In January 1986, a small group of women met in a church basement in Toronto to create a new organization, one which would provide a voice for the concerns of women 55 and over. In the words of one participant, Esther Jackson, “the atmosphere was warm, electrified with excitement, enthusiasm and anticipation.” It was the beginning of the Older Women’s Network.
The initial group met for more than a year and a half of study and discussion. It was their belief that older women should be seen in a new way, as they had come to look at themselves in a new way as older women. They were determined to eliminate old stereotypes — “little old ladies pouring tea” — and to promote the fact that the later period of their lives did not represent the end of their worth but rather an entrance to a new and productive stage of life.
OWN saw this particular generation of older Canadian women as unique because it was:
• The first generation of women of whom many worked outside the home.
• The first generation of women who have been active in the women’s movement and lived in a society that has been affected by it.
• The first generation of women with an increased life expectancy, well into their 80s.
OWN recognized that the aging of the “baby boom” generation would create a large and growing population of older women. (Women over 80 are now the fastest-growing segment of the population.)
It was decided that the time had come for a public campaign to determine if there was an interest in forming an organization representing this neglected population of older women.
In 1987, the publication of a Canadian Press story about a new organization focusing on older women’s particular issues produced an avalanche of hundreds of letters from coast to coast hailing the creation of the Older Women’s Network. These letters poured out the stories of women who believed themselves abused by Canadian laws and attitudes.
Four members of the founding group, Nina Herman, Elsie Ticoll, Kathleen Repka and Esther Jackson, constituted a planning committee to meet with the federal Status of Women Program and the Ontario Women’s Directorate to present a proposal for funding public forums. Now known as the Founders Group, the originals were joined by Rachel Tamari and Reta Duenisch-Turner.
Having secured government funding, the first in a series of three public forums was held in Toronto in October 1987. Entitled “Women in Limbo,” the forums addressed the special needs of women between the ages of 55 and 65 — an age group that were deemed too old to hire, but too young for pension benefits. The first forum attracted nearly 500 women at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It was followed in the winter and spring of 1988 by two more forums, on housing options and mandatory retirement.
Founding of the New Organization
In May 1988, the inaugural meeting of the Metropolitan Toronto and Area Council was held, later renamed the Older Women’s Network. Then and now, OWN conducts its internal affairs along feminist principles of consensual decision-making. It is also a traditional incorporated organization with a constitution, a Council, an official membership roster and an Annual General Meeting.
Over the years, the Older Women’s Network would:
• work for the expansion of opportunities for older women in the work force
• press governments for economic security for older women, many of whom were left penniless after divorce
• advocate for affordable housing
• support government initiatives to develop long term care and aging-at-home projects
• combat ageism and sexism in the media and in government programs
• continue the process of consciousness-raising through the study of feminist literature and its application to the lives of women
It is worthwhile to remember the thinking of the founding women, whose aim was to provide a voice for the first time for the needs of women 55 and over. From these modest beginnings a lively organization was born, to spread to other centres and to be a voice for the interests of mid-life and older women. OWN is now a widely recognized organization whose views are sought by those concerned with this growing segment of the population.
Revised by Janice Tait, January 2011