Practicing Her Activism


Nursing education

Because she was 30 years old when she began her nursing education, Ann brought with her a level of maturity and confidence that younger classmates did not possess. From hospital nurse, she moved swiftly up the ladder to work in the Staff Health Clinic, where she spent time with male department heads. They "baited" her about the women's movement; and Ann remembered rising to the bait on several occasions; remembering her mother's proverb, she characterized them as blissful in their ignorance.

Although Ann studied and worked within a paternalistic environment, nursing schools were undergoing tremendous changes between the late 1950s and early 1970s, and some of her own educators were young women with master's and doctoral degrees. It was a time when nursing care was being defined distinctively in relation to medical care in general.

Social activism began with Ann's involvement in the professional associations that emerged in the early 1970s. She assumed a leadership role in her local branch of the Nurses' Association, where many older nurses felt that "unions were rabble rousers and blue collar workers, not professionals" and believed that nurses must be distinguished by their professionalism. But it was through the union experience that Ann received her basic leadership training, and this led to her involvement in the women's movement that was then gathering steam across the country and continent.

It was in the news on a regular basis, in magazines, in the newspapers, so if you were a thinking person at all, you're relating to the issues—and as a woman, you're relating to them!

Taking a public stand

Ann became the first president of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women. As a feminist activist, one of her chief concerns was the lack of representation of women in public life. In the 1970s she participated, with other groups, in consciousness-raising sessions on women's issues that became "lightning rods to the media." When they wrote the Mayor of Corner Brook to protest the absence of women on council committees, both their letter and the Mayor's aggrieved response were publicly reported. In retrospect, Ann called the women's group "nervy and gutsy," since all of them lived traditional lifestyles and were only separated by their status of working outside or inside the home. Women involved in the movement still lacked awareness of how to create change, but Ann remembers how they were willing to stand up and take a position in public: "They knew who they were and they knew what their rights were."

The snowball effect

Local actions in Newfoundland were strengthened by being linked to a vibrant national women's movement that featured feminists such as Doris Anderson, who wrote editorials for Chatelaine magazine; Laura Sabia, first President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women; and Florence Bird, who chaired the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Ann reflected that only in retrospect was it possible to "see that we were part of that snowball—identifying the issues, and speaking out." Their actions moved from municipal to provincial levels, focused on the lack of women on city council boards and their representation in provincial politics, and targeting government policy to benefit the advancement of women. They worked to define some areas that would bear fruit, she said, "because you need to have success, you can't just work and be negative all the time."

Matrimonial property

In the late 1970s, there were four Status of Women organizations in the province, located in Corner Brook, Grand Falls, Labrador City, and St. John's. One of their first issues arose from the case of Iris Murdoch in Alberta, who had farmed all her married life and was refused a share of the land when she divorced her husband. It was a case that catalyzed matrimonial property legislation across the country, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Status of Women's organizations rallied by collecting and sharing information as part of their campaign to get the Newfoundland government to bring in matrimonial property legislation.

Premier Frank Moores (Progressive Conservative (PC) party) was not an easy convert, and he steadfastly resisted the efforts of the women to meet and discuss issues. In response to his statement that there were no women in the province capable of serving on government-appointed boards and commissions, Lynn Verge, a creative young lawyer in Corner Brook and President of the local Status of Women Council, designed an ad that was published in newspapers across the province:

To Premier Moores: I am a woman in this province, and I am very capable and very able to serve on all government-appointed boards.

Thousands of these ads, including a form for name, address, and qualifications of interested women, were printed and distributed at union meetings and conferences and sent on to the Premier's office.

The four Status of Women organizations convened the first ever conference organized by women for women in Corner Brook, inviting Lorna Marsden, a young York University professor and president of the Liberal Party of Canada, to deliver the keynote address. The conference attracted 40 women from across the island:

The women from St. John's came in a bus and drove across the island—Wendy Williams had a baby less than a year old. I remember her in the hall with the baby bundled on her seat. And we were right full of energy!

By coincidence, the Premier and PC party members were meeting in Corner Brook at the same time. After Lorna Marsden gave her speech, a dozen of the women decided to drop into Moores' rally and talk to "the boys." Ann surmised that the notable presence of Lorna Marsden influenced Frank Moores to get his press secretary to schedule a meeting for the following day between Ann and the Premier and his second-in-command, MHA Brian Peckford—the one who had spoken most respectfully to each woman at the cocktail party. Because there had been so many unsuccessful efforts to gain such a meeting with the premier, the women regrouped in order to decide on which issues to target.

Determined to bring their best-honed arguments and information to this meeting, the women decided on a threefold focus: (1) appointment of women to boards and commissions; (2) formation of a provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women; and (3) introduction of matrimonial property legislation. Their strategy was "to keep it short and quick and geared to what they (the politicians) could understand."

