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How Sally Armstrong went from phys-ed teacher to war correspondent

Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award

We are honouring Sally Armstrong with the 2020 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award for her decades-long dedication to sharing the stories of women and girls in conflict zones. Her work is easy to admire — providing an outlet to victims who want to have a voice, shining a light on struggles around the globe, driving change — and her journey is even more inspiring when you go back to the beginning. How did a high school phys-ed teacher with no aspirations of writing become “the war correspondent for the world’s women,” as she’s often called? How did a mom of three living in Oakville end up in Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Sudan, to name a few? This is the origin story of Sally Armstrong — multi-award winning journalist, bestselling author, and human rights activist. 

 

By Stephania Varalli

 

It was 11 at night, because when there’s a war going on, it’s better to move around in the dark. Sally Armstrong had already spoken to many other women — confirming the rumours that systemic mass rape was being used as a weapon of war in the Balkans. The estimates put the number as high as 20,000 women and girls, aged 8 to 80; most of them terrified to be found out, most from families who would disown them. “I don’t want to walk away with a statistic,” Sally had said, in an interview with a local psychiatrist. “I want to tell someone’s story, but I’m very worried about exposing someone who is terrified.” 

“I know who you should meet,” he responded. And that’s how Sally ended up sitting across from Eva Penovic, in the fall of 1992.

“She began to tell her story, and honest to God, I will never in my life forget it. You could hear the bombs in the distance, and the room would light up — there is no power, just candles — but the room would light up with the explosion. And here’s this woman, she’s a peasant, a country woman, and she started to tell her story. And the crescendo of her words would rise, and she would get to her feet, and she would be punching in the air and yelling and sitting down and sweating and sort of erasing the invisible wrinkles in her apron.”

And Eva told her, “Until someone says, ‘This is my name, this is my face, this is what you did to me,’ we won’t be able to have justice.”

If I were trying to sum up Sally Armstrong’s work as a journalist, Eva’s words would do a good job of it. She has dedicated herself to sharing the accounts of women and girls, giving a face and a name to conflicts and injustices the world over. 

“The thread is always the same,” Sally says, reflecting on her decades-long career. “There’s this extraordinary attitude that women should be second-class, put down, punished, not included. It is absolutely extraordinary to me. It doesn’t matter whether you are in South Sudan or Iraq, Afghanistan or China — it’s the same thing.” 

Her narrative style immerses you in the story. She captures the facts alongside the raw emotions, and doesn’t spare you from the hard-to-read details — her allegiance is clearly to her subjects. “I feel strongly that my job is not to protect you, it is to highlight them,” says Sally, “so I don’t shy away from the horror. People will say, ‘Don’t tell that story, people can’t bear to read that.’ Then skip over the page. My job is to tell what happened.” 

And often, her job doesn’t end there. One of the valuable things about her journalism, she says, is that she “gets to go back and find out where these people ended up.” Like Eva’s children, who contacted Sally on Facebook two years ago. They were 0 to 9 years old when she met them, in the middle of a war, in desperate days. She recalls them telling her that they associated her with darkness, explosions, fear — and games. 

“Because I was a phys-ed teacher,” she explains, “so I was teaching them how to do roundoff back handsprings off the couch while the bombs were going off two kilometres away.” 

To understand the juxtaposition — bombs and back handsprings, war correspondent and phys-ed teacher — you have to go back to the beginning. 

Born and raised in Montreal, Sally stayed in her hometown to attend McGill University, where she earned a Bachelor of Education degree in 1966. She met her husband, Ross, in the first week of school, and the pair were married a year after graduating. By 1975, they were settled in Oakville, Sally was not far beyond her milestone thirtieth birthday, and pregnant with her third child. An athlete from a young age, she worked as a phys-ed teacher — content in seeing the boost in self-esteem that physical fitness could provide to girls. 

 

“There were people in the magazine business that thought, what is Armstrong doing over there? I didn’t listen to them — I listened to the readers.”

 

The first fork in the road happened almost by chance. Her husband’s boss’ wife knew she was passionate about fitness, and so gave her name to Clem Compton-Smith, an entrepreneur getting set to launch a new lifestyle magazine. Sally had no writing experience, and didn’t expect to get the job at the yet unnamed publication, but when Canadian Living made its debut in December of 1975, Sally was on the masthead.  

With no formal training her work was unpolished, but she had an ability to deliver what was captivating in a story — authenticity, vulnerability — and worked hard to hone her craft. For a decade she wrote about exercise and family life. Then, in 1986, she heard about Theresa Hicks, a Canadian nurse working with impoverished people in Liberia. Sally successfully petitioned her editor-in-chief to send her to the West African nation to cover her story. It was her first foreign assignment, and her first exposure to a country in conflict. 

