Women around the world are being celebrated and protesting over oppression, reproductive rights, sexism and violence as part of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, March 8. A local march along Marine Avenue in recognition of the annual celebration begins at 4 pm at Base Camp.
Powell River has always been a difficult community for women, said city councillor CaroleAnn Leishman, who, along with Claudia Medina and Lesley Thorsell, organized the march.
“Aspects of this community have been on the fringe and on the cutting edge and there were definitely women breaking barriers through the years,” said Leishman. “In general, what a lot of women here have experienced is a very patriarchal, male-dominated society because of the mill, the fishing industry and the logging industry. I experienced a lot of sexism my whole life.”
Leishman said she was born in Powell River and raised by a strong woman and feminist. Her mother, Myrna Leishman, was a city councillor for four terms before retiring in 2014.
“My mom has always been breaking barriers as a leader and has been one of the main role models to me,” she said.
Leishman added that she has always looked up to that local generation of women, including Esther Dyck and Lyla Smith, activists for feminism and other causes during the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s.
Both women are members of Powell River’s Raging Grannies, where social-justice activists, all women old enough to be grandmothers, dress up in clothes that mock stereotypes of older women and sing songs at protests.
“These are the types of women I’ve always looked up to,” said Leishman. “That was the generation of women who inspired me to realize I had a voice and could make change in whatever way I wanted.”
Smith was a young woman in the early days of the second wave of feminism known as “women’s lib.” She said she was part of the movement but did not then, nor now, want to be instructed on being part of a movement. She said it was actually her boyfriend at the time who encouraged her to join up.
“It was the late ’60s and the movement was burgeoning and he thought it would be something I would be interested in, and I already was,” said Smith, “but I didn’t think it required me reading a bunch of books and following a philosophy, so much as something I could act out by myself in my own life.”
When the feminist movement did surface, Smith said she thought it was about time and that she could simply carry on as she had. She added that women still have a long way to go and believes strongly that if significant changes can be made in regard to violence against women, and the murdered and missing, progress will be seen to have been made.
“I was working as a nurse in BC Corrections,” she said. “All of these women in custody were looking at this big poster of missing women on the wall and pointing out their friends. It was heartbreaking and it’s ongoing and a discussion we’re still talking about. Feminist thinking could change that.”
Feminists, women and men, need to fight against violence, added Smith.
Examples set by Dyck, Smith and others influenced Leishman, who said the turning point in her life in terms of realizing what she could give back and how she could become more of an activist for women’s rights was a theatrical play that “shook her world.”
“It started with presenting The Vagina Monologues in Powell River,” said Leishman. “It was interesting because in the months leading up to the production nobody could say the word vagina out loud. It was literally people whispering on the streets, ‘Are you going to the monologues?’”
While in rehearsal, Leishman said the three women who performed in the show with her, Christine Hollmann, Carma Sacree and Roberta Pearson, read the monologues, talked, laughed, cried and drew closer together. They became fully embedded in the work and realized how important it was, but there remained some apprehension.
“We felt like, ‘I don’t know. This is pretty risky for Powell River.’ That was in 2001.” said Leishman. “We sold out three shows. It was so inspiring because I actually had women come up to me after the shows and start crying and unloading their stories and saying how they have tried to be empowered.”
Each generation of women has laid foundations for those who follow, including student Naomi Parkhouse, who said she was greatly influenced by Leishman. Born and raised in Powell River, the 21-year-old completed studies in sociology and social work this week at Vancouver Island University’s Powell River campus.
Parkhouse was chosen to represent the North Island-Powell River riding at Equal Voice’s Daughters of the Vote, an organization dedicated to electing more women to all levels of political office in Canada, from March 6 to 9. All 338 ridings will be represented by young women.
Leishman introduced her to the event, said Parkhouse, and encouraged her to apply because of her passion and ideas for the region.
“It’s important for women to have their voice in order for other women to have their voice,” said Parkhouse. “I’ve been working with a lot of older adults, I have seen a lot of patriarchal ideas and people who don’t think women can be politicians and can’t do manual labour jobs, which is unfair. Educating myself and being able to bring back the inspiration I will hopefully get from going to Ottawa, I feel it will not only benefit me, but if I can educate those around me, they’ll see that women can have a voice and do anything we put our minds to.”
From strong women, feminism finds its voice, according to Dyck, who offered some advice for Parkhouse’s generation.
“They can do it, stand up, keep their voices strong and follow their dreams,” said Dyck.
As for her own place in feminist and other movements she remains active in, Dyck said she is proud of what she has accomplished.
“I’ve never been afraid to stand up for something I believe in,” she said. “I still will and I still do.”