Human rights activist and arts advocate Frances Wasserlein dies at 69

Frances Jane Wasserlein, for many years a prominent Vancouver women’s and LGBTQ rights activist and arts administrator, passed away in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 23 at her home at the Sunshine Coast’s Halfmoon Bay. She was 69.

Frances was born in San Francisco and moved to Vancouver with her family as a child, completing her grade school education at Little Flower Academy.

Frances was well known in the late 90s and early 2000s through her work as the executive producer of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, coming to that role after turns as box office manager of the Vancouver International Writers Festival and bookkeeper for The Vancouver East Cultural Centre. 

Previously she had made a name for herself in social activism, beginning with her work helping organize the 1970 Abortion Caravan from Vancouver to Ottawa.

In 1977 Frances left a secretarial job at UBC and began full time undergraduate studies at that university, completing a BA (honors) in history in 1980. 

During the summer of 1979 Frances worked as a researcher for the Women's Office at UBC on a project related to the early contributions of women to the establishment of UBC and the role women played in student activism at the university. 

That same year Frances was one of the small group of women who founded Battered Women's Support Services, providing self-help groups for women who were seeking an end to the violence that had driven them and their children from their homes. She went on to co-found Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW / Rape Relief) in 1982.

After receiving her BA from UBC, Wasserlein worked for the YMCA as a co-manager of Munro House for eighteen months. Following that, she worked as a researcher and writer with the Women's Research Centre, working on studies related to the institutionalization of women's services. She supplemented her income by doing bookkeeping for various arts and non-profit organizations, which led to her later career as an arts administrator. 

In 1983, in the troubled times that many expected to culminate in a province-wide general strike, Frances was an organizer with Women Against the Budget, part of the larger Operation Solidarity movement opposed to the legislation tabled by the Social Credit government following their victory in the 1983 provincial election, a movement which saw 60,000 people marched through the Vancouver streets to surround a downtown hotel where the Social Credit Party was holding its annual convention. 

In 1985 Frances enrolled in a Master of Arts degree program in history at Simon Fraser University, and upon completing her degree taught women's and lesbian studies at both SFU and Langara College.

In 1990s Frances was a member of the BC Arts Board, the advisory group that became today’s BC Arts Council, on which she also served from its inauguration in 1996 through to 2002.

She was also involved in the initiative that saw the creation of Vancouver’s Montreal Massacre Memorial.

In 2003, eight days after the legalizations of same-sex marriage, Frances wed Marguerite Kotwitz in a ceremony in a grove at Jericho Beach Park, in the midst the bustle of that year’s Folk Music Festival, along with two other lesbian couples. 

Frances and Marguerite relocated to the Sunshine Coast’s Half Moon Bay in 2004, where they operated a guest cottage until last year.  Frances was executive director of the Sunshine Coast Community Arts Council from 2008 to 2013, served as a Trustee of the Sechelt Public Library, and taught cultural event management at Capilano College.

Through her decades as a social activist, arts community leader, and educator, Frances Wasserlein was a champion, mentor and inspiration for two generations of LGBTQ and cultural community leaders in Vancouver and beyond. Her warmth, calm amidst chaos, and sharp wit will be deeply missed.

(Photo by Glen Erickson)

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