Rosemary Brown, MLA
) was born Rosemary Wedderburn on Portland Road
, in Kingston
on June 17, 1930
. She has been described as a dynamic social activist
, a writer
, a feminist
, a politician
, and a world-renowned humanitarian
Particularly, Rosemary Brown contributed to life in British Columbia, Canada in her involvement in social work, provincial and federal politics and political activism, as well as having held the Ruth Wynn Woodward endowed university professorship in women's studies at Simon Fraser University. Further, she has participated in many national and international conferences on peace, women's issues and human rights. Of particular interest is her role as an academic, her role as a politician, and the successes and difficulties she faced. Rosemary Brown's life and work show an excellent example of second-wave feminism in action in British Columbia.
August 10, 1950, Rosemary immigrated to Canada to study at Montréal's Royal Victoria College at McGill University, where she completed her four-year BA in 1955. That year, she married Bill Brown, and moved to settle in Vancouver.
On politics, 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." In 1997, Rosemary Brown addressed the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation stating 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."
Brown pushed at many barriers in her life. She was active in several organizations, including the British Columbia Council of Black Women and the National Black Coalition of Canada. Rosemary's efforts regarding women's rights earned her an opportunity to run as a candidate for the New Democratic Party in British Columbia.
She later went to the University of British Columbia where she completed the BSW (Social Work) in 1962 and the MSW in 1965. She had wanted to pursue a law degree, but was unable to meet the entrance requirements at UBC.
I was interested to learn that in addition to work with the Vancouver Children's Aid Society, she joined Simon Fraser University's counselling service, and developed a volunteer-driven counselling outreach program. Brown was also a founding member of the Vancouver Status of Women Council, and its first Ombudsperson, and a founding member of, and trainer of volunteers for, the Vancouver Crisis Centre.
Rosemary Brown was certainly not representative of many other women, but all the same managed to represent a great many of their collective interests. As she puts it in her definition of feminism, "recognizing that membership in the group 'female' affects the way society relates to us and the way we experience the world, and this is regardless of colour, age, sexual orientation, religion, place of birth, or any other factor. It is the recognition of this fact which makes us 'feminists.'"
There are many points of resistance within the life of Rosemary Brown. Allied with both the black power movement and with feminism, Brown felt pressures from each side. Indeed, Brown wrote in her memoirs, "Conservative women and women on the right continually told me that I didn’t speak for them ... however, I did work for them. I have never lost sight of the fact that I was the women’s candidate, that they nominated me, worked for me and elected me." Though she was unable to represent the specific political slant of all constituents, Brown seems to be making the point that women as a group are a set of political interests altogether their own.
It may come as a surprise to many feminists of the third-wave that Brown, being both a woman of colour born in a different country and a woman, did not acknowledge the multiplicity of points of resistance. In a 1973 speech, she is quoted as saying 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!" It is possible that due to her strong family life in Jamaica, her education, and her relative lack of experience with racism in her formative years, she did not confront the same issues within 'mainstream' black feminism of North America.
I would qualify Rosemary Brown as an ordinary woman who did outstanding things in an ordinary way. On August 30, 1972, Rosemary Brown was elected in the Vancouver-Burrard riding, along with Emery Barnes, to form the first social democratic government in BC. Brown and Barnes were the first black people to hold a position of public office in British Columbia since 1858, when a city councillor position was held by Mr. Mifflin Wistar Gibbs.
Rosemary Brown was, however, the first black woman elected to public office in Canada, in this case, in the BC Legislature, working with the NDP. Her platform was based on the ideologies of effective democracy, socialism, and feminism. She was reelected in each of the 1975, 1979, and 1983 elections, at which point, the riding of Vancouver-Burrard was divided up by the governing party in what is known as a gerrymander, and she no longer could run in the same community. I was surprised to learn that after she left Vancouver, she served as Member of Parliament for my own riding of Burnaby-Edmonds.
In 1974, she was guided toward candidacy for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party, and she maintained second place through each of the voting waves, until losing to Ed Broadbent in the final round. When she finished second to Ed Broadbent in the 1975 federal NDP leadership race, she was the first woman to seek the leadership of a political party.
In her lifetime, Rosemary Brown was awarded with a great many praises. She holds a Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Halifax, Nova Scotia's Mount St. Vincent University, and in 1973 was awarded both a Human Rights Fellowship by the United Nations, and the national Coalition of Canada award. In 1984, she was presented the Black Historical and Cultural Society of BC award. In 1987, she was awarded with the YWCA's Woman of Distinction for Humanitarian and Community Activities.
As a further honour, but also a great responsibility, she served as Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. In 1989, Brown became executive director of MATCH International Centre, work which promotes women's involvement in community-based projects in less-developed countries. In 1996, Rosemary Brown was named Officer of the Order of Canada, in addition to being in the Order of British Columbia, and named Officer of the Order of Jamaica. Lastly, she was a member of the Privy Council and headed Canada's Security Intelligence Review Committee.
Rosemary Brown wrote an autobiography in 1989, entitled Being Brown : a very public life.
She died at the age of 72, on April 26, 2003 of an apparent heart attack in Vancouver, British Columbia.
She had an older brother, Gus Wedderburn, and a younger sister. Rosemary Brown's children are named Gary, Cleta, and Jonathan.