Ten Thousand Roses is a rich tapestry of stories told by over a hundred feminists from across Canada who organized, discussed, protested and struggled for change.
Legalized abortion, resistance to male violence, pay equity and employment equity, legal equality through the Charter, pornography, anti-racism, action against poverty, rights for Aboriginal women and child care: these are the issues that rallied Canadian women to activism from the 1960s through the 1990s, the second wave of feminism. Judy Rebick, feminist activist, weaves together an insightful and stirring oral history full of four decades of struggle, defeat and triumph. The book also offers honest and insightful discussions of the differences that simultaneously divided and strengthened the women's movement in its efforts to remake a male-dominated culture. These stories define the Canadian women's movement as one of the most successful on the planet and open a treasure chest of knowledge for anyone wanting to make a better world.
The sight of women talking together has always made men uneasy;
nowadays it means rank subversion.
When the paris summit on disarmament broke up without solutions in 1960, Toronto Star journalist Lotta Dempsey wrote a column calling on women to do something about the threat of imminent nuclear war. Thousands of women responded. A few of them met with Dempsey, and from that meeting came a new group called Voice of Women. Within months, five thousand women across Canada had joined.
VOW’s members had much in common politically with first-wave feminists, who had fought for women’s suffrage and believed that having more women in public life would create a more just and more peaceful society. But Voice of Women was also, as pioneer feminist and scientist Ursula Franklin points out, “the seedbed for the second wave of feminism.” Organizing in the middle of the Cold War, the group courageously stood up to the anti-Soviet hysteria of the time, insisting that women from the Soviet Union and Canada could get together to talk about peace. According to founding member Muriel Duckworth,
Voice of Women founders had the idea of women as lifegivers. That was the basis on which a lot of women joined: accepting that women are lifegivers and therefore we cannot go out there killing people.
Voice of Women had our first international conference of women for peace in 1962. Almost as soon as we were founded, we began connecting with women all over the world. One of the chief underlying principles was that the women of the world were not our enemies, and we were not going to behave as if they were. We were going to make contact with them no matter where they lived.
As Ursula Franklin recalls, this personal contact between women permitted them to move past the stereotypes the Cold War had created:
Voice of Women invited Soviet women to come to Canada and talk about early childhood education in ’62 or ’63. We had to raise all the money, and it took great courage from both the Soviet women and the Canadian women. When the Soviet women arrived, they were naturally apprehensive. I noticed one had a cold, so I grabbed my handbag and gave her some vitamin C, and she smiled with relief. Now what man would do that to break down barriers? That commonality is also part of feminism.
One of Voice of Women’s most effective early campaigns was to collect baby teeth from mothers across North America. The teeth, which showed high levels of strontium-90, a product of radiation, were used to pressure U.S. President John F. Kennedy to stop aboveground nuclear testing in Nevada. VOW also focused its efforts on the Canadian government, as Muriel Duckworth explains:
We took the strong political position that Canada should not have nuclear arms. We were very, very upset when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson allowed them. Pearson was supposed to be the man for peace, you know. But he brought nuclear arms into Canada on New Year’s Eve, 1964, sort of secretly. It was a shock to everybody that he would do that so soon after he became prime minister.1The Voice of Women also took a very strong position on Canada not getting involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The risks Voice of Women took promoted in action the idea that the women’s liberation movement would later develop, as Ursula Franklin points out:
Protesting the Pearson government on nuclear arms lost Voice members, and we lost members by bringing in the Soviet women. We undertook these actions in the full knowledge that they were difficult and controversial and that we’d lose members. But it was an enormous contribution to the liberation of women to show women on the practical level that you could take these risks and survive. Many women feared that their public gestures would affect their kids at school. There were some divorces, but we didn’t lose our jobs. Voice of Women was about politics and sharing food and resources, and there was a great deal of friendship on a daily basis. We made considerable gains of knowledge and social perspective. The empowering part of it came from doing something that was so uncommon and unpopular, and surviving and doing it cheerfully.
Women learned how to organize through Voice of Women, how to hold a press conference. Voice was always a bilingual organization. We worked out the language differences by having people speak the language they were most comfortable in, and by placing bilingual people with those who weren’t. Later, women went into politics, consciousness-raising, equity and the law, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the environmental movement, and many went into the fight against nuclear power.
