Ellen Woodsworth has activism in her blood. She grew up in a family that valued creative thinking and advocacy. Her mother represented the national YWCA on the founding board of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and was honoured with the Order of Canada. Ellen's father held strong leftist ideals and spoke at peace conferences throughout the world.
“I grew up in a family that was constantly thinking and reading and engaged in social issues.”- Ellen Woodsworth
It’s no wonder she became the woman she is today—a feminist, a 2SLGBTQIA++ activist, a champion of housing rights, seniors rights, a mover and shaker. We sat down with her to learn more about her and how Women Transforming Cities came to be.
What are some of the earliest campaigns you were involved in?
“I did grade 11 and 12 in Japan and organized a conference there. I loved being an organizer and being engaged in sports and events. When I came back to Canada in ‘66, it was just the beginning of the Women’s Movement. I joined the Vancouver Women’s Caucus at the same time I got elected the head of the Speaker’s Bureau at UBC and set up the first Women’s Center in my office at the Student Union Building. I was able to pay speakers to come in and speak, speakers from the Quebec Liberation Front (Front de libération du Québec), Red Power activists, Black Panthers, amazing speakers. I got to bring them to campus to speak. It was a very exciting time. We were fighting against the Vietnam War, for student, civil rights, and women’s rights.”
Abortion rights and theatrical protests
“In 1971 the Vancouver Women’s Caucus wanted to build a movement that would draw us all together. We didn’t have birth control pills in those days and there was no right to abortion. We thought, well, abortions are a healthcare issue, which is key to all women.” So with a handful of women, Ellen embarked on the “Abortion Caravan.” They drove from all over Canada putting on performances and speaking about women’s right to choose.
“We met women from all kinds of women’s groups across Canada. We had built a black coffin which we carried across the country on top of the VW van. On the way, we learned how Indigenous women were being sterilized and the role of men’s organizations that were doing terrible things-- raping women, sterilizing women, because these men were the ones who ran the towns. Hundreds of us met in Ottawa, where we laid our coffin down in front of the House of Commons and demanded to meet with the Prime Minister.”
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister wouldn’t meet with them so they marched instead directly to his home! When that plan wasn’t successful either they spent hours discussing their next move. They decided they were going to make a strong statement, by chaining themselves in the House of Commons.
“We selected reps from each area of the country and some of our friends in Ottawa got us clothes to wear, because we didn’t even have proper clothes, and they got us chains and locks, and secretly one of the MPs got us passes to get in. So a small number of us the next day in pairs walked up, just shaking in fear, up the steps to the House of Commons, walked into the galleries, and chained ourselves to the house of commons. At a certain moment we stood up and started chanting, ‘Women’s right to choose. Abortion is a woman’s right.’ Then when they went to take that woman away another woman would jump up and start chanting. But they couldn’t take us away because they didn’t realize we were chained in.”
A time of change
This was a monumental moment for the Women’s Movement in Canada because of the press the event received. Empowered by this shift Ellen came out as a lesbian, and faced the repercussions of an earlier iteration of the feminist movement that was yet to be inclusionary. After being repeatedly rejected from publishing anything about lesbianism even in the self proclaimed “feminist publications” she organized her own women’s paper (The Other Woman). Ellen and her colleagues used the paper to draw attention to the resistance of Indigenous women, the current state of affairs with Indo-Chinese women, and finally had a space to publish articles about lesbianism. If you scroll through the archives of The Other Woman, it’s a beautiful snapshot of what the Women’s Movement was like in the 70s, with some stellar content on how to fix a leaky sink.
Ellen’s next project came to life with the desire to spread the Women’s Movement to small communities all around Canada and the purchase of an old school bus, CORA. Ellen and her partner at the time spent the next few years touring around Canada with the bus converted into the Women’s Liberation Book Mobile. They’d stop at communities all over Ontario and Quebec and set up their mobile library full of women’s liberation books, children’s books, books like the first book to address women’s health and reproductive rights, Our Bodies Ourselves.
At this time women were beginning to take up space in what were viewed at that time as “traditional men’s roles” and Ellen couldn’t stop thinking about the unpaid labor that women perform.
