Thursday, 26 December 2013

Women’s rights advocate Rosalie Gower started at home


Rosalie Gower was perfectly suited to chair a CRTC panel on women in broadcasting, specifically one that focused on how women were stereotyped in traditional roles on radio and television. It was the early 1980s, and she had become adept at juggling two full lives, one inside and one outside the home. She was a registered nurse and was active in her community. She was the mother of four children. And she was the wife of an architect who flatly refused to help out on the domestic front.

Riding a wave of transformation that would dramatically alter how women saw themselves in the world – and how they were seen – she negotiated all her roles with great aplomb. Her wisdom about how things were at the time and her vision of what things could become allowed her to steadfastly push for change without alienating stakeholders, be they advertisers, the CBC, private broadcasters, reluctant men or strident feminists.
Ron Baker, a retired professor and university administrator who served on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications panel with her, remembers the time a woman dressed in black leather wheeled her motorcycle up the aisle in a Vancouver theatre where public hearings were being held, pointed a menacing finger at the stage and demanded to know why there were men on the panel. What could they possibly know about the stereotyping of women?
“Well,” the chairwoman reportedly said, “Professor Baker must know something about women. He had two grandmothers, a mother, two wives and four daughters.”
It was the kind of response that made her an effective change agent at the CRTC – direct, clear-sighted and a bit cheeky without being off-putting.
“Rosalie was very good,” Prof. Baker says. “She had strong opinions. But she always treated people respectfully and listened to them, whether she agreed or disagreed.”
Rosalie Alma Cheeseman was born in a Calgary hospital on Oct. 5, 1931, the second of two girls. Her father, George Cheeseman, had come to Canada from England at 15 to find adventure and explore the Rocky Mountains. He eventually became a doctor for the Canadian Pacific Railway in Field, B.C., where he met his future wife, Catherine (Bowman), who was working in the same building.
Rosalie showed an early independent streak, which was not always appreciated by her father, and which contributed to her being sent to private school at Queen Margaret’s in Duncan, B.C. There, she appreciated the horseback riding, tennis and swimming. She did not, however, relish the lack of dating opportunities, referring to her time at the Anglican-influenced school as an “incarceration.”
At 19, her boarding school sentence served, she began dating Terry Gower in Victoria, where he was training as an architect. After they were married in 1954, he left for a job in San Francisco, and she joined him after finishing a nursing certificate. The couple spent some time travelling, eventually settling down in Vernon, B.C., to start a family.
After son John was born in 1958 and daughter Andrea in 1960, Ms. Gower quit her job as a nurse to be a homemaker. The family was living in a house on “Suicide Hill” at the time, a name that was perhaps fitting, considering her appraisal of life as a stay-at-home wife and mother. In a family history, she recalled being “totally disgusted with life as a housewife.”
“If this is my life,” she remembered feeling, “it’s the pits.” After a year, she went back to work.
The couple had two more sons: Tony in 1962 and Terence in 1965. While Ms. Gower was determined to pursue a career, her husband was not so keen on the idea, expecting her to maintain full responsibility for the home. She worked nights as a nurse to be home during the day, hired a cleaning lady, and continued to do all the cooking and cleaning for the dinner parties the couple often held. She asserted her independence by keeping her money separate.
“She tried to do it all,” her son John remembers. “She really tried to hold up the household end of things and to live a full life.” While doing so, she made sure her sons would not expect the same of any future wives, teaching them to cook and sew and look after themselves.
“I was activated as a feminist back in the seventies,” her son says. “She was doing all this, but at the same time was part of that movement that said ‘this isn’t fair.’ It’s not fair that dad gets to go off and golf all weekend and there’s no slacking off for mom.”
When local politics came knocking, Ms. Gower quit her nursing job for a seat on city council. After she served for a year as alderman, the local MP recognized her talents and suggested her as a part-time CRTC commissioner. This propelled her further into the public realm and satisfied her desire to make a difference. She hired a housekeeper to pick up the slack at home and, afraid of flying, travelled by train to hearings throughout Canada. The train trips gave her time to digest the voluminous documents she needed to make informed decisions about the granting of cable and broadcasting licences, Canadian content and telecommunication services to remote regions.
In 1980, she was appointed to the commission full time, and she and her husband, now retired, moved to Ottawa.
It was there that she worked with John Meisel, former chairman of the CRTC and professor emeritus at Queen’s University, who has high praise for Ms. Gower’s contribution. “She was the absolute model of a good commissioner,” Dr. Meisel says. “She was extremely hardworking, really informed. And she cared for the citizen. She was not a corporate defender. She was a defender of the ordinary Canadian.”
She believed strongly in Canadian content and that local communities should be duly represented on local cable channels. And she believed that the public interest should take precedence over profits in telecommunications.
On the women in broadcasting panel, she pushed for gender-neutral terminology in the public sphere – police officer instead of policeman, and no more “little lady.” She was especially adamant in encouraging broadcasters to portray women in roles of competence and strength and to see that their programming fairly reflected the role of women in the work force.
“She cared very much for women’s rights,” Dr. Meisel said. “She was extremely vocal and gently persevering in defending the position of women. It infused everything she did. “And people responded because they recognized her integrity and her saneness.”
In Ottawa, Ms. Gower came into her own promoting a cause she believed in passionately. But her personal life was still fraught with tension. Mr. Gower, uncomfortable in the role of “husband of,” moved back to B.C. after a year and filed for a legal separation when she refused to join him.
“She knew it was the end [of the marriage],” her son John said. “And she was kind of getting her life to herself.”
Ms. Gower retired from the CRTC in 1992 and moved back to Vernon, continuing to live life with gusto. She drew up a list of goals, which included travel, organic gardening, giving back to the community and helping those less fortunate. Conquering her fear of flying, she visited China, Australia, Africa, Europe, Antarctica, Mexico and Argentina.
Eventually, she began spending long stints in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she was heavily involved in the church and fundraising for a home for the elderly in need. She also reconnected with community theatre, a lifelong passion. Another of her goals was rescuing stray animals.
“She didn’t need a lot of stuff to be happy or comfortable,” her son said. “She was focused on where she wanted to go or the work at hand.”
Even after moving back full-time to B.C. to be treated for breast cancer, she continued doing charity work as long as she was able. She told her family she wanted to live until she was completely “used up,” with no more to give.
Rosalie Gower died on Oct. 13 at the age of 82 after suffering a stoke. She leaves her four children and four grandchildren.

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