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Ideas

the feminist bookmobile CORA

by Andrea Trudel | May 29, 1998

CORA was the creation of Judith Quinlan, Boo Watson and Ellen Woodsworth, three young women from Toronto who began planning the feminist bookmobile in 1973. They raised funds, promoted their plan, and bought and outfitted an old school bus, transforming it into a mobile library to promote information about women. A government grant provided the funding which got the wheels turning for the bus to begin its travels through rural Ontario in 1974.

Four other women joined them for the summer. “Women’s Liberation Bookmobile” was painted in large letters on CORA’s side. Inside the bus, racks held books (for sale, loan and to give away) by, for and about women, their history and the growing women’s liberation movement.

CORA was named for E. Cora Hind, a pioneer suffragist, grain grower and writer. The motivation for the travelling bookmobile was to make women’s books, periodicals and newspapers more readily available to women in small towns. Judith and Ellen wanted to help women in isolated situations find each other, facilitate communication and demystify women’s liberation, encourage schools, libraries and community centres to be aware of women’s resources and materials, and encourage women to write about their own experiences.

The women who operated CORA worked collectively, with a flexible attitude always open to new ideas. They would arrive in town, displaying their, “Women Working” sign, choose a conspicuous parking spot and then haggle with town officials for permission to park. Then they would set up, using an outdoor display rack (until it was run over in Huntsville!), distributing flyers about CORA, contacting local media, directly leafleting on the town streets.

Many women, young and old, from all backgrounds, visited CORA. Women’s groups were beginning to form in some locations, and CORA’s staff participated in meetings. The bookmobile carried information from women’s centres across Ontario and gave away literature. Women were delighted to see CORA the feminist bookmobile in their town.

The adventures of CORA were recounted in a Toronto feminist newspaper, The Other Woman, in 1975. In one town, Boo and Ellen got thrown out of the pool hall because, “there was no women’s washroom.” Camp counselors came and talked. One said, “This night might change my whole life.” The presence of CORA, the Feminist Bookmobile, in that summer of 1974, turned heads and raised consciousness.

background

Andrea Trudel is librarian of the Canadian Women’s Movement Archives.

The Canadian Women’s Movement Archives (CWMA) had its beginnings in the files about the growing Canadian women’s movement in the Toronto feminist newspaper, The Other Woman. When the paper folded in 1977, the editor, Pat Leslie, encouraged women’s groups to preserve their records and to support a women’s archives by depositing material. In a letter to women’s organizations, Pat urged, “... the past and the future lies also in every letter written to a friend. Everything speaking about and to feminism is precious to us all!”

Pat continued to collect files in her home but, by 1982, the collection had grown to the point where a collective of women began operating the Canadian Women’s Movement Archives from an office location. During the 1980s, the CWMA set about defining itself, setting policies, establishing procedures and expanding its collection.

However, funding was always precarious. Government grants became more difficult to obtain, donations harder to come by and not enough to sustain the archive’s existence. In the early 1990s, the archives collective had discussions about the fate of this collection. After considering several options, the archives moved to the University of Ottawa Library Network, where they are now housed as part of the permanent collection in the Morisset Library.

The CWMA contains a wealth of information and documentation about the women’s movement from 1960 on. The focus is on material from women’s groups, coalitions, events and conferences. Alongside the printed records, the holdings include many artifacts and unusual treasurers. For example, t-shirts and buttons, posters and photos, banners from events such as Take Back the Night and International Women’s Day.

The CWMA also holds an excellent collection of Canadian women’s periodicals. It includes early feminist publications such as The Pedestal, Velvet Fist, and Tightwire, and many small newsletters from across the country. The archives act as our collective memory, providing activists, researchers, teachers and students with essential records from Canadian women’s history. The Canadian Women’s Movement Archives encourages women to preserve and celebrate their history and achievements.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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