Sunday 8 March 2020

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

In Feminist Acts, Tessa Jordan suggests that hundreds of small, Xeroxed feminist newsletters plus a few magazines and journals with tiny circulations, carried Second Wave ideas to Canadian women. Apparently, Canadian feminist scholars refer to these homemade publishing ventures as the Print Project. But again, that is not the whole story, not even the main story. Television may actually have played a more formative Second Wave role in Canada, thanks to Bonnie Kreps.

Kreps, a Danish immigrant to the US, was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Reed College with an MA in English from University of Pittsburgh when she arrived in Toronto in the middle 1960s. Her husband had been appointed an assistant Professor of high energy physics at U of T and they had a young daughter whose care had fallen primarily on Bonnie's shoulders as she was earning her Ph.T. ( otherwise known as Putting Hubby Through). She knew the Problem With No Name from hard personal experience and was a committed radical feminist. She was in close contact with women in New York, especially her sister Anne Koedt, who were reformulating de Beauvoir's ideas, women whose seminal feminist works would be published only a few years later.

Kreps, representing no one but herself, presented a Second Wave brief to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1968. She set out the radical feminist analysis of the damage done to women by socially constructed and discriminatory gender roles, and why there must be a radical change in belief systems, not just laws, if women were ever to get out from under them. In other words, she demonstrated how it is that the personal is political, the core idea of the Second Wave, an idea later reflected in the Commission's report. By 1969, Kreps was working at CTV. She launched what became a distinguished filmmaking career with a special documentary for CTV's flagship public affairs show, W-5, called After the Vote: A Report from Down Under. The show went to air before an audience of millions and introduced many Canadians who did not read Chatelaine to Second Wave ideas-- even to those of Ti- Grace Atkinson who called for female separatism. That show was made five years before Branching Out published its first issue, ten years before Broadside was launched.

My husband, Stephen Dewar, was Krep's colleague at CTV which is how I met her, became her friend, and joined the radical feminist group she co-founded called The New Feminists. Its meetings, its consciousness-raising sessions, allowed me to hash through with older and more experienced women the ideas still burning in my brain from reading de Beauvoir. They shared with the group their lived experience of how gender roles oppress: how raising children fell unequally upon women regardless of how much they earned; how men at the top of institutions thought it reasonable to promote men ahead of women regardless of competence simply because they were men; how rape and other forms of physical brutality were used by men to keep women in fear and in their place; how ignorance of our bodies denied many women sexual pleasure; how Patriarchy amounts to a socially organized and socially sanctioned abuse of power. At first there were only a few women in this group. By the time it fell apart a few years later it had 300 members and many other such groups had formed across the country. In a few short months as a New Feminist I learned that if I didn't set aside the notions drummed into me since childhood concerning motherhood, wife-hood, and femininity, I would live and die without ever having a voice of my own. And I wanted that voice.

To give Jordan and Masters their due, their books made me remember my own feminist history. Until Jordan described Branching Out's organizational issues, I'd forgotten how important it was to Second Wave feminists that our organizations be feminist in their internal operations. A vital insight of the Second Wave-- a corollary of the dictum that the personal is political--is that socially approved abuse of power in all its forms-- legal, economic, social, but especially physical-- is what circumscribes women's lives. Radical feminists argued that the way out of bondage was to be the opposite of the male slave master, to embrace egalitarianism, to operate through consensus and without leaders so as to refrain from imposing new structures of power on the previously voiceless and powerless. The opposite of the feminist was the Queen Bee--a woman who fought her way to the top of an organization only to use her power to suppress her sisters.

Both Jordan and Masters discuss how this discourse on power permeated operations at both Branching Out and Broadside. Though Broadside was incorporated as a for profit entity ( to avoid being "taken over" by hard left groups trying to foment a different kind of revolution), it functioned as a leaderless collective. Masters asserts that not one single vote had to be taken in ten years, because, as she put it, its members knew to step back when someone else knew more. By contrast, Branching Out started as a non profit, consensus-driven feminist collective, but according to Jordan, soon discovered that a rudimentary hierarchy was needed. There had to be an editor to drive the publishing process or deadlines would be missed and the magazine would not get to the newsstands. Editing was also necessary for clarity and readability (though at other feminist journals editing was deemed to be power abuse and therefore verboten). Instead of power-free egalitarianism, Branching Out offered its volunteers colleagial autonomy, similar to the way we worked at Maclean's Magazine at that time. We had a boss, Peter C. Newman, who could fire us if we screwed up, but we dreamed up our own story ideas which were then thrashed out further in editorial meetings. Submitted pieces were circulated to all editors for comment and if there were disagreements they had to be resolved or the piece would not be published. At one editorial meeting when Maclean's still had an outside editorial board, I had a fight with Barbara Frum, then a member, over whether or not I should ask Myrna Kostash to write a piece on rape as a crime of power aimed at the mental as well as physical subjugation of women. Frum insisted rape is an assault like any other: I countered with Brownmiller's argument, that it is the very definition of the abuse of power by men over women, the fear of which keeps women in their place. Maclean's ran Kostash's story.

But as with so many theories about social change, the main product of this insight about power was not freedom from it, but endless disputes in feminist groups over who was acting like a leader when there weren't supposed to be any, who was hogging the limelight, who was actually making decisions while merely pretending to honour consensus. While we recognized how we suffered from the abuse of power, we failed to appreciate that social hierarchy is basic to all primate societies and not easily curtailed. More to the point, we failed to appreciate how consensus could become a vise throttling the ambitions of the women who drove the Second Wave.

Renowned sculptor and fellow New Feminist Maryon Kantaroff explained this to me when I interviewed her in 1977 in Toronto for a story in Weekend Magazine on why the New Feminists folded. ( This piece is referred to in Inside Broadside with some disdain). Kantaroff explained that she had grown tired of moving at the pace of the slowest, but even more tired of being the group's workhorse. "All of us who were the real driving forces were, without exception, very personally ambitious women. Feminism liberated our personal ambitions," she said. "...There came a time when we could say, now, my work. I've got to go ahead." Kantaroff by then had come to believe that to make change, power had to be grasped, it would never be given up voluntarily by those wielding it. That's why she intended to start a political party --The Feminist Party-- that would be "totally elitist, totally elitist...They'll be knocking down the doors to be in this elite group of feminists who are organizing a political structure."

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  1. I understand why feminism is a thing with women.. but I don't agree with it.. its a divisive endeavour.. and by the way.. I have never been on my knees Elaine..
    Here's one you might find worthwhile from Charlie Ward:

  2. You think women should be treated unequally to men? Paid less? Hired for only certain kinds of jobs? Permitted to enter only certain kinds of professions? Charged with all the childrearing and none of the decision making? Owning no property? No vote? That was the lot of all women before the vote and before the Second Wave. You were on your knees. You just didn't notice.