Practicing Social Activism


Transition House

The evolution of her participation in women's issues from making modest donations to building on the skills needed to function effectively on a board was correlated to Mary Lou's participation on various university committees and attendance at countless meetings.

As she developed her meeting capabilities through practice, Mary Lou decided to join the Board of Transition House—not "to do good but to contribute to policy decisions and financial decisions." On this board she had to grapple with the powers of an executive director (ED) who was opposed to a volunteer board -- a process that ended in the Board severing relations with the high-profile ED.

On the Transition House board for six years (1985—1991), Mary Lou served for two years as their Chair. During this time, she learned just how fickle a community could be when faced with women's issues. Although there were high-powered people willing to give money to establish a Transition House in Fredericton, they did not want it located "in their backyard." While Mary Lou was president of the board, a community meeting was convened at City Hall. There was a large turnout from the neighbourhood where a new House was to be situated. As Mary Lou reflected on this event, she regretted not having had the skills to speak back to the "made-up horror stories" that opponents were circulating about the location of the house. Subsequently, this location was voted down by the relevant committee of the City; without experience in public speaking, Mary Lou found herself formulating the appropriate public response only after the fact. But she was learning.

However, the issue was perceived by the media as a "victims" cause and made it to the front page of the newspaper. Politicians were appalled and suddenly the Transition House was at the top of the list for grant money. Later, the Board of Transition House was able to purchase a building in another neighbourhood and considerable donations began to flow in that would enable renovations. For the most part, these neighbours supported establishment of the Transition House.

Mary Lou learned that those who are most entrenched in their values and material goods sometimes do not embrace the principle of fairness. A lot of awareness-raising was done to help the new community understand what "transition time" entailed for the women who would live there, and the community where the renovated house was situated responded positively. At an open house, men and women brought food and books and shared their delight that a former drug house had been transformed into something of social value.

During this time, Mary Lou was also learning that politicians were more willing to help if you could use the "right language"—and this meant learning how to speak from a political point of view. Mary Lou had to learn how to frame the problem and solution using the language that a politician, often a minister, could use with his or her constituents.

Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)

What LEAF did for me was define my feminist activities in that I recognized there were many avenues to accomplish equality for women.

When she became the New Brunswick representative on the national board of LEAF in 1992, Mary Lou learned about the complex issues of equity related to policy and women in the courts. Aligning herself with moderate feminists, she found herself head-to-head with radical feminists in LEAF who saw no difficulty with short-term deficit budgeting in order to avoid laying off some Board members or staff.

Mary Lou, however, and two Board colleagues, believed that as Board members, their fiduciary responsibilities took precedent, so they voted against deficit budgeting. LEAF had a Board of forty women, which made for steep travel expenses for meetings in Toronto. There was some financial support for LEAF from government grant money associated with legal challenges that were taken to the Supreme Court of Canada regarding women's issues, as well as funds from the federal Advisory Council on the Status of Women. On the record against the motion, Mary Lou and her two colleagues were subsequently branded because their votes required staff or board member layoffs.

The question that emerged during this struggle was how to be a feminist and remain fiscally responsible at the same time. For Mary Lou, it was another level in understanding how fairness for women could be advanced within the financial constraints of an organization's policy and procedures. There was no doubt she wanted "to elevate all women to the proper level," but the question of feasibility could not be ignored. It was this tension that formed into the dilemma that ultimately split LEAF.

Mary Lou called the complex learning on legal issues and cases taken on by LEAF "a skill development program". She had not realized how important it was to get precedent-setting decisions made by the Supreme Court, for those decisions make their way into all the law books which act as references for judges and lawyers across the country.

After federal funding for the court challenges had dried up, LEAF was required to become more focused and contained as an organization.

Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research (MMFC)

After her retirement from the Faculty of Education in 1999, Mary Lou assumed the position of Acting Director of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research (MMFC) until late 2001.

Working with committed researchers from the community and the university was a privilege.

Everyone worked diligently to identify and sustain focus on issues related to family violence for consciousness-raising in the community. The culminating activity was co-editing a book called "Understanding Abuse: Partnering for Change" that was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2004.

NB Advisory Council on the Status of Women (NBACSW)

While still serving with the MMFC, Mary Lou moved to the NB Advisory Council on the Status of Women where she occupied the Chair for three-and-a-half years. Not having anticipated the invitation, she had had to do some deep thinking before making a decision:

It was a thrill to be asked, but it was accompanied by both negative and positive responses. Fear was part of it, and the other part was that you might be able to do something good with the organization because I thought the Status of Women was going to be wiped out—I think it came close. I needed to grapple with whether I would be its demise or foster its continuation. I really thought that this was going to be another chance for the Status of Women to get it right.

The first eight months were demanding, with the office moving from Moncton to Fredericton and issues to deal with immediately, such as the financial books not being in good order. New members of the Advisory Council had to be chosen and an executive director hired; and Mary Lou was determined to create a transparent organization with every step she took. While she could rightfully have claimed five times the salary she did, she chose to be paid for just one day a week while working most every day, wanting to make the point that since she did not need the money, she would rather leave it in the pot so that more could be done for women.

Dealing with the political scene in her new role caused Mary Lou to work out some distinctions that were important to how she functioned. While the Advisory Council was mandated to act as a watchdog, she was convinced that this did not grant them the right to become "an un-elected opposition," and furthermore that the role of watchdog would be more effectively advanced by working cooperatively with government. From her perspective, she felt that the public wanted good information and innovative options for solving problems in a positive way. She tried to lead with advocacy that sought to educate and provide alternatives, rather than assume an adversarial position in relation to government.

A further learning while working with the Advisory Council was how to deal with unions, which were not always the friends of women. In both cases where she dealt with male union heads, Mary Lou remembered that neither appeared to acknowledge that women were still at the bottom of the hierarchy within their own unions. While they wanted women's money, the crunch came when their female members' needs were front and centre; sometimes, the "betterment of all" principle was not applied equally, especially where women comprised a relatively small group in the membership.

The main highlight for Mary Lou of her time as Chair of the Advisory Council was in turning it into a more positive agency with a high public profile. There were occasions when politicians would stand up in the House of Parliament to direct those who needed reliable information to the Advisory Council; and again, to thank the Council for their excellent service. These were occasions of great fulfilment to Mary Lou, and what is more, the Advisory Council survived—perceived in a much more positive light than had been the case in earlier times. Much to Mary Lou's dismay, the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women was disbanded in 2011 by the Minister responsible for the Status of Women.

The word "good" to me as an activist means having skills and intentions—to have the intention to better the lot of women in life and to have the skills to do so. My way of being a feminist and activist has been to learn skills. Women work much more in terms of listening and consensus. I needed to hone these skills.