Voice of women was ahead of its time. In general, the second wave of feminism is agreed to have started in 1963, with the publication in the United States of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Years before young radicals discovered feminism, the generation of women before them was starting to push against the constraints of what Friedan called “the problem with no name.” “The problem,” she writes, “lay buried, unspoken, many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century … [A woman] was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’”
While Friedan summed it up, Canadian women had been reading about this “problem with no name” for several years by that time. Doris Anderson had taken the helm of the women’s magazine Chatelaine in 1957—the first woman in that position—and begun to publish feminist articles long before the mainstream had a notion of the women’s movement to come. In her autobiography, Rebel Daughter, Anderson describes why:
It became obvious to me that many of our readers shared a common problem—frustration.… With children in school and time on their hands, many were bored and longed to get a job.… But husbands often considered a working wife a reflection on their masculinity. “No wife of mine is going out to work!” was a common rallying cry.
With a sense of irony, Anderson recounts what happened when Betty Friedan asked if Chatelaine would serialize her book: “We discussed it and decided that we had already printed all that stuff.”
No one could have realized that Friedan’s book would spark such widespread recognition among women. Dorothy Inglis, a founder of Voice of Women and later of the St. John’s Women’s Centre, describes her reaction:
I read it thoroughly, and all my friends read it. At every party, it was the topic of discussion. It was a revelation to me that other women were feeling what I felt. I hadn’t enunciated it to myself. I missed being a social worker, which I had given up once I got pregnant. I loved social work. Now I was a stay-at-home mother except over the summers, when I would fill in for social workers on vacation and my husband would pitch in. I had three small children I adored, and I loved being a mother and was very happy with my husband. But I also felt that I was a person, although I wasn’t able to say that; I wasn’t even conscious of what I was thinking. And then there was this book. It said I didn’t have to feel guilty. I didn’t know other women had this funny feeling.
Women everywhere began to act on their new awareness. In 1966 Thérèse Casgrain, a leader in the Quebec’s women’s struggle to get the vote and a VOW activist, founded the Fédération des femmes du Québec. That same year, led by feminist Laura Sabia, a group calling themselves the Committee for the Equality of Women in Canada formed in Toronto to campaign for the establishment of a Royal Commission on the status of women. In 1967, after the committee’s polite briefs were ignored by the federal government, Sabia upped the ante. “We’re tired of being nice about trying to get an official enquiry into women’s rights in Canada,” she told The Globe and Mail. “If we don’t get a royal commission by the end of this month, we’ll use every tactic we can. And if we have to use violence, damn it, we will.” Pearson set up the Royal Commission later that year, and the commission’s cross-country hearings provided a rallying point for the emerging women’s movement.
It was not just Friedan’s generation that was waking up to the world around it. Young women, entering university in larger numbers than ever before, were drawn into the student activist movements of the time. The 1960s was a decade of revolutionary change. National liberation struggles against colonialism and imperialism were on the rise across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The United States and Soviet Union continued to battle for world hegemony, but the Cold War’s hold began to be burned away first by the American civil rights movement and then by an unprecedented youth radicalization. The civil rights movement had been protesting what amounted to apartheid in the southern United States since the 1950s, and both the non-violent struggle led by Reverend Martin Luther King and the more militant Black Power movement, led by Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, inspired young people and people of African origin around the world. The first mass resistance in the United States to the Cold War was against the war in Vietnam. In Europe, young people took inspiration from the anti-colonial liberation struggles against their own governments. The student revolt and subsequent mass strike in May and June of 1968 in France were widely seen as a revolutionary mobilization that inspired young activists on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Canada, the decade began with the Quiet Revolution, which swept Quebec into the twentieth century with dramatic flair. In a few short years, under the leadership of Premier Jean Lesage, the Quebec government loosened the grip of the Catholic Church on education, modernized labour laws, abolished the law that declared married women minors and nationalized hydroelectric power. By mid-decade, three of Quebec’s brightest leaders, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, dubbed by the media “the three wise men,” had accepted Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s invitation to participate in his government in Ottawa. Despite that Pearson was prime minister for most of the decade, it was Trudeau’s leadership and charm that defined the Canadian government in the 1960s.
The student, anti-war and civil rights movements in the United States, as well as the revolutionary youth movements in Europe, inspired young people in Canada to activism as well. In the spirit of the times, they organized, occupied, demonstrated and insisted on being heard by those in power. Organizations such as the Student Union for Peace Action, the Canadian Union of Students, Students for a Democratic University and the Union générale des étudiants du Québec represented what came to be called the New Left in Canada. In 1969 the Waffle, a mostly young left-wing nationalist current, challenged the New Democratic Party leadership and ran up against the party’s anti-Communism; the Waffle itself was not Communist, but the League for Socialist Action, a Trotskyist organization, was active within its ranks. The Front de libération du Québec, formed in 1963, identified the struggle for Quebec independence with the black liberation struggle in the United States and the Algerian anti-colonial struggle. While the FLQ’s numbers were small, the group’s influence, particularly through their writing, was especially strong among youth.
