Friday, October 27, 2006

Flashback Friday: All 80s Retro Night

Oops! Edited to add the rest of her post. Sorry, Mad Hatter!

I am so pleased to present the first ever guest blogger on Write About Here. So to introduce the fair Mad Hatter, what better way than to spread the love once more. I first discovered Mad Hatter when I did a search for accidental attachment parents, and I liked her blog immediately. She's a wonderful writer with a great librarian sense of humour that makes me feel smart because I even get some of her literary allusions, but not so smart as to get all of them. Her posts are always finely crafted, from the title to the last word. Since that discovery, I have learned that she is passionate, not just as a mother, but as a citizen and as a woman. Without further ado, I give you the Mad Hatter.

I became a feminist when I was 21, a half a lifetime ago. I was in my third year of an undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario majoring in English, and I must admit that my early feminist politics were more textual than sexual. During that year, I became aware of just how little of the literature I was studying was produced by women. This was the
great age of canon revision in the academy. Feminists, race scholars, working class scholars and others were just beginning to call into question the assumptions behind “great literature” and just how such assumptions excluded a vast range of exceptional artistic voices. Gilbert and Gubar had published Shakespeare’s Sisters and The Madwoman in the Attic not long before. To be a young woman on campus at that time was to notice this slip between literary theory and institutional practice and to be impatient for change. Most of the courses I took were definitely
behind the times.

Not to mention the fact that in three years of an Arts degree I had only encountered one—yes one—female professor. There was a male Canadian Literature professor in the department who wore a tie with a pig on it that carried the slogan “male chauvinist pig”; he seldom included women on his syllabus. This was Canadian literature in the mid-1980s and he included no women: no Atwood, no Laurence, no P. K. Page, no nothin’. Go figure. There was another professor of Modernism who referred to T.S. Eliot as “the real Eliot” in a deliberate sneer at the great 19th-century woman fiction writer, George Eliot. Change was on the breeze and it left many an old boy with his hackles up.

As I became aware of this reality in the academy, I started noticing it everywhere I looked. CFNY, the hip Toronto radio station at the time, had a play-list that was almost all male artists and bands. Any end-of-the year, top whatever, music countdowns seemed to exclude women altogether. This was happening in the age of Patti Smith, Chrissy Hynde, Deborah Harry, Siouxsie Sioux, Exene Cervenka, and the Go Gos. Once again, go figure. I noticed that it cost me 5 times as much to get my hair cut as it did for my male friends. My clothes were more expensive, more restrictive, and more sexualized. Movie stars were usually men or sexualized women. The rich ones were all men; Julia Roberts had not come along to put women actors into any kind of colossal income bracket. At the time, Fatal Attraction was playing in movie theatres. Men beware women. Women beware women.

In retrospect, it seems to me that my early feminism was “consumer feminism”. I saw discrimination in all cultural and consumer products. At this age I desperately wanted to see my life and my experience as a woman reflected in pop culture and so I approached cultural revision with a missionary zeal. I made all-women mixed tapes. I wore men’s clothing. I only attended foreign films at the rep cinema. I read the classics of the women’s literary tradition. (Ya, I know there are problems with this philosophy but I was very young at the time.)

It was only when I started my Master’s degree at Queen’s University in 1988 that I really began to see issues beyond my own insular academic and entertainment world. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s therapeutic abortion law as unconstitutional. A short while later a young woman in Quebec, Chantale Daigle, was taken to court by an ex-boyfriend who tried to prevent her from having an abortion. Reproductive freedom became a heated, mainstream issue. Rallies were common across Canada and I found myself staunchly on the side of choice. My feminism was now one of the body politic—the body as a battle ground for autonomy and control.

During this same period trouble was brewing at Queen's. There were a number of sexual assaults on campus and for the first time ever I was afraid to walk alone at night. I had uncomfortable sexual experiences with men I had chosen to escort me-nothing too untoward but uncomfortable nonetheless. I began attending "Take Back the Night" marches.

In the fall of 1989, the university launched a "No means No" date rape awareness campaign. Date rape was a relatively new concept at the time. At Queen's, residence culture was crass and strong; a number of young men in one of the residences started mocking this campaign by posting signs in their windows: windows that faced an all-women residence; signs that carried
slogans like "No Means Kick Her in the Teeth" or "No Means Tie Her Up." When the university failed to hand down disciplinary charges to the men involved, a group of strong-willed young women on campus donned scarves to protect their identity and staged a sit-in of the University President's Office. The story made national headlines. Queen's tried to cover up the mess rather than deal with it. Feminist politics were now front and centre on this now confrontational and polarized campus.

