COLUMN

Narcissus, thy name is woman

BARBARA AMIEL February 13 1989
COLUMN

Narcissus, thy name is woman

BARBARA AMIEL February 13 1989

Narcissus, thy name is woman

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

Last week, I went up to Global Television’s Toronto studios to tape a onehour special with the working title Women in the ’90s. There we were, four female (and one male) panel members and two female interviewers together with an audience of 100 (mainly female) people, taking part in that popular modern pastime—discussing the female condition. Has ever a group of human beings analysed themselves as much as women do in this half of the 20th century? It occurred to me, as the program wore on, that the amount of discussion by a group or individuals is in inverse proportion to their usefulness.

The panel was a rainbow coalition of sorts. To the right of my verdant-green shoulder pads (suit by Karl Lagerfeld, if you must know) were the purple pads of Jean Augustine, the Grenadian-born chairman of the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority. Next to her sat the program moderator, scarlet-suited with lips, lipstick and name, Ms. Thalia Assuras, to match. Just beyond my eyeline was Maureen McTeer (in sunshine yellow), and directly facing me was a slash of firm white thigh belonging to Lynn Tribbling, the successful manager of an all-female real estate syndicate whose wandering hemline threatened to make the show interesting.

I ticked us off: race, politics, businesswoman and me—not a bad quota. There was even a chap, pollster Allan Gregg from Decima Research, looking rather dour (and who could blame him?), who was occasionally asked to give the male point of view. “I think it would be a great shock to men if they thought I was representing their views,” he would say, before making the only common-sense observations of the evening.

I had come to the program expecting to do a staid analysis of Ontario’s policies of pay equity, affirmative action and matrimonial property division. The notion that we would be performing in front of an audience, with interviewer Micki Moore circling the bleachers, mike in hand, urging people to be “outrageous,” was a

The feminists’ ‘superwoman’ is someone who holds a job and occasionally tucks the children into bed

little alarming. At worst, I had predicted a bit of knees-up arguing over statistics or the ethical basis of retrospective legislation. To this end, I had a comfy Goethe quote in the back of my mind about all theories being grey while the tree of life is green. Rather a good way, I thought, to end a discussion that was bound to focus on all the various new laws in Canada designed to make men and women indistinguishable from one another.

The producers clearly had another sort of show in mind, perhaps much more interesting to watch, and the moment the cameras went on Assuras started things rolling. “Is money the new aphrodisiac?” she asked me, and to my horror I found myself answering the question. I swear if I were asked to stop breathing on television I would, too.

All the same, the usual topics did come up. McTeer vigorously defended Ontario’s Family Law Act, which forces husbands and wives to split business and personal assets accumulated during the marriage 50-50 without regard to whose fault the marriage break may be or who built up the assets. She raised no objections to the new Pay Equity Act, which forces business to disregard market forces and evaluate the job of every employee according to some arcane

point system. I settled into a deep gloom that was only pierced when I heard McTeer explain that the spiritual things in life were the most important and she wanted to spend more time with her family. For one fleeting moment, I actually felt sorry for Joe Clark. Then, I believe I heard McTeer mention that women had to face the fact that we can’t all be “superwoman.” A distinct “click” in the area of my temporal lobe followed.

A number of feminists have explained to me the cruel realities of life for today’s “superwoman” who “is expected to do it all.” I must say that I find the use of such buzz words and clichés very revealing. What, for example, is it that today’s feminists mean by “superwoman”? Is it a female who flies over buildings or perhaps mines uranium with her bare hands? No, it turns out to be a woman who holds down a job (quite often a government appointment) and occasionally tucks the children into bed. Can one begin to reason with people of this mentality, I wonder? Would it have occurred to Beryl Markham, that intrepid African bush pilot, to describe herself as a superwoman, even after crossing the Atlantic solo in 1936? Or Indira Gandhi? Or Joyce Carol Oates?

The fuss today’s corporate feminists get into whenever they are personally faced with a dilemma is their own business, of course. Should they follow their husbands to Vancouver and not complete their fine arts course in Toronto? Should they accept a promotion to women’s resource officer or have a second baby? Well, I don’t know. But the problem is that those sorts of people tend to make mass myths out of their own experience.

A liberal society, after all, understands that gender should not encumber anyone. Once that principle is understood, we can quite easily tolerate people who may wish to do nontraditional things without trying to re-educate everyone or making the entire society do a flip. If we aren’t up to embracing liberalism then we ought to acknowledge that, for the time being, the majority of women would like to get married and have children, and we should construct our social policies accordingly.

That means ending daft attempts to wean men and women away from the so-called traditional or stereotyped roles. It also means accepting the fact that the minority of women who wish to become high-steel workers may have to push a little harder to get the job—it simply isn’t in the air. What might be a wise course of action, I think, is to make financial planning a core educational subject. Understanding the wonder of compound interest would do more for women’s liberation than admission to vocational and technical schools.

These days, the sword of fashion cuts on the side of telling all women that they should become plumbers, physicists or intellectuals. For my money, we don’t encourage them hard enough to be plumbers. As for the intellectuals, well, I think society might be better off if any infant—male or female—showing the slightest inclination toward intellectualism were strangled at birth. Our instincts are fine, it’s just those clever grey theories we have that are messing up on life’s little green trees.