The timing of Stella’s stay at OISE contributed to her developing awareness of the impacts of political decision-making on women, coinciding with the inception of the second wave of the women’s movement in Canada. Several women research and academic staff were involved in feminist activities or “new left” politics. In 1972, Stella was one of several women with connections to OISE to be invited to an early planning meeting for the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). “I can’t really say that I fully understood the political importance of these meetings at the time, but I do remember meeting such well-known luminaries as Lorna Marsden, June Callwood, and Kay Macpherson.”
Stella moved to Ottawa in 1972 and began studies in Political Science at Carleton University. Carleton University in the 1970s was an exciting and challenging place to be for someone who was becoming increasingly politicized and reflecting on social and economic equality. A practicing Anglican at the time, Stella began to question her church’s practices and dogma and critically examine Christian theology:
I was mainly questioning traditional, conservative approaches to Christianity. I took a special reading course on Marxism and Christianity and read quite a lot about liberation theology. One important thing I learned from studying Karl Marx was that it’s important to understand the world, but the point is to change it.
While at Carleton, Stella became increasingly drawn into left politics, and after a couple of years began to realize that the group she was involved with had not moved very far from the traditional left politics that “simply focused on male-dominated labour struggles and the working class”. While the importance of pay equity was recognized, “the political discourse left out a lot of issues that women were concerned about, such as child care, the division of household labour, and sexual harassment”. In 1979 Stella began a Ph.D. in Sociology at Carleton. In her first year she met several like-minded women ready to explore women’s equality issues and feminism in depth.
It was very interesting to do this, but some of it was undoubtedly personal. Like many other women at the time, I suppose I was also coming to terms with my own experience of inequality, my sense of identity, and my search for autonomy and meaning.
Moving to Victoria, BC in 1980, Stella decided to continue to work on women’s issues and joined the Victoria Status of Women Action Group (SWAG), later becoming vice-president. SWAG had been organized as a lobby group for issues emergent from the Royal Commission on the Status of Women report, and also became a focal group for issues such as sexual violence. At the same time, SWAG acted as a prototype of a women’s centre, making links with other women and exploring the full range of issues affecting women, such as sexual assault and reproductive rights.
Stella’s work with SWAG also helped her to think about her personal history and position in feminist debates. Her advocacy on difficult issues prompted her understanding that social justice was about more than economic equality, and that the legacies of patriarchy were just as oppressive as those that arose out of capitalism. Her time in British Columbia also brought about important lessons on the politics of social movements.
In the early 1980s, BC was going through social and political turmoil due to high unemployment and an intransigently right-wing government. The Solidarity Coalition, born in 1983, brought together women’s groups with unions and anti-poverty groups, among others in a struggle to reverse the neo-conservative policies of the Vander Zalm government. There were demonstrations and what amounted to a general strike, but no satisfactory resolution emerged. In the end the BC Federation of Labour negotiated a settlement with the government without consulting their partners in the solidarity movement. This settlement did not address welfare cuts or other issues of key importance to activists in the women’s and anti-poverty movements.
I was very disappointed, not so much in the outcome, but in the process. I could understand the need to end the strike and come to some agreement politically, but what I couldn’t understand was that the Labour Federation thought they had the right to make the final decision without consultation. What I learned was that you’ve got to be a bit cautious when you get into these things with other organizations. Women have to make sure that we are part of the decision-making process.
Still concerned about the effects of the economic downturn on women, especially single mothers, Stella became involved with several research and advocacy projects that focused on women, poverty, and welfare issues in the University of Victoria’s Continuing Education Division. Just as Stella was about to leave Victoria in 1987, this small research advocacy group was starting to morph into a welfare rights advocacy group that included women living in poverty.