Rebel Daughter:
An Autobiography

279 pages,
ISBN: 1550137670

Post Your Opinion
Doris vs. the Dinosaurus
by Barbara West

According to the photo on the dust-jacket of Rebel Daughter, Doris Anderson, now seventy-five, is a handsome woman with the look of a benign but slightly exasperated eagle. It is a fitting look for a revolutionary in winter. She who fought so many battles in the field of women's rights now has time to review her past and give us, in the process, a remarkable record of Canadian life and women's progress, or lack of it.
There can have been few more unlikely hot-beds of feminism than Chatelaine magazine in the 1950s, with its cosy ambiance of easy-care hairdos, yummy casseroles, and hints for homemakers. When in the second half of the decade, it was infiltrated by articles on wife-battering, sexual problems, divorce, and other aspects of life then usually swept under the rug, some readers were outraged, but thousands of others rejoiced to see their real concerns in print for the first time.
The agent provocateur was, of course, the new editor, Doris Anderson, who took over Chatelaine with the avowed intent of changing the lives of Canadian women, whom she saw as unfairly treated by government, law, employers, and husbands. So well did she succeed that she undoubtedly helped launch the women's movement in Canada long before Betty Friedan stirred things up in the U.S.
Anderson had arrived on the scene at just the right moment to ride the feminist wave of the fifties, but, as is clear from her recollections of an impoverished childhood, she had been preparing for it all her life. Growing up in Calgary during the Depression, she had seen that boys were rated higher than girls, even when the girls were smarter; that boys had more fun, freedom, and opportunities, and that households revolved around men, even if, as in her own family, the father was a troublesome drunk, and it was the mother's boarding-house that supported them.
As she grew older, she rejected out of hand the prevailing belief that a woman must find a husband at all costs, and that any career she achieved must be sacrificed on the marriage altar. "I never felt any affinity for those passive beautiful creatures, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, who lay around in comas waiting for some prince to stumble upon them and make life begin." Nor did she see why a wife should serve as handmaiden to her husband. A good relationship was only possible if the woman had financial independence. Fearful of losing her own independence, she did not marry until 1957, when was thirty-five and had just been made the editor of Chatelaine.
That she found her feminist forum in Chatelaine was doubly ironic since she became its editor in the teeth of the male executives who ran Maclean Hunter, the magazine's parent company in Toronto. She had risen from the lower ