navigation main:
Bookmark and Share

People

activist Gloria Greenfield

by Frances Rooney | May 22, 1998

Gloria Greenfield arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1972, near the beginning of the second wave of feminism. She shared little of her past with anyone, but threw herself into the present. One of Gloria’s first activities was to found, with actor Nora D. Randall, the Vancouver Women’s Bookstore, only the second or third one in all of North America. Many people doubted that the bookstore could survive: the view at the time was that men wrote all the good books and women had little of value to say anyway. But survive it did, often with Gloria running it alone, believing that the store could make it, never taking any pay. It’s largely because of women’s bookstores that we, in Canada, discovered that women buy most of the books and that Canada’s best writers are women.

This was a time when society’s understanding of violence against women, including the battering of women by their male partners, started its long journey (still underway) from invisible and ignored to high profile and not tolerated. The belief that there were no battered women in Canada was so strong that women who were battered denied what was happening to them. A small committee, of which Gloria was a part, did not accept the dominant view. It took them three years to conceptualize, find funding for, set up and open the first fully residential transition house – called Transition House – in Canada. Gloria was the only member of the committee to then work at the house with battered women and children who needed everything from food, to emergency medical attention, to lawyers, to just someone to tell their story to. Gloria held hands, cooked, wiped noses, dealt with knife-wielding partners, and did the bookkeeping.

Gloria lived alone, quietly and modestly, working part-time at low-paying bookkeeping jobs. She knew how important it is to have fun, so she went to the beach every day – to swim when weather permitted – to plays, movies, dinners and parties, made annual trips to friends and family in California and New Jersey, and regularly wrote long letters to friends all over the world. But the jobs and, to some extent, her social life, were the background and providers of the resources of money and energy that made her real work, the fulfillment of her passion, possible.

This was a time before many people paid attention to women’s health issues. A woman was not supposed to question her doctor about anything, but to take whatever advice he (and most of them were “he” 30 years ago) said as truth, whether or not it fit her sense of what was going on with her mind, body or spirit. A woman who wanted a woman doctor was laughed at as being a prude. Women were supposed to be “pure.” Women who did not want babies were considered abnormal, and many young women had no idea where babies came from, let alone know anything about birth control. A woman with painful periods was considered petty and silly. Almost all abortions were illegal, performed as often as not with a coat hanger on a kitchen table or in a motel room.

Our Bodies, Ourselves, the first and probably still the most well-known basic book about women’s health, did not exist yet.

Again, a few women, Gloria among them, decided to establish a place to take their health issues where they could be treated like intelligent human beings with genuine questions that deserved and needed serious attention in a respectful atmosphere. The result was the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective which is still running. As well as programming, finding offices, recruiting doctors and gathering information, Gloria did the books.

Gloria was not finished. It was becoming clear that far more women wanted to write than actually did write books. Many of these women had never met another woman who shared their talents and desire to write. In 1983, that changed. The West Coast Women and Words Conference brought together hundreds of women writers from across Canada. The “famous” and the “never-heard-of” came together to meet each other, to talk and laugh and exchange ideas. When the conference was over, they went home to form regional Women and Words organizations, to meet, sponsor readings and support each other as emerging writers. Gloria was one of three women who had the idea for the conference, forming an organization to make it happen. At the end of the conference, she spent 13 years on the board of West Coast Women and Words; for 11 of those years organizing Westword, a ten-day writers’ retreat where, each year, 25 women from across the country lived and wrote together, met with established writers in their fields and had workshops and readings for each other in beautiful locations around Vancouver.

Gloria died of cancer at the end of June 1997, in her late 60s, but she still wasn’t finished her life’s work. Throughout her time in Vancouver, she lived on part of her income, saving and investing the rest. Her savings have formed the endowment for a scholarship for a woman to return to university after the age of 40 to pursue women’s studies. The executors of Gloria’s will are now raising funds to supplement the endowment.

She leaves an even more personal legacy: her papers and her writings which reveal the full richness and variety of what amounted to almost three lives. Her life in Vancouver, her third, was well known. What was revealed at her death was her early conventional life in New Jersey. She was brought up to marry and raise a family, probably never to have a job and to live always near her family. In her early 20s, she left home briefly, returning to spend several years caring for her mother after a near-fatal car accident. That was her first life.

Her second life took place in Europe, where she lived and travelled for over ten years. She wandered Britain and the continent finding art, music and artists in all the great cities. She had many lovers and she worked when she needed to earn money. She lived on the east coast of Italy, fell in love with Yugoslavia and moved there – twice. Both times, she was deported on suspicion of being a CIA spy. That’s when she moved to Vancouver.

We wish Gloria, and ourselves, many more lives.

something to consider

Fortunately, many communities in Canada have transition houses. Find out if there is one in your community and inquire about the kinds of support they need. Money is always on the list, but they will tell you too about other ways in which you can help too, like donating good used clothing for women and children.

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

features