Back of the Rack
That's where Canada's alternative women's magazines sit. Too bad. Because they provide a valuable forum for dissident voices
t seems peculiar to be in McDonald’s. How ironic to be sitting with Irshad Manji, an East African immigrant-feminist-lesbian, in a burger empire that doesn’t celebrate diversity but instead sets out to make the whole world appreciate a Big Mac.
In this homogenous environment, it’s refreshing to think of the diverse views she presents in her column for the alternative women’s magazine Herizons. Manji has said, for instance, that monogamy can sometimes be a misguided virtue; she has also reconciled being a Muslim and a lesbian. Her mandate in Herizons could speak for many alternative women’s magazines today: to challenge conventions of all kinds-including mainstream “wisdom” and traditional feminism.
These days, all sorts of people are noticing these publications. Social workers and arts therapists often keep the magazines in their offices to lend to clients-a male therapist from Carleton University, for example, uses Matriart in his sessions with male abusers. Editors of women’s centre newsletters across the country use them to trigger ideas. And with the increase in women’s studies and gender courses at universities, more and more educators turn to these publications for hard-to-find information to include in their course work.
Perhaps these publications could have an even broader audience if they weren’t so hard to find. Once a prospective reader finally locates a store that sells them (which can be impossible in small cities), finding the magazines requires shuffling through what is often a mess of alternative publications at the back of the newsstand. Ron Sellwood, distribution manager at the Canadian Magazine Periodical Association, says in order to have the eye-level, front-of-the-stand display that a magazine like Chatelaine has, alternative magazines would have to boost their circulation from around 4,000 to 20,000-an unlikely event that would increase printing costs and require a huge jump in advertising revenue. The problem with getting more advertising, especially in women’s magazines, is that it can put pressure on editorial content-something any self-respecting alternative magazine would never tolerate. Companies placing ads often demand that makeup tips, recipes and fashion trends make it into the magazine to help sell their products. Considering that alternative women’s publications exist to deal with what they see as feminist issues-which don’t usually include makeovers and cooking-these publications will never be easy to find.
Ignoring the din of children over their Happy Meals, Manji puts down her cheeseburger and says this about alternative women’s magazines: the danger is that editors will get lost in their own subcategories of the women’s movement without feeling a responsibility to share their knowledge. She hopes editors don’t forget that “no one lives on a secluded island. What affects them, affects everyone.”
In the ’90s, there are many islands in the women’s movement: feminists often isolate themselves into single-issue groups concerned about, for instance, lesbian rights, women of colour issues, body image and health matters, universal day care or “equal rights, equal pay.” There are also long-standing lobby groups that try to effect change in such areas as violence against women and social spending. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Canada’s largest women’s lobby group, was for some time accused of focussing on middle class, heterosexual, white women, despite the fact that it represents some 700 member groups with different interests. For over a decade, it has tried to appeal to women of colour and lesbians.
There are also backlash islands: on them, feminism is dead. In August 1990, for example, Chatelaine published an article by Danielle Crittenden in which she claimed that the women’s movement has already achieved its goals and that die-hards are the only ones making demands because Ottawa is paying for them to do so. With so many different factions, Manji says that even she, who is perceived as “a poster-child for feminism,” has difficulty finding feminist islands where she’s welcome.
Despite a divided movement, alternative women’s magazines are reaching feminists. Four of the more prominent are: Matriart, At the Crossroads, Kinesis and Herizons.
Matriart, a glossy, feminist, visual arts magazine published in Toronto, uses thought-provoking, contemporary Canadian women’s art to define the strong feminist themes of its articles. For example, in the 1996 double issue “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Health,” one story bluntly tackles the North American obsession with breasts. Written to accompany the show-all works by photographer Sheri Hatt, the piece opens with a picture of the artist’s own bare-breasted body prior to reduction surgery, followed by a shot of her covered with bandages.
Published since 1990 by the Women’s Art Resource Centre, a nonprofit service organization funded by the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council and other government bodies, Matriart‘s mandate could be described as what Virginia Woolf called “a room of one’s own.” Matriart‘s published mission statement says it “provides a forum to empower and affirms women’s creativity.” Each issue of this national quarterly, which usually runs about 50 pages, focusses on such different themes as “Feminism Facing Systemic Oppression” (1992), “Women in Technology” (1994) and “Women and War” (1994).
In each issue, the feature articles, reviews and artwork all relate to one theme, allowing the magazine to go in-depth into various aspects of a subject. In the “Feminism Facing Systemic Oppression” issue, for example, one middle-of-the-book article titled “Land, Spirit, Power” by Mary Anne Barkhouse discusses contemporary native art. She says art will “locate an area for reconstruction and revitalization of culture” for natives, and help them come to terms with “the reality of colonial invasion and the destructive expansionary practices.” Toward the back of the book, there is artwork from Katherine Zsolt’s “Daughters and Sisters,” her memorial on the Montreal Massacre, which is an installation of 14 body casts with blindfolds on, hanging by their ankles. Barkhouse’s article and Zsolt’s somewhat gruesome installation are hard-hitting in their depiction of the oppression women face.
