Tori Sutton, Stratford Gazette
London’s first female mayor, Jane Bigelow, recalls the city clerk in the early 1970s voicing his opinion about the new fashion trend of women wearing pants in the workplace.
It was something he found inappropriate and pledged to have rules put in place to prevent such behaviour from occurring at city hall.
So what did Bigelow do?
“I never appreciated being told what to wear, so I went out and bought a pantsuit,” said Bigelow, during her presentation at the 14th annual Optimism Place Women of the Year Awards last Thursday evening at the Arden Park Hotel.
Bigelow was first elected in 1969. On election night, instead of asking about her interests or political goals, the media focused on what would happen to her children now she had a seat at the table.
It was at her very first meeting of the board of control she realized things would be different for her.
“I found out I was not referred to as Controller Bigelow, but Mrs. Bigelow,” she said. “I suspect it was their way of telling me that I didn’t really belong.”
But she persevered, and over the years pushed to humanize the city’s delivery of social services, worked alongside neighbourhood associations and established a network of bicycle paths in the city. She also led the city to its first AAA credit rating.
She was elected mayor in 1972.
Bigelow’s first big political victory came after a local institution requested to build a parking garage on public parkland.
Her colleagues were keen to have the decision made behind closed doors.
“I refused to have it discussed unless it was discussed in public,” she said.
And when citizens found out about the plan, they were horrified and an outcry began to ripple through the community.
“The institution had to find another piece of property for their parking garage,” she said.
Bigelow also takes pride in tackling sexual harassment at city hall, before the abuse even had a name.
When she heard of a manager asking his female staff for sexual favours in return for time off for appointments, she called him into his office and told him his behaviour had to stop, or else.
“I told him he would be fired if I heard any more complaints,” she said, noting she didn’t have the authority to make such a move, but it worked.
Bigelow also led the charge to have women hired by the police force.
She admits it was tough not being a member of the old boys’ club, and that she found it easier to accomplish her goals once more women were elected.
“I wanted a well-planned city where people, no matter their status – including gender – were treated with respect,” she said.
Bigelow was one of the women featured in Jean Hewitt’s book, Voices of Change, London Women of the Second Wave: 1960-1985.
Hewitt – who also spoke at Thursday’s event – noted feminism in that period had a huge impact on the country we live in today.
Women hit the streets in the ’60s to protest against nuclear weapons, but realized they still lacked true political power.
They demanded a Royal Commission Report, and its findings are what got many more women involvement in the movement, said Hewitt.
“You could not read that Royal Commission Report without getting angry because it documented everything happening in terms of discrimination against women and girls in our country,” she said.
Some of the biggest achievements of the second wave were the legalization of birth control in 1969, equal pay legislation and property rights for women.
Eliminating the quota systems from universities was another milestone.
But one issue that sticks out in her mind was the right to work while pregnant and maternity leave.
Hewitt was the first in her community to work until the day before her first son was born. That was 1972.
“We were forced to resign,” she said, of pregnant women. “It was regarded as some sort of disease, I think.”
Optimism Place handed out awards in eight categories at the ceremony.
The winners are:
Community Service: Chantale Pitts
Entrepreneur: Anne Campion, Revel Caff?
Arts & Culture: Maryann Cox, Factory163
Health & Wellness: Christine Embree
Sports & Recreation – Julia Wilkinson Award: Laura Vere
Women in Agriculture: Kim Dietrich
Women in Education: Sue Shipski
Advocate for Women/Anti-Violence: Janice Bantle