Practising Social Activism


Early days

Kathy Sheldon has focused her social change and development activities on the betterment of women's lives and expectations in Newfoundland and Labrador. "It's always had to do with women and women's groups, and encouraging women to take leadership roles and have a more full life for themselves." She brought to all her Canadian activities the skills and confidence of public speaking and how to work effectively with others, for which she credits the Girl Scouts in Georgia. While growing up there, she also carried high ideals and expectations but these became tempered by the "heat" of her community activism.

As a young person you start out thinking you're going to change the world. And that you can make great changes—it's only individuals who've got to change. But the communities have to work to change themselves—no outsider is going to come in and tell them what to do. And that's taken me a long time to learn. I thought I could go into a community and make a difference. But you don't make a difference for the community—you only may make a difference to an individual."

With her husband John, Kathy arrived in 1964 at the small village of Virgin Arm, in a beautiful setting in the northeastern and rural part of the province, New World Island. Conditions then were not what she was accustomed to.

We had no electricity—we had our own generator. We had a 15 party telephone line. We had no paved roads. We were an island. We had 60 one-room schools, because every religious denomination had their own school on this island. Now all of that has changed dramatically.

With her husband’s growing medical practice based in their house, Kathy helped out at the practice, made a point of getting to know all the neighbours, and joined the Summerford branch of the W.I. at its inception in 1968. It was one of the provincial bodies then attending to rural women’s interests, and the only non-denominational organization for women in rural areas that crossed all religious boundaries. John Sheldon later described his wife’s widespread networking with these “wonderful talented people” as “the Women’s Institute Mafia”.

In the 1960s the W.I. had begun to change its focus from craft- and home-management activities to broader and critical examinations of long-standing issues affecting the lives of rural women. Moreover, as Kathy explained, the grass-roots importance of the W.I. for officials in municipal and provincial government was key: "nobody in the provincial government or in the city had access to rural women at that time but us." Over several decades, Kathy and her WI colleagues have engaged in data collection, consultations with government bodies, advocacy, research, and community teaching. The key issues they tackled were big: reforming the province's matrimonial property laws, building up local community leadership skills, developing a much needed health education network, and participating extensively in a three year project with the national Health and Welfare government department.

We first surveyed women about their health needs and then tailored workshops to meet those needs. One of the biggest concerns of rural women was the lack of services and information, and the expense to get to the services. Other subjects were menopause and concerns around medications. We also won a grant [from Health Canada] to hire a researcher and produce a handbook for widows."

Matrimonial property rights

Kathy and her W.I. colleagues were questioned by the provincial government for their opinions on the matrimonial property laws, which basically denied a wife any part of the matrimonial property and assets. This situation applied despite the facts underlying rural working life and its gender-related impacts. Men went away to work: they went away fishing for three or four months each year, or they went into the woods logging for three or four months. The women did all the work at home. They raised the children, cared for the animals, grew the vegetables, and ran the communities. But, at the end of the day, they were denied their legal rights regarding ownership of the very property they were working to maintain. Traditionally the house was always left to the youngest son, who was to look after the mother. "Well, you can imagine: that didn't work out too well."

The W.I. felt strongly about this issue and so added their support to lobbying efforts by the then Newfoundland Status of Women Council and others. The government felt the pressure to reform the legislation to ensure that all Newfoundland and Labrador women won the right to own and inherit half of the matrimonial property. A new law eventually came into effect on July 1, 1980, but old mindsets have persisted, especially amongst some men: “Somebody told me the other day that their husband told them that they couldn’t have anything. I said, ‘That is absolutely wrong. We have matrimonial property laws in this country—half the house is yours’.”

Public education

The community leadership development workshops that Kathy helped develop responded to an evident need to help disadvantaged women gain both self-confidence and the skills to run effective community groups and chair meetings.

So many contemporaries of Kathy living in the rural areas of Newfoundland had little formal education, even before being placed as underpaid household servants.

… if you had eight years of school that was good. You were taken out of school usually to look after the younger children in a larger family. Or by the time you finished grade nine or ten, you set off to work. Some of our members were put out in service at 14-15 years old; some as early as 10 and 11. In 1964, when I came here, a girl was lucky to make 20-25 dollars a week and she did everything; previous to that it had been even worse. I met a woman who, instead of getting wages, was given two second hand dresses. And they looked after the children and did the cooking, kept the house and did it all.

