Phenomenal Women of Atlantic Canada

Photo of Leona English.
About the Author

Leona M. English is a Professor of Adult Education at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. She studies women's activism and leadership in community-based non-profit organizations.


Phenomenal Women of Atlantic Canada

It's hard not to think of Maya Angelou's “Phenomenal Woman” poem when viewing these biographies of women activists in the Atlantic region. From my perspective of having read the profiles, each of these 27 women embodies the word phenomenal in their very being: they are strong in voice, rich in hope, and daring in deed. They are phenomenal women who pressed ahead in the face of considerable constraints that threatened to shut them down in their struggle for justice, language rights, women's equality, social housing, adequate food, and a host of other issues. The richness of the profiles and the wonderful images on the site fill me with hope and help me “hear” the stories of struggle and triumph in the face of adversity. Just seeing these older women on the website as everyday women of conviction and courage is inspiring. A polished website like this one takes sometimes hidden stories and brings them to the international stage, in many ways making ordinary feats of incredible accomplishment extraordinary. My hat is off to those who made this possible, Liz Burge, Gail Taylor, and the Electronic Text Centre professionals at the University of New Brunswick. The 27 women represent a range of geographic locations, religious affiliation, racial grouping, language ability, as well as cultural, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. They are as diverse a mix of women as any can be in any area; somehow it surprises me to know that we in Atlantic Canada are as diverse as these portraits suggest. Yet, when I read the stories I am reminded of these women's deep and enduring connections to the region and how they typify in many ways the Atlantic Canadian spirit of endurance, perseverance and triumph (English, 2011; English & Irving, 2007). They remind me that we are stronger through the diversity that each one of brings, and for the commonality they share. From Acadian May Bouchard who advanced the rights of the French in Nova Scotia to Kathy Sheldon who committed herself to a lifetime of social change for women in Newfoundland and Labrador, each contributes no less than everything to the betterment of our region. I feel ever so grateful to be in their company.

Activists of a Different Sort

As a person with a great interest in finding out more about women and social change, I am struck by a number of themes that arise in these portraits, how they are alike and different from women in activist roles internationally. Often in the public mindset, people who crusade for rights as these women have done do so with banners, protests and bullhorns. Indeed there was a time in our history that these overt and confrontational strategies worked and worked well in efforts to attain equal pay for equal work, reform matrimonial laws, and end discrimination on the basis of gender. Usually these large scale and very public protests were located in urban areas and involved national organizations such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women Canada. In the portraits that Liz Burge and colleagues have crafted here with Atlantic women activists a different type of activism seems to be at play. It is less heroic (oppositional, loud, visible, and public) in a historical sense and closer to what some would call post-heroic and post-activist (see Fletcher, 2003). By these terms I mean the largely quiet, small scale, and collaborative activism represented here. Though there are certainly national and public figures represented in the profiles — take Nancy Riche's leadership in the trade union movement or Joan Hicks in CCLOW — by and large the activism here has been behind the scenes and relatively muted. Sr. Dorothy Moore, for instance, has been working for years in a variety of educational and leadership positions to advance language rights and possibilities for First Nations in the region. She has been patient and accepting, and avoided aggression, moving steadily forward and accomplishing a great deal in the process. Women like Sr. Dorothy Moore have pushed gently and persevered in the face of great opposition; they have represented their causes with integrity and in very assertive ways. Theirs is non-violent tenacious activism that is less about parades, though they have had their place, and more about effectiveness and long term change. In narrative after narrative it is clear that subversion and assertiveness have replaced aggression and attack as strategies for change. When one looks at the advice that is offered in each profile restraint and negotiation are highlighted as useful tactics for success. For many of them, the government (or the boss, or the agency) is not the enemy but the partner you have to work with, although you might have plans to change them too. This is not all-or-nothing activism that takes prisoners and fights the good fight, as valiant as that might be in another time and place. As Maria Bernard from PEI recommends, it's best not to step on toes. In many ways, this reflects the geographic reality of living in places that are small, regional and in which interdependence is still a reality. Stepping on toes is a short term answer which causes a lot of long term problems, it seems. I am reminded, as I read the faces, that the resistance of many of the activists has been sustained over the long haul and is rarely if ever completed or accomplished in one feat. They defy the notion of hero as one who sweeps in, has an immediate victory and becomes a household name overnight. Ann Brennan in New Brunswick spent decades behind the scenes in the Liberal party pushing for change and making sure that women had a voice in the largely male world of elected politics. Yvonne Atwell has been serving the needs of the African Nova Scotian community and advancing their cause for more than forty years. She gives new meaning to the term long haul and stands as a proud leader for a community that has suffered a great deal from racial, economic, and cultural discrimination. Some of these women have earned high profile positions like Madeleine Gaudet who led the nurses' union in New Brunswick and Shannie Duff who served in the legislative assembly in Newfoundland and Labrador. Others have worked steadily in local areas and in voluntary capacities to advance their causes. In all cases they continue to serve their communities, long past the time when their official and professional roles are behind them. They are notable for their constant choice to use their gifts and talents to work for others, not for themselves.