“I kept thinking about women’s unpaid work and I was really convinced that it was the key to women’s liberation. Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Casta, Silvia Federici were the three international leaders and we had a Toronto group. We all came together in Montreal and founded the International Wages for Housework campaign. But here I was an out lesbian feminist activist and the lesbians were saying, what does this have to do with wages for housework? We don’t want to be trapped in those roles. I was caught in the middle, but I didn’t see a contradiction.”
Did you see a shift to more support happening around the LGBTQ2S+ community at that point?
“We organized the first lesbian conference in 1972 at 21 McGill Street in Toronto but we had to call it a gay conference because lesbians couldn’t afford to identify as homosexual, let alone use the word lesbian. It was so dangerous. Many, many women I know my age were put in mental hospitals. Some of the women came to the conference wearing paper bags on their heads so that they wouldn’t be known or picked up by the media for fear of losing their children or their jobs. It wasn’t even legal to be homosexual when I first came out and it was very, very socially dangerous. We could count on one hand the number of out lesbian feminists.”
After the International Wages for Housework campaign, Ellen held a series of different positions. She became the BC Chair of the Action Canada Network and fought against the free trade agreement, driving across Canada with workers. On her mother’s advice, she started advocating for the Seniors movement, working as an organizer for seniors in the DTES SROs (single room occupancy hotels).
She was involved in those years with so many different projects, from the February 14th Women’s Memorial March for 10 years to chairing the board of Bridge Housing for Women, raising the funding for the Women’s Center and three floors of housing for women. She fought for the Seniors' bus pass, organized the Seniors Summit, was on the board for the first queer Seniors organization the Generations Project, and became a well known DTES activist.
Running for council
In 2002 she was urged to run for city council. Her party COPE won every seat they ran for. She was one of two women on council and the first openly lesbian city councillor in all of Canada. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities asked her to launch their national project “Cities Tailored to Women” and Femmes et Ville, an NGO group in Montreal, asked her to present Safe City Audits at the World Urban Forum in Barcelona, where she got a chance to meet women from all over the world. She came back to Vancouver inspired and set up a Women’s Task Force with Anne Roberts where they wrote the first “Gender Equity Strategy for the City of Vancouver,” the first in all of Canada.
“In that document, that very first strategy we talked about intersectionality, that the city needed to put a focus on Indigenous women’s rights, we needed housing, and we needed a women’s advisory committee.”
Unfortunately, after presenting this document to council both Ellen and Anne lost the election. The following election in 2008 Ellen was re-elected and at last set up a Women’s Advisory Committee, Chaired by Wendy Williams to which she was a Council liason.
Women Transforming Cities was born.
“The first proposal that I put forward was that we establish a women’s organization and hold a women’s conference the day before the Federation of Canadian Municipalities met in Vancouver. We established Women Transforming Cities International Society and launched it in the Council Chambers, held our first neighbourhood Cafe, a sold out Pecha Kucha at the Vogue Theatre, and worked on a national conference. I knew that most women who were elected could not afford to come to a conference in Vancouver, but that municipalities would pay them to come to FCM. We figured out that the key people to make the change to women friendly cities were the Women’s Movement, students, academics, urbanists, unions, and the electeds. We also had to get the media on board.”
Years later, why do you think an organization like this is still so important in today’s political climate?
“Since COVID 19, there’s been a massive economic collapse for women, the majority of whom are racialized women, immigrant women. Today I heard that one in four women in the US are not going back to paid labor, because there is too much unpaid labor and they can’t do both. There's been a huge increase of domestic violence, racism, homophobia, and colonialism. You have the right-wing very well organized at all levels of government, you have two well-known homophobes sitting on the board of the NPA. It’s an urgent time for women to build organizations, to work in collaboration with each other, to call for representation in all levels of government, but right now we’re a year away from the municipal elections. There are urgent, urgent issues, like a desperate need for affordable housing. The city has a lot of power to do a lot of things using an intersectional feminist lens. Questions of electoral reform, jobs, childcare, affordable housing, defunding police, racism, colonialism. It’s really important to spell out what the issues are and the practical things that cities can do.”
“We really have to pay attention at the city level because this is where we are and this is where we can make a change. I can’t stress how important this time is for women to get engaged and take action moving forward with an intersectional lens. We must call on all political parties and Mayoral candidates to show us that they have a fully equitable representation of women candidates and a platform that is created with an intersectional feminist lens on all issues. So far I have not seen that from any of the four male candidates that have announced they are running."