Issue One: Women on boards and commissions

A week after the meeting, Brian Peckford responded on behalf of the Premier to address the government's intentions to move forward on the issues identified. Subsequently, Ann received a call from the Minister of Justice (responsible for the Newfoundland Liquor Corporation), offering her a position on that Board. She declined, recommending the representative from the Labrador Status of Women Council as the person most appropriate, since she had raised the issue of alcohol abuse in Labrador. Liquor Board appointments were paid appointments traditionally given to the party faithful (always men). When the women's groups began speaking publicly about the lack of women on boards, one of the Liquor Board members remarked, "Now what are we going to do with a woman when we go up the Gander River for our annual fishing trip?" In a request to the Minister to fill the vacancy on the Board with a woman, Lynn Verge, President of the Status of Women Council, declared: "If you're concerned about what you're going to do with a woman on your annual fishing trip up the Gander River, rest be assured that we will supply a pup tent for every woman that you appoint."

Issue Two: Matrimonial property legislation

When Frank Moores announced his retirement in 1979, some members of Ann's group decided to get involved with different political parties, seeing that changes to public policy appeared to be a matter of politics. Ann and Lynn Verge attended the PC Convention as observers. She recalled the media attention: "Every time they did a standing ovation for Premier Moores, we wouldn't get up, we'd sit down, and we wore buttons that said, 'Why not?'"

Both Ann and Lynn, who were very different personalities, were drawn to the powerful PCs where they felt they might have a real chance of making change even though their politicians were not necessarily open to women's issues. Recognizing that bridge-building was needed from within, they attended the convention to raise discussions informally on the issue of matrimonial property. When they returned to Corner Brook, knowing the local PC association would have to call a meeting and name its executive, Ann and Lynn brought a small group to the local association meeting to run for office. But the party closed ranks against them, and neither Lynn nor Ann were elected. However, the election of delegates for the new leadership convention was scheduled for two weeks later, so they went to work calling their lists of family, friends, and colleagues to ask them to attend the meeting to vote only for them as delegates.

Although it was a legal tactic, the suggestion to vote strategically for just two candidates rather than seven earned Ann and Lynn a degree of backlash. Nonetheless, they topped the polls and decided to support Brian Peckford because of his respect for their issues. If elected, he agreed to set up a provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, consider the appointment of women to boards and commissions, and introduce matrimonial property legislation. Pleased with this platform, Ann and Lynn attended delegates' meetings and asked each candidate about matrimonial legislation. They weren't always welcome—there was the candidate who advised, "Oh Ann, go home and rattle those pots and pans." Unlike Peckford himself, but typical of some of the brasher candidates, this man told them: "Listen, we all love women, what's wrong with you? My wife's a woman, my daughter's a woman, and I'll have a woman tonight if I can get one."

Brian Peckford was elected and his government began the process of preparing matrimonial property legislation. This was a major victory for the women's movement in Newfoundland because up until this time, a divorced woman had no guarantee that she would receive any share of property acquired during her marriage; nor was a widow assured that the family home would be passed on to her after her husband's death. The history of the struggle for matrimonial property rights had started in the mid-seventies with a presentation to the government by the Newfoundland Status of Women Council (later known as the St. John's Status of Women Council), but the government then was unresponsive. Further efforts by the Status of Women Councils in Corner Brook, Grand Falls, and Labrador West had also met with indifference and inaction.

Within a few months of Brian Peckford's election as party leader in 1979, a provincial election was called and Lynn Verge was persuaded to run for nomination, which she won by acclamation. Ann explained that this dynamic has characterized the history of women in politics: "It's really a fight to get a nomination, so a lot of women who have been successful in politics were never challenged for the nomination." Another woman, Hazel Newhook, then Mayor of Gander, was elected as well. Halfway through the campaign, the Premier announced that any women who were elected would go into Cabinet. Accordingly, Lynn Verge was appointed Minister of Justice, and proclaimed The Matrimonial Property Act on July 1, 1980.

Issue Three: Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women

As president of the local Status of Women Council, Ann kept up her lobbying efforts to establish a provincial Advisory Council. Premier Peckford's draft policy was similar to what existed in Nova Scotia, but Ann wanted elements of the New Brunswick legislation, and to this end she collaborated closely with Madeleine LeBlanc, who had contributed significantly to Premier Hatfield's legislation in that province. These ideas were incorporated successfully into the final legislation for Newfoundland, which passed easily in the House of Assembly. Sitting in the House and listening to the politicians propose the legislation presented a striking irony for Ann:

It was as though it was something they had thought up, something that they had learned with their mother's milk, and dreamt up, and worked on!

The following year, on November 21, 1982, the Newfoundland Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women was formally established with Ann Bell as its first president.

After a great deal of soul-searching and discussion with her family, Ann made the decision to leave her nursing care career behind in order to move to St. John's and develop the provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Once there, she had to start the agency from scratch, learning everything on her own. She hired an assistant with experience on the Labrador Status of Women Council, located space and equipment to establish an office, and began to respond to the media on "every issue known to the world."

Going against the tide...