Sunday, 8 March 2020

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

The Third Wave took the Second Wave discourse on power and gave it a hard twist. Third Wave activists looked askance at the institutional power that had been gathered by Second Wave feminists as they built shelters, rape crisis centers, abortion clinics, legal aid clinics to serve women suffering in a misogynist world. Third Wave feminists insisted on the handover of this sort of power acquired by "women of white skinned privilege," as many Second Wave feminists came to be called, to women of colour. This notion of "white skinned privilege" struck me as plain bizarre when I first heard the phrase used at a women's conference financed by the Government of Canada. I thought it was a truly weird form of inverse racism, a divisive idea at odds with the feminist ideal of a sisterhood that includes all women regardless of class, race, or religious inclinations. I could not see how applying preference and deference by race would help anyone. Aside from the fact that the whole concept of race has no scientific validity--just appalling social power-- I also could not see how this "white skinned privilege" applied to me. I am Jewish, and for a large part of the last century, Jews were considered a race apart, not white at all.  (As we have learned recently, white supremacists still insist that Jews are a race apart and shall not "replace them".) I didn't feel privileged, I felt as if I'd earned my way.

And yet: I had clearly acquired privilege, like so many of my peers all of whom were "white." The friends I grew up with had acquired professional credentials or gone to graduate schools and carved out careers for themselves with significant hope of achievement and recognition. Yes, we all had stories to tell about the jerks at the office who thought our bodies were theirs to manhandle. Yes, we could regale each other with hard truths about the boss who refused to pay to us what was being paid to a man doing the same job on the grounds that the man was married. As if marital status mattered a damn to the work done. Yes, we all experienced making an argument in a meeting that wasn't heard or acknowledged until a man repeated it-- as if it was his idea. Yes, we had all experienced a sense of encroaching danger when walking by a man on any urban street at night. But I was also one of Maryon Kantaroff's ambitious women, born lucky into a middle class family that educated me, with a mother pleased to see me use my talents, and all women did not have that experience. The magazine that most allowed me to invent myself as a writer, City Woman, aimed its ads at women like us. I was not seen as a woman of colour when I went out in the world, so: I wasn't routinely followed to make sure I wasn't shoplifting as I walked through a supermarket or a clothing store; I wasn't selected for arrest if I participated in a demonstration because of the tilt of my eyes of the nap in my hair; I wasn't stopped and asked to show my driver's license and ownership while driving because of how I looked.

As barriers fell, and we climbed up, my friends and I, getting closer and closer to those who exercised real power, closer and closer to achieving our ambitions, it was easy to forget that we were leaving sisters behind. Nothing better illustrates where our ambitions took us--took me--than what happened when Judy Chicago's Dinner Party came to Toronto.

The Dinner Party is a fascinating visual argument about how women artists' works were ignored by the male art world even as their talents were taken advantage of. It was shown at various galleries across North America in the late 1970s, and Chicago published an art book to go with it. Leading male art critics pissed all over the Dinner Party. The New York Times' critic called it vulgar. But museum goers loved it and turned it into a major gallery money maker. Fifty thousand people went to see it when it came to Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario.

Branching Out reviewed the book. Broadside reviewed the show. Both found considerable fault. In her "scathing" review of the book, entitled "Vaginal Hype," author Cathy Hobart declared she had spent four days visiting Chicago's studio which she accused Chicago of running like a sweatshop. In Broadside, Susan Crean critiqued the show on the grounds that a fee was charged, that the iconography was too obscure and the artists referenced too unknown to mean anything to anyone unless they paid for the guide, and that "nine of the 13 guests on the third side of the triangular table are American and all but Sacajawca and Sojourner Truth are white, middle class artists and social reformers." The point, said Crean, is that "Chicago's politics are not particularly radical. Her visualization of feminism, rhetoric aside, fits right in with the trendy notions of 'liberated' upper class matrons."

