Spirit Quest

The Spirit in the heart of the Women's Movement

By The Reverend Doctor Hanns F. Skoutajan

The Reverend Doctor Hanns F. Skoutajan

Throughout my life I have been surrounded and nurtured by strong and compassionate women. Having just come through International Women's Week (March 8 - 12) these special women have come to my mind.

As a child growing up in Czechoslovakia I had but one baby sitter, my grandmother, or Oma as I preferred to call her. She was a very special person who grew up in a rural hamlet. When she was orphaned she went to a nearby city and got a job as a bar maid. While on the job she met and soon married a locomotive engineer for the Imperial Austrian Railways. She spoke only Czech and he only German. I have often wondered how they communicated. I think it was with the language of love. They had two daughters and one son but while still in her forties she was widowed when her husband developed TB, not uncommon among those who were constantly exposed to coal dust. Alone she managed to raise her family spending much time helping her adult children.

I recall that my Oma had many country skills. She was an expert in identifying mushrooms. She knew how to make do, going to the fields and collecting the grain that was left standing in the harvesting, taking it home and grinding it to make flower. She was an herbalist who knew how to cure many diseased the natural way.

My mother, Gertrude, grew up in a loving home. She too became a strong and resilient person having learned and inherited many of her mother's skills but particularly her determination. She had a strong sense of social justice and even in her teens was attracted to the suffragette movement in what was then still Austria. Upon her death I recall seeing a picture in a German newspaper where she was hailed as one of the early fighters for women's rights. One day as she and I were walking down the street we encountered a car coming toward us. Mother stopped and pointed at the car and with the other hand grasped me by the arm, "Look," she said ," a woman at the wheel. Isn't that wonderful!"

She met my father in the socialist youth movement. Together they campaigned for human rights and social justice and against fascism. Thus when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia we had to flee. We came to Canada and settled on a very primitive abandoned homestead in northern Saskatchewan, in a log cabin that had no plumbing or electricity. With a yoke she carried two pails of water each day from a neighbouring farm a mile away. She learned to milk cows and dig potatoes. She recalled her mother's peasant skills and found good use for them in this remote area.

After moving east mother went to work in a factory in Toronto where she sowed buttons on military uniforms. After the war she became active in a church, first as pianist for the Sunday School and later as organist. Once again she established a very flourishing vegetable garden. She certainly had a green thumb besides being a devoted mother. and later grandmother.

The third great female influence on me was Marlene, the woman I married. She was a medical social worker from Prince Edward Island. She has been my beloved partner and the mother of our son and daughter. Marlene gave much of her time to volunteering with the Elizabeth Fry Society at the infamous prison for women in Kingston. She worked in palliative care and did bereavement counselling. She also had a passion for social justice and was often on the street marching for peace and disarmament and at election time both provincially and federally could be found knocking on doors and passing out party information.

The fourth female in my life is our daughter who also chose to become a social worker. She has worked for many years in the area of housing and now is director for sector development with the Canadian Cooperative Housing Federation. She speaks English and French as well as German. She is also a doting aunt having no children of her own.

Elizabeth is the fifth woman in my life, a primary school teacher, union activist and mother of my sixth woman, Sophia, a three year old granddaughter. As I play with her I am well aware that she will leave big tracks in this world. She is a bright and determined girl who seems to have garnered many of the positive genes from her families of origin. We have concluded that she will be a force to be reckoned with.

Throughout this week we have heard the stories of women who have fought for their rights and have made a lasting impact on society. Note the bronze statues of the five women on parliament hill. All this made me remember the women who were close to me.

There is a spirit alive in the Women's Movement that combines power, and compassion. I have been fortunate to have experienced first hand this spirit and am deeply grateful for their love.

12 March 2010 — Return to cover.