Interview of Billie (W. E.) Thurston
Billie Thurston came to St. Johns from the Maritimes in the late 1970s, bringing with her an undergraduate degree and a developing interest in feminism. She became a volunteer at the Womens Centre and within a short time was hired as its first paid coordinator. In 1981, the transition house (womens shelter) now known as Iris Kirby House was established, with Billie as its director. During her years in St. Johns, Billie completed a Masters Degree in Community Medicine with her thesis based on data from the early years of the operation of Kirby House. Billie later completed a PhD and joined the faculty of the University of Calgary, with a concentration on womens health and domestic violence policy in the health sector.
Interviewer: Im interested in finding out how you personally got involved in the womens movement.
Thurston: I took a Womens Studies course at Acadia University in the early 1970s, and it was the first Womens Studies course offered. So it was multidisciplinary. A lot of profs from different departments and faculties and cross-sections in the course, and it was just a huge eye opener. I mean, that was sort of the ground; and then when I graduated from university I went to work in social work and 1975 was International Womens Year and that was a real sort of eye opener. I was doing social work practice with child welfare and seeing all the problems and issues and how women were affected and talking about reproductive health issues and it just sprang from there.
Interviewer: And so what move did you make to get involved with the more formal organized womens movement then?
Thurston: At that point I think the closest thing, right after graduating, was going to conferences; but then, when I moved to New Brunswick, I got involved in womens groups that were involved with women in addictions, policy analysis, and also then got involved with the YW that was trying to set up a crisis centre in Moncton. That was sort of my entrée into formal womens movement and then learning that there were organizations and groups that were trying to improve the status of women in society and deal with specific issues at the same time.
Interviewer: So it sounds like it was a long learning process then.
Thurston: Well, I think along the way I learned different things. So in Womens Studies courses, I learned some of the facts and sort of the big picture of differences between men and women and some theory about that. And then in social work I learned how it affects everyday life. Then, in getting involved in organizations, I started to learn about how to do social change and make changes, and that really interested me more than trying to put band-aids on problems. Ive spent a lot of my time doing that too. (chuckles)
Interviewer: So from New Brunswick, when did you move to St. Johns?
Thurston: In 78, I believe.
Interviewer: When did you start working for the Womens Centre?
Thurston: Lets see, I was volunteering with them while I worked at Alcohol and Drug Addiction Foundation.
Interviewer: So that was before you left [ADAF].
Thurston: So I looked them up right away because I knew about womens centres in Moncton, and then I wanted to be connected with the Womens Centre and then I think I started working for them probably somewhere in 79 or 80.
Interviewer: And you were the coordinator.
Thurston: Right. Yeah.
Interviewer: And how long were you there for?
Thurston: Oh, Im sorry, I dont remember exactly probably one or two years because then we were working to set up the Transition House, and I applied for that job and became the director of the Transition House.
Interviewer: Oh, that mustve been interesting too. Well, if its okay Id like to talk about the womens centre first and then Id love to hear more about the Transition House too.
Interviewer: Can you tell me a little bit about what was going on and what sort of issues were going on at the time?
Thurston: Oh my, the Womens Centre worked with the sexual assault centre, and so they were providing some direct services to victims of sexual assault. Women would call about trying to escape abuse. They would call for information on abortion and where to get reproductive health care and separating, divorce information, legal information, how to access information and services. In terms of major issues that the womens centre board and volunteers were dealing with We worked on matrimonial property legislation, pension reform and, well, trying to get a womens shelter set up.
Interviewer: I think the Matrimonial Property Act was such an important one. Can you tell me a little bit about the work that went in behind that?
Thurston: Well, its really interesting, now that Im a professor, to look back at that period but, actually, volunteers pulled matrimonial property legislation from other places and studied it, examined our own context in Newfoundland, worked with Lynn
Thurston: Verge yes, exactly. I remember one meeting sitting down with her as a lawyer and talking about what the legislation should look like in Newfoundland; and then, of course, we worked both within the system as well as lobbying as a non-government organization and it was absolutely fully critical. Matrimonial Property Acts across the country have made womens lives slightly more reasonable, if possible.
Interviewer: Can you think of maybe any incidents or stories from before the legislation was passed that sort of illustrates how important it was?
Thurston: Oh, sure, there were lots of women who just ended up out of a marriage with nothing and no financial stability after they had worked beside their husband either in the fishery or, you know, running the home while he was in the fishery or working beside him in a business, and they would lose everything! They would have no everything would be in his name and shed leave with some personal effects and that just doesnt house you and, you know, plan for old age.
Interviewer: And do you think the public was really aware of what you were doing and was supporting you or was it something that you guys were sort of carrying on by yourselves?
