How Women In Power Keep Other Women Powerless

MARGARET DALY March 1 1970

How Women In Power Keep Other Women Powerless

MARGARET DALY March 1 1970

WOMEN - PRODUCTS OF the liberated age we live in — are oozing out of the home and all over the place, as a glance through the mass media will quickly confirm. In the newspaper, a speech by a director of the Ontario Housing Corporation, a woman; in the magazine supplement, a feature on the five regional Consumer Consultants appointed by the government, all women; on TV, experts on auto pollution quizzed knowledgeably by the resident interviewer of a public-affairs show, a woman. “This woman is a Supreme Court judge,” headlined a recent cover on The Canadian (Star Weekly) Magazine, announcing a story on “How she and three other women won in a man’s world.” Just 11 of many hundreds of real live examples of Women’s Liberation, and all of them are paving the highway to equality for every woman in Canada, right?

Wrong. Wrong in my opinion anyway. Such women do nothing at all for the cause of Women’s Liberation. They are as surely enemies of the Women’s Liberation Movement as the Ontario Supreme Court judge who ruled in 1968 that paying a woman less than a man for equal work was in keeping with “all the rules of civilization, economics, family life and common sense,” or the Creditiste MP who argued against abortion reform because pregnant women go a little funny in the head and don’t know what’s best for themselves.

Mention the Women’s Liberation Movement and most people either blench or snicker. More oddly, so do the very women — middle-class, working, combining home and career, successful despite sex — who might be expected to be in its forefront. Why?

Because, one can only assume, these women are the living proof that there’s no need for a Movement: women making it on their own, “winning in a man's world,” as The Canadian Magazine put it. But are they? Sexism (that’s prejudice about sex, cf. race and racism) is usually as much a part of these success stories as it is of the women who never considered being anything but housewives.

Enemies are something the Women’s Liberation Movement doesn’t need any more of. Respectable though freedom for women may have become, the idea of a mass movement to achieve it — like the labor movement, civil-rights movement, or mass movement of the poor which is beginning to show stirrings of life — that’s something else. And although I happen to have a very deep respect for the women who do succeed in today’s world — and all the examples cited in this article are admirable people — I cannot help seeing them as enemies of what I take to be one of the most important movements of our day: the trend toward real equality of the sexes. The women who have made it, in other words, are, however unconsciously, part of the system that today’s trend is trying to change. To that extent, and by failing to add their voices to the voice of Women’s Liberation, they help to exploit all other women.

Women’s Liberationists, for example, take group action to protest woman’s image as a mindless Barbie doll, by picketing the Miss America contest and burning brassieres. Surely this is as valid a protest as picketing the Pentagon and burning draft cards to protest war. Yet the media treat it as a “brightener,” an oddball humorous event, a joke. When a Movement woman is on TV, the interviewer rarely sticks to the point but tries to get her to say something shocking (such as that with the advent of test-tube babies there will be no need for women to be child-bearers, or for men to fertilize them for that matter — again, surely a valid conjecture about the future): then he reacts with a comically startled expression so the audience can all boo or have a good laugh.

The women who “make it on their own” and “win in a man’s world" usually fall into one of five categories:

SUPERWOMEN: They get there by being not just as good as anyone else in the field, but better. Sylvia Ostry (who was one of the big four in that Canadian Magazine story) is a Superwoman. She has a Cambridge PhD in economics, 11 major academic awards, and a list of articles, books and major pieces of research covering three typewritten pages. She’s deputy chairman of the Economic Council of Canada, one of the highest ranking women in the civil service (assistant deputy minister status) and highest-paid (around $25,000). A council spokesman on her appointment said her credentials were the best they’d ever seen: “There was no way anyone could keep her out of that job.”

