Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Ursula Franklin

1921 - 2016

Ursula Franklin was a Canadian physicist, pacifist, feminist and Quaker who defined peace as, “not so much the absence of war but the presence of justice… the absence of fear… a commitment to the future.” Thus her desire for peace extended to a concern for women’s rights, economic justice and for the environment.  Her pacifism and feminism were, she believed, inextricably linked – both necessary to the “promise of a liveable future.”

Asking herself the question, “if I were accused of being a Quaker, would there be enough evidence to convict me?” she concluded that the only evidence lay in the testimony of daily decisions and personal conduct.

Franklin was born in Munich in Germany.  During the Second World War, she experienced the bombing of Berlin and spent eighteen months in a Nazi work camp.  Although she and her parents survived, she lost members of her family in the concentration camps.  Through her experience she became convinced that “war does not work, even for the winner.”

She gained her Ph.D. in experimental physics at the Technical University of Berlin in 1948 and emigrated to Canada in 1949. In 1967, Franklin became the first female professor of metallurgy and materials science at the University of Toronto.

Franklin was a member of the Science Council of Canada and in 1977 chaired a study on conserving resources and protecting nature.  The report, Canada as a Conserver Society, recommended steps to reduce waste and avoid environmental degradation.  This work influenced Franklin’s thinking for the rest of her life. Energy, she said, is the currency of a technological society and should be managed like money. “Don’t waste it.  Spend it wisely… Don’t leave bad debts.”  She wished for governments to view Nature as they would a powerful nation-state whose interests they must always consider before they act.

As a member of the Canadian peace organisation, Voice of Women, she maintained contacts during the Cold War with women’s groups in the Soviet Union and North Vietnam.

In 1987, Franklin took part in a tax protest by a group of Canadian Conscientious Objectors.  The group all placed the portion of their taxes that would normally be directly towards defence spending into a trust account, to be made available to the government at any time, provided it was not for military use.   In preparing their defence, Franklin argued that modern warfare is largely conducted by technological means.  Industrialised countries keep large standing armies, of which the human component is small and the ‘device’ component is large.  The State now conscripts our money rather than our physical activity.  Religious freedom should allow thus us conscientious objection to this modern form of conscription.  (The group were convicted of tax offences and denied the right to appeal; Franklin’s argument was never heard in court.)

In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Franklin was vocal in her opposition to the power of the market in global politics.  Far from there being a peace dividend from the ending of the Cold War, she believes it was transposed into an economic war, reducing supposedly democratic governments to puppets of the market.  “For governments, how stock and money markets react to elections and referenda has become far more meaningful than the so-called will of the people.”

Most recently, Franklin was highly critical of the nature of the response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The ‘War of Terror,’ she believed, has led to “more war, bombing and suffering.”  It has had “serious and detrimental impacts on human rights, civic tolerance and political accountability.”

Rather, she said, September 11 should have been regarded as a ‘social earthquake.’ By viewing it this way, efforts and resources would have been concentrated first on, “recognition and help for the victims, together with a restoration of normal life,” and secondly on a “thorough, dispassionate and open enquiry into… the root causes of the disaster and the failure of early warning systems.”

Franklin was an advocate for citizen politics – allowing individuals to work together on practical solutions to common problems.  For her, the concept began with ‘scrupling’, the traditional Quaker practice of sitting down together to discuss common concerns and difficult issues.

She died in July 2016.

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Further Reading and Credits


Pacifism is a Map:  the Ursula Franklin Reader; 2006