With 1,200 subscribers and a recent subscription drive in the United States, the magazine is permeating the art community. Many readers of this magazine are women artists or those who work in galleries, but editor Linda Abrahams says institutions and art enthusiasts also subscribe to Matriart. Judging by the ads, the publication is also seen by arts therapists, book publishers, art shops and art schools.
Although Matriart may be widely read, nonartists may feel it’s too serious and full of jargon. One section that can be alienating is the film reviews. Usually about independent filmmakers, the reviews sometimes use unexplained terms, such as scratching, bleaching and erasing. Unless a reader knows the field, this makes for a frustrating read. Still, overall, Matriart is an innovative publication in the way it links images to issues and manages to explore many different aspects of feminism through its thematic base.
Reaching a more specific readership, At the Crossroads is a black women’s art magazine. Editor Karen/Miranda Augustine describes why she founded it: “Your voice doesn’t get put out like you want it to. I was tired of other publications asking me [to write on] black issues. You feel used, like that’s all you’re good for.”
Its mission is to celebrate black culture by featuring up-and-coming black artists, including musicians, writers and actors, while discussing black issues head-on. Unlike Matriart, Augustine says that her magazine pertains to everyday issues and is not abstract. Certainly this Toronto-based magazine, which aims to be international, is more lighthearted in sections and easier to understand. In a 1996 issue there is a Seventeen-style quiz that places participants into four categories: Dancehall Queens, You’re Sooo R&B, Hip-hop Cheerleaders and Goddess of Acid Jazz. But it’s not all fun. The next article is about the Ottey sisters in Toronto who were murdered and whose killer had still not been found. The deck reads: “Why have their deaths not received the same attention as cases of police brutality against black men?”
Augustine aims to provide her 1,500 readers (1,300 in Canada, 200 in the U.S.) with what she calls “in-depth analysis” in reviews and stories. Unlike Matriart, the movie reviews, called Let’s Get Reel, are written in accessible language. Sometimes they discuss mainstream films-always from an alternative viewpoint-although they often lack insight. A recent review of Strange Days, for instance, says, “I was glad to see Angela Bassett in a mainstream film…. Our actresses/actors must get roles in mainstream films in order to obtain their rightful place in American cinema.”
At the Crossroads, which runs around 60 pages, successfully mixes regular feature articles with personal memoirs. In 1996 it profiled two 20-something fashion design students, Kafi Wilson and Kari Chong, who already have their own label, Vir-go’. Perfect subjects for an inspiring women-of-colour story, these designers often wouldn’t be considered big enough for attention from the mainstream press. In the same issue, writer Kristine Maitland recounts how, as a 17-year-old Toronto student, she received a phone call from a schoolmate who said, “Kristine, I am a member of the Ku Klux Klan and it is our intention to burn your house down.” Here, At the Crossroads provides a personal forum for exposing the virulence of racism, something not often taken on by the Canadian mainstream media.
The magazine receives what Augustine will only say is a small amount of money from Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, and it runs an average of six advertisements per issue from book stores, art shops and specialty clothing venues. Keeping production costs down (it’s published on newsprint), At the Crossroads has been in business for five years. When assessing the magazine, it’s worth considering one of Irshad Manji’s comments on alternative publications. As she says, “People are all interdependent-what affects me as a woman of colour will affect you as a white woman,” and this should be recognized in alternative publications. Addressing that interconnectedness with the larger world is something At the Crossroads fails to do. What it does succeed at, however, is providing a voice for relevant black women’s issues. But the magazine could have a broader audience if it included some political discussion, such as examining how federal budget cuts have hurt black women. An analysis of this type of issue might make the magazine a stronger force.
One alternative women’s magazine that does take on politics is Vancouver-based Kinesis. At 23, it’s the oldest of these magazines. Usually around 24 pages, the publication is printed on newsprint, has a circulation of 2,500 and relies on volunteers-with the exceptions of one full-time paid staff person and a few paid part-timers-to publish 10 issues a year. According to the published mission statement, Kinesis’ objectives are to be a “nonsectarian feminist voice for women and to work actively for social change, specifically combatting sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, ableism and imperialism.”
This leftist feminist publication’s favourite topics appear to be protests, loss of government funding to social programs and unfair labour situations. Editor Agnes Huang says, “We don’t want [stories] just because women are women, we want a political paper.” Out of a recent sampling, about two pages of the four-page front news section were usually devoted to demonstrations. Protest stories-“Women in Quebec March Against Poverty” (July/August 1995), “Solidarity Rally Against APEC” (December/January 1997), “Demonstration at Parole Hearing of a Convicted Rapist” (June 1995) and “Protesters Confront Reform Party” (July/August 1996)-are so plentiful that the section can seem like a series of big picket signs.
