Interview of Leslie MacLeod
Leslie was born in 1954, in Vancouver, British Columbia. She relocated to St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1982. At that time, she became involved in the disability advocacy movement. In 1984, Leslie moved to Stephenville, where she was a Community Studies Instructor/Coordinator at the local community college. She also became quite involved in the local women’s community and was a member of the new Bay St. George Status of Women’s Council. Leslie has been involved in a wide variety of community-based equality seeking organizations, including the Independent Living Resource Centre, local and national Disabled Women’s Network, Canadian Mental Health Association-NL Division, Court Challenges Program of Canada, and Women In Successful Employment. In March of 2006, Leslie was appointed to the position of President of the Provincial Advisory Council of the Status of Women. Her three-year appointment ends in March 2009.
Leslie: In the seventies I was still living in Vancouver, I moved to Newfoundland in 1982. In the seventies I was involved in a woman’s liberation movement and I very clearly called myself a woman’s libber. I was proud of that. On campus back then , there were pockets of us having conversations and consciousness raising discussions around issues. We talked about how we were affected by them.
During the seventies I made a point of talking with other women about sexual assault and sexual abuse.
My grandfather had sexually abused me when I was young and then was harassed throughout my teens. I also had a couple of other experiences like being held at knife point one night by a fella on drugs who was a friend of my brother’s. I had the sneaky feeling that more women were affected by abuse and harassment than we were hearing.
So I started bringing up sexual abuse. In my own informal conversations with women at least one in four of us had been abused. In fact, depending on the group it could be higher than that. But certainly across the board it seems that at least one in four of us reported then and there has proven to be more of us since then. So a lot of kitchen table-coffee chat took place around those issues. I think we were finding each other and learning from each other. We were becoming more empowered as women having experienced abuse.
My experience sharing with women who were abused was outside of any main Women’s Movement. It was part of the work going on by a lot of the women across the country that was feeding into the Movement itself. We were dealing with this stuff in a very real way in our own lives.
Another thing that I was involved with was the pro-choice movement, which was big. We were pushing for the greater legalization of abortion. In my teens and very early twenties abortion was legal at a hospital if you went before a panel of doctors and proved that you were mentally falling apart or your life was in jeopardy. I took a friend who needed to go and have an abortion. I was with her through that whole process including the hospital; she was treated very badly by the staff because she came in for an abortion even though it was legal and she had gone through ropes.
So again, personal experience played a big role. I supported my closest friend through horrible circumstances during which she had to make the right decision for herself. It was really tough to go through that because of the system at the time.
At the same time with the formal activities of the Women’s Center and the emerging Movement there was a big lobbying effort to repeal the law and to broaden abortion itself. I went to some of the demonstrations and rallies. One I remember, I can’t give you the date but it was in the seventies, had thousands of us turn out. There were way more than the organizers thought would be there and we overflowed into other rooms. It was very powerful and the message was very clear that women needed safe access to legalized abortion. There were draconian measures in place for women. Some demonstrations and rallies were organized against these measures but on the street there was letter writing and lobbying.
Also, in BC, a women’s health center was being created and we supported that. There were discussions and support work. The free standing health clinic provided better service to women. That was quite successful.
I also participated in projects that were being organized around women getting together and doing the work of the status of women, although they didn’t call it that. We were looking at women’s realities and talking about them. There were various levels of things happening in those discussions.
So those were my biggest pieces of involvement in the seventies.
After a gap where I traveled for a while, I moved to St. John’s in 1982 and got involved with the disability movement. Through that I gradually became involved with other women with disabilities who were involved in the disability movement.
In 1984, I moved to Stephenville and within a year I became involved with the early stages of the Bay St. George Status of Women Council. I became a president for a period of time but I don’t remember dates. I helped to get that up and running and helped move that forward in Stephenville.
While I was working with the disability piece I was one of the COD provincial reps. At that time, COD stood for Consumer Organization of Persons with Disabilities. It is now the Coalition of Persons with Disabilities. With COD I was the rep for the provincial board.
It was about 1985, where a bunch of us women went to the COPOH AGM and national meeting. COPOH stood for the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped. It is now called the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.
Anyway, there had been a struggle before I got there. Some of the women were not able to get women’s issues on the agenda. This mainstream disability movement was run mostly by men who set the agenda and did not take women’s issues very seriously. So at this national meeting, I think it was the second time, I joined a kind of breakaway group of women.
We decided to hold our own meeting in the midst of the larger meeting to talk about the fact that the leadership was male dominated and that women’s concerns and issues weren’t being put forward. They were straining at us to come back to the regular session and we demanded the right to have our own meeting room. We said we wanted our lunch sent to us and stuck to what we wanted. We did a lot of talking about what was needed.