But even after beating the obstacle course, sexism is a fact of the Superwoman’s everyday life. Mrs. Ostry puts up with various little indignities because of her sex. There are the vulgar personal assessments, for example, although nobody would dream of characterizing one of her male colleagues by his “trim figure, light-brown hair and hazel eyes” (or “pot belly, bald head and red-rimmed eyes”). There are the nosy personal questions, although nobody asks successful men if they neglect their children because they’re so busy. And there is the practice of having her pronouncements on the economy relegated to the women’s pages of newspapers and treated with less importance than her supermarket trips and cocktail parties.

TOKEN WOMEN: These are appointed so their employers can say there’s a woman on the job.

The Ontario Housing Corporation, mentioned earlier, needs a Token Woman on the board because much of its involvement is with deserted welfare wives. (She is Mrs. Frances McHale, long active in London, Ont., welfare work.)

Mme Pauline Vanier is a Token Woman on the board of directors of the Bank of Montreal and of Bell Canada. In fact, Mme Vanier is the perfect Token Woman. As widow of a governorgeneral, she is associated with the representative of the ultimate figurehead woman with no real power, the Queen. She has no experience or interests that could be expected to make her effective in forming B. of M. or Bell policy; yet she can be used to dispel the concern female shareholders might have about getting a capable woman on the board.

Who wants to look like the sort of bitch who would publicly put down the
be loved widow of a beloved governor-general?

Dr. Helen Hogg, the brilliant University of Toronto astronomer, is Bell’s other Token Woman director. And the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce has followed the Bank of Montreal’s lead by j appointing Dr. Marguerite Hill, physician-in-chief at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, to its board. (“For years the bank has been interested in getting a woman’s viewpoint on the board,” said a spokesman.) Both have the advantage of ; being distinguished in their respective ; fields without, again, possessing background in areas that could make them at all formidable on these boards. As is the case with many Token Women (notably black women on U.S. poverty committees and the like), Dr. Hogg serves as a double token; for any complaints that businessmen dominate the board of a public-service corporation, she can be Bell’s gesture to academia and the pure sciences.

By the way, Mme Vanier and Dr. Hogg did not fill existing slots on the Bell board, replacing men and taking seats that might have gone to other men. Rather, the board voted to increase itself by two members to accommodate these two Token Women.

Token Women need not be ineffective. Judy LaMarsh overcame unfair personal criticism (if all the ill-cut suits and clocked socks in the Commons had got as much attention as Judy’s miniskirts and fishnets, little business would have been done) to be a highly effective Health Minister and Secretary of State, while serving as Lester Pearson's obvious Token Woman in the cabinet.

Infact when MP Pauline Jewett asked about her own future, Pearson told her, “But we already have a woman in the cabinet.")

But however effective, Token Women do have their place (just as the token blacks on TV don’t mess around with white girls). Barbara Frum, Token Woman on CBC’s Weekday (Toronto) and Weekend (national) can hold her own with any TV interviewer in the business (and she does get to do interviews about auto-exhaust pollution). But once when she was lunching with Weekday’s three (male) producers, the subject of a back-up man for her co-host Warren Davis came up. “Can’t you see it?” said one. “If Warren got sick tomorrow, there we’d be with Barbara reading the news!” At which all three collapsed in mirth.

WOMEN’S WOMEN: These are women whose jobs exist because society, having relegated their sex to an artificial role, now needs people to interpret women’s special needs to the ordinary people (men) who must deal with these mystical beings. Fern Alexander, the only Toronto policewoman with the rank of inspector, got the promotion as head of the police department's Women's Bureau. (It was later melded with the Youth Bureau, policewomen being deemed especially suited for youth work because of their mother instincts, presumably.) Sylva Gelber, highest-ranking female in the federal Department of Labor, and Lita-Rose Betcherman, highestranking female in its Ontario counterpart, both head their respective departments’ Women's Bureaus. Florence Bird (Anne Francis during her radio career) is the first woman to head a royal commission; it was of course on the Status of Women.

