OWHN/RHFO: Networking for the Inclusion of Women’s History in Ontario
In the late 1980s, the Ontario Women’s History Network/Le Reseau d’historire des Femmes en Ontario (OWHN/RHFO) was established in response to the absence of women’s historical experiences at all levels of education. Created by historian Alison Prentice and members of the Women's History Project at OISE, University of Toronto, the network's first meeting took place in 1989 and brought together a group of feminist scholars, archivists, librarians, and teachers who were challenging the ways in which women had been either ignored or marginalized in history courses in Ontario. Since then, OWHN/RHFO has helped to develop and promote women’s historical materials, and to build networks between teachers, students, scholars, and communities through the joint publication of resources and twice-yearly conferences.
Over the last 30 years, OWHN/RHFO conferences have provided a venue for educators from across Ontario to make contacts, develop projects, share resources, access classroom materials, and stimulate new scholarship in the field of women’s studies and women’s history. Independent scholars, university researchers, teachers, graduate students and community members were all welcome. The founding conference in 1990, entitled Bridging the Gap: Women’s History in the Classroom, set the standard for future conferences to feature academic scholars, high school teachers and dramatic re-enactors, among others, and to focus on a different theme each year. For many years, the spring conference and annual general meeting took place in Toronto, with the fall conference being held in another Ontario city. Resource materials generated at the conferences included copies of papers and speeches; course syllabi, resource handouts, annotated bibliographies, books, biographies, and a wide range of images, provided by panelists and workshops. One example is the Teacher’s Guide to Resources in Women’s History and Contemporary Studies, which was created for the 1991 conference.
Over the years, the organization provided much needed opportunities for elementary, high school, and university teachers to learn about historical resources about women and share their interests in a like-minded community. OWHN/RHFO has supported the publication of women's history posters and resources, women's presses, and bookstores, and has focused on local, national and international women's issues and history. The wide range of conference themes, including women workers, women in the arts, Indigenous women’s knowledges, immigrant women and Black women’s historical experiences, speaks to the diverse interests of the network. Indeed, in 2002, members held a conference at Seneca Falls, New York, which allowed for cross-border collaboration between Canadian and American scholars, teachers and community leaders, including members of the United States National Historic Sites and Park Rangers, as well as Parks Canada.
OWHN/RHFO has been unique in Ontario by reaching out to educators from university to elementary school and by sharing resources between educational communities, public and private. Without the support of elementary and secondary school teacher unions in Ontario, OWHN/RHFO’s support for publications, posters and events would not have been as strong. Like other similar groups, OWHN/RHFO members still meet for the annual conference, but face on-going challenges to maintain membership. As teachers and students rely more on digital platforms for resources, there is less interest in attending face-to-face conferences. As OWHN/RHFO moves forward in developing a stronger digital platform, members will come together in Sudbury in 2017 to explore current scholarship and resources on the historical experiences of northern Ontario women. With the OWHN/RHFO files now housed at the Archives of Ontario, plans will be made to digitize valuable resources to make them more widely accessible to educators in the province. OWHN/RHFO’s impact is reflected in the greater inclusion of women’s historical experiences in school history education today.
Dr. Rose Fine-Meyer
OISE/University of Toronto
For a fuller discussion of the history of OWHN/RHFO see:
"The Ontario Women’s History Network: Linking Teachers, Scholars, and History Communities in Catherine Carstairs and Nancy Janovicek, eds., Feminist History in Canada: New Essays on Women, Gender, Work, and Nation (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2013)
Guest Editor, Ontario History Journal on “Women and Education in Ontario,” Ontario History Journal (Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, Vol. 107, No. 1 Spring 2015)