Marking International Women’s Day: An Exploration of the Hilary and Harrison Brown collection

March 8, 2024

International Women’s Day


March 8 marks International Women’s Day as a way to recognize the achievements of women and raise awareness of gender inequality. This initiative emerged out of the labour movement in the early 20th century and within a climate of women’s suffrage. In the spirit of the day and the movement, we could not think of a more fitting example of a woman to celebrate in this spirit than Hilary Newitt Brown.  

Born Joan Hilary Newitt in 1909, Scotland, Hilary Brown was a student at the University of Frankfurt in the 1930s where her political writing and activism stemmed from her observations of rapidly changing Nazi Germany. She left the UK to study French and German with the aim of becoming an interpreter. While at university, she collected news clippings, posters, and Nazi publications to document the rise of fascism. Her collected material is annotated with handwritten notes and in many cases accompanied with an English translation and analysis. Hilary’s friends and colleagues in Frankfurt would write to her about increased restrictions in universities and academic institutions; threats and arrests by Gestapo and censorship of the press. She would translate and type the letters, while also making sure to anonymize individual names, and distribute copies in Britain in an attempt to raise awareness about the threat of fascist Germany. During her time in Frankfurt, Hilary met journalist Harrison Brown who had been reporting on Hitler’s government including an expose on a false-flag attempt meant to blame the Jewish community. 

In 1937 Hilary published Women Must Choose: The Position of Women in Europe Today. The book is a study of women in democratic, socialist, and fascist states published by Victor Gollancz. Brown embarked on a book tour of Canada and the United States. By this time, Harrison Brown was ending his own remarkable tour of revolutionary China and could not safely return to Germany as a journalist. Together they moved to Hornby Island, British Columbia in 1938 where they remained for the rest of their lives.  

It is important to note that her activism did not end when she moved from Europe to the remote west coast of Canada. The Browns continued their speaking engagements and were frequent guests on radio programs. Hilary founded nearly all the institutions on Hornby, including the co-op store, Heron Rocks Friendship Centre Society, the Islands Trust, and Gulf Island Guardian newspaper. She remained a dedicated supporter of peace and anti-nuclear groups and for a time led the Voice of Women.  

Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, we encourage VHEC community members to delve further into this incredible story. The Hilary and Harrison Brown collection ( was donated to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre archives in 1998. A copy of Women Must Choose  ( is part of the library’s rare books and special collections. Photo of Hilary Brown are courtesy of Simon Fraser University Special Collections, Hilary Brown fonds (MsC 61, 19.10).


Authored by: Caitlin Donaldson