Women's Women are also charged with interpreting women’s special needs to women themselves; witness the people who work on “women's magazines” and the “women's pages” of newspapers. Dodi Robb, a top-ranking female executive at the CBC, is supervisor of daytime programming, which is the CBC’s new euphemism for women’s programming. Kay Hodgins, Nancy Downing, Sally Merchant. Lois Smith and Carla Archibald, who are the five Consumer Consultants to the government, are Women’s Women. Merchandising, advertising and the expanding field of consumer relations are productive areas for Women’s Women, because so much of the reason for sexism has to do with keeping women buying things: beauty products for their role as sex objects, gadgets and innumerable housecleaning supplies for their role as homemaker, and so on.

OFFICE WIVES: Some women attain a measure of responsibility and a decent salary by working for executives with five times the responsibility and salary.

Mary Macdonald, at that time the only woman on Parliament Hill with the salary and title of Executive Assistant (though her work was more secretarial in nature than that of male executive assistants), was Lester Pearson’s Office Wife from his days back in External Affairs. (She was expected to be put in the Senate as a goodwill gesture by Pearson on his retirement, and she may end up there yet.)

The Office Wife is sometimes a backstairs route to a real executive job, usually that of secretary of a corporation. Dorothy Cauley, secretary of Dominion Foundries and Steel, is an example. She started as secretary to the sales manager, and started doing his job during World War II when he went to Ottawa as a dollar-a-year man.

Ailsa Currie, another of The Canadian Magazine heroines, was once secretary to a Toronto Stock Exchange vice-president and is now Secretary of its Board of Governors, the highest stock-exchange job held by a woman in Canada. (Its duties include recording and transcribing the minutes of board meetings.)

The Office Wife's job may involve more decision-making than typing, but its basic function is to be supportive to a man — the function he sees his wife as performing at home. The Office Wife is often chosen for such skills as brewing coffee just the way her boss likes it, doing his Christmas shopping and keeping his personal life running smoothly, as well as for the gracious impression she makes on visitors as his “hostess.”

As the secretary to a Toronto newspaper executive told me (unwittingly echoing many a bride), “The important thing is that you click with the man.” This secretary saw herself as a rebellious career girl who appalled her mother by going to college and remaining single. But her old-fashioned upbringing wasn’t really lost on her: “I’m happiest working behind the scenes for a man, seeing him do something well, and knowing I played a part in his success.” She had rebelled against marriage but not against the traditional wife's role.

CARETAKER WOMEN: They inherit important jobs from fathers (with no sons) or husbands. Of our last four women MPs, only Judy LaMarsh was not elected to the seat formerly held by a husband, now dead. (The other three: Grace MacInnis, NDP, from Vancouver, PC Jean Casselman Wadds of northeastern Ontario, and Liberal Margaret Rideout of Moncton — all capable, hard workers.) Once a Caretaker Woman does take over, she may develop real ability at the job — as did these three MPs, and as did Dorothy Schiff, publisher of the New York Post, and Katharine Graham, president of The Washington Post Company, which publishes the Washington Post and Newsweek.

So, by appearing to forward Women's Liberation, while in reality entrenching sexism, these women actually serve as enemies of the cause. They are, of course, the “exceptions.” The majority of middle-class working women are in specifically “female” jobs in the first place, such as elementary school teaching, nursing and office work. They tend to blame inequalities on the field of work they’re in, rather than on the fact that they’re women working: everyone knows elementary teachers get paid less than university teachers, everyone knows nurses and office workers make poor salaries.

But this means they’re ignoring the fact that women get these jobs in the first place because no man would put up with the pay and conditions. And, conversely, the reason the pay and conditions don’t improve is that women can be counted on to fill the jobs. When conditions in a “man’s” field deteriorate, men abandon it to women. (Until the early 1950s, most bank tellers were men; salaries for bank tellers have not substantially improved, so now most bank tellers are women.) When the conditions of a “woman’s” job improve, men take it over. (The paper explosion has made library science suddenly prestigious and higher - paying; you can guess which sex the best-paid librarians are now.)

