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So hard to say goodbye


par Michele Landsberg, journaliste

This last column is the hardest one to write. A rush of memories (battles won and lost, battles ongoing) tangles with hopelessly mixed emotions. Happily, I’ll have time to write those books a patient publisher expected two years ago, or even, for once, to mulch my garden before spring thaw sets in.

And yet, although I’ll be returning to these pages from time to time with freelance pieces, it’s so hard to turn my back for good on the steady framework of my working life : the office, the colleagues, the tick-tock of deadlines, the power and pay of a staff column in the country’s biggest paper, the chance to sound off on subjects dear to my feminist soul.

Just last week, during a series of lectures at the University of Windsor, I repeatedly heard the old refrain : "I’m not a feminist because I don’t hate men," or "I don’t say I’m a feminist because I don’t want people to think I’m a man-hater." I first tackled that one back in 1978, when I began writing daily for the Star’s Family section.

In our culture, now as then, claiming equal rights and power with men is deemed to be the equivalent of hating them individually. It’s an idiotic fabrication, but an effective tactic to shut up girls and women who would rather be gagged than risk social isolation.

Even women who actively fight sexism may back-pedal furiously for fear of being called feminist. One of my early columns lamented the doubletalk of a 20-year-old female security guard who was fired from her job at Queen’s Park because she got pregnant. "I’m not a women’s libber," she said, using the put-down lingo of that era, "but I do believe in equal pay for equal work...."

I’d been hired by the late editor-in-chief, Martin Goodman, after he tutored me, during an interview in his spacious office, in what he meant by "the women’s column."

"You see the CN Tower out there ? Now, if I look out and see a man climbing that tower, that’s front-page news. If I look out and see a woman climbing that tower, that’s women’s news," he explained solemnly.

I smiled and took the job. And the Star, buoyed by a hugely positive reader response, never once, in all these years, faltered in its strong support for my activist writing.

Those were heady days for the newly vigorous women’s movement. We were knocking down unjust laws like bowlers on a roll. Governments yielded to public pressure and began to fund our activist, research and lobby groups.

When Canada’s Supreme Court crystallized the injustice faced by women in the infamous Murdoch divorce case of ’73 (the prairie wife was denied any share in the ranch where she had worked equally beside her husband for 25 years), the public outcry was so great that almost every province promptly reformed its matrimonial property laws.

Writing five columns a week, I had space to be goofy, have fun, write personally and still analyze the news with a beady feminist eye. I delighted in winkling out the woman’s "side" of a news story that was being hostilely commented on by every other columnist in town.

Feminism, to me, embraced everything in a woman’s self-determining life, from chicken soup recipes to the NestlĂ© boycott to fighting like a banshee to save female refugees from being deported back to murderous husbands or governments.

The Star got behind many of these battles with extra space, photographs and even editorials - and we often won. There are women alive today because the Star helped me fight for them.

Readers often thought, because of occasional critical letters on the letters page, that I faced a daunting wall of opposition. The opposite was true. From the beginning, women and many men responded to the message with buoying affirmation.

Some of my toughest struggles were internal. Indignant readers taught me to stretch my empathy to include all sorts of previously ignored sensitivities. I learned that my writing only got better and richer when I forced myself to feel the impact of other people’s ugly sufferings (incest, emotional battery) that I would rather have ignored.

It was a continuing, often reluctant, education of the heart.

There were weeks when I had to open several hundred letters and, poring over them, learned rare lessons about the lives of welfare mothers, the disabled, the racially marginalized. I crammed those letters into overstuffed files, unwilling ever to part with these trustingly offered testaments of life.

In the early days, the feminist and grassroots movements had such momentum that readers responded in the thousands, and even tens of thousands, to Star-led campaigns.

I called on readers to save threatened drop-in centres, shelters, children’s services, theatre groups, libraries - and you responded magnificently, personally, with money and passionate letters to governments.

What a privileged life : I never had to cover an issue I didn’t care about or write a word I didn’t wholeheartedly believe.

There were, however, toxic stories that took up habitation in my inmost being and never left. I was haunted by the horrors inflicted on raped and assaulted women. Sometimes, the damage done to little sexual abuse victims - and their frequent betrayal by the criminal injustice system - kept me from sleep at night. I know the true names of dozens of doctors, ministers and psychotherapists who sexually exploited women and children and were never held to account. I know the stories from their victims, who had to tell someone who would listen.

People frequently ask me why, despite past successes, the women’s movement seems so dormant now, and why young women who are heir to feminist-won freedoms seem to be so in thrall to the wedding industry, the sex-as-fashion business, and all the other retro enterprises that trap women in an anti-feminist time warp.

I think I know why. Feminism surged into the mainstream, forged new freedoms and rights, and, by naming hidden crimes and dragging them into the light, established a panoply of services (shelters, rape crisis and feminist counselling) that are still absolutely vital. But the backlash - men’s fears of women’s empowerment - fuelled the triumph of right-wing governments. Now we’re drowning in crude gender stereotypes generated by pop culture media, all of them owned by a few ultra-conservative corporations. Above all, women’s activism was kneecapped by government cutbacks. Under conservative prodding and Paul Martin’s knife, women’s activist lobby groups lost their core funding and fell silent.

All the movement’s energy goes into preserving the women’s services we created with so much hope and now sustain with such exhausting effort. This fall, for sad example, the overworked staff of a local sexual assault centre spent overtime hours baking 175 apple pies to raise charity money.

I’m confident that women will turn to feminist activism again when hard-won rights are visibly threatened. We know what injustice looks like. We have named the oppressions that were once invisible, from unequal pay to sexual harassment. And we have the legal and constitutional tools to fight back. Young feminists, and there are many, will drive the issues forward in new directions. The movement is global now ; we have to keep pressuring media to reflect that reality.

So long, Star readers, you who have been "my secret sharers" through my years of writing about the raising of three children, my struggles with weight, cigarettes and breast cancer, my garden mania, my long and happy marriage, and political passions and imbroglios too numerous to list. I’ll miss that nourishing contact with so many of you, more than I can say.

PS : Don’t send flowers - vote David Miller instead.

The "Toronto Star", Nov. 1, 2003.

On Sisyphe Nov. 4, 2003

Michele Landsberg, journaliste

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