I resented the stereotypes I faced as a girl in the 1970’s, when pink was for girls and blue was for boys, when dancing was for girls and sports was for boys. In middle school, I rebelled, dressing like a boy in overalls, cutting my hair, and challenging boys in tetherball. My heroes were Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, for holding her own with boys, Tatum O’Neil, for outplaying boys in baseball in the movie, Bad News Bears, and Kristy McNichol, who also sported overalls and a stubborn resistance to feminine wiles in the television series, Family.
So when I’d reached the second page of the introduction in Michele Landsberg’s new book, Writing the Revolution, I was struck by one of her reflections: “It was difference that made me what I became.” She’s referring to her staunch refusal to accept the limitations placed on her as a female in the predominantly male-oriented 1950’s. Seeing the advantages her older brother experienced, just because he was male, set her on a
lifetime crusade for equality. Using powerful and eloquent words, she’s become the icon for female activism in Canada.
As I read how Landsberg peeled back the layers of old-school masculine superiority, I couldn’t help but compare my experiences with hers to see how opinions have changed. What’s interesting, and somewhat disturbing, however, is the fact that although Landsberg is the same age as my
mother, another generation altogether, in many cases things haven’t improved as much as I would have expected.
In her home, for example, Landsberg was annoyed at the disparity between her brother and herself; he was able to attend an elite academic school not open to females.
“I was a child feminist because of the gender preference, privileges, and entitlements heaped on males in our mid-century culture, made
sharply visible to me in the special status awarded my beloved brother, older than I by only a year and a half…I swam against the current in every possible way, defiantly wearing pigtails and my brother’s fly-front blue jeans to my suburban high school in the crinolined and simpering 1950’s.”
In my house, my brother’s affinity for sports, especially hockey, took precedence over everything else. I spent countless weekends at cold arenas breathing in stale coffee, refusing to join the other sisters who had started a cheerleading squad for the team. I sat by myself in the stands,
reading, and wondered what was so interesting about getting a puck into a net. I grew up resenting the sport for all it had taken from me. My brother ended up with a full hockey scholarship to Boston University. Though I’d worked hard in high school, achieving good marks, I received no accolades, no scholarships, and had to work part-time through both of my degrees. Sports, dominated by men when I was growing up, were more important than doing well in school. This was the clear message I received and today, sports scholarships are still going strong, while high academic achievement merits a few thousand dollars. Yes, girls are getting field hockey, soccer, and hockey scholarships now, but there are fewer available; meanwhile boys’ sports continue to dominate with higher-valued scholarships and much more visible front-page media coverage.
As a busy mother of three, trying to balance parenthood and writing, I’m in awe of how well Landsberg merged motherhood, marriage, and
her career, how she wrote so persuasively and emotionally about pivotal issues such as violence against women, child pornography, rape, women’s rights in Afghanistan, and gun control. Her opinions resonated with me, as did her fierce support for both stay-at-home and employed mothers.
“The hypocrisy-soaked phony war between stay-home and employed mothers is the most lying, reeking, rotten red herring that ever
created a diversionary stink.
“All mothers work; almost all will work for pay outside the home at some time in their mothering lives. And no mother, no woman,
created this ridiculously inefficient, human-hating social structure that plops all responsibility for children on the frail shoulders of individual families.”
Well said. And things are slowly changing. There is full-day kindergarten in Ontario now (though its future is in doubt because of the cost), specialized schools for kids with different religions, races, and interests, and parenting courses for single-parents, people new to Canada, and
for parents of kids with special needs.
I think about my oldest child, Amanda, in her first year of university, and how her childhood has differed from mine. She started playing soccer when she was four in a league that had an equal number of boys and girls. She even played on mixed teams for years. Now, she’s studying life
sciences and there are more girls on campus than boys, a trend that is prevalent at every Canadian university. In fact, there are just as many women studying medicine as men, and more females graduating with law degrees than males. Just the fact that she has such high aspirations, and has never felt inhibited because of her sex, makes me realize that her experiences have been different than mine, substantially better.
Much of this progress in equality is due to Landsberg, who wrote columns that have changed the way women are viewed and accepted. As I
finished Writing the Revolution, I wondered who will continue this movement when Landsberg steps down. We need a strong, passionate writer to challenge legal decisions, to hold politicians to their words, and to make sure we keep moving forward, not backward.
“Feminism dead?” she concludes. “They said that from the beginning, and they were always wrong: Feminism is a passion for justice and
equality, and that cannot die.”
–Shelly Sanders’ first book—Rachel’s Secret (Second Story Press)—will be launched on Saturday, April 21, at a different drummer books in
Burlington, Ontario. She has received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council for the sequel.