Thurston: Well, I think we made the public aware and, you know, with anything that the Womens Centre did there were a group of people if the womens centre was doing it, they automatically didnt support it. (chuckles) But around that issue, you know, it became pretty clear after you did tell a few stories and after it was examined that that was just unjust and that things had to be changed. And, of course, as other places would change legislation, we could educate the public that this was happening in other places and so, yeah, I think they were aware.
Interviewer: And how hard of a fight was it on the political front? Were the politicians pretty supportive or did you really have to do hard lobbying for it?
Thurston: Politicians were supportive but we had to do hard lobbying. Yeah, we had to be really smart about it. Yeah, lobbying, you know, internally, and Lynn was a key person around that whole issue.
Interviewer: And so by the late 70s, the Womens Centre had been around for awhile. How do you think the community felt about the Womens Centre? Was it, generally, pretty supportive?
Thurston: Well, at that time one of the issues that divided the community was abortion. I mean, it still does in many respects but because we had two school boards or three school boards, the Roman Catholic Church would not support the Womens Centre and so even things like sexual assault counseling and that sort of thing information was considered suspect because the Womens Centre was painted as trying to break up families and forcing all women to have abortions, you know, in its crudest form. Im sure if you went back through media coverage in those days you probably would find some quotes like that, and so you cant say the whole community supported it, but there was a lot of support and particularly among professional women and women who had had experiences and gotten help, because there were a lot of women from all sectors and economic positions that were involved.
Interviewer: And how did you find the job there? I mean, thats certainly not your typical 9 to 5 office job.
Thurston: No, they arent. Well, I certainly learned a great deal practically every day. It was satisfying in the sense of being able to help people get what they needed to a certain extent. It was almost frustrating to see the inequities in policies and how men and women were treated. It was very frustrating and very painful to see things like domestic violence and sexual assault and child sexual abuse and things that were haunting even adults so yeah.
Interviewer: Mm. So can you tell me a bit about the fight to get the Transition House and setting it up?
Thurston: Yeah. Well, there was a committee and it worked very hard and, you know, there was support from some sectors and lack of support from others. You know, Why would we need that; its not a big problem. Whos going to use it? Again, the small group that would say, Well, that crowd theyre just trying to break up families.
Thurston: So we had a conference. We had a one-day conference and broke into small groups and had discussion and so forth and wrapped up the day with synthesizing what they had. The professionals we invited police and doctors and nurses and social workers and people from the community to talk about was this a problem, and how did they see it and how was it a problem and what was needed; and by the end of that day they all could see.
Well, there was consensus at the end of the day that, yes, it was a problem and that women, for instance, were being kept overnight in the childrens hospital because they would come there for protection. Theyd bring their kids because it was one place they sort of felt they would be safe, and the nurses would, in fact, give them a bed to stay in to keep them safe and, you know, there were stories like that through the day and people came to sort of a consensus well, yes, this was a problem and, you know, maybe it wasnt a huge problem but it warrants some attention and, as a result of that and the media coverage of the conference, a woman that owned the house on Garrison Hill she called up the Womens Centre and said, If you set up a womens shelter, Ill donate my house.
Interviewer: Thats pretty amazing.
Thurston: That was amazing, and it took off from there. You know, it sounds easy but
Interviewer: Well, not really, because
Thurston: The government funded. We had to raise the money to renovate it. You know, we had to rapidly learn all the policies and what kind of staffing we would need and, etc., etc., etc., and, of course, we had women wanting to get in before the lock was on the door so
Interviewer: Well, I mean, actually, it does sound like hard work because you had to start right at the beginning just to prove that theres a problem before you can start on the fundraising.
Thurston: Yeah. Yeah.
Interviewer: So you said you took a position with them. What was your role with them?
Thurston: I became the director.
Interviewer: And can you talk about maybe the first year or so what it was like?
Thurston: Ooh, the first year was creating new policies and training staff and problem solving all of the problems of a new organization and a new service and building relationships with the existing services and trying to and, at the same time, doing education work and at the same time taking all these women, many of whom were in really extreme crisis. Yeah.
Interviewer: Were you pretty well always full?
Interviewer: Thats amazing.
Thurston: Yeah. Yeah.
Interviewer: And how long were you there for?
Thurston: About five years.
Interviewer: And what did you do after that?
Thurston: I moved to Calgary and came into the doctoral program here to do my PhD.
Interviewer: And what did you do it in?
Thurston: I did it in Community Health Sciences. I did my Masters at MUN in Community Medicine, and my thesis was on the three years of data from the Transition House.
Interviewer: Oh, thats great!
Thurston: And then I moved here into the doctoral program and continued on in health research and health promotion, and now I specialize in womens health and domestic violence policy in the health sector.
Interviewer: So its still very much part of your life then.