Whole books have chronicled the discriminations against most working women (notably Born Female, by Caroline Bird). But even the conviction that successful working women are making it without regard to sex is a fallacy. Faf from being examples of Women’s Liberation, they are all very much part of the sexist status quo. Which brings up a supplementary, nasty reason why many successful women may be disinclined toward the Women’s Liberation Movement: their jobs depend on its failure.

Women in such “female” jobs as nursing have been trained to have so little faith in their abilities (many probably started out wanting to be doctors, and were talked out of that foolishness) that they fear achieving good working conditions if this would mean competing with men. As for Token Women, the need for them will vanish when women are seen simply as people. So will the need for Women’s Women, and the consumer-adviser type jobs will go to both sexes since family shopping will not be bound up with the sex role. (A lot less superfluous consuming likely will be done anyway; no longer deprived of real decision-making opportunities, women won’t have to create phony ones by making a big deal out of deciding which of myriad identical products to buy.) When the housewife vanishes as a creature who exists to serve hubby, her counterpart Office Wife will vanish, too.

There are many other reasons for the would-be liberated woman's avoidance of the Movement, but they can be dismissed quickly.

1. The fringe benefits. It’s fun to be exceptional, and the working woman with any measure of success is exceptional as things stand now. Housewives envy her; male colleagues, once they discover she can do the job, admire her. It’s good for the ego. But it lasts only so long as she is perfect; the minute she admits to sending out for Chinese food instead of cooking a roast after working late, the admiration and envy turn to 1-told-you-so smugness — even though stay-at-home wives buy just as much Chinese food because looking after the kids all day is so exhausting. Balance the ego-building moments against the ego-shatterers, and the fringe benefits aren’t so beneficial after all.

2. The so-called New Woman may shun the Movement because, having achieved something beyond the stereotyped wife role, she probably finds groups of females an anathema. She boasts of having little in common with other women — the I’ve-made-it-out-of the-ghetto mentality — and at parties converses with the “more stimulating” men. Women’s groups mean hen parties, which symbolize the mindless stereotype she is proud not to be.

3. The woman who combines home, family and career is under constant pressure to prove everything is working out beautifully. Because if it isn’t, that’s proof not that the system is at fault, but that she is somehow failing as a woman. No man would be told his masculinity was in doubt if he got mad because he didn’t get a raise. But working women put up with this nonsense all the time. And so they dare not express official discontent by joining the Movement.

The contradictions in 2. and 3. are easily seen, I hope. Both reasons are products of the very sexist thinking that ought to be abolished. It’s not so easy to overcome built-in emotional attitudes, such as distrust of women’s groups, but the would-be liberated woman should be used by now to emotional conflicts over what she knows in her head is right.

It seems to me the we’re-making-it -on-our-own syndrome is the most dangerous fallacy. Before the civil-rights movement, many blacks tried to beat the system by making it as outstanding individuals — the UN’s Ralph Bunche for example. But when the next black generation took a look at what they had achieved, they saw a very few outstanding men who had beaten nothing because no matter how well they had done they would never be free of racism while they operated in a white-man’s world. Similarly, would-be liberated women must face the fact that, successful as they are, they’re exceptions in a man’s world and can never escape sexism. If they’re in “female” jobs, if they’re Token Women or Women’s Women or Office Wives, they’re continuous victims of sexism every day. Even if they are Superwomen like Sylvia Ostry (a Ralph Bunche of Canadian women) they can’t shake it: it’s there in all those “hazel-eyed mother of two” stories, all those snoopy questions about her family life.

Sexism is the most pervasive attitude in society today. It predates such attitudes as racism, nationalism and capitalism by at least 2,000 years. No individual can escape its effects. Only when women stand together in a mass movement, and work for real liberation for all women, not a phony illusion of liberation for themselves as individuals, will this attitude ever be altered.