There were some changes called forward as a result of that but what really emerged from it within a couple of years was a new organization called DAWN Canada, the Disabled Women’s Network of Canada. It came from the struggle of women within the one big national umbrella organization to have women’s issues there.
I became a member of DAWN Canada and I kept track of what was going on. By the early nineties I was on the board. But I got there through being involved through the eighties.
It was a real battle at the time because we really looked at the structures within that organization being as destructive to women. It was like other mainstream organizations where women were banging on the doors trying to get in to just about everything.
In the seventies and eighties women with disabilities were struggling to be seen as people instead of handicapped people. Consciousness raising in that movement for a feminist was first to identify as a person. That was a really positive step to take.
Along the way women realized that we were still being seen as a disability first but it was kind of weird. Now we could be people but couldn’t be women, with everything that encompasses being a woman. So the next wave for women with disabilities was to claim that we were women. Many of the women who had grown up with disabilities had been treated as non-sexual and were never expected to have children or have relationships of any sort. From winning the victory to be seen as people we began to see that women with disabilities were being seen as gender-less. The next push was to be seen as women who happened to have disabilities.
There was a lot of research going on in the eighties. In St. John’s, a group called Women for Change was doing good work on violence and abuse against women and on access of women with disabilities women to women’s programs and transition houses. DAWN Canada did a big research study which showed that most of the transition houses in the country were inaccessible to women who had mobility impairments, were deaf, or required additional support of one sort or another. This was supported by a bunch of us across the country.
Also in the eighties, I was a grassroots supporter for the inclusion of the protection against discrimination based on gender and on disability in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I acted more as a letter writer and as one of the folks answering the calls to have a political push put on. That was a really big powerful thing in the eighties. Some of the folks who were involved with that are still doing really good work, I think nationally and internationally.
Interviewer: I have a bunch of questions, although you have answered a lot of them already. This question is more disability related with regard to women but with the focus on your feminist perspective. What did you do to encourage leadership in women with disabilities?
Leslie: Actually I did do a fair amount when I got involved with COD here in St. John’s before I even moved out to Stephenville. I supported other women who were involved with COD and tried to encourage women to join the organization; to have a say and be part of the voting membership; to think about roles they could have in going on the executive; to take on a provincial rep position. I supported the women who were doing the bigger rabble rousing at the time who wanted a broader view to include men, women and children with disabilities.
Interviewer: How’s your work improved the lives of women? The work you did in the past?
Leslie: I think the kitchen table conversations have always had a positive effect on us. We provide real understanding and support to each other in a one-to-one or small group basis. That part has always been core. It’s where I got my support. My politicization was developed sitting at one-on-one or with three or four women in safe places. We really encouraged each other to talk and take power in our own lives. So I think that I did that in the seventies. That is the quiet grassroots work.
Again, I have always supported and encouraged other women to take on leadership roles and helped them to learn some of the leadership skills needed at the board table or to facilitate a group. This was through informal mentoring and supporting of each other.
Interviewer: How did you empower other women to help them find their voice?
Leslie: It’s basically what I talked about. It’s learning to talk with each other and then moving that on.
Interviewer: What motivated you to step outside of the traditional role of a woman in the seventies and eighties?
Leslie: Well, I have an interesting story about that. When I was thirteen my mom left home so it was my father and two brothers and myself. Overnight I became the person in the family who had most of the responsibility for cooking meals, cleaning the house, washing the clothes and keeping schedules on track. We divided things up but I had a fourteen year old brother and a nine year old brother and my dad worked nights. My dad actually took on a lot of it but I washed the clothes every Saturday and he ironed them on Sundays. I washed the floors and he stripped the wax. I cooked most of the meals. Together we grocery shopped and figured out how to run a household together. So I was doing that from the time I was thirteen until I was twenty. At twenty I moved out on my own.
I never believed the stereotypical role of a woman in the fifties and the sixties was at all sensible. I just thought that everybody should learn to cook, clean and run a house. Everyone should be involved. I also believed strongly that we all had the right to go to university or trade school or to go to work.
There was a battle going on in the homes when I was growing up between men and women. The battle of the sexes was the argument everywhere and it certainly was in my house. My mom had wanted to work outside the home and my dad had the stereotypical belief that the guy had to be the breadwinner and look after his family. He thought that it was a mark against him if his wife went to work and it meant he wasn’t doing his job. It was one of the reasons that they split up.
So my whole view, from the time I was a kid, was that there was something wrong with all of this. As much as there was this stereotype out there that everyone was seeing on TV and supposed to live up to, that wasn’t really the reality in many homes. There were a few stereotypical families but I saw a lot of trouble going on. Folks were trying to figure out another way for everybody to be together. I did carry out some of the roles but I never bought the stereotype.
