Councillor Ellen Woodsworth: women hold up half the sky
COPE city councillor Ellen Woodsworth was jumping up and down last week, she was so excited that the women's advisory committee, conceived to address gender inequities, had gotten through. Seventy-five percent of Vancouver’s municipal employees are men, Woodsworth said, and this is one reason why she both sponsored and fought for the committee, because it was going to be addressing this as well as transportation, bike safety, and other issues facing women. It would also, she hoped, encourage more women to run for political office.
The previous week, she feared the committee would not be approved by the male-dominated council and the surprise had her hopeful about the future. Woodsworth, who served on council two terms back on the COPE dominated council led by Mayor Larry Campbell, was defeated when the NPA came to power under Mayor Sam Sullivan. It is unusual for a defeated candidate to make a comeback and people told her she couldn’t. She ran again anyway and was re-elected in the last election, barely beating NPA’s affable Michael Geller. But beating him.
SOLOMON: Where did you grow up?
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WOODSWORTH: I grew up in Toronto and lived there until I was sixteen and then I went to Japan for Grade 11 and 12.
SOLOMON: What was it like to live in Japan?
WOODSWORTH: It was incredible. I went to an international school. There were people from all over the world and it completely opened my life up both emotionally and culturally.
SOLOMON: Was this a new thing?
WOODSWORTH: I’d been in a family that thought and talked and read broadly, my father was born and raised in Japan, so I was aware of the world already, but being in an international school and being in Japan, and studying Asian studies, everything opened up for me even more.
I went to China in 1965. It was fantastic, because at that point, it was still really idealized, people were really honest and the position of women was good. I got to visit communes and meet with barefoot doctors and I got to see a country that had rebuilt itself in a very, very short time on principals of people working together collectively. At that point nobody knew anything else was happening behind the scenes.
SOLOMON: How has that reverberated through your life?
WOODSWORTH: I’ve always been fascinated by China and the successions of different dynasties, the very different kind of cultural and government structures that they had and I saw a country that had gone from being in abject desperate poverty by the end of the war to taking control of its own destiny in 1950 to completely providing for its citizens, full university, full medical care, full child care and all the kinds of support systems that you could want in a nation and doing it through methods of collectivity and cooperation. A very different approach from anything I’d ever seen in any Western country.
It made me see how you could develop an ideal of something, that you could develop the kind of model for a society that you wanted and transform a society. I was very impressionable at sixteen and I thought it was wonderful. To have the head of the country say, “Women hold up half the sky” really meant that women and men were attempting to achieve equality in every aspect of society.
SOLOMON: Where did you go to university?
WOODSWORTH: I went to UBC.
SOLOMON: What were the high points of university for you?
WOODSWORTH: I was elected head of the speaker’s bureau at UBC and was very active in the student movement and as able to bring in a lot of interesting people. It was an amazing time in Vancouver. The women’s movement was really strong, the Red power movement was starting, and we were all kind of hippies. I got involved with the women’s movement and we organized the on to Ottawa Abortion Cavalcade which united women all across Canada. We literally drove across Canada picking up women and talking to the media about women’s right to choose. The Trudeau government didn’t support it. We kept fighting and eventually we did win that right.
SOLOMON: Was it in university that you knew you were gay?