Twenty-five years ago, feminists lobbied the federal government to make October Women’s History Month. Their goal was to commemorate women’s political, economic, and cultural contributions. It’s a time to share the stories of “ordinary” women whose lives and work tend to go unnoticed. Women like the extraordinary group who organized twenty years ago to found the Women’s Centre of Calgary. So we decided that as part of our 20th Anniversary celebrations, it’s fitting to tell our own story for this year’s Women’s History Month blog post.
That was the reaction of Calgary’s women’s community when they learned that the Women’s Resource Centre (our former name) would close. As a result of federal and provincial cuts to women’s programs and services in the 1980s and 1990s, many organizations that had been vital to fostering feminist organizing in Calgary, such as the Alberta Status of Women, the Calgary Status of Women Action Committee, and the Calgary Women’s Newspaper, had closed their doors. The WRC was a vital resource for women living in poverty, who had access to fewer services because of deep cuts to social assistance and other programs. It had also become a hub for activists committed to fighting for women’s equality.
When our original umbrella organization’s board made the difficult decision to close the Centre, Yvonne Stanford and Susan Gillies mobilized the women’s community to open an autonomous Women’s Centre. More than fifty women attended the first meeting of the WRC Action Committee at Carpenters’ Hall and committed their time and energy to save the centre. The campaign was a sign of hope and creation during a period of feminist backlash.
The Women’s Centre of Calgary opened its doors as an independent agency in October 1997. It was basically an empty room with three telephones, but it grew rapidly. In the first 15 months of operation, 130 volunteers provided peer counseling, direct services, and workshops to 11, 600 client contacts, clearly demonstrating the need for a safe space where women could support each other and work for change.
A few people at City Hall didn’t see it this way. When the FCSS denied the Women’s Centre application for core funding, hundreds of women called their city councillors to convince them that Calgary needed a women’s centre. It worked. One councillor described it as the most effective campaign he had seen in all of his years at City Hall.
There have been many changes at the Women’s Centre over 20 years. But services and programs have never strayed from the feminist conviction that women are the experts of their own lives. A grassroots community has fostered a safe space where women feel supported rather than in need. A letter from a friend published in a 1999 newsletter put it this way: “Several weeks ago, in the midst of a severe crisis involving my battle with chronic depression, I stumbled into the Women’s Centre and it was like walking into a hug.”
This blog post was written by Nancy, chair of the Social Policy Committee.