ARTAStory: Reflecting on the 1960s and Over 60 Years of Friendship

Last September, at a resort on the shores of Lake Okanagan, ARTA member Margaret Ward and five of her lifelong friends gathered to celebrate their 80th birthdays, which had taken place over the last year. Drinking red wine, eating chocolate cake, and looking out over the calm waters of the lake, these six women reminisced about the years gone by: fond recollections of high school, memories of friends now gone, and perhaps some gentle boasting about the families and lives each of the women had built for themselves since their paths diverged after university.

One thing they notice, is that over their 60-plus years of friendship, a lot has changed in the world — many good changes, as well as some bad. But for Margaret, one of the most important changes was the newfound freedom that these women found, in the early 1960s, to pursue careers and build the lives they wanted for themselves.

Margaret and her friends met through the United Church in Edmonton as teenagers, and later attended Bonnie Doon High School together. It was a time when, Margaret remembers, options seemed limited for most women.

“We were all raised in the 1950s,” Margaret says. “Back then, most women would get married and then become full-time homemakers.” But by the time the group entered high school, things had already begun to change.

“All of us girls were placed in an academic program for students with high marks,” she remembers, “and even among that group of high achievers, two of our group held the top grades in our class.” Where this academic potential might not have been embraced in the previous generation, all the women were encouraged to attend the nearby University of Alberta after graduation and continue their educations.

And the group did continue — and then some. Between them, the women have thirty-seven years of post-secondary education, many boasting multiple degrees, including two PHDs. And while university is hard work for anyone, Margaret doesn’t discount the privileged position the women had, and says that it was the access and encouragement that made their goals possible.

“Tuition was inexpensive back then, and we all lived very close to the university,” Margaret says. “Even though none of our parents were doctors, lawyers, or any other kind of professional, the access to education let us pursue the lives we wanted.” Of the six women, five pursued careers in education, and one pursued a career in social work.

But university educations and promising careers were only the first step in their life goals. Next, came families. “I think all of us expected to get married and have children,” Margaret says, citing the cultural norms at the time. “What we didn’t expect is to become major earners in our households, which we did. We weren’t willing to give up our careers, so it became a matter of balancing full-time work with raising children and running a household.”

Margaret even became the sole wage-earner in her household while her husband pursued his own education. It was a lot of responsibility, and a lot of work, but the women reveled in it. “At the same time that we were developing our own careers, we were also developing our independence, and our own power in our relationships,” she says.

From our perspective in 2023, at a time when a post-secondary education and careers are the norm for many, the story of these six women may seem unremarkable. But back in the early 1960s, it was a big change — and not one that was afforded to everyone. When looking back, Margaret considers herself very lucky. “We had the opportunity and the encouragement to pursue education,” she says. “Percentagewise, that’s something very few young women in Alberta had at the time, and around the world today, that’s still something that many women don’t have.”

Because of their education, these six women spent their lives earning a higher standard of living for themselves and their families, and, while doing so, they showed younger generations that it was possible for them to do the same.

The seeds of this story were generously contributed by Margaret Ward, inspired by her latest reunion with dear friends.