I can say now that I have been a feminist for 20 years but in doing so I don't want to make it sound as if I have always known who I was and what was right or wrong about the world around me. I didn't know then and I still don't know. I like to think I am always evolving but I am sure there have been patches of regression along the way. When I look back now on this turbulent time, I realize that in these years what I was really doing was growing up. I was learning who I was as an individual and as a woman. I was testing out ideology and I was trying to find a way to make the world a better place and to make it a place that was a better reflection of who I was trying to become. Sure, I was short-sighted and narrow-minded in many of my beliefs but wasn't I doing exactly what one is supposed to do in university? I was growing up and trying to learn something important in the process.

And then, in the midst of all this, it was December 6, 1989 and the world changed. Forever. I have written about the Montreal massacre on my own blog but I still don't feel as if I have said what I need to say. Perhaps I never will.

In December 1989, I had just turned 24. I was a female student, a feminist, attending a sexist institution 2.5 hours down the road from l'Ecole Polytechnique. According to the terminology in the suicide note Marc Lepine pinned to his body, I was the kind of woman he intended to shoot. Most of the women he did shoot were younger than me. These particular women didn't matter to him. Most didn't even self-identify as feminists but they were like me in one key way: they simply wanted to grow up and learn something important along the way. They wanted careers and the respect of their peers. They likely wanted life partners and some if not all would have gone on to be mothers. All of them were looking forward to the end of term and a chance to be with their families over the holidays.

Marc Lepine killed 14 innocent, intelligent, vibrant, well-loved women. He also killed something deep in the soul of just about every university-educated woman my age (and many more besides). He made us afraid. He made us realize that just by being who we were, we could be objects of hate, targets for his assault rifle. He cried out in his own pain but, to this day, I refuse to believe his pain was simply that of a lunatic. His misogyny was rooted in our culture, a culture where everywhere you turn (then and now) women are seen to be less. They can still rise to token positions of power but they are not given credit for being the best: not the best literature, not the best pop stars (unless they are also unbridled sex symbols), not the best politicians, not the best in business, and not the most influential on the world stage. If they want to write about the experience of motherhood -- a topic that we all know is worthy of unending intelligent and emotional analysis, they are relegated to the style section of the national newspaper. Yes, this culture still has its systems that relegate women to the margins. A lot has changed since the 1980s but I'm still standing here looking for the voices of brilliant women outside codified spaces for discourse. And I am still having to lobby for choice.

I promised myself I would end this post with a sense of hope even though I still come up against a brick wall of despair each time I remember this period in my life. When I blogged about it back home, I built my post around the metaphor of Pandora's box. The one thing remaining in the box is, of course, hope. In that post, the hope that I had was for my daughter. In this post, I am going to shift that onus back onto myself. If I am going to raise a confident daughter with a critical mind bent on changing this world to make it better, then I need to show her that I have not and will not be defeated by all the injustices I have seen.

I need to keep my voice. I need to say, "Marc Lepine, you cannot win for I am strong, I am a feminist and our numbers our legion and our faces are as bright and myriad as a kaleidoscope. We will shine light. We will not be darkened. You cannot shoot out the lights."

Each week will feature a story that has something to do with being or becoming a woman or feminist. This series will continue until I run out of stories. Guest bloggers are welcome if you have a story you want to tell; or feel free to link to your own story in the comments.

17 comments:

cinnamon gurl said...

A couple of things: my English studies ten years later were eye-opening because the canon really had changed and the courses I took reflected it. I remember I had read most of Jane Eyre several years before, but I gave up a few hundred pages in, mostly because it seemed like nothing was ever gonna happen. Discovering the politics now surrounding analyses of the woman in the attic really rocked my world.

Second, I was 11 or 12 in 1987, and every year our school would go to the local fair for an afternoon. That year, there was a pro-life booth giving out their propaganda with all the photos. My mom was furious when I got home. Not because I saw these photos and was exposed to this difficult issue for the first time, but because there was no pro-choice booth to balance my exposure.

Mad Hatter said...

Hi Sin,
Um er, I don't know how to say this but the last part of the post is missing. Did it get lost in the ether? I will email it to you again.
MH

Mad Hatter said...

Just got your email. Thanks.

cinnamon gurl said...

So now that I've read the rest of your post (gah!), my earlier comment seems pretty silly.

I remember the shooting, but I don't remember what I felt about it at the time. I think it happened around the time of Kristen French and other girls my age (at the time) disappearing... I really can't believe it happened in the 80s though; it feels fresher to me than the rest of the 80s, more 90s...

Thank you, Mad, for sharing your flashback.

jen said...

