test zone in Alaska, the first Greenpeace campaign.

In 1961, to avoid supporting the Vietnam War with their taxes, Dorothy and Irving immigrated to New Zealand, where they led demonstrations at the U.S. embassy and protested French nuclear weapons tests in Polynesia. However, when New Zealand sent troops to Vietnam in 1965, the Stowes moved their family to Canada.

In Vancouver, Dorothy worked as a family therapist, supporting Irving’s full time peace activism. The Stowes met journalists Bob Hunter and Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe, who helped promote their campaigns. At a peace rally, they met fellow Quakers Jim and Marie Bohlen and Hunter’s British wife Zoe. This group formed the core of a new peace and ecology organization that would rock the world with dramatic protests.

When the U.S. announced a series of nuclear tests in Alaska in 1968, the Stowes formed the “Don’t Make a Wave Committee,” a name inspired by the fear of a tsunami caused by the blasts. Dorothy Stowe recruited social workers and women’s groups to organize a boycott of US products until the nuclear tests were cancelled. When Jim and Marie Bohlen suggested sailing a boat into the test zone, Dorothy and Irving Stowe agreed.

They chartered the halibut boat, the Phyllis Cormack, renamed “Greenpeace” to emphasize the merging of peace and ecology. The boat set sail in Septermber 1971, was arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard, and never reached the island. Nevertheless, the voyage created a public uprising, and in February 1972, the U.S. announced an end to the nuclear tests.

In May, 1972, the group changed its name to “Greenpeace.” Today, the organization has offices in over forty countries including China and India, and most recently in Africa. “It is amazing,” Dorothy recalled, “what a few people sitting around their kitchen table can achieve.”

Over the years since, Dorothy has hosted hundreds of young activists, who made the pilgrimage to her home for inspiration. When the band U2 visited Vancouver in 2005, singer Bono made a special effort to meet Dorothy Stowe. Dorothy never rested on past success or stopped working for social change. Her life-long dedication has inspired activists around the world.

A month before she passed away, Dorothy hosted a brunch for new Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo. Kumi mentioned later that the meeting was one of the most inspiring moments of his life, witnessing the optimism and enthusiasm of a woman who had dedicated her life to making the world a better place for others.

The most fitting memorial for Dorothy Stowe is that we all get up each morning and go back to work in the service of peace, justice, and the living Earth.