A Reminder of What I Know

Like women's activism worldwide, relationships are a key dimension of these activists' stories. As clichéd as it sounds, networks and relationships are a very big part of how women work for change. In these stories, time and again, the activists talked about working together, bringing people on board, and moving forward as a collective. From her perspective in policy work, Stella Lord, for example, sees the need to find and work with other women to make change happen. The superhero or the individualistic hero (the so-called great woman) is not part of Stella's narrative nor is it part of any of the other narratives. Joan Hicks, also from Nova Scotia, made great strides in libraries, local communities, and in the CCLOW, by building networks and relationships so that change could happen. Similarly, Edith Perry from PEI worked through the Women's Institutes and through the New Democratic Party to create and sustain change in her province. Like many of the women in this study her strategy has been to work with colleagues to move ahead. Similar to women activists in other places, the site of much of the activism in these profiles is in local organizations and at the grassroots where women have decided to collectively and actively care for, advance, and defend the rights of women and the disadvantaged. The work of these Atlantic women activists is carried on in daily actions and practices, again challenging a simplistic view of activism as visible protest and action only. Their activism is seen in the soup kitchen at Romero House, headed by Carolyn McNulty and the one started by Sr. Kathrine Bellamy in St. John's. And when the issues change, these women do too. Whereas some of the stories start with the strength and leadership in the Women's Institutes that often sought equality for women, the issues and the women activists have shifted with them. The leaders are located more and more in unions, education, and Status of Women centres. Yet, the heart of the matter is often improving the structures and the services to the poor, the aged, and the discriminated against. Theirs is an activism and heroism of cooperation, linkages, and support, creating a new vision and new possibilities to address the most ordinary and problematic of issues. In a way it is reminiscent of women's groups such as the suffragists and temperance activists who knew the importance of forming alliances long before it was considered heroic. I suspect that many of these women were quite surprised when they were first called activists, perhaps when they received their various awards like the Order of Canada and the Order of New Brunswick. Neither famous nor intentionally heroes they were by and large women who saw a need and met it. Marian Perkins likely did not grow up thinking she would champion the cause of treatment for addictions, yet she took up the cause when it became apparent to her that she could do no other. Yet, she is an activist through and through.

Expanding this Work

As their activism changes with the times, so too does the way in which their stories are communicated to us. Ironically, the twenty-first-century tool of the Internet makes it possible for their stories to be heard, though it seems that none of their stories has any great technological component in them. For their generation of women activists, dialogue and relationships one on one seemed more prominent. I suspect that the stories of younger activists will contain more Internet, Facebook, and Twitter tools, but yet still be based on relationships. The challenge for the older activists profiled here will be to make way for the next generation and to welcome their ideas, strategies, and the issues that they have prioritized such as the environment, water, and sustainability. Bringing in the next generation will be a struggle but one that these senior women seem prepared for since they have had to deal with change and growth constantly. Working with limited resources, as they have done, has hopefully made them courageous and open to new possibilities and people. In many ways these 27 women share with women activists all over the globe the ability to recognize that something like poverty or wages or racial discrimination needs to be addressed and to just do it. And, significantly, none of these women travelled too far from home to do it: like Sr. Joan O'Keefe who became a doula, they recognized where they could do most good and did it. Women like Ann Bell who became a leader in the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women Newfoundland and Labrador took on the challenges of her time and place and accomplished much. Yet, it likely will be important for the next generation of activists to expand themselves outward and to make global connections. Information communication technologies will likely be the key to this expansion and that is where younger activists will be best able to make a sustained contribution. How they do that will be interesting to watch and be part of. They have the tools, the mentors, and the ability to take on the world and we need to be ready and receptive to them and their strategies. With this website, Liz Burge and her colleagues have created what I now think of as the Atlantic Canada Lifetime Achievement Award for Women. It is in league with the many orders and awards that these women have already achieved after a lifetime. Yet, it is unique in that it uses a twenty-first century medium to acknowledge them, and it brings them together in one place for our benefit. They are a collective voice for change and they are an authentic representation of our Atlantic region's power and capability. I am proud to be among them and am endlessly inspired by how they have lived their lives for others. Thank you so much for the opportunity to visit with them and to let their lives speak to me.


English, L. M. (2011). Adult education on the Newfoundland coast: Adventure and opportunity for women in the 1930s and 1940s. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 26 (1), 25-54. English, L. M., & Irving, C. (2007). A review of the Canadian literature on gender and learning. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 20 (1), 16-31. Fletcher, J. K. (2003). The paradox of post heroic leadership: Gender matters. Working Paper 17. Center for Gender in Organizations. Simmons School of Management, Boston. Online: