Fate of a Feminist Press
Healthsharing magazine makes a habit of shaking up the status quo. Wasn't it convenient, then, when Ottawa cut off its funding?
Inside a converted stable in Toronto’s west end, three women huddle over an old wooden table. This is the office where the Women’s Healthsharing collective produces its quarterly feminist health magazine. Susan Elliott, a collective member since 1985, sits with two volunteers, engrossed in a discussion of the design and placement of two appeals that will be run in the Winter 1990 issue. One asks regular readers to begin or renew subscriptions; the other, headed YES I WANT TO KEEP HEALTH SHARING ALIVE is a plea for donations. The meeting has a quiet urgency about it. If the response is high enough, the well-respected ll-year-old magazine may live to celebrate its twelfth anniversary.
When the conservative government chopped $1.6 million from its Secretary of State Women’s Program on February 22, 1990, most of the resulting outcry was about the battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centres that were effectively being shut down. The Tories, critics charged, were once again demonstrating their customary insensitivity to women who were already marginalized. But there were other victims of the cuts, among them Healthsharing and two other established feminist publications, Resource.,
for feminist Research and Canadian Women’s Studies, which collectively had received $200,000 from the program in 1989. In Healthsharing’s case, its $60,000 grant represented more than 30 percent of its modest $196,000 yearly budget. Almost as bad as the elimination of the funding was the short notice the publications were given that their funding wouldn’t be renewed.
At the time of the devastating announcement, the government maintained that it had to make the cuts to help reduce its $8 billion deficit. But women’s organizations angrily responded that $200,000 was pocket change in relation to the size of the debt; if the feds could manage to dig up $13 million for Canada Day fireworks, the protesters said, they should be able to find a fraction of that to keep Healthsharing and the other two magazines alive. The real agenda, they said, was silencing critics of the status quo.
Certainly in the past the government has tended to reduce or eliminate money to groups it perceives as cither vulnerable or threatening.
Magazines like Healthsharing are a little of both; small enough to die quietly, but, if funded, vocal enough to undermine conservative policies. As Jane Walsh, the southern Ontario coordinator for the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, says, “The Tories find the feminist press the most threatening. It’s a powerful tool. They fear women’s ability to communicate and organize.” Philinda Masters of Resources for feminist Research echoes Walsh’s view: “‘the feminist publications arc always a kind of thorn in the government’s side. The cuts are an attack on women.”
Not surprisingly, Len Westerberg, press secretary to Secretary of State Gerry Weiner, disputes this perspective. If you want to silence the critics, he says, you don’t cut them off, you pay them off. “Those who lost funding can’t accept when things go wrong, so they have to blame somebody,” he declares, and adds that the government couldn’t skim five percent from every program, so it picked areas where the cuts would hurt the least.
Still, it’s hard to imagine how Healthsharing could have been hurt any more and continue to survive. Amy Gottlieb, the managing editor and one of two paid part-time staff, had to reduce her paid workweek from 35 to 28 hours, although she routinely puts in 40 or more. Elliott, paid for 21 hours, was at the office nearly every weekday. The magazine’s Summer 1990 issue went out three months late, and was eight pages lighter than its usual 36, and there simply wasn’t a Fall issue. But however much pain these measures meant for Gottlieb, Elliott, the two other collective members and the magazine’s two dedicated volunteers, the real casualties arc Healthsharing’s 3,400 subscribers and estimated 10,000 readers.
Unique not only in Canada but in North America because of its feminist perspective on health issues, the magazine is geared to lay readers and emphasizes self-knowledge and disease prevention. Its coverage is wide ranging; along with the conventional subjects abortion, hysterectomy, breast cancer-readers can find pieces on women’s shoes and the impact of free trade on health care. Even the treatment of standard subject matter is far from mainstream. The recent issue devoted to menopause, for example, included a feature on how women of other cultures view this phase, and another on its effect on lesbians’ sexuality. The editors view good health not merely as the absence of illness, but as a state of general well-being, so articles frequently address such issues as the environment and poverty. Perhaps most important, Healthsharing takes women seriously. Their aches and pains are not dismissed as hysteria or depression, or considered “normal.” Instead, the writers empathize with their readers’ problems and encourage them to consider all their options for medical care rather than trusting “experts”. This self-help philosophy is reflected in the resource lists of books and organizations the magazine invariably carries. Given Healthsharing’s emphasis on prevention and education, what particularly angers many about the government’s slashing of its funding is the shortsightedness involved. “I’m sorry to learn that tax dollars aren’t being spent for women to learn about their bodies,” says Caroline Disler of the organization Vaginal Birth After Cesarian and a Healthsharing reader since 1988. Disler believes the government could actually save money in the long term by supporting Healthsharing because it makes women think about their own responsibility for their health. Obviously, for a number of years successive governments thought that money allocated to Healthsharing and similar magazines was a good use of tax dollars. The program Healihsharing and its sister publications benefited from had been established by the Liberals in 1973 to provide funds to groups that worked to improve the status of women in Canada. five years later, three women who were involved in health care – Connie Clement, Madeline Boscoe and Kathleen McDonnell first discussed their mutual interest in developing more feminist writing on health care issues. As Clement remembers it, she met the others at a “Know Your Body” workshop led by McDonnell in early 1978; the following September they had gathered. Together four others to form the founding collective. Their first issue of Healthsharing was a modest 20-page bilingual effort that appeared in early 1980. Soon its size began to grow, and so did its reputation. Among the important stories it broke in Canada were those on the link between tampons and toxic shock syndrome, the incidence of PCBs found in breast milk and concerns about fluorescent lighting and VDTs in the workplace stories that weren’t appearing in mainstream publications. Funding from the Secretary of State Women’s Program the first grant, in 1985, was for $43,220 rising to $70,000 by 1988-enabled the magazine to boost its circulation, hire additional staff and publish more of the kind of tough questioning articles that its readers came to expect.