The creative political thinking and actions of these young activists transformed North American culture and society. Their challenges to authority on everything from sexuality, the nuclear family and the length of one’s hair to the nature of democracy itself had a fundamental and lasting impact. But the young women in these radical movements played just as subordinate a role to male activists as their mothers did to their fathers. When they got tired of walking three steps behind their men, they too revolted. They called their movement “women’s liberation.”
It started in Canada with the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement, founded in 1967, and mushroomed from there. The Feminine Action League was established at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, soon followed by the Women’s Caucus in Vancouver. By 1969 similar groups existed in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Kingston, Guelph, Hamilton, Halifax, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Edmonton and Montreal. A mimeographed article entitled “Sisters, Brothers, Lovers, Listen …” was passed eagerly from hand to hand among women in the New Left. It denounced the “male chauvinism” of their comrades and ended with the declaration, “We are going to be typers of letters and distributors of leaflets no longer.”
Men on the left did not watch this development passively, as Vancouver activist Jean Rands recalls:
The student movement was dominated by articulate young men who were arrogant and full of themselves. Women were intimidated, and there was a lot of nasty, misogynist stuff that happened. When the student left organization at Simon Fraser University invited some left-wing activists from Germany to speak, the women’s caucus there decided to hold a meeting with the woman member. The male left was so outraged that we would have a woman-only meeting that they tried to drown us out.
Everywhere that women stood up, men freaked out. Denise Kouri remembers what it was like for Saskatoon Women’s Liberation, one of the most active groups in the country:
Our group of activists was small, and people were such jerks to us. When we were doing the women’s educational table on campus, the engineers rigged up a cannon and bombed us with oranges. Men would actually say things like, “You’re ugly and just need a good fucking.”
But the hostile male reaction simply spurred young feminists on. In fact, it was often this reaction that caused things to click for them, as Waffle activist Martha Tracey recalls:
One of the epiphanies for me was a Waffle meeting in Regina. A woman and three men were planning to move east, and I remember that one guy got up and talked about how three very important people to the organization were leaving. It was so abundantly clear who he was leaving out. At that point I had really thought that we were equal in the organization, and I was absolutely appalled. It was a very emotional moment for me.
Feminism reached deep into all the radical circles in Canada. Akua Benjamin arrived in Canada from Trinidad in the middle of the radical ferment in Toronto’s black community:
In those days there were lots of support groups for African liberation movements. There was anti-racist organizing. There was the White Paper on Immigration in 1966, and, of course, the student struggle at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in 1969.2We had all kinds of rallies and forums to talk about these various issues.
The women were the workhorses in these organizations. We did the cooking and the cleaning. The men would get up and talk and talk. Men were the leaders, and we were told to do the grunge work. Anne Cools came to one of these meetings, and she blasted the men. She challenged us women in the room as to why we were not talking. In those days, I just sat quietly in the back of the room. I would sit there and sweat. I was afraid to speak, afraid that I would get shut down. Anne cursed the men out, saying, “fucking” this and “fucking” that. We had never heard a woman talk like that. She really empowered me. After that I thought, “I’m going raise my voice.”
In Quebec, radical youth identified closely with national liberation struggles, seeing Quebec as akin to a Third World country. The women’s movement was closely linked with national liberation, as described by union activist Monique Simard:
In the late 1960s, feminism was emerging in Quebec, but it was very, very interlinked with all the other social movements at the time, the nationalist question, the trade union movement. The slogan of the women’s liberation movement was, “There can be no liberation of Quebec without women’s liberation, and no women’s liberation without the liberation of Quebec.” So it was a total environment.
I supported le Front de libération des femmes du Québec, FLF. I was not a member, but I was around. There were huge demonstrations at that time. There were taverns, pubs, forbidden to women, and there was this huge demonstration where women went into the pubs and were chained together so we could not be removed. We were all arrested.
Probably the most famous women’s action of the 1960s was the protest against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in 1968. But a year later, Canadian women carried out an even more effective protest against beauty pageants. At the time a young student who had just discovered feminism, Judy Darcy tells this story:
In a meeting in December 1969 of the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement (TWLM), there was discussion of the Miss Canadian University Pageant that was slated to happen in January of 1970. Miss Simon Fraser University was planning to disrupt the pageant, but when the organizers got wind of it, they decided to disqualify her. Feminists needed another protest candidate, and women asked me.