No surprise then that women living across all rural areas of the province were seriously disadvantaged. In contrast to the opportunities for self-growth that Kathy had enjoyed, these women had no opportunities for a good education and lacked the resources to travel and broaden their minds. Kathy and her W.I. colleagues encouraged rural women to reduce their domestic focus on housework and look outwards to their community's development, and to attend leadership workshops. The latter used various teaching techniques such as role plays, modelling proper meeting procedures, and effective speakers, such as Ann Bell, who explained women's rightful and constructive roles in Newfoundland society. Many attendees later became leaders in various areas of community change activity.

The health network development really caused Kathy the most trouble because the W.I. was given a joint grant with the Status of Women Council on a three-year project. They formed a new nine person board, made up by three W.I. members, three Status of Women members, and three independent women from certain areas; for example, a woman from the coast of Labrador who was not part of any organized group. Health education workshops were designed and women all across the province were surveyed for their health wants and needs; just two examples of the activity. However, some internal and "hurtful" friction existed. A minority of Kathy's own W.I. members were adamantly opposed to working with the Status of Women representatives. Their opposition, as they wrote in strong (even "nasty") letters to Kathy, was based in their rejection of feminists of that era who were being denigrated as the "women's libbers" who allegedly hated men, who dared to lobby authorities for change, and who generally were seen to carry extreme views. These W.I. protesters argued that their organization was designed to focus on the home and develop women's home-making skills, not reach beyond the private domestic sphere into the public policy sphere. Fortunately, however, most of the W.I. membership supported the advancement of the project. Some of the objectors changed their minds later and supported the project, but a few others left the W.I. in disappointment or disgust.

International activity

If all this activity was not enough, Kathy was also having "a really exciting time" attending high-level meetings of the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada (FWIC) and their international affiliate, the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW).

The real issue that got her so involved ("head over heels") occurred before the Berlin Wall so famously fell in November 1989. An ACWW meeting in 1980 in Hamburg was debating whether to allow women from behind the then Iron Curtain communist country of Poland to become part of the organization. The American women were very opposed to that idea. Eventually, after some procedural wrangling and Kathy's intervention on the floor to resolve a procedural mistake, a new vote was taken and the Polish women were admitted.

There are now many women's groups in Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia and we were I think the first organization that allowed groups from behind the Iron Curtain. Because in places like Poland and even in Demark that the Russians had overrun, the women were the major agricultural producers so they were allowed to keep going when all those other organizations were banned. That was a really exciting time.

The unexpected death of Kathy's son in 1986, as well as the ongoing need to reduce her travel and support both her husband's medical practice and her local W.I. commitments, contributed to her deciding to end international and national involvements.

Rural development

However, local and provincial issues still commanded her attention. Kathy had joined the Rural Development Association in its earliest days as the W.I. representative in 1969 where she and others had to deal with serious economic issues related to the cod fishing moratorium, followed later by the more positive development of crab and shrimp harvesting. She began to champion tourism to New World Island. She chaired a tourism survey and later helped a colleague who had set up the now popular Fish, Fun and Folk Festival at Twillingate.

At one point in her extensive Newfoundland and Labrador W.I. activity, and with a grant from the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada, Kathy and several W. I. colleagues travelled up the coast of Labrador on a regular coastal boat to talk with women's groups. Very quickly they saw daunting problems of neglect, poverty and strife. Kathy and colleagues did not then form any W.I. group in Labrador because at that time the Inuit were in the turmoil of forming the Labrador Inuit Association and trying to figure out who could belong. How to solve the neglect, grief, poverty and strife of those Labrador communities was obviously a massive challenge that was way beyond the means of strong and skilled W.I. members. More importantly, the challenges needed internal resolution, not one imposed by outsiders. Here Kathy was reminded of two similar lessons she had learned earlier about social change and dispute resolution. No single person can make a sustained social change, but a whole community that commits itself to analyzing and planning for change or resolution of a conflict carries a good chance of sustained success. The famous Fogo Island film-making project nearby was happening at the same time (late 1960s) and was a model for a community to be given a creative alternative way to express their frustrations and anger about stifled change and government neglect of their conditions as well as their ideas for community change . Of course, appropriate practical skills and knowledge are also necessary, so that often entails going travelling for new ideas.

Talk about a challenge! We didn't solve the challenge; we didn't do anything with it. We just met and talked with people. And that is still an ongoing challenge for our society here in Canada. I don't know how it's going to be solved; except by their own leadership rising up and changing it.