Backstage: Referendum

Women who live in different worlds

Anne Beirne May 12 1980
Backstage: Referendum

Women who live in different worlds

Anne Beirne May 12 1980

Women who live in different worlds

Backstage: Referendum

Anne Beirne

Her rigid, made-up face shows little life. Corinne Côté-Lévesque moves through the cafeteria lunch crowd like a starlet. The “yes” committee has dispatched this secretary-who-married-her-boss to the referendum circuit. Corinne is seen but seldom heard. She’s shy, but she looks bored. Surrounded by ministers and organizers, talking scarcely at all, Corinne is beautiful, aware of it, but not sure exactly what it is that people expect from her.

Madeleine Ryan has no such doubts. She acknowledges the cheering crowd of 5,000 in a Laval, Quebec, arena by demurely lowering her eyes—a stolid figure in a pale pink twin set. But when she looks up again, a delighted smile wipes away both her modesty and her plainness. Desperately trying not to hype his product, a back-room “no” boy explains weakly: “We use Madeleine Ryan because she hasn’t been elected to anything, because, she talks just from her own experiences.” But one of the volunteers working in the office with Madeleine’s full-time referendum secretary is more direct: “She’s as much in demand as Mr. Ryan.”

The contrast between the two leaders’ wives in the campaign for the May 20 Quebec referendum is as marked as the contrary attitudes of the women in the “yes” and “no” camps. The Parti Québécois is the political base of Quebec’s feminists, who hoped René Lévesque’s social democracy would bring the social changes they sought. Their trust was not misplaced. Says Mair Verthuy, principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute in Montreal, “The Parti Québécois has done more for women than any other [Quebec] government.” Lévesque’s latest effort in the cause of sexual equality, for example, is Bill 89, which will ensure that women can no longer have their houses and furniture sold out from under them by a disaffected husband. In the eyes of the law, husband and wife will be equal. But the bill also stipulates that a woman must use her maiden name for all civil transactions, for taking a job and for getting a driver’s licence. The bill legislates social change instead of just allowing for it.

For front-line feminists it’s sometimes difficult to understand politically inactive housewives who might cheer the victories without necessarily approving of the battles. This division was put in full relief early in the referendum campaign when PQ Minister Lise Payette called Madeleine Ryan an Yvette (a textbook-character kitchen drudge). The reaction to that crack astonished both camps. Women across the province turned out en masse at “no” rallies, proud to call themselves Yvettes, and both the “yes” and “no” forces have been scrambling ever since to keep up with this newly vocal 52 per cent of the electorate. The outraged “otti” feminists have accused Claude Ryan of exploit-

ing housewives, but both they and the PQ leaders are missing the point. As Verthuy put it: “I think we may have been cut off from the mainstream, may not have dealt with the problems of the majority of women.” They live in different worlds. Hello Dolly, the Yvettes’ theme song—although now verboten in the women’s movement and sneered at by Payette as being sexist—is simply not insulting to most women. The feminists may well lose their sovereigntyassociation battle to the very women they have been trying to help.

“We didn’t go along with the bra-burning and other excesses of women’s liberation.We won’t go along with the excesses of sovereignty-association,” exults an Yvette as she introduces Madeleine Ryan. Ryan is extremely sensitive to charges that she’s just an appendage of her husband. She worked until she was 32, winning promotions through the same Catholic Action group that pushed Claude Ryan to prominence. She raised the five children she bore in IVz years. She served for seven years on Quebec’s respected Superior Education Council, helping to revolutionize provincial attitudes on y education. Politics came late: ¿“I decided after the election of “1976 that I had to get involved. I finally had the feeling it was now or never. I wasn’t sure exactly how I could help but I knew I would do something.”

Now she is the heroine of the federalist cause, the centrepiece of a developing campaign strategy that assures Quebec women they can be dignified mothers, housewives, career women, Québécoises and Canadiennes. It’s an outgrowth of the Ryan strategy designed to make a “no” vote positive rather than reactionary. Tea parties and ladies auxiliaries are “out” in this referendum campaign. “In” is the wooing of women voters as women.

René Lévesque tried to get his own Yvette movement going on the night of the 40th anniversary of Quebec women getting the right to vote. One of the speakers at the “nonpartisan” affair was Cultural Affairs Minister Camille Laurin. Squinting at the crowd of 14,000—not all of whom were women—Laurin oozed charmingly: “I salute you. You make political men. Behind every great man there is a great woman.” Senator Thérèse Casgrain, who won those women the right to vote, would have groaned. Casgrain has a simple explanation for the unparalleled mobilization of female voters in Quebec; for women who, for the first time, are identifying themselves as political sisters, venturing out to political rallies, and threatening to vote en bloc: “The women will say ‘no’ because their country, and therefore their homes and their families, are threatened.” And maybe also, just a little bit, because they are tired of being disdained by the people who want their vote.

Anne Beirne is Quebec correspondent for CFTO-TV, Toronto.