Sunday, 8 March 2020

Part I: Reflections on the Second Wave: A Feminist Journalist Remembers Herself

As conspiracy theories flourished about how and why Jeffrey Epstein met his end in a New York prison, and anticipation built over the Harvey Weinstein rape trial, I dipped into two books presenting worm's eye views of the most important revolution of the last two thousand years-- the rise of radical feminism. Now referred to as the Second Wave, the second feminist revolt (the first focused on the right to vote) helped vault women from voiceless, impecunious, cowering semi-slavery to leadership positions throughout the western world. Anyone trying to craft a narrative of the way the Second Wave affected Canada might find it useful to read Feminist Acts: Branching Out Magazine and the Making of Canadian Feminism by Tess Jordan, and Inside Broadside: A Decade of Feminist Journalism edited by Philinda Masters. But be warned. Much is left out, much is plain wrong. In particular, both purvey the false notion that mainstream journalism stood in the way of the Second Wave. In fact, journalists were the movement's leaders, and mainstream publishers and television networks showed why feminism mattered.

Feminist Acts is a biography of Branching Out which author Tessa Jordan calls "Canada's first national second-wave feminist magazine". It published its preview issue in December 1973 and folded in 1979 when its second full time unpaid editor, Sharon Batt, had to get a job and no one stepped up to take her place. According to Jordan, Branching Out wanted to provide a place for what she calls female culture (stories, poems, art, photographs, essays by women and about women). But contrary to Feminist Acts' subtitle, Branching Out Magazine, with a circulation of 4000, reached very few minds, never mind playing a significant role in "making" Canadian feminism over its seven years of operation in Edmonton. The product of unpaid volunteers and sold on some newsstands across the country, Branching Out offered little that was unavailable in much more widely distributed media.

Inside Broadside reprints some of what this monthly Toronto-based newspaper, published by a lesbian collective, offered its readers between 1979 and 1989. The selected works are organized thematically, each section set up in a short essay by editor Philinda Masters. Though its subtitle claims Broadside published journalism, it is not journalism as I understand it--carefully checked reporting on matters of public interest. Broadside presented something akin to the citizen journalism circulating now on social media-- advocacy, single point of view reports, opinion pieces, and reviews of cultural offerings, all shaped by political beliefs. Broadside prided itself on being outside what it calls mainstream media which its founders viewed as biased in favour of the misogyny of the day. With a circulation of only 2500, it lived off bits of classified ad revenue, subscription income, donations, government grants, the kindness of contributors and volunteers willing to work hard for no remuneration. This is a source of pride to Philinda Masters but it is also an admission that Broadside could not support the digging that real journalism entails even if it had wanted to do it.

Yet that work needed doing. The 1980s were crucial times for Canadian women: we had to fight hard to be properly written into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and to be freed from the criminal law on abortion, even as the backlash against Second Wave feminism turned ferocious. And things were worse in the US. The Equal Rights Amendment, outlawing discrimination based on sex, moved so slowly through the ratification process that Viriginia became the 38th and final state necessary to get that job done only last month. Feminists in both Canada and the US were bedeviled by pro-lifers and anti-feminists who insisted women preferred to remain on our knees and should be forced to have children against our will. Even the word feminist (like the word liberal) became a dirty epithet and the vile term feminazi was brandished with pleasure by the loud men of the political Right. By the end of the 1980s the Second Wave had lost momentum and direction. As the Third Wave emerged from it, common cause, the idea that all women suffer from the same social forces in the same way and should therefore help each other as sisters, was abandoned in favour of factions obsessed with class, ethnicity and sexual proclivities.

Neither of these books tells that story well, though Inside Broadside presents slivers of it. Neither is of literary interest either: they display less than sparkling critical writing and story-telling. And yet: they engaged me. Reading them was like plowing through shoe boxes full of the old letters and coffee-stained notes of forgotten but important moments in the Canadian women's movement (and my own life). They shoved me deep into the well of memory, sent me running down to my basement to paw through my own archive of the period, the better to refute or reformulate.

I found myself shouting out loud at certain shared assumptions and assertions. For example: in Philinda Masters' introduction to Inside Broadside she describes the book this way:

"The pieces in this book are a snapshot of ten years of activism, contemplation, creativity, and reporting on what was in the early days called the women's liberation movement. When the mainstream press caught wind of it, it came to be called 'women's lib,' and we became 'women's libbers.' It was their attempt to trivialize what was becoming an enormously threatening trend. And in case you're snickering at how dismissive and odd this sounds, consider what the movement is called now: #MeToo!

