By Tom HawthornSpecial to The Globe and Mail September 30, 2015
In her journey from secretary to front-line activist, Frances Wasserlein battled a premier, helped change a law and confronted discrimination against gays and lesbians.
She also sought to protect, shelter and aid women and their children seeking relief from violence on the street and in the family home.
For four decades, Ms. Wasserlein, who died at 69, was an activist of note on the West Coast and a prominent figure in feminist groups. She was one of 18 women to co-found a group providing assistance to women who had been raped. They also successfully lobbied to add domestic sexual assault to the Criminal Code.
In certain circles, she was one of those people you bumped into wherever you went in Vancouver.
Go to the annual folk music festival at Jericho Beach and she’d be volunteering in some role. (Eventually, she became executive producer.) Buy a ticket for the Vancouver International Writers Festival, and she’d be managing the box office. Attend a play, or a concert, or some other shindig at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, and she’d be in the foyer, because she handled the centre’s bookkeeping, as she did for many other arts organizations.
While both arts and political activist groups can be known for petty grudges and internecine warfare, Ms. Wasserlein navigated rough waters by relying on her warmth and good humour. While she could be intense in debate or while making a speech, she more often could be spotted flashing a gap-toothed smile.
Frances Jane Wasserlein was born in San Francisco on July 31, 1946, to Helen Therese (née Maier) and Robert Lohrs Wasserlein. She moved to Vancouver with her family at age 14. She graduated from Little Flower Academy, a private Roman Catholic girls’ day school.
She was working as a secretary at the University of British Columbia when her work with the union, as well as a summer job with Vancouver Rape Relief, guided her toward an interest in social justice. By then, her second marriage had ended and she declared herself to be a “women’s liberationist.”
She enrolled as a full-time student at the university, completing a history degree with honours in three years. While an undergraduate, she worked with the Women’s Office on campus, learning about the important role women had played in establishing the university and in continuing to fight for equitable treatment.
Ms. Wasserlein worked as co-manager of the YWCA’s Munroe House, a temporary residence for women who were victims of violence. She did research and writing for the Women’s Research Centre, a non-profit society that did advocacy on behalf of women. She topped up her income by bookkeeping for a wide variety of groups, which made her a familiar figure in arts, publishing and feminist circles.
In 1978, Anita Bryant, a pop singer and orange-juice pitchperson who became a crusader against gay rights, was reported to be coming to British Columbia to speak. Opponents quickly formed a group called Coalition Against Discrimination, for which Ms. Wasserlein was an indefatigable mobilizer. “You organized by telephone,” she once told the publication Xtra. “You put leaflets out in bars and places where people went. You told your friends, people you knew. You set a date and hoped that people showed.” Ms. Bryant, citing exhaustion, limited her speaking tour and not did address a Vancouver audience.
Four years later, Ms. Wasserlein was a co-founder of Women Against Violence Against Women, a rape crisis centre. She also continuously worked in supporting women seeking to escape being beaten in their homes by their male partners.
Several years of organizing seemed to culminate in the widespread protests of 1983, when a re-elected Social Credit government proposed a harsh budget targeting many of the groups – unionized workers, community groups, gays and lesbians, as well as feminists – it considered to be enemies. Playing a strong hand gave rise to a mass movement in opposition which, inspired by the insurrection of Polish workers, took the name Solidarity. Ms. Wasserlein led a coalition called Women Against the Budget. In July, 1983, she addressed a march of 20,000 protesters, which had earlier stretched five kilometres along the streets of downtown Vancouver.
“We will not be silenced,” she told the crowd. “We will defeat this legislation and we will defeat this government.”
In the end, she would be right only about the first assertion. Trade union leader Jack Munro negotiated an agreement with Premier Bill Bennett as the province teetered toward a general strike, a move seen as an abject sell out by many of the community groups that had been involved in the protests.
Ms. Wasserlein soon after returned to her studies, completing a master’s degree at Simon Fraser University. Her thesis was an important history of the 1970 Abortion Caravan, a cross-Canada trek from Vancouver to Ottawa to demand the procedure be legalized. After gaining her degree, she taught women’s and lesbian studies at the university and at Langara College.
She ran for a seat on Vancouver city council in three elections, twice for the left-wing Coalition of Progressive Electors and once as an independent, finishing well down the at-large ballot each time. She also served for six years on the board of the advisory group that came to be known as the B.C. Arts Council.
In 2003, just eight days after same-sex marriage became legal in British Columbia, she married Marguerite Kotwitz, an American potter, in a ceremony in a grove on the site of the folk music festival. They had met on the Internet. “It was love at first sight,” Ms. Wasserlein told the Globe’s Rod Mickleburgh, “or maybe love at first site.”
The midlife marriage surprised Ms. Wasserlein. “In 1975, I left my second husband and I said, then and many times thereafter, I will not get married again, not even for the revolution,” she told Xtra.
The couple moved to Halfmoon Bay, on the province’s Sunshine Coast, where they operated a bed and breakfast called Honeysuckle Rose Cottage. Ms. Wasserlein served on the local arts council and as a library trustee.
She suffered a medical incident three years ago, which was eventually diagnosed as posterior cortical atrophy, a form of dementia. Ms. Wasserlein died at home on Aug. 23. She leaves Ms. Kotwitz and two sisters. The announcement of her death led to an outpouring of grief on her Facebook page with many praising her as a teacher and mentor.
Tom Hawthorn is a freelance newspaper and magazine writer who lives in Victoria, B.C. He writes a twice-weekly column for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.
He is finishing a book about the war experiences of the McGill University football team. It is titled, "A Greater Share of Honour."