However, as the level of grants was increasing, so was opposition to the way the Women’s Program money was being spent. One of the most vocal groups was R.E.A.L. Women, the right-wing organization that almost since its founding in 1984 has lobbied for a share of Women’s Program funds and pressured the feds to steer money away from groups it considers “anti-family.” Healthsharing’s staff and supporters suspect that pressure from R.E.A.L. Women and other conservative groups is partly to blame for the government’s decision to cut off funds to feminist magazines. But they also believe there’s a desire on the part of officials to undermine the women’s movement. As Philinda Masters of Resources for Feminist Research points out, “Without feminist publications, women don’t know what’s going on. We’re so isolated. It’s easy to divide and conquer.”
While Healthsharing was certainly hard hit by the sudden loss of its government funding, it isn’t yet conquered. For several months last year, the magazine’s cheeky answering machine message was, “Since none of us have been named to the Senate, we’re still here fighting the Tory budget cuts.” But the fighting was taking time away from the main work of producing the magazine. And although they are short staffed, the editors didn’t apply for a new Employment and Immigration grant-Gottlieb and Elliott simply didn’t have enough time to train new staff.
Still, their sagging spirits were rallied by readers’ response to the crisis. The Spring 1990 issue was already printed but it hadn’t been distributed yet when Healthsharing received the bad news. Collective members sat at their wooden table and in every issue inserted a bright pink flyer that announced, “We will not be silenced!” The drive raised $13,000 in donations and brought in dozens of two-year subscriptions. Readers wrote and phoned daily to offer their support. One in Arizona requested one copy of every back issue; in January, another signed her GST rebate cheque for $65 over to the collective. “I was going to mail this back to the government,” she wrote, “but they would probably use it for the military build-up in the Gulf. It’s yours.” The staff at Atlantis, a Halifax-based women’s studies journal which has its own financial problems, offered to pay for its Healthsharing subscription instead of taking advantage of the free exchange the two magazines had agreed on. Healthsharing also managed to secure small grants for specific projects. The menopause issue was financed partly by $2,500 from Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital; the Summer 1991 theme issue on immigrant and refugee women’s health will be funded in part by $9,800 from the Ontario Women’s Directorate. But piecemeal funding means less money over shorter periods of time. It also has the potential to skew the editorial direction of magazines that have to rely on this form of income.
The federal government and critics of the feminist press argue that the magazines should become more self-sufficient and find a broader base of financial support. In fact, according to the Secretary of State’s Westerberg, the Women’s Program is moving away from annual core funding to short-term project funding; this, he says, is to “discourage financial dependence.”
That rationale enrages Gottlieb. Healthsharing and similar magazines, she argues, are self-sufficient. “If you look at what our budget is, you see that the amount of money we spend on our production, typesetting, printing and distribution equals what we actually take in from subscriptions, sales and donations. What the magazine’s revenue doesn’t pay for, however, is staff and administration costs. That, in fact, is the story of magazines in Canada.”
In addition, Women’s Program funding guidelines state that projects cannot advocate one lifestyle over another, hence issues about homosexuality or choice in abortion, for example, are considered too controversial. Philinda Masters recalls that Resources for F eminisI Research could not receive Women’s Program funding for an issue on lesbian sexuality. Policies like this inhibit groups from publishing pieces which explore important, often complex topics; in effect, they enable the government to control a magazine’s content.
Ironically, the solution to Healthsharing’s life-threatening problem came in the guise of another federal department: Health and Welfare. In late January, the magazine learned that it would be the beneficiary of a $344,000 grant originally intended for the creation of a women’s regional health network. By the time the two groups that had applied for the funding got word that the money was available, they were no longer able to undertake the project. They instead proposed that the funds be turned over to Healthsharing on the condition that, until 1993, it devoted two or three issues a year to regional reports on women’s health. To carry out the plan, Healthsharing will have to hire six regional editors to oversee the assignment and writing of material on their areas, so the infusion of cash will still leave the magazine with less money than it had before the Women’s Program funding was so abruptly cut off. But there’s another development: the establishment of a fundraising committee which includes Connie Clement, one of the members of the founding collective. Clement is confident that the group can raise enough to cover the $30,000 annual shortfall.
So Gottlieb and Elliott are again devoting their efforts to getting the next issue ready on time instead of worrying about whether there will be a next issue. They have always been optimistic, though. Even before the Health and Welfare grant threw them a fiscal lifeline, the collective was planning issues as far ahead as 1993.
When they needed inspiration all they had to do was think of the ramifications of the magazine’s demise. As Elliott said last fall: “What would readers be left with? Chatelaine?”
Lisa Carreiro was the Managing Editor, Production for the Summer 1991 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.