Thurston: Absolutely, and Im beginning to question whether I should still be doing it. (chuckles)
Interviewer: Its hard to something that intense for a long period of time.
Thurston: Exactly! Its not an easy topic to be working on all the time. I mean, wonderful people in the field, great colleagues, great service workers, dedicated, you know, and still wonderful stories of helping women transition into a more peaceful life but, yeah, its tough.
Interviewer: You didnt make it back for the Transition Houses anniversary, did you?
Thurston: No, I didnt.
Interviewer: That was a really nice event and they got a lot of support.
Thurston: Oh, great, yeah.
Interviewer: Well, can I ask you, just sort of looking back, is there something that youre most proud of having worked on?
Thurston: I would say the Transition House. That was a key point in my life. The other big project that happened from the womens centre was the Womens Health Education Project and with that project we went around Newfoundland and met with women and asked them what womens health problems were in their communities and what they thought should be done. It was the beginning of a real understanding of what the Public Health Agency of Canada now calls the determinants of health. Because women would say safe drinking water in our community is the main problem or something for our youth to do, to look after them is the main womens health problem. When that started to happen, I remember a board meeting where we were like, oh, well, thats not womens health. Whats happening? Are we doing something wrong? And then we all went, well, no, but wait a minute; the whole purpose of this was to hear from womens perspective what the priorities were and they were telling us this. Thats whats affecting their health. Of course, now we have the social determinants of health. It shouldnt be a surprise to anybody that economics and access and all of these things are the key determinants of health.
Interviewer: So what did you do with all the data that you gathered?
Thurston: It should be somewhere at the womens centre or archived somewhere probably. We did a lot of, you know, writing and reports and feedback back to the community. There was a fabulous little theatre group that evolved in one place.
Interviewer: Oh my.
Thurston: Yeah, and we had a provincial conference in Corner Brook. I think probably similar things were happening in other parts of the country but it was cutting edge at the time, now that I look back.
Interviewer: And one thing we like, since a lot of the young people will be looking at the website, is to get a sense of what it was like to be a young woman in the 70s and 80s. Do you have anything that you can add to that, especially in relation to how its different from today?
Thurston: Whew! Well, I have no idea what its like to be a young person today. (chuckles) I know what its like to be an older woman today!
Interviewer: What are the major things that you think have changed for women?
Thurston: What has changed? A lot of things have changed. The proportion of women in medical schools and in professions and law schools, not so much in engineering, although the proportion has changed - certainly not as much as in the other professions. Matrimonial Property Laws and pension reforms and security -- those have changed. I would say expectations. I think that young women today have more of an expectation of equality than we did back then. We sort of expected to be struggling in a profession that it would be tough to make it to the top. We also sort of expected, you know, to have families and just to do sort of not the traditional womens roles. Now I think young women expect to be able to have it all which a friend of mine says she tells her daughter, You can have it all, but just not all at once.
Interviewer: Thats a good way to put it.
Thurston: Because I think many of us in middle age have figured that out that we worked so hard to have it all, but were quite tired (chuckles) you know, to have families and friends and careers and do social change and yeah.
Interviewer: What do you think still needs to be done in the womens movement?
Thurston: In the womens movement well, I think we need to do some more problem analysis. For instance, around the area of domestic violence and violence prevention, weve done so much and yet theres still so many cases and so we need to figure out something new. As a researcher, well, Im interested in making sure that our theories connect and our understanding connects so that we can come up with effective solutions. In part, that has to be again, you know, its the personal is political. We have to include womens experiences in that, not just book work. Yeah, we need some new thinking, new models not entirely new. We dont want to throw out the baby with the bath water, to use an old saying, but that problem has not been fixed.
Thurston: Balance of family and career we havent fixed that one either; and part of what we need to do is engage men in the professions in wanting to be in families.
Interviewer: Thats a big order.
Thurston: Yeah. So, oh gee, poverty reform is still a womens issue, even though people like to talk about poor children in the last few years. It amazes me that they tried to talk about poor children without recognizing that theyre attached to poor women.
Thurston: Mm. I guess those are big enough. (chuckles)
Interviewer: And is there anything about your times in the 70s and 80s in St. Johns with the womens movement that youd like to talk about that I havent asked you about?
Thurston: I dont want to idealize it. I dont want anybody to think that its totally a big, warm, fuzzy womens movement. There are differences and there are conflicts and there are strong differences of opinion and different personalities and different ways of doing things. Sometimes, you know, one way of doing things wins out over another, and its all about power and I dont think it can be eradicated with talking circles or necessarily with different organizational structures. We all have to be aware that differences exist. Thats part of working together. So there will be hard times but, in the long run, its way better than trying to make it through the world alone.
Interviewer: Well, thats great. Thank you very much.