January 20, 2005
One big happy family, it was not.
The women's movement in Canada was rancorous and chaotic for much of its 35-year history. But it achieved more, lasted longer and became more racially and ideologically diverse than any feminist coalition in the world.
Both sides of the story the amazing solidarity and the destructive incivility are told with equal honesty in a soon-to-be-released book entitled Ten Thousand Roses.
It is an account of Canadian feminism from its idealistic beginnings in the '60s to its withering in the '90s. It captures, in the words of the women who were there, the moments of triumph and the years of struggle, the high ideals and petty rivalries, the lessons learned and those that women have yet to learn.
Author Judy Rebick, former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, wanted to pull together the collective memoir while the key players were still alive. Sadly, veteran feminists Kay Macpherson and Rosemary Brown did not get to share their recollections.
But 82 other women, from former Conservative cabinet minister Flora Macdonald to poet and civil rights activist Dionne Brand, contributed to the book. It took Rebick two years to do the interviews. She ended up with a painfully frank, yet inspiring, glimpse into what it takes to make a revolution.
We weren't sisterly in the early days, Rebick said. We were trying to find our way in a very polarized culture and we took on a lot of the elements of patriarchy.
But we developed new ways of making decisions and sharing power. We learned to unite across the differences of class, age and politics. We succeeded, for a time, in creating a multiracial women's movement with strong leadership from women of colour, aboriginal women and immigrant women. To my knowledge, this has not happened anywhere else in the world.
Rebick's story begins with a call to action that appeared in the pages of the Toronto Star 45 years ago.
Legendary Star columnist Lotta Dempsey had just watched the collapse of the Paris Summit on nuclear disarmament. I felt like shutting my eyes to the whole terrifying mess, she wrote. But the grave headlines wouldn't let me. I had to face the fact that the world was in cataclysmic danger of dissolving.
The best hope, Dempsey decided, was to rally half of humanity to stop the arms race. Women the world over must refuse to allow this thing to happen, she urged. Let us scream for the preservation of children all over the world.
Out of that appeal came Voice of Women, a group of peace activists bound by their gender and their willingness to stand up to male authorities. They built a worldwide disarmament network and laid the foundation of Canadian feminism.
Layer after layer of women's activism was built on that bedrock. First came the campus radicalism of the '60s, then the abortion rights drive of the '70s, then the pay equity and constitutional battles of the '80s and finally the push for inclusion by lesbians, women with disabilities, aboriginal women and women of colour.
In each case, there were tensions between radicals and moderates; grass-roots activists and women who wanted to work within the political system; feminists from different regions, backgrounds and generations.
NAC (the National Action Committee on the Status of Women) was the harshest political experience I ever had, said Chaviva Hosek, who chaired the organization in the mid '80s then went on to become an Ontario cabinet minister and adviser to former prime minister Jean Chrétien. I was shocked by the divisiveness and became angry about it. But I stayed because I cared about the issues and learned so much.
Pat Israel, a feminist in a wheelchair, recounts how she had to fight her way into NAC, riding stinking freight elevators to its meetings and being stuck in out-of-the-way balconies and anterooms. I thought: Wow, this is a lot of work. It is a real clear indication of how unwelcoming the women's movement is to us.
The picture Rebick paints is not always pretty. But she shows how women kept moving forward and enlarging the circle. We made it last longer (in Canada) than anywhere else, she points out. And it was because of the diversity. Feminism would have betrayed its vision and therefore lost its purpose if it had continued to marginalize the poorest and most oppressed women to favour those more privileged.
Rebick ends her story with the revolution's dying burst of glory.
In 1995, the Fédération des femmes du Québec organized a women's march against poverty. Close to 800 women participated in the 10-day trek from Montreal to Quebec City, singing as they went. Churches rang their bells as the women passed through each village.
A florist in Drummondville was so moved that he delivered 10,000 roses to the Plains of Abraham for the final rally. That is where Rebick got the title for her book.
Some would say the 1990s was the decade in which the women's movement died on the vine, she says. I prefer to think of it as a decade that produced abundant rosehips to seed the next generation of feminist fighters.
Tomorrow: the future of feminism.
Reproduced with permission Torstar Syndication Services. Carol Goar is a columnist for the Toronto Star.