In early 1972, a group of women formed the Ottawa Women's Centre Association, and drafted a proposal for a centre which would allow women to meet and pool their skills and resources. The Ottawa Women's Centre (OWC) was the result of their proposal. The centre, offering meeting space, counselling, information and education, became the hub of women's liberation activity in Ottawa from its opening in July 1972 until its demise in 1980.
Like many grassroots feminist organizations of the 1970s, the Women's Centre wanted to avoid traditional methods of organizing; the aim was to leave as much power as possible in the hands of the members themselves. Consequently, the OWC was structured as a collective, run by staff, volunteers and members together, and using consensus to decide on centre policy and direction. However, as the Women's Centre grew, the need for more structured organization became apparent, and while the collective structure was maintained, in 1974 a Policy Committee was elected to be in charge of the major decisions. It was also decided, in 1973, that the centre would be off limits to men.
The Women's Centre offered diverse services which revolved mainly around crisis help, counselling, information and support of various kinds. They were also very active in the community, helping to organize a number of events, such as the Native Women's March to Ottawa in 1979, protests against federal cutbacks affecting poor women, and "reclaim the night" parades. They inspired, supported and helped to organize many other women's organizations in the Ottawa community, such as the Rape Crisis Centre, Women's Career Counselling, Interval House and Upstream, a women's newspaper. In 1975, the scope of their programs had grown so large that it was decided to split the two components of service and action. At that time, Women's Info, Referral and Counselling, while continuing to share the same space and Policy Committee, became a separate organization.
Financial support for the OWC came from a number of sources, including individual donations and support from other community organizations such as the Ottawa Women's Business and Professional Club. A major fundraising drive and benefit events were held in 1973, 1974 and 1976. The OWC also received grant money through the International Women's Year Program, the Local Initiatives Program and the City of Ottawa. In 1975, they were awarded a $10,000 grant from the Regional Municipality on the condition that they incorporate and register as a charitable institution. However, this decision was strongly opposed by some members who saw the potential for serious problems in reliance on government funding. These problems were illustrated the following year when the same grant was revoked. Although the decision was later reversed, the OWC was temporarily thrown into a funding crisis by the controversy.
In 1978 an open meeting was called to discuss the future of the OWC and it was decided that they would work towards becoming self-sufficient. A Business Committee was formed to help with this goal, and the result was the creation of Chez Nous, a small cafe which opened on the premises in February 1979. It was hoped that revenues from Chez Nous would allow the centre to survive without government support. Unfortunately, difficulties connected to their application for a liquor license threw them into even deeper financial trouble and they were forced to close in May 1980.
The idea for Women's Place/Place Aux Femmes originally grew out discussions with Mayor Marion Dewar held in January 1984. The community representatives and individuals who met with the Mayor felt there was a need for a centralized telephone information and referral service specifically for women.
A feasibility study on the need for such a service was commissioned in 1984 by an interim Board named Women's Info. The study confirmed the need for one source to co-ordinate and provide information on the services available to women. Those surveyed also pointed to the problem of gaps in service and the need for outreach and advocacy, and so it was agreed that, although the service would begin with information and referral, it would grow into the areas of support, advocacy and direct services.
In late 1984, while plans were being made for the new service, numerous concerns were raised about duplication of existing services, particularly with the Community Information Centre. To deal with these concerns, Women's Info decided to accelerate their growth plans and were given a grant of $10,000 to gather support and suggestions for the new proposal which included a wider range of services and a physical space for personal access and Centre activities.
Women's Info consulted the community extensively through mail-out questionnaires, pamphlets, and in-depth interviews, and discussions were also held with Community Information Centre representatives in an attempt to clarify respective roles and objectives. It was agreed that, besides providing information and referral, the new women's centre would also help identify and advocate for unmet needs and resources, and would work to heighten awareness of women's issues. The new proposal had extensive community support, and on October 16, Ottawa City Council approved funding. On June 12, 1986, Women's Place/Place aux Femmes officially opened at 242 Besserer Street.
From the beginning, Women's Place was concerned with reaching out to women who were isolated or disadvantaged because of age, ethnicity, poverty, disability or a combination of factors. Thus, their services, operating guidelines, and structure reflected the need to be inclusive and accessible. They did regular and extensive community outreach, established a francophone services collective and worked closely with other organizations to identify and work to solve problems caused by gaps in service. The Board was made up of both staff, volunteers and community members, and the organization was operated as a collective, with everyone sharing in the decision making process. Decision-making positions could not be held by men, although they could have limited access to services and information.
Like many women's organizations, Women's Place faced its share of financial problems, relying for funding on individual donations and government grants. In September 1986, only a few months after their official opening, their budget was reduced from $80,000 to $40,000, necessitating the cutting of 3 full time positions and many services. Another cut, in 1987, was met with a huge fundraising effort which included a reception for Bonnie Robichaud on Parliament Hill, film nights, a poetry reading, dances, a March for Peace and a music night. Since 1988, Women's Place/Place aux Femmes has relied mainly on grants from the provincial and local governments. In 1991, it moved from Besserer Street to Bruyere Street, where it rents the top half of a local community centre from the City.
The aims of Women's Place today are much the same as they were when it opened in 1986, but lack of funds has decreased the scope of their services somewhat. A lot of their work today is done in support of or in conjunction with other community and women's organizations.