BOOKS

Remaking women

Doris Anderson advanced the female cause in Canada

JUDITH TIMSON October 21 1996
BOOKS

Remaking women

Doris Anderson advanced the female cause in Canada

JUDITH TIMSON October 21 1996

Remaking women

Doris Anderson advanced the female cause in Canada

BOOKS

REBEL DAUGHTER: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY By Doris Anderson (Key Porter, 288 pages, $29.95)

The elegant picture of Doris Anderson on the cover of her autobiography, Rebel Daughter, could, at first glance, fool the unsuspecting

into thinking they are about to meet a serene older woman. But there is that gleam in her eye, the knowing half-smile, and of course the title—dead giveaways that what Doris Anderson has to say in Rebel Daughter is anything but serene. She is captious, fractious, mordantly funny in parts, and suffers no fools—male or female—gladly. Hers is a fascinating and, in some but not all ways, forthright account of how she rose from difficult circumstances to become a respected media figure and feminist icon in Canada.

Anderson has been active in both Liberal and feminist politics for years, but she is best-known for the two decades she spent as the editor of Chatelaine magazine, presiding over it during a time—1957 to 1977— when it became the largest consumer magazine in the country. Along with the full complement of stories urging women to “whip up these hearty cold-day casseroles,” Chatelaine under Anderson ran “groundbreaking articles,” as she proudly describes them. Those pieces—about women and politics, wife-battering, abortion, women in the

workforce—chronicled and sometimes anticipated a period of enormous change for women. What Anderson says she brought to the magazine was an agenda: “I not only wanted life to change for Canadian women, I also had definite ideas about the direction the transformation should take.” Anderson’s account of how she acquired that agenda is a wonderful read, especially in the early pages. She was illegitimate, born in Calgary to a woman whose husband had left her with two sons, and a boarding house

to run. Anderson’s father—a boarder who refused to marry her mother—took one look at his newborn and placed her in a home for unwanted children. Ironically, for someone who has always supported a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, Anderson says she knows that

had her mother been given that right, “I would not have been born. It’s a piece of information that has never bothered me.”

She does acknowledge that she carried emotional scars from her childhood. For a while, after her mother brought her back home during her first year, she flourished in what she describes as an idyllic matriarchy. Then her father returned, married her mother, and they had two sons, all of them living in a crowded, tense and unhappy situation. Her father drank. Her mother went from be-

ing someone who had nurtured Doris to a distraught woman who clung to her and said she was going to kill herself. Those scenes, says Anderson, robbed her of her childhood.

More typical of her time was the message the outspoken adolescent received from her parents: “Don’t lead any parades and don’t be too bright.” Her mother also urged her to get some professional training, “in case you’re left hanging on the vine.”

Anderson became a teacher, put herself through university and then headed to Toronto to become a writer. Instead, she became an articles editor at Chatelaine. Rather gleefully, she details the male obstructionist environment she found herself in. The publisher, hearing she was about to be married (to lawyer David Anderson, whom she divorced 18 years later), was astonished that she still wanted the top job as editor—“But you’re going to be a hostess and mother.” Her first maternity leave was a joke, she recalls, the men she worked for insisting that she take most of the time off before the birth, presumably because she was an eyesore.

Anderson found that even running a successful magazine did not stop her from being patronized. Once, presenting her with a writing award, the late Floyd Chalmers, thenpresident of Maclean Hunter, said: “What I like about Doris is she looks like a woman, acts like a lady and works like a dog.” Anderson had three sons and carried the full load of anxiety, guilt and joyful adrenaline of a working mother, and a public one at that. Even feminist Laura Sabia chided her that her place was at home with her children.

After her successful stint as editor of Chatelaine, Anderson desperately wanted to be editor of Maclean’s, and argues persuasively that she failed to get the job only because, as writer June Callwood once put it about her own time at Maclean’s, she had “the wrong genitalia.” In 1970, the entire staff—most of them male—threatened to resign if Ander-

son got the position.

Rebel Daughter fades towards the end. Instead of a more personal and frank summing up, Anderson concludes with a shopping list of solutions for today’s social ills. What every reader— well, every woman—wants to know is: what was the cost

other life and was it worth it? Anderson does offer a clue. At 75, she says she feels “about 55.” She is even sanguine about growing old in a youth-obsessed culture: “Long ago I

gave up high heels, downhill skiing____”

And she does not need to state the obvious: the young girl who was cautioned over and over again not to be too bold and not to lead any parades, ended up leading the parade after all.

JUDITH TIMSON