Interviewer: So that’s what motivated you?
Leslie: Definitely. It was the absolute experience in my own house and my own life. Being a kid at fourteen wanting to go to the championships and swim but having to come and prepare the meal and being told this was my job and I could relax later just didn’t seem right. I thought everybody should be pitching in to do that. My father was a very kind and thoughtful man; he grew exponentially himself and was a great feminist supporter. He listened and learned a lot but in the fifties and sixties he was the typical stereotype.
Interviewer: You have partially answered this as well but do you remember when you first became aware of the inequalities around you? You mentioned your family.
Leslie: Yes. I was really young. It predated being a thirteen year old having to take on a role. As young as I can remember there seemed to be lots of inequalities going on in life. I thought I was listening to lies when people were talking about how things were but that’s not how they were, you know.
My grandparents were living together and people thought it was great. Secretly my grandfather was an alcoholic and was beating her up all the time. And it was this hidden secret. It just seemed as if the women, without a doubt, were bearing a lot of stuff that shouldn’t have been. And the fellas were going on and doing things they shouldn’t be doing. It wasn’t real equality.
Interviewer: Can you think of a particular issue or activity involved with your work for equality, probably disability related, that you were part of that stands out to you in importance?
Leslie: I think it is being part of one of those meetings of the women involved with COPOH. Being able to be very much a part of that time, when we said: No we’re not going to follow the male agenda. We’re all here for two and a half days so there’s got to be a place for women. I didn’t go on to join the executive or be an organizer at that time, but I was part of the discussions. Again, all of these movements happened because there were two hundred women who think one way and five who put it into action.
It was typical for me and important because it brought together both my disability advocacy and my women’s equality work. It was really grounded. It wasn’t two separate pieces of work. It was all one thing so I think that was really important.
Interviewer: What role did your involvement in equality issues play in your life, with your identity?
Leslie: Well, the personal is political and you can make a political personal. Personal experiences formed all of my political work. It was rooted in my life and the life of others that I knew.
Interviewer: How did others react to your involvement?
Leslie: Oh, some people were very supportive of it. Some people, men in particular, really liked to push my buttons and gave the knee-jerk response that what I was doing was just politically correct and that I didn’t know what I was talking about. So they tried everything from jokes to deliberate attempts to put me off the rails and stop me from doing the work by putting down both me and the work.
Interviewer: No violence?
Leslie: No, I was never threatened with violence. The violence in my life happened before I became an activist. From that point I was never victimized again. It was a really good lesson too. That is, my times of being victimized were when I wasn’t in power and didn’t have a strong sense of myself. But as a woman, once I gathered those things, I became strong. Not to say that I was stronger or better than anybody. This was just my personal experience.
Interviewer: What were the hardest obstacles you had to overcome?
Leslie: I don’t know. I found it all interesting and inspiring. Do you mean obstacles in my own life or obstacles at work?
Leslie: Obstacles as a woman are all about those things: the stereotypical images and the violence that was around me and directed at me. Those were tough things to move forward from but ultimately it wasn’t that difficult to do once I decided to do it.
As an activist the obstacles were the ones we always face which is not having enough money to get together with folks to do all the work. In hindsight, we had the luxury of doing this work when we were resourced, both the Women’s Movement and the BC Women’s Movement, to have annual conferences, to have meetings, to get together for some of the work when there was more money flowing to grassroots organizations than there is now.
Interviewer: What would you say is your greatest victory?
Leslie: I don’t own any victories myself so I can’t answer that. I can say some of the things that I was proud to be involved with: the Charter; legalized abortion; standing up to something that was real to women; being involved with DAWN Canada and supporting it ultimately for a number of years.
Interviewer: What’s your fondest memory from the seventies and eighties?
Leslie: It is that women with disabilities demanded their own ground. They didn’t back down as organizers were telling us we couldn’t do it.
I have always enjoyed getting to know other women and sharing ideas. That is the kitchen-table work most of the time. It is being connected, caring and trying to turn into things the feelings and thoughts I was having.
Interviewer: What one message or fact about what occurred in the Women’s Movement in the seventies or eighties would you like young people to know today?
Leslie: How hard it was for women with disabilities to grow up identifying themselves as girls and then as women. It was a really hard thing for girls growing up with a disability who had to deal with the medical system and segregated schools. Their reality was they were never treated as girls. They were objectified according to the disability; and how hard that was. And how much personal and political work they had to do when they grew up in order to identify themselves as women.
Interviewer: Right. I’ve heard about some abuses that have happened with people with disabilities... women being marginalized.
Leslie: Yes. The girls growing up with disabilities were genderless; it was all about their handicap at that time, but they were also extremely vulnerable. It is about society not valuing people with disabilities, not seeing them as equal and not seeing them as men and women.