Saturday, 10 December 2011

Reimagining feminism: Lest we forget

In the 1970s, Ottawa Journal women's editor Betty Sarsfield led a protest in front of the newly-minted National Press Club of Canada in Ottawa.

She and fellow women journalists picketed outside the press club because women -- still -- were not allowed to be members. They could be signed in and drink, eat, dance and play with the boys, but they couldn't be card carrying members of the club.

I was shocked when Betty told me the story when I arrived on the scene in the late 70s.

As a child of the Sixties, I had been hand raised on feminism ideals. I knew the feminist mantras by rote. I embraced the romance of it all. I became a true believer.

Obviously, I was living in a dream world created by Mad Men.

"You've come a long way, baby," the television screamed while women in bouffant hairstyles smoked their own elegant cigarettes.

Women on my television were burning their bras, taking pharmaceuticals to make still their babymakers and shedding their garter belts for panty hose.

So why shouldn't I have expected an emancipated world for women working on Parliament Hill?

We could do anything, couldn't we?

But as Betty Sarsfied discovered, there is real and there is Memorex.

Here in Ottawa, it was still an old boys club.

Parliamentary Hill was being run like Hef's Playboy Club. Women were still secretaries who picked up the booze and the laundry on their lunch hours while the boys had three martini lunches.

The world had not changed. Only the rhetoric.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I asked my Facebook community whether feminism had changed their lives. I was following up on a blog I wrote a few months back about Gloria Steinem, in which I mused that feminism really hadn't changed my life all that much.

My point was that, for many of us, we had our consciousness raised only to have it shattered on the rocks of life. We were simply little boats fighting against a tide.

It's a personal view, and I wasn't sure if anyone shared it.

But obviously, I had hit a nerve.

This week, my post went viral, with thousands of hits. Where were these readers coming from? I didn't know if the readers liked the post or not, so I wanted to find out for myself.

I went to the Facebook court of opinion, to the friends and colleagues who had much to say about feminism, and life on Parliament Hill in the old days.

Here's what Christine Hearn, a former Parliament Hill television journalist, had to say.

If we hadn't fought like hell, there would still be very few women in journalism, law, etc. I'm just that much older than you that I remember when women were tolerated in the Press Gallery.

There were only eight women out of about 220 members when I got there. There was always one woman on the executive, no more. I ran for President and lost to Senator Jim (Munson) by two votes.

There had never been an elected female president. Marjorie Nichols took over as president after someone died. There's still a long way to go, especially in politics, but I think we sometimes forget how hard we had to fight in the early 70s to get any respect at all.

Remember...When you applied for a job and were asked if you were on birth control so you wouldn't get pregnant? When the floor director routinely made raunchy comments while counting down to air? And many of the politicians were very free with hugs and pats and inappropriate comments.

Suzanne, a former NDP staffer:

Remember when the women's washroom at the press club was the janitorial closet by the elevator?

Remember when there was a cat-house functioning on the hill, run by MPs of different parties?

Remember MPs and Hill officials hiring their girlfriends, firing staffers to make room? Remember having to wear girdles so as to not jiggle and excite the weaker sex?

Remember when getting married meant you had to quit working? When getting pregnant lost you your job?

Seriously, anyone over fifty could not forget how feminism made a difference. We need a motto like in keeping with the sentiments expressed by our veterans, "Lest We Forget".

I suppose we can say that we've come a long way since I bought my first NDP t-shirt which read: "A woman's place is in the House of Commons."

The numbers don't lie. We've come a long way from low angle ass shots of Iona Campagnolo jogging on Parliament Hill. Even in Prime Minister Harper's conservative and patriarchal government, there are a handful of powerful women. Women have been speakers of both the House and the Senate, they have been governors-general and lieutenant-governors. Not to mention, chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Today, there are lots of deputy and assistant deputy ministers who are women, band leaders in the aboriginal community, union leaders and news anchors. Even the National Press Club Foundation has a woman as president --nearly forty years after Betty and her merry band became squeaky wheels.

Successful and driven women have finally reached their paygrade.

But I also live in a neighborhood where two Muslim lovers were shot dead in a car in an honor killing. We have countless single mothers raising their children in poverty while men skip out on their obligations as husbands and fathers. We have a shameful record on the treatment of women and children freezing in the cold on reserves while the government reacts by sending in auditors instead of aid. And more women than ever work in ghetto jobs in this country.

Feminism has changed the world; there is no doubt and we should be forever grateful to the pioneers like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan in the U.S. as well as Doris Anderson, June Callwood and Judy Rebek here at home.

But feminism has done little to help the plight of average women who, because of circumstances, culture or bad choices, continue to live marginal lives in despair without hope and opportunity.

I'd say feminism changed the face of Parliament Hill in a very short period of time. But it will be decades, if ever, before its goals are realized for many women, here and around the world.

We just have to keep trying.

As Suzanne says: Lest we forget.

Feminism set the bar. We just have to figure out how to help more women reach it.

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