To see how it all began, how some things change and some things don't change, read on."

Similarly, according to Jordan in Feminist Acts:

"...because of the limited publication opportunities available to women in Canada in the 1970s, for the Branching Out staff, the very publication of artistic and nonfiction content by women was a feminist act."

These assertions are nonsense. Masters' description of the mainstream media and its coverage of the women's movement bears no relationship to my own experience with either. And as for the notion that merely publishing women's works was a feminist act: please. Female writers of fiction and nonfiction flourished in all major media during both the 1970s and 1980s.

I was a committed feminist and had been living in a commune with my husband and our friends for four years by the time Branching Out published its first issue. Why a commune? Because feminist theorists had argued persuasively that the nuclear family is a prison for ambitious women and I was an ambitious woman. That same year--1973-- I was hired at Maclean's Magazine as a researcher and soon became an editor. Maclean's Deputy Editor at that time was Christina McCall Newman (later Clarkson) by then acknowledged as one of Canada's most astute writers on national politics. Erna Paris, who would become known later for her book on the Holocaust in France and another on the International Criminal Court, was a colleague. The writers I worked with at Maclean's were fearless and accomplished journalists such as: Heather Robertson, Myrna Kostash, June Callwood, Marci McDonald, Dawn MacDonald. I left Maclean's to freelance and for the next thirty years wrote for most of the other leading Canadian magazines. The only one I didn't write for was Chatelaine ( though I was featured there in a Q and A on radical feminism in 1969). In all that time, the only story dealing with Second Wave issues that I was unable to place was a story about the Pill as the largest, uncontrolled experiment ever conducted in medicine.

Contrary to Masters, the phrase "women's liberation" was not imposed on feminist women by misogynist reporters out to mock us, but adapted for use by feminist writers from the liberationist/anti-colonialist literature of the 1950s and early 1960s. And the mainstream press didn't catch "wind" of women's lib: this makes it sound as if feminists, working away in secret, were exposed to the world by reporters seeking to shut us down. In fact, the major works of Second Wave feminist writers were published by leading houses (like William Morrow, W.W. Norton, Random House), as well as by major newspapers and national magazines, especially the women's magazines so disdained by the founders of Branching Out and Broadside for carrying ads for beauty products, clothes, and housewares. Ms. Magazine was launched in 1971 as an inclusion (to gauge reader interest) in the very popular, style conscious, and ad rich New York magazine, whose editors had been publishing leading feminist writers for years. The Second Wave changed minds and laws because so many of its thinkers were either mainstream journalists themselves, or worked very hard to get the attention of the press, and succeeded. You don't make change by hiding your ideas in the basement.

And Inside Broadside's pieces do not deal with how Second Wave feminism began. The Second Wave was launched thirty years before Broadside's first issue with the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. In this two volume work, de Beauvoir, by then a renowned existentialist philosopher as well as an editor/publisher of leftist journals in France, laid out the methods and means by which constricting, stultifying, imprisoning gender roles are imposed in patriarchal societies. It is the Ur text of the Second Wave, and it was hugely popular, selling 22,000 copies in its first week. When it was published in English translation in 1953, it was widely read and it greatly influenced Betty Friedan who published her own national bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, ten years later. By then Friedan, formally trained as a psychologist, was a well known writer, having done stories about these issues for leading magazines and newspapers.

I read de Beauvoir, and everything I could find about her, when I was 17 or 18. She was the first female philosopher I'd heard of and I wanted to be one just like her. In The Second Sex she lays out the various ways in which the nuclear family, political and economic structures, religious beliefs and mythologies, combine to reinforce the suppression of women, to make us conspire in our own subjugation. It was brilliant, insightful, and wildly ambitious. The Feminine Mystique was a book of lesser social and historical scope which aimed more at institutional than cultural change. But Friedan wrapped her hands around what she called The Problem With No Name--the dissatisfaction experienced by so many highly educated women, like her, who, after World War II, found themselves relegated through marriage and motherhood to the socially enforced role of perpetual helpmate.

Friedan's broadside kicked off a geyser of Second Wave organizing and publishing in the US. Though author Susan Brownmiller would later call Friedan hopelessly bourgeois, Friedan's success led major publishers to bring out Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, and later, Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. These works were avidly read and relied upon by the women who organized Second Wave groups in the US, UK, France, Europe, and Canada over the next decade.

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