The Library’s Women’s Archives: making women’s stories visible

Archives and Special Collections
Group of women, men and children carrying a "Universal Free Day Care" banner.
Photograph by Nancy Adamson. CWMA collection
The Women’s Archives, at uOttawa Library Archives and Special Collections, is a collection of personal papers, buttons, flyers, and other materials representing the second-wave feminist movements that began in the 1960s. It brings together records from over 200+ grassroots organizations and individuals who worked to improve the political, social, and economic conditions of Canadian women. 

Thanks to support from generous donors, the University of Ottawa Library has hired a storyteller to offer a glimpse into the stories hidden within. Michelle Lalonde, a uOttawa alumna and Montreal Gazette journalist, was delighted to take on the role.   

“This history hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves,” says Lalonde. Lalonde has written three stories, including one on the grassroots nature of the Women’s Movement. She spent a lot of time reading and consulting the database, which she says is accessible and well-designed.

“What struck me the most is that we have these ideas about feminism in the last century […] We think of prominent white middle-class women, but the movement was so much more diverse than that. And there were so many struggles within the struggle, women who were trying to focus on intersectional issues.”  

Giving women a voice 

While writing her stories, Lalonde spoke to several women who devoted their lives to the feminist cause. “They were all working on so many fronts, towards progress. It’s so impressive […] What also struck me was the incredible networking abilities of these women. In an age where there wasn’t the networking technology that we have now […] To see the work and labour involved, they were writing letters and putting up pamphlets, organizing marches, all those labour-intensive ways to bring people together. They were so connected! These women really knew how to create networks and to make them work together towards change. It’s so inspiring!”   

Working on her second story, about women in non-traditional career paths, Lalonde had the opportunity to speak with Monique Frize, the first woman to graduate with an engineering degree from the University of Ottawa. Frize shared a lot of wisdom that is applicable to young women now. “It’s so important to hear what these women, who were pioneers, have to say. Although the context is different, there are still obstacles for women in science and tech.”  

Lalonde’s third story is about changing views on motherhood, from the availability of the birth control pill in the late ‘60s to women’s demands for legal access to abortion, state-funded childcare, equal pay, financial compensation for “motherwork” and other rights that would put them on a more equal footing with men.  

Talia Chung, University Librarian and Vice-Provost (Knowledge Systems) said that Lalonde’s stories evoke an inter-generational dialogue. “They weave together narratives of the movement from the past to the present day.”  

Fostering collaboration through a new portal 

In 2019, uOttawa Library received an anonymous gift of $1 million. In addition to Lalonde’s storytelling services, this important donation allowed for the hiring of an archivist and a digital archivist to process materials related to the collection, develop digital preservation workflows, and extend the outreach of the Women’s Archives collection.  

With this donation, the Library also  launched  the Canadian Women's Movements Portal, a bilingual pan-Canadian inventory of archival materials available in heritage institutions across the country.  

Hosted by the Library, the Portal will help researchers locate archival collections that document the trajectory of feminist activism in Canada, since 1960.   

This new tool aims to make it easier to access archival materials, to showcase documentary heritage, and to strengthen collaboration from coast to coast. 

Find out more about this remarkable Women’s Archives initiative!