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One Hundred Years later: International Women’s Day February 24, 2011

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On Tuesday, March 8th, women all over the world commemorate 100 years of struggle to gain equality, dignity and the God-given rights denied before then. Some of it like the right to vote, (first), better labor conditions (recall the fire in New York at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Green St and Washington Place), becoming a “Person” (yes, it needed a legislation for women to be regarded as “persons”), and with voting rights, gradually, the right to run for office and recently to be appointed in offices and positions that used to be solely for men with higher but still slightly equal pay.

Funeral of 8 out of the 146 who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York (image coourtesy of Wikipedia)


Tombstone of a victim of the fire (image courtesy of wikipedia commons)

Yet, one hundred years later, the persistent ghosts of the past continue to lurk in most societies, or such conditions have transmogrified–sex trafficking for example, domestic workers and caregivers. As the world has modernized and technology has brought mankind past the moon, one would suppose the horrific inequalities of a century now just a memory would have been gained. But perhaps, as forces in nature always have two opposite sides, women after a hundred years have cause both to celebrate and shout out their voices for the next one hundred years.

Here in Vancouver, International Women’s Day will be celebrated with a ‘Parade of the Century’ on March 6 as follows:

It’s a Wonderful Date to celebrate International Women’s Day!

 The 2011 IWD Organizing Committee extends an invitation to All on Saturday, March 5, 2011 to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day in Vancouver. Come and join us from 12:30pm to 4:30pm, for an Imaginative Widely Diverse Parade along Commercial Drive, followed by an indoor Festival at the WISE Hall, where entertainment, a marketplace, refreshments and a Kid Zone await.

The Parade is designed to feature women representing different times from the past 100 years. Cheer along, or march in the parade. Choose a theme or a time period that reflects some important achievement for women, and dress up and join the fun! Everyone is welcome!

The Parade will take place on Commercial Drive. Gathering starts at 12:30pm at the McSpadden Park (Victoria Drive & E. 4th Avenue). Parade begins at 1:00pm arriving at the WISE Hall at 2:00pm (1882 Adanac Street). There will be musicians and performers both in the Parade and at the Festival.  

The 2011 IWD Organizing Committee is a broad-based committee comprised of unions, community-based organisations and community women. 


Women’s history in the flesh September 22, 2009

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At Mythogyny book launches

“So I went to jail with my friends and we came out and went to live in the black community. We spoke before black churches to raise money for our defense and had a trial in Houston. We never did get to Mississippi, obviously. We were found guilty of unlawful assembly. We appealed and we won that decision, which meant that from then on the owner of that restaurant would be arrested if he discriminated against anyone else. 

In effect, what we did in that year, over 400 of us, was to desegregate those facilities all through the south, it was quite an achievement,” thus recalls Bev Mill of the “freedom rides” in the US during the late 60s when movements for civil rights had begun to peak. She was talking about a simple act of refusing to leave a restaurant that did not want to serve a black person. Bev went to the US as an exchange student, “a resident alien”, is how she puts it.

Bev will read part of her story from Mythogyny: the lives and times of women elders in BC at its soft launch at the 411 Seniors Centre on Dunsmuir, downtown Vancouver on Tues. Sept 22 at 2 pm.

A memorable vignette from Gertrude’s excerpt on immigration will also be read. Gertrude recalls her first flight coming to Canada. “I’d never been to an airport in my life and had  never seen a plane on the ground before …Getting on a plane with seven children was quite an adventure… my youngest was only eleven months old fast asleep on my knee.” Picture how when dinner was served and put on the tray, her son woke up and sent the dinner flying in the air so, she continues, “…I had to nibble on my two youngest one’s food.”

But more misses awaited her arrival in Toronto—her son had waited at 5 am to meet them; Gertrude and the children got there at 5 pm. They waited until 9 pm, as she continues her story, “…so I plucked up the courage to call the police, “Would you please send somebody down to this address and tell them I’m here?” Gertrude leaves much to the reader how the children must have fretted through all that time.

The third reader at the 411 launch, Lia Soosar, will retell portions of how she ended up “…a displaced person.” Her story begins in Estonia when the Russians finally got there to fight the Germans. “I was going to Riga, just because I had left something there, but I never got to Riga. I never got anywhere. I ended up on a boat on the sea. That is where I became a displaced person. I wanted to escape.”

Lia ended up in Heilsheim, Germany, which was a displaced persons’ camp, with another woman she met. They were made to sleep in the attic room and this woman cried forever in bed for her lost children. Soon they were taken to England to work in a sanatorium in west Yorkshire.