Mad, Sin, love this idea, and was captivated by what you wrote. what a powerful and horrific time in your development. and yes, Mad, you found your voice. and it sounds lovely and fierce all at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I love this: "I can say now that I have been a feminist for 20 years but in doing so I don't want to make it sound as if I have always known who I was and what was right or wrong about the world around me." I have been hesitate to use the "feminist" label because I have felt that I was too uncertain about my own thoughts, too much a work-in-progrss to identify with a label that to me represents pride and self-confidence that I sometimes lack. I love that your story identifies you as a feminist who has had -- and continues to have -- awakenings about feminism and its meanings as a cultural phenomenon and to each of us individually.

Thanks for a great post, MH. And to Cinnamon Gurl for being a welcoming hostess.

Nancy said...

Oops, that was me. Hit the wrong button. ;-)

cinnamon gurl said...

So now for the postmodern meta analysis... I just discovered this href="http://www.bookblog.net/gender/genie.php">gender genie, which uses some algorithm to determine whether the post was written by a male or female. So I put your post in, with none of my editorial blather, and it came up male. Funny, huh?

cinnamon gurl said...

poo, my attempt at html didn't work... the gender genie is here http://www.bookblog.net/gender/genie.php

Mad Hatter said...

Hokey dokey, the keener librarian needed to look into this. Apparently the gender genie uses an algorithm developed by a team of Israeli scientists. The tool was meant to analyze works of fiction and non-fiction but was never intended for use on the net. In its analysis it looks at word choice, particularly the use of pronouns, rather than subject matter.

I found an article on it written by Leah McLaren in the Globe and Mail in 2003--in the Style section no less. Apparently McLaren is a man just like me.

I also found an article in the Journal of Sociolinguistics called Gender and Genre in Weblogs. The authors used the gender genie to analyze the text in numerous blogs according to the following categories: diaries and filters. It so turns out that diary blogs are more often gendered female whether or not they were written by a man or a woman and the filter blogs were more often gendered male, once again despite the sex of their author.

Me, I am smelling a pile of hooey here. Artificial intelligence research sometimes seems no better than good old fashioned 19th century phrenology--good in thory; disasterous in practice.

Oh and it is certainly not the first time that learned individuals have worried about "manly" style vs "womanly" style. Before Ellis Bell was revealed to be a TB-suffering, curate's daughter from the moors, all the reviewers criticized the manly style of Wuthering Heights. It was roundly assumed that the novel was written by a man and a deranged man at that. One reviewer wrote that the novel was the "vision of one who has eaten toasted cheese at night and dreamed of Lucifer."

So bring it on gender genie! Tell me I am a man. I will simply bitch-slap you back to the oblivion of pseudo-science.

Mad Hatter said...

Oh, and thanks for doing this Sin. I didn't know about the gender genie and I found it hilarious to be run through it.

cinnamon gurl said...

I'm so glad you added that last comment. I was a bit worried I'd offended you and I only meant it as a bit of fun.

And Yippee! My first double digit dance; even if half the comments are my own... I love comments!

Mad Hatter said...

No offence taken whatsoever!!! I was giggling the entire time I was working to debunk it.

Penny said...

I live in Alberta.

And, (shhh) I think I am a feminist.

And, I'm thinking of coming out of the closet.

I've been in University for three years now, studying sociology, philosophy and psychology and over the course of my courses, I've come to realize and be made aware of some very shocking truths in our world.

I had a choice to make last week as I researched gender equalization. Be angry. Be very very angry. Or, decide to change things, if I can. (insert: Serenity Prayer)

I feel like my thirty-three years of frustration has just been led to a window. Enlightening, infuriating and inspiring.

I wish feminism wasn't such a dirty word in our society. But, as it turns out, why wouldn't it be, aren't all words associated with female qualities. The positive qualities of women, as defined by society, seem to be innately oppressive in their semantics.

Glad to have found you.

I'll be back.

My question is, why don't more women lobby for change in all aspects of their environment. What are we all afraid of?

penelopeto said...

Feminist - capitol F - here.
it means different things to different women, and I was glad to read of mad's experiences, and the ensuing gender genie discussion!
God, we women put up with a lot of shit.

penelopeto said...

how's that for deep? ;)

Mad Hatter said...

Yes, that's the thing, Penny. So many women shy away from a word that others have turned against them when it ought to be a word that works for them and with them and for each other. I don't pretend for a moment that all feminists are a chiming, harmonious sisterhood but I do think the word "feminist" is a damn fine tool and the cork to a wonderous bottle of philosophy, ideology, and political practice. That's the genie I'd like to see uncorked.

And CG? This comment here makes it #17. That's the most I've ever, ever gotten. Congratulations! It's enough to make a gal dizzy. (And yes a good 1/3 of the comments are from me. Sheesh.)