I went to a meeting of the student government and asked if I could be Miss York University. They were shocked and wondered what I was up to. After a debate they said, okay, but don’t tell us what you’re going to do. I didn’t have to go through any process; I just got declared Miss York University. I went undercover to pageant preparations for several days, sneaking out for strategy meetings. As part of the contest, we had blind dates and went out to events with these guys. They were placing bets on us. It was an excruciating experience for a young feminist.
On the night of the pageant, there was a demonstration outside as we walked in on the arms of our blind dates. The pageant started, and we had to walk in a T formation. I was one of the seven semi-finalists. I’m sure the judges knew what I was up to, and they thought it would be a choice thing to do. They awarded Miss Congeniality, and then it was the drum roll and the envelope please. Janille Jolley, a member of TWLM, came in from outside chanting and demanding the right to speak. This was being televised. She marched up to the podium and got in a spat with the MC. They stopped filming. She denounced the beauty pageant, and the MC tried to stop her by saying she wasn’t a contestant. Then I was allowed to speak. I yelled, “It’s true, it’s a meat market, and they do exploit women.” We marched out singing “Solidarity Forever.” We came this close to having Miss Memorial University and Miss Queen’s walk out too.
I was terrified, and the media report said I was crying. It was incredibly stressful and scary. It was like going back into an incredibly oppressive culture after I felt I had left it all behind. I did it for the movement. I felt it was important to put aside personal considerations for the cause. Once it was over, though, we felt proud of it. It got a lot of coverage, and it had a ripple effect. We made a powerful statement, and it did make a difference.
Protesting mainstream notions of female beauty was important, but the focus of women’s liberation groups was much broader: Feminists organized to give women control over their own bodies. In the middle of what was called the sexual revolution, abortion was illegal, as was distributing birth control information. Women across the country did abortion referral and set up information tables on campuses. The Birth Control Handbook published by the McGill Student Society in 1968 became an underground bestseller across North America. In part because of women’s organizing, the House of Commons passed an omnibus bill in 1969 that covered abortion, birth control and homosexuality. The new law decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults and made birth control legal, but it placed serious restrictions on abortion. Feminists continued to organize.
Women’s health and sexuality were common topics of discussion in the consciousness-raising groups that women began to set up across the country. Talking together in small groups in someone’s kitchen or living room, women began to realize that what they had thought were personal problems were really social and political. Friedan’s “problem with no name” turned out, for many young women, to be the sexist nature of relationships. “The personal is political” became the movement’s cri de cœur. Regina union activist Pat Gallagher recalls the power of those first experiences of female solidarity:
I was in a very oppressive marriage, and it was very revealing to me that I wasn’t a crazy person for feeling really upset about being in an exploitive relationship. The women’s liberation movement opened up a tremendous number of doors for me. All of a sudden I felt released.
As a way of reclaiming their bodies and their sexuality, women in consciousness-raising and self-help groups often devoted some time to examining their vaginas. As these three Saskatoon feminists remember with considerable amusement, it was an important step in their liberation:
audrey hall: Self-examination was very popular. CBC came to my house, and a group of us got together with our speculums and our mirrors, reclaiming our cervixes. I wrote an article for Canadian Nurse about it.
denise kouri: People found it pretty shocking. I remember a more traditional left-wing woman saying to us one time, “While you’re looking at your cervix, we’re looking at the world.”
gwen gray: Ah, but we found the world in our cervixes.
Learning more about themselves led women to wanting to learn more about one another. There has since come to be an enormous body of work written about women through the discipline of women’s studies, but in the 1960s, there was almost nothing. In 1968 Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, a professor at Sir George Williams University turned on to feminism by reading Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, decided with a friend to create and teach such a course. Their class was packed, as Greta remembers:
A lot of what we integrated into the course came from the students themselves. They did their big assignments on things close to their hearts. We would begin to develop a database of the research these students did. One woman’s grandmother had been a labour organizer in the needle trade in Montreal. She did a project on this. She brought us the soup that her grandmother served. We were looking forward to homemade soup, but it turned out to be a can of Campbell’s soup, as an example of what a working woman needed.
By the end of the 1960s, there were three streams of feminism in Canada: VOW peace activists; the middle-class mothers and career women who belonged to established groups such as the Canadian Federation of University Women and the YWCA; and the young radicals. Since many young feminists had come from the anti–Vietnam War movement, Voice of Women saw them as important new allies. And despite the slogan of the period, “Never trust anyone over thirty,” young feminists quickly saw how much they had in common with these activist women. In 1971, VOW organized public meetings and conferences all across Canada where Vietnamese women spoke to hundreds of American women, who came to Canada to meet them and were supposedly their enemies. Young feminists welcomed and supported this important contribution to the anti-war movement. As a new decade dawned, the three streams of feminism flowed together to form the second wave of the Canadian women’s movement.