Susan Crean
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Why the media are missing the message of Canadian feminism

There hasn’t been another political movement like it. Of all the grass-roots revolutions born of the idealism and outrage of the sixties, the women’s movement is the only one that came and actually stayed. Who even remembers the youth movement, when students organized, demonstrated and hitchhiked across the country, so alarming their elders with their threats of dropping out of the middle class that the stodgy Pearson government set up the Company of Young Canadians, a sort of domestic peace corps of community activists, and prepared to turn it over, lock, stock and million-dollar budget, to the young people to run? (I say prepared because the transition never quite happened; the CYC was too serious and too radical, and eventually had its wings clipped, which is, of course, another story.) Straight through the seventies the national question dominated the political agenda and galvanized a number of traditionally disaffected groups-the regions, Quebec, native peoples-into action as never before. The idea of renegotiating Canada was in the zeitgeist. Yet even the most wildly successful of the lot, the independantistes in Quebec, were finally sandbagged; sovereignty-association went down in the referendum and last November was laid to rest, for a while at least, with the bones of Rene Levesque.

But the story of the women’s movement is altogether different. For one thing, it didn’t start out as a maverick idea cruising the far reaches of the political fringes for adherents. By a curious quirk of history, the resurgence of feminism in Canada had two sources: the radicalism of New Left politics and the mainstream activism of liberals like Doris Anderson, Laura Sabia and Judy LaMarsh, who badgered the cabinet (Pearson’s again) into appointing a royal commission on the status of women. In 1967! And when the best American women had going for them was Cosmo, and Ms. magazine was still a gleam in Gloria Steinem’s eye, Anderson was conducting a nationwide consciousnessraising campaign under the noses of her Maclean Hunter bosses. The men may not have liked the message but they liked the balance sheets, and the magazine was alteady a runaway success before they noticed what the women were writing about. Thus it often went in the early days; women’s issues snuck into the mainstream through the women’s pages and daytime radio and television, where taboo subjects like divorce, incest and homosexuality were openly discussed years before anyone was permitted to pronounce the words out loud on prime time or in the front section.

Over the last two decades Women’s Liberation transformed itself into the women’s movement, moved out of the ghetto and matured into something much larger and more profound than the set of equality demands detailed in the 1970 royal commission report. Indeed, these rights and the social concerns flowing from them (universal day care, employment equity, equal pay) are now regular features of public debate. True equality is as elusive as ever. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Canadian women would support all or most of these demands and by that definition would call themselves feminists. Furthermore, surveying the forest of advisory councils, action committees, crisis centres, transition houses and lobby groups into which thousands of women across the country are pouring their energy, commitment and (in)disposable incomes, it is fairly obvious that the movement has settled in for the duration. Often you cannot hear women’s words above the din of collective action, for the movement has become a genuine mass movement.

But even as this has been taking place, feminism itself has been taking on new meanings. For many individuals (not, incidently, only female ones), it has widened and deepened into what amounts to a philosophy of life, a perspective on the wotld and the workings of human society comparable only to patriarchy itself. That is, in addition to a political analysis and a theory of social relations, it encompasses a set of values and attitudes that, for example, is more interested in power sharing than power playing, in collective rather than hierarchical organization. And from this optique everything looks different. History divides itself into two major stages instead of the usual procession of titled epochs and is dominated by one single, preeminent event: the arrival of the patriarchy and with it the systematic denigration of the feminine and of female knowledge and spirituality. Violence and war can be understood as gender issues. Wotld peace and the preservation of the planet can be cast as feminist dilemmas requiring female responses; for as prominent scientist and peace activist Ursula Franklin puts it: “When you see two people hutling crockery at each other in the kitchen, you don’t call in the crockery experts.”

Meanwhile, in academic circles, feminism has become a prolific source of new ideas and approaches to old subjects, resulting in an explosion of activity: huge earth-removal schemes to uncover women’s forgotten contribution, complete revisions of once-sacred perceptions and the invention of original theories in just about every field known to Man, and then some. The output has been astonishing not only for its volume but for its widespread appeal and extensive international circulation, which has been going on now for 40 years. Leading the way and lighting the path was the great Simone de Beauvoir, whose (I was about to write “seminal,” but under the circumstances I think a new word really is called for) ovarial treatise The Second Sex was published in France in 1949. It was de Beauvoir who set the pace and charted the waters for an investigation that has already reached through a second generation of thinkers-women who followed her into the field, fanning out through the sciences and humanities. Known as the New French Feminists, they include household names like Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and our own Nicole Brossard. But household only to the select thousands who know how to tap into the feminist community and where to find the streams leading away from the polluted rivers of masculine communication. At Toronto’s oldest progressive bookstore, the SCM Bookroom, feminist literary criticism outsells Peter C. Newman every day of the week.

The point is not that journalism is antiintellectual (although in my opinion it is), but that feminism has become the major social and ideological force in our culture while the news media have been asleep at the switch. How many editors would recognize Irigaray’s name, let alone understand the significance of feminist theory as the cutting edge of intellectual investigation in the Western world? How many would even believe it? But, to take an example closer to home, since the gender gap was discovered almost four years ago during the last federal election, the push has been on in all political parties to field more women candidates. So where are the articles exploring the implications of that revolution? Isn’t anyone curious about how it will come about and what it will look like?

Were the mainstream able to look the idea straight in the face without cringing, I am sure we would be seeing scores of features describing in detail the experience of countries like Iceland, where the Women’s Alliance party has six sitting members and holds the balance of power. And blockbuster TV documentaries about Norway, which has a gender rule (no less than a third of either sex permitted), an elected assembly that’s 36 per cent female and eight women in an 18-member cabinet led by Prime Minister Gro Hatlem Brundtland, who is an avowed feminist.

Instead, it’s business as it always has been in the newsroom; matters that concern mainly women are “women’s issues,” what interests men is news. Mention Iceland and most think “summit conference,” not women’s politics. And while there are still a few irrepressible feminist voices audible in the mainstream (Anderson, Landsberg, Callwood), the outlets for serious feminist journalism have dwindled. Chatelaine has declared the Age of Postfeminism and has joined the effort to reduce feminists to the stereotype of 15 years ago (“lesbian, pro-abortion, manhating, child-hating and shrill”), trivializing the work of the National Action Committee and its three million membership by characterizing it as radical and equating its influence to that of fundamentalist fringe groups like REAL Women.

In other words, just as feminism has achieved a level of recognition for equality rights through legal reforms and Charter guarantees, just as its achievements are beginning to be felt throughout society in the real lives of real women and children, we are told it is going out of style. Solemnly leading from behind, Canadian journalism is only too happy to report on the antifeminist backlash and is busy trying to induce the pendulum to swing further. What’s in style is style, and publishers have decided that the future and their profits are in women’s fashion and beauty magazines.

What this has to say about the role of women in journalism is pretty dismal. Not only is the profession as bad as any other when it comes to equal pay, equal opportunity, equal respect for rank-andfile practitioners, but, despite the hard work and endurance of women who have scaled the ladder, women’s influence at the top is minimal. It is still possible for the career of a remarkable TV journalist like Ann Medina to founder over cosmetic factors while Mike Duffy’s star continues to rise. As well as representing a monumental failure of imagination on the part of the brass, Medina’s departure from the CBC illustrates the truism that the problem confronting women in journalism is no longer getting our feet in the door, but getting the professional opportunities that keep a career blooming. Is it possible to do that and remain a committed feminist? Or have feminists been returned to the closet for a makeover? The struggle does indeed continue.

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