”The Personal Is Political, Honey”
Canada's most widely read columnist, Michele Landsberg celebrates 20 years of hanging The Man
It is 1978. Women’s lib is a hot topic. Women are busy getting in touch with their ovaries and men are busy getting in touch with the dishes. Marty Goodman, editor of The Toronto Star, is in his office with his newly hired women’s columnist.
“Do you understand,” he asks her, “what we mean by a women’s column?”
No, she’s not quite sure.
“Well,” he says. “Look out the window. There’s the CN Tower. If I look out and see a man climbing that CN Tower, that’s news.Now, if I look out there and I see a woman climbing that CN Tower, that’s women’snews.”
“Oh, I see Marty,” she says sweetly.
She had to wait until she left to laugh out loud. This was the woman who as a 12-year old wrote indignant essays to herself about the injustices of the masculine pronoun. This was the Bad Girl who lit her matches on the crotch of her jeans and taught her entire Girl Guide pack to smoke. This was the MPP’s wife who threw spitballs at the Tories from the spectators’ gallery in the Legislature. CN Tower. As if. ” I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I certainly wasn’t going to do something as dumb as what he said.”
One week later, Goodman and the Starhad a feminist columnist. They never knew what hit them. But she sold, so they let her stay. On May 15, 1998, Michele Landsberg celebrates the 20th anniversary of her first column in the Starat a time when a recent survey by the paper showed that she is its most-read columnist. Since theStarhas the largest circulation in Canada, this makes Landsberg the most regularly read columnist in the country and one of our best-known feminists.
The 1990s has seen a backlash against many of the gains the feminist and social justice movements have made over the past quarter century. People in positions of power, like Ontario Premier Mike Harris, think that if only women were cooking breakfast for their husbands and reading Mr.Silly to their children every night all would be well. It seems that a distinctly feminist voice in the mainstream media is as important now as ever, but is Michele Landsberg effective?
Some people think she couldn’t put a pink-gilded feminist foot wrong. Some think she’s an easily written-off raving lefty who’s high on hysterics and low on rationale. But one thing everyone agrees upon is that she’s crazy. And it’s her crazed passion, her over-the-top devotion to advocacy, feminism and the like and her ever-present indignation that have bolstered her in her long-time role as crusading journalist. While many of us abandon our youthful outrage and start salivating after RRSPs by 30, she has kept her knickers in a perpetual twist by constantly finding new things to rant about. Michele Landsberg embodies the notion of column writing as a political act. Some people wave signs. She waves her word processor.
But how did this meshugina feminist end up angry enough to land on Toronto’s kitchen tables for 20 years? How did she begin her oh-so-perilous journey through the mountains of dinosaurs, patriarchs and Tories?
It is the fifties, or, “the fucking fifties, the worst decade of the century” as our plucky heroine likes to say. She is pissed off. She is 14 and stuck in Willowdale where there are no damn books. Since there is also no TTC in Willowdale, well, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do when she needs a decent bookstore. So after yelling “No!” to a policeman who tells her to get back on the curb and stop hitchhiking, she finds herself at the police station. Arms crossed, pigtails twitching, she refuses to divulge her name, but they manage to wrest a book registered to the Holy Blossom Temple religious school from her. The rabbi comes fuming down to the station to identify her. The rabbi (she thought) is a good guy. A progressive guy. But after bawling her out, he turns despairingly to the officers and says, in hushed tones, “Her mother works, you know.”
Girl, if those pigtails could have caught on fire….
To read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.
It can be purchased online here.
by Leah Rumack
Leah Rumack was a Senior Editor for the Spring 1998 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.