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Older Women’s Network (OWN)

by Ann Farrell | March 21, 2000

The Older Women’s Network (OWN), which began as an organization for women over 55, is now open to women of all ages. It celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1998, but 12 years before that a small group of women were already developing the concept.

The initial group met for more than a year and a half for study and discussion. They decided the time had come to launch a public campaign for membership in what was hoped at that time would be a national organization representing the hitherto neglected population of older women.

In 1987 the publication of a Canadian Press release produced an avalanche of hundreds of letters from coast to coast to coast hailing the formation of the Older Women’s Network and pouring out the stories of women who felt themselves abused by the system.

It was at this point that a meeting was held one dark and stormy night in the North York (now part of Toronto, Ontario) home of co-founder Nina Herman. In the words of one of the original members, Esther Jackson, “the atmosphere was warm, the air electrified with excitement, enthusiasm and anticipation.” It was the launch of the Older Women’s Network (OWN).

Four members of the founding group – co-founders Nina Herman and Elsie Ticoll, Kathleen Repka and Esther Jackson – constituted a planning committee to meet with the Secretary of State, Women’s Programs, and the Ontario Women’s Directorate, to present a proposal for funding three public forums. During this planning stage, what was known as the founders group, was joined by Rachel Tamari and Reta Duenisch-Turner.

In October of 1987, having secured the government funding sought after, the first in a series of three public forums was held in Toronto. Entitled Women in Limbo, it addressed itself to the special needs of women between the ages of 55–65 – an age group that employers deemed too old to be employable, but whose members were not yet eligible for pension benefits. The forum attracted close to 500 women at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). It was followed in the winter and the spring of 1988 by two forums on housing options and mandatory retirement.

In May 1988, the founding organizational meeting of the (then) Metropolitan Toronto and Area Council was held.

Their aim was to provide a voice for the concerns of women 55 and over. It would work for the expansion of opportunities for older women, for economic security, affordable housing and optimum health. It would combat ageism and sexism. The organization would be based on feminist principles and would involve a continuous process of consciousness-raising through the study of feminist literature and its application to the lives of women participating.

It was OWN’s belief that women should be looked at in a new way as its members had come to look at themselves in a new way as older women. They were dedicated to eliminate old stereotypes – “little old ladies pouring tea” – and to promoting the fact that the menopausal period is not the end of their worth, but rather an entrance to new stage in life.

In their opinion this particular generation of older women is unique in that it is the first generation of older women of whom many have worked outside the home. It is the first generation of Canadian women which has been active in the women’s movement and who have lived in a society that has been affected by it. And it is a generation with an increased life expectancy, well into the 80s.

A typical project undertaken by OWN was a study of the shelter needs of abused older women, published in 1998. The study involved more than 240 stakeholders, 134 representatives from shelters and community services and others. Personal interviews were carried out with 106 older women in Ottawa, Peterborough, Thunder Bay, Toronto and Windsor.

  • the women were born in 30 different countries
  • 50% spoke one of the two official languages
  • the interviews were carried out (with interpreters) in 15 different languages
  • 20% of the women in the sample had used Ontario’s shelters
  • 58% disclosed abuse voluntarily in the course of the interviews

The study was a first addressing abuse in this age group in the province, and has become a benchmark amongst professionals who work in the field. For copies, apply to OWN, 115 The Esplanade, Toronto ON M5E 1Y7, tel: 416-214-1518, FAX 416-214-1541, e-mail ownmetro@user.rose.com

From these modest beginnings a lively organization was born, to spread to other centres, and to be a voice for advocacy on behalf of older women that is widely recognized, and whose opinions are sought by all those concerned with this ever-increasing segment of the population.

resource for this story
  • Joy Kogawa opens the Introduction to Our Grandmothers, Ourselves with: “Grandmothers should be ruling the world. I say this without the hint of a joke. Grandmothers see the future in a way others do not. As the world of the flesh decays, the life of the spirit flowers. Grandmothers are a field of wildly blooming, exquisite and riotous flowers.” The contributors to this book are Canadian women raised in immigrant homes, each writing about their grandmothers’ presence in their lives.
    — Our Grandmother, Ourselves: Reflections of Canadian Women, by GINA VALLE, ed., Raincoast Books | 1999

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

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