City Woman also ran a story on Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party, written by Natalie Veiner Freeman who helped bring the show to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Veiner Freeman definitely fit anyone's idea of "upper class." She was from a wealthy family and was the spouse of Senator Jack Austin, then a member of Pierre Trudeau's cabinet and inner circle. The night before the show opened in Toronto, Veiner Freeman organized a dinner party to celebrate it. It was held in an empty house rented for the occasion with a marquee attached. Judy Chicago was her honoured guest. So was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who arrived in a limo with Sylvia Tyson as his date. Maurice Strong, the founder of PetroCanada among so many other achievements, came too, and read contracts all night. Other guests included Adrienne Clarkson and her partner, author John Ralston Saul, who had worked with Strong at PetroCanada; Margaret Atwood and her partner, author Graeme Gibson; the Editor of City Woman and her then beau; my husband (ordered to keep his mouth zippered as Trudeau knew him all too well from his days on W-5), and me. We all got a private preview of The Dinner Party with Judy Chicago explaining it to us, just us, no line-up, no crowds. As we walked around her three tables, the Prime Minister and Sylvia Tyson went first with Chicago, followed by Adrienne Clarkson, then a national television star who, in twenty years, would be the first woman of colour appointed Governor General, and Margaret Atwood, already Margaret Atwood though The Handmaid's Tale had not yet emerged from that fertile brain. The two of them walked side by side, they'd been friends for years. The rest of us fell in behind, our positions in the line emblematic of the gradations of social power. Back at the house, Veiner Freeman's dinner tables had been set up like those of The Dinner Party. There were a few small plaster sculptures of black jockeys in livery set out at the door and near the tables, the kind seen on front lawns in the deep South, as if to suggest we were in some southern ante-bellum mansion.

I learned something that night-- that feminists and journalists must never get cosy with the powerful. It makes us forget where we've come from, it makes us susceptible to inappropriate demands, it makes us blind even to our own interests.

It was exclusion from this sort of power that made women of colour demand that white middle class feminists step back from the organizations they'd founded, and hand them over. It was exclusion from government grants in favour of immigrant and black women which made the collective that published Broadside hand the magazine over at the end of 1989. As Masters explained at the time:

"The government's supposed commitment to funding 'doubly disadvantaged' groups (Black women, immigrant women, visible minority women--though clearly not lesbian women) is a reflection of a social movement affecting all feminist groups in Canada. The most crucial aspect of feminism in the past few years has been the efforts to incorporate anti- racist perspectives into feminist practice and analysis. White women have been forced to deal with the issues raised, forced to face the fact that it may no longer be the role of White women to frame the debate and direct the struggle. With the growth of global feminism in the past decade, White feminists are no longer the majority if they ever were."

It was not, Masters continued, that women of colour did not share the issues Broadside covered (which she lists as violence against women, pornography, and, oddly, nuclear arms), it was that Broadside's White lesbian collective had a lopsided view of things, given its makeup, even though it had tried to be anti-racist. The collective, she said, had negotiated with the Black Women's Collective to send their own offering, Our Lives, to Broadside's subscribers instead of giving them their money back. Broadside was therefore folding, but not feminism, Masters insisted.

In this Masters was also wrong: Second Wave feminism, in particular its ideal of sisterhood, was folding. And that too had been signaled in major media first.

At the end of 1988, writer Marlene Nourbese Philip, a woman of colour, picketed as racist an international PEN Congress attended by writers from all over the world. Author June Callwood, one of Toronto's leading White feminists, was then president of the Canadian PEN chapter and had organized that event. On her way home after it was over, the sight of Nourbese Philip with her sign made Callwood so mad she told her to fuck off. The story made the Globe and Mail. Callwood quit the paper, where she was "un-fireable," to save it from the problem of her presence. Three years later, Callwood was again pushed to resign from the board of Nellie's, a feminist women's shelter she'd helped found, not long after Prime Minister Mulroney named Callwood to a blue ribbon panel to convince Canadians to vote in favour of the Charlottetown Accord in a national constitutional referendum. NAC, then led by Judy Rebick, a Trotskyite who had worked on behalf of Morgenthaler when he was criminally charged for performing abortions, and then as an NDP activist, was opposed to the Accord. A group of Black women, some also NDP activitsts, moved in on Nellie's, getting themselves appointed to its egalitarian staff and board. At one memorable board meeting one of them called Callwood a racist and out the door she went again. I wrote a long story about the who, what, where, and why, for
 Toronto Life. While it was hard to get the women involved to talk to me ( mainstream press after all) I eventually found that the motive behind Callwood's ejection was that her absence made it easier to take control of Nellie's, attractive due to its institutional power (not to mention $600,000 squirreled away in its bank account through curious means.) For putting this story in print, Toronto Life was picketed, scaring the crap out of the woman running reception. Judy Rebick wrote a letter of complaint to the Editor. Failing to mention that she had known me for twenty-five years, that we had lived in that commune together for some of those years, she referred to my work as the worst example of yellow journalism she'd ever seen in the mainstream press. 

So much for sisterhood.

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