Canada and the world lost a great voice for the rights of women and people of colour when Rosemary Brown died last weekend at the age of 72.
When she was first elected as a British Columbia MLA in 1972, Brown was the first Black woman to sit in a legislature anywhere in Canada. She was the first woman of any skin colour to seek the leadership of a political party when she finished second to Ed Broadbent in the 1975 federal NDP leadership race. Rosemary Brown’s contributions went so far beyond simply being first. She was an amazing individual who made any community or organization a better place just by being in it.
Dawn Black, a former NDP Member of Parliament told the CBC that Brown influenced all women who entered politics after her. Black said that “I think all women in B.C. have many thanks to give to Rosemary for starting the path to more fairness for women in British Columbia.” Just three days before Brown’s death, Alexa McDonough told a conference on women in politics that it was Brown who convinced her to get into politics. Brown told her to “just watch the men and then tell me if you can’t do a better job.”
Brown argued that: “Women should enter politics to bring about change. It’s a tough arena and an unpleasant one, the sacrifices called for can be only justified on the grounds that we are indeed making the world, or our community, a better place than it is.”
Ironically, an otherwise sympathetic Canadian Press obituary perpetuated an old sexist stereotype about female politicians. “Despite having three children to look after, she ran for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party in 1975.” Can you imagine anyone writing that about Brian Mulroney? Apparently male politicians don’t have children — or, perhaps, they’re not responsible for them.
Brown once said that: “the change in the conditions and situation of Canadian women over the last thirty years has been so rapid and so profound, one scarcely knows where to begin — if Nellie McClung and Agnes McPhail could see us now, they’d shake their heads and remind us that they never had it so good. Of course this is not enough, because full equality is our goal.”
In a 1997 address to the B.C. Teacher’s Federation, Brown identified that “What feminists do every day of our lives is to push at the boundaries, to challenge the absolutes ... and to try to create economies that can survive and prosper in the context of full equality.” She concluded her remarks with “the five truths” about the feminist struggle that are pertinent to any struggle for justice:
- Constant vigilance: It is unwise to believe that a right won is a right secured. For example, the right to choose on abortion is one that has been re-fought and re-won on many occasions
- Unfaltering commitment: As our daughters and granddaughters join in the race, we must run beside them so they know the roots of our struggle.
- Courage: Because the backlash is brutal and unrelenting it takes courage and a certain degree of recklessness to be a feminist.
- Vision: Feminists must not allow their vision to be limited by their own needs and experiences. The liberation of the women of one nation cannot be won through the devaluation of other women.
- Analysis: Knowledge, critical thinking and rigorous scrutiny are essential for success in the liberation struggle
Realizing that full equality for women could not be achieved in isolation, Brown worked on global issues of economic justice and human rights. After leaving politics, she became the head of the MATCH International Centre — a group promoting women-centred development. She commented that “My heart is with international development now, trying to work with women’s groups trying to make changes where they are& No matter how much progress Canadian women make towards equality, if you are surrounded by other countries where women have not achieved the same, then your achievements are at risk.”
Rosemary Brown argued that “unless the women’s liberation movement identifies with and locks into the liberation movements of all oppressed groups, it will never achieve its goals.” In a 1973 speech, she indicated that “To be black and female in a society which is both racist and sexist is to be in the unique position of having nowhere to go but up!”
Brown certainly “went up” in her life. She was a recipient of both the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia, but, unlike so many successful people from oppressed groups, she never forgot that there were others who were not so fortunate. She argued that: “Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it.”
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