Women, Unite & Fight
By: Sheliza Mitha
The year was 1971. John and Yoko recorded their song, “Power to the People.” Switzerland held a referendum on women’s suffrage, granting women the right to vote… in some elections. Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and Gloria Steinem established the US National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) to support women seeking office at all government levels. Later in the year, Ms. Magazine published its first issue.
Closer to home, Canadian Fran Phipps became the first woman to reach the North Pole. And, a group of women gathered at UBC to form the school’s very first women’s collective with the goal of offering a drop-in centre for counselling, referral, and information.
Known then as the Women’s Office (WO), the AMS granted space to the group on the second floor of the student union building (SUB). Among other initiatives, the group organized various events and implemented the first non-credit women’s studies program (as it was known at the time).
Despite their popularity and success in providing a safe space for women to gather, connect, and access vital resources, just five years later, the WO was given an eviction notice and asked to submit a constitution to the Student Administrative Commission to comply with its club policy. The WO chose not to oblige, refusing AMS Club status as they felt the move would compromise their financial and political autonomy.
“Women’s liberation is not a club,” noted one female group member back then.
Rather, the WO chose the status of an AMS committee. Though this meant financial expenditures would need approval, it came with a return on investment: The WO was given a share of the AMS budget and space. Thus, the WO moved to the SUB and changed its name to the Women’s Committee, growing its power and services.
Over time, the AMS revised the Committee’s status to a service organization: the Women’s Centre. In 1980, the Centre took yet another blow: its budget request was slashed from $8,000 to $800.
“We saw it as a move to get rid of the Centre because it was a political body,” said Women’s Centre member, Sally Brisebois, at the time. What happened next is a tribute to The Great Trek before it, and the tuition protest hikes that would come nearly a decade later.
Women’s Centre members stormed the Castle… ahem, the Council, demanding to make a presentation to make their case. The result? Council requested the budget committee to review and reconsider.
“We had to prove we were a service organization, and were representing all women on campus,” Brisebois added.
As a result, the AMS approved the Centre’s budget and the Women’s Centre solidified its presence as a force to be reckoned with.
Since its creation more than a half century ago, the Women’s Centre has undergone challenges to its existence that ranged from passive-aggressive bureaucracy to outright hostility, but it has persevered – evolving and yet remaining steadfast for more than five decades… organizing speakers, workshops and seminars to create awareness and positive change regarding gender issues, sexism, and other important issues affecting women.
The Centre also acted as a catalyst for other student resource groups that followed, creating, empowering, and inspiring students to continue to unite and fight – whether it’s against racism or for sexual and gender diversity, the disabled, the environment or social justice issues. The Centre was - and still is - a pioneer and a testament to UBC students and their willingness to fight for what’s right. Today, the UBC Women’s Centre is one of six resource groups as part of the AMS and works to support anyone dealing with gender-based oppression.