Sally was hooked, and readers were enthralled. But it wasn’t the kind of story Canadian Living was used to running, and it was clear the magazine had no intentions of moving in that direction. So in 1988, when Sally was offered the role of editor-in-chief at sister publication, Homemakers, she took the job — despite having little experience with editing.

“Homemakers was always known as a thinking woman’s magazine,” says Sally. “That’s the magazine that took on loads of issues for women — and society.” 

Tasked with figuring out how to compete with Chatelaine and Canadian Living, she thought there might be an opportunity to expand the scope of what Homemakers was offering, with international stories like those of Theresa Hicks. 

“It occurred to me that women reading my magazine would want more meat on the bones of the stories we were giving them,” says Sally. “And I thought we were the magazine that should go out there and take on what was happening to women and girls around the world.” 

There was no budget to test her theory with research, so she wrote to about 300 readers to see what they thought about the idea. Astonishingly, most of them wrote back, with enough support for Sally to take a chance. As part of her hiring, she had agreed to write two to three major features each year, and “it was a lot cheaper to send me than somebody else. It really began that way.” 

It wasn’t an easy road. “When I began, by myself, doing something that most editors at women’s magazines were not doing — and I felt the pressure of getting that story, I mean, imagine if you didn’t get the story? — I was very alone. No one knew me, and it was difficult. I knew what I had to do, but was I going to be able to do it?”  

If you asked the readers, the answer was yes. “They were coming through the doors and windows to get these stories,” says Sally. It was during this time that she recounted Eva Penovic’s tragic experience. She interviewed the first Canadian women troops on the front lines in the Persian Gulf. She reported on female genital mutilation in Senegal. She profiled two teenage prostitutes — a 15-year-old from Toronto and a 13-year-old from Bangladesh — sharing their story with 1.3 million readers. She visited Afghanistan months after the Taliban seized power, becoming the first journalist to report on the lives of women under the misogynistic regime. After the story ran, more than 9000 letters poured in from concerned readers. 

“It was a very new road for women, and we travelled it with energy and passion,” says Sally. “And our readers returned the passion to us.” 

 

“Over the toilet in my kids’ bathroom, I had a big poster. And it was Marilyn Monroe, and she was on a motorcycle, and she was leaning over the handlebars, and grinning into the camera. And the caption was, you can do anything. There were people who questioned whether I should have that poster over the toilet of my kids’ bathroom, but that’s what I wanted them to grow up with. And that’s what I would say to anybody today: You can do anything.”

 

Still, there were many — including her publisher at Homemakers — who didn’t think stories of international war crimes should be next to recipes for lasagna. Sally says she had to fight to see each one in print. 

“There were people in the magazine business that thought, what is Armstrong doing over there?” she recalls. “I didn’t listen to them — I listened to the readers.” 

After an 11-year run, Sally was ready for her next chapter. She left Homemakers to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Toronto, writing a thesis on human rights, women, and health. After graduating in 2001, she continued to focus her energy on the world’s women, but her platforms grew. She was a contributing editor at Maclean’s and an editor-at-large for Chatelaine. She worked on documentaries, authored five books, and got on the speaking circuit. She was named UNICEF’s special representative to Afghanistan, and served on the International Women’s Commission, a UN body whose mandate was assisting with the path to peace in the Middle East.

Her latest project is Power Shift: The Longest Revolution, researched and written in a gruelling seven months for the 2019 CBC Massey Lectures. Going as far back as the palaeolithic era, it examines the origin and evolution of the oppression of women, with a lens on history, sex, culture, religion, and politics. Sally draws from many of the stories she has reported on over the years, with new research and new perspectives added in — creating a thorough timeline with the hopeful conclusion that we are closer to gaining equality than ever before. 

It’s a fitting opus for someone who has dedicated her career to women’s struggles. At least, most of her career. I can’t help but ask, as we finish our interview, what would Sally-of-today say to Sally-forty-five-years-ago — mom of three, living in Oakville, teaching high school phys-ed?

Sally answers, of course, with a story:

“Over the toilet in my kids’ bathroom, I had a big poster. And it was Marilyn Monroe, and she was on a motorcycle, and she was leaning over the handlebars, and grinning into the camera. And the caption was, you can do anything. There were people who questioned whether I should have that poster over the toilet of my kids’ bathroom, but that’s what I wanted them to grow up with. And that’s what I would say to anybody today: You can do anything.”