“We cried for two weeks because some people there were tubercular, and we didn’t know that…England was completely different; they changed my name and they always made great fun about you when you pronounced the words bad…All I wanted was to go back to my country.” She was there for nine years. One day in 1958, a Scottish girl said, “Let’s go to Canada.”

 Alice West, Women Elders in Action (WE*ACT) chair will host and emcee the program. Oonagh Berry, WE*ACT member and 411 director, will accept the books in the symbolic turnover.

Mythogyny: What authors say about it September 9, 2009

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“Powerful stories, often quite artlessly unaware of their own power and emotional weight”  is how Alice Munro, Short Story writer,  winner of the third Man Booker International Prize, describes Mythogyny, the lives and times of women elders in BC.

The anthology of personal stories gathered from interviews and collected as true voices by Women Elders in Action (WE*ACT) along with volunteers will be launched on Sept. 24, at SFU Harbour Centre’s Teck Gallery at 6:30 p.m.

Expected to attend are some of the seventy-seven storytellers and story-catchers among them Shiela Baxter, Bev Mill, Millie Canessa, Joan Morelli, Pat Peters, Ruth Shaw, Colleen Caroll, Faye Yamsuan, Bernice Gehring, and Jan McRobb whose stories are either taken as a whole or as excerpts.

Special honors will be given to Wilma Hanson and Betty Greenwell who have died in the course of the book’s production.

 “During the training, we carefully formulated questions to guide us. But during most of the interviews, only one of those questions would be used. The magic of telling a personal story face-to-face relived scenes and emotions perhaps long forgotten and long pushed aside that what came out were compelling narratives we did not imagine,” recalls Alegria Imperial, one of the story tellers, story catchers and a member of the editorial collective.

Oonagh Berry, co-author (with Helen Levine) of Between Friends, did get struck by “…the courage, pain and tenacity expressed in these remarkable women’s stories,” which she describes as “breathtakingly moving and inspiring.”  

These dramatic experiences  for Fiona Tinwei Lam, poet and editor, author, Enter the Chrysanthemum, are nothing but “Gritty and authentic accounts … of hardship, poverty and social change… challenges rooted in time and context, yet remain universal.” 

As Joan Barfoot novelist, author of Exit Lines, puts it, “For anyone who supposes the old days were best, or dreams that old women are quiet creatures with nothing to say, or imagines that women’s equal place in the Canadian world is complete and secure–for all those people, these vivid, wrenching and brave vignettes of real lives are both a brisk corrective and a most timely warning.”     

With voices that “…are clear, honest and direct…no pretense. Just the truth of living”, as Cynthia Flood, short story writer, The English Stories, describes it, Ann Giardini, novelist, Advice for Italian Boys, adds that “their recollections are notably free of self-pity or bitterness.”

Margaret Mitchell former MP, author, No Laughing Matter, believes that the stories “open the door to an unwritten chapter of Canadian history.”

“These are moving and important stories told by our mothers and grandmothers,” writes Leona Gom, poet and novelist,  author, The Exclusion Principle.

“What turned out were not only ‘lessons learned’ but ‘real lives far more impressive than myth could ever be’, thus, the title of the book, Mythogyny,” Alice West, WE*ACT chair explains.

A pre-launch presentation of the book will also be held at the 411 Seniors Centre Cafeteria on Sept. 22 at 2 p.m.

For more information, call 604-684-8171 local 228 (please leave  a message) or email weact@411seniors.bc.ca or mythogyny@gmail.com

Myths women grow up with August 31, 2009

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As young women, the 77 storytellers or the women elders in BC who agreed to be interviewed for “Mythogyny”, the book that Women Elders in Action (WE*ACT) is due to launch, they stepped into womanhood in a mist of myths.

What is a myth? According to the Random House Encyclopedic Dictionary, it is “an unproved collective belief that is accepted uncritically and is used to justify a social institution. “One of these would be “marriage as the only end for women, or wife and mother as her only role in life.”

In the book under the chapter on marrriage, the women unravel the myth further as  “the illusion that Prince Charming would inevitably appear to rescue women from uncertain futures and the need to provide for themselves; that marriage and motherhood were the only valid choices.”

On closer view, other facets of the myth reveal quite sinister sides that solidify as barriers such as, ” education was wasted on females who would never have to work outside the home because their biology was destiny; that the work of homemaking was so intrinsic to women that it could never be considered honest labour with any real value; and, most harmful of all to our storytellers who are struggling with limited incomes today, that following the prescribed path would  ensure that they were taken care of for the rest of their lives.”