Sometimes the demonstration-style chanting is witty and light in tone. The editorial for the July/August 1996 issue, for instance, read “lots of sun, right-wing weather over east with strong right-wing winds over Alberta. Tomorrow, less of the same, with more feminism and sunshine expected all over the world due to high pressure from out Left.” Informative international features, which cover such issues as the sovereignty struggles of native Hawaiians and the effects of free trade on Mexican women, add depth and insight to the magazine.
Fifty percent of the magazine’s financial support comes from its publisher, the Vancouver Status of Women, which is, in turn, partially funded by federal and provincial government bodies. Advertisers range from women’s bookstores to organizations promoting special events and protests.
Kinesis’ tag line is “News About Women That’s Not In The Dailies,” so it’s not surprising that the features can’t comment often enough on the inadequacy of the mainstream press. One example is Huang’s article in the July/August 1996 issue “Women Vote for Unity.” In it she refutes reports by mainstream media that women “walked away empty handed” after the NAC’s annual federal lobby. Although the constant reiteration of how the mainstream press gets it wrong can sometimes seem overstated and the protest coverage can become tiresome, this old-timer is full of energy and flags events rarely mentioned elsewhere.
Kinesis is the oldest alternative women’s magazine in Canada but Winnipeg-based Herizons, with a circulation of 4,500, is the largest. Its mission statement says that “Herizons aims to reflect a feminist philosophy that is diverse, understandable and relevant to women’s daily lives” by building “awareness of issues as they affect women” and promoting “the strength, wisdom and creativity of women.”
This national news magazine attracts insightful, well-known columnists such as Manji, who is also a producer for the “In the Public Interest” segment on Vision TV’s Skylight (a current affairs program which focusses on social justice issues), and Lyn Cockburn, who writes a column for The Calgary Sun. Michele Landsberg, columnist for The Toronto Star, is one of its 150 “sustaining subscribers” who believe in Herizons strongly enough to donate money each month.
Herizons has had its share of financial trouble. In 1987 the magazine was cut off from the government funding that had provided more than 50 percent of its budget since 1982. When it lost funding, publishing stopped. Determined to start up again in 1992, a reconstituted editorial board used part of $10,000 left over from 1987 to solicit 3,000 subscribers. The first independent issue came out that same year, and since then this low-budget quarterly (published on light-weight matte stock) has been in business-albeit with half the subscribers it once had.
Perhaps one thing that has kept Herizons going is its ability to address different factions of the feminist movement. Co-ordinating editor Penni Mitchell says she attempts to publish a variety of perspectives from both younger and older feminists. Indeed, columnists range in age from mid-20s to mid-50s. As well, some of the features, such as “Mixed Message: How the Media Went Wrong on the Breast Implant Story” in the summer 1996 issue, or the fall 1996 “Making a Business of Books,” about the dreary future of women’s bookstores in Canada, cater to a wide audience-every woman has breasts, and most feminists visit women’s bookstores.
Herizons can also be amusing. Its 1996 summer fashion supplement has a poem titled “To Shave or Not To Shave” by Mitchell, which asks, “Whether ’tis nobler to conform and suffer/The nicks and scrapes of outrageous fashion/Or to take arms (and legs) against a tide of fashion experts.” An article in the same issue called “Rebel Without a Bra” by Jackie Clements-Marenda, offers: “At some point during our conversation the novelty of my bralessness should wear off and the man should realize there is a body part above the chest from which a voice comes.” This entertaining style adds fun to Herizons, which may be the only alternative women’s publication that is successful in making every feminist feel included and welcome whatever her skin colour, age or political affiliation.
Canadian women’s publications in the ’90s have had many mainstream and alternative predecessors that depicted women in their time. Early this century, Everywoman’s World was published in Toronto. It included letters by men saying what they wanted in a woman. In the November 1914 issue, one man said that he wanted a woman to trust him: “Let me tell her of the wickedness of the outside world and be content to know it only vicariously.” Twenty-five years later, during World War II, magazines offered quick, nutritious recipes to help women juggle their housework with newfound employment. For the next couple of decades the publications greeted women, many of whom had given up their jobs for their war-vet husbands, with increasingly elaborate meals to prepare and new appliances to buy. Then, in the ’70s, the rights and difficulties of women, who now wanted back into the work force, took precedence in magazines. In the U.S., Ms. made it clear that women no longer needed to play a second-class role and shouldn’t have to do all domestic duties on top of having full-time jobs. In Canada, Doris Anderson, the editor of Chatelaine from 1957 to 1977, published articles about unequal pay as well as service pieces that told women where to get jobs. Encouraging women to work was one of many topics Chatelaine took on that offended people. Another, according to Anderson’s 1996 autobiography, Rebel Daughter, was abortion-the magazine said it should be legal under some circumstances. “Almost immediately we were inundated with phone calls threatening not only to cancel subscriptions but to have me fired and the magazine run out of business,” she says.
What was so important about Anderson’s contribution to Chatelaine was that she brought alternative thoughts into the mainstream. And no matter how many factions the women’s movement may be made up of today, its publications can do something similar-offer a voice for diverse readers and a home for dissent that can make its way into mainstream consciousness.
Leigh Felesky was a Publicity Editor for the Summer 1997 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.