In surviving shattered illusions, the women emerged almost with superhuman abilities as they grappled with the unexpected. Yet having moved on, their voices carry no hint of bitterness or regret. Having debunked the myths, their stories in effect turned out as “mythogenesis” not so much as “to create” but to unearth and lay bare “lives more mythical in more ways than ever imagined.”

Consider these:

                *I watched my mother be abused, psychologically, and saw her lack of choices in life and how everything was based on my father’s life. I was conscious of that but I didn’t really see it in my life – I lived it – and while I was living it, feminism arose. And so the words started being there…—Marjorie Drayton

               * I’ve had everything done to me imaginable and I’m not an abuser and I’m not an alcoholic and I’m not a drug addict. You don’t have to be what social workers tell you you’re going to be.—Sheila Baxter 

                *I walked out of the marriage with nothing, he owned everything. But I didn’t have to write him out a cheque at the end of every month.—Colleen Carroll

                *We imported some stuff from Germany. I was going across the country to stores to sell these. He stayed home while I went around the Lower Mainland. When I came home in the evening, he was sitting in the chair and asking me what I sold that day. I hated that chair. I did that for about twelve years…Leticia

               More than the relevance of their voices in women’s lives today, their stories also prove how much or how little Canadian women have gained in terms of rights and equality. 


mythogyny, the anthology August 12, 2009

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Women debunk myths in Mythogyny August 11, 2009

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“It was a good life even though we were poor as heck. We didn’t know that we were poor because everyone else was at that time, too,” says Alice West of her childhood in Winnipeg during the Great Depression. What Wilma Hanson recalls of those hard times in Kansas was “the dust that covered the thistles ‘til you couldn’t see the fence.”

Both their stories and seventy-six others from women elders of BC’s lower mainland will be read in Mythogyny, an anthology of unattached, living on low income women elders’ true life stories either as a whole or in excerpts.

Against the backdrop of today’s societal breakdown and financial challenges, their voices ring with relevance as they relive dramatic experiences of the ‘20s, the deprivation of the ‘30s, the chaos of WWII both here and abroad, the rebuilding of the ‘50s and the upheaval of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, right up to the readjustments of today.

Senior women who underwent extensive training in interview techniques, gathered the stories on a tape recorder, then transcribed, read these for themes, pruned some and edited them for cohesion, excerpted others and organized the seventy-eight “voices” for a book with no extraneous writing.

What turned out as a predominant theme are the myths they grew up with, especially in marriage, the realities they faced and how in debunking and surviving the falsity of myths, these women lived lives more impressive in their reality than myth could ever be.

Most of them marrying or having a baby in their teens or early 20’s, fell for the mythical “prince”, who when unmasked turned out unfit for “happily ever after”. A number had to deal with the “other woman”, and poverty in their marriages; “Who can live on $9 per hour?” one of them still asks.

Most of their marriages ended in bitter divorce with one woman losing custody of her kids and everything she worked for, a land mark case in BC court. “But I didn’t have to write him out a cheque at the end of every month,” she said; he had pursued for alimony.

While guide questions were discussed in the training and used in the interviews, the stories yielded individually textured narratives out of the spontaneous telling. Some of the stories personalized history such as that of the woman among the “freedom riders” in the US. A number of them bring fun during the wars like a “party sometimes in the bomb shelters”, while one of them simply recalled a wartime job driving a forklift for a company making elevators but which was as well, manufacturing Lancaster bombs.

A number of the storytellers recall “patches of Eden” in places they grew up as they moved in BC like the Doukhobor communities. Some poignant events have also turned up like a woman finding her biological mother who, it turned out, was the caregiver her adopted parents had hired for her as a baby.

Most of the storytellers are now in their seventies, a few in their sixties and four in their nineties. In the course of the book’s production, two have died.

Most turn out to be immigrants from Europe, and England, a few from the US, four from Asia including three from the Philippines. A lot of them live in Vancouver, a number in Abbotsford, Burnaby, Langley, Maple Ridge, Nelson, and Smithers. One or two come from Delta, Grand Forks, Nanaimo, Port Moody, Sooke, and Telkwa.

Mythogyny concludes a story gathering project entitled, “Lessons Learned: the Lives and Times of Women Elders in BC”, which Women Elders in Action (WE*ACT) undertook with financial assistance from the Women’s Program, Status of Women Canada and 411 Senior Centre Society in Vancouver.  The book will be available in late September.

For more information, call Weact at 604-684-8171 local 228 (please leave a message, it will be picked up soon) or email weact@411seniors.bc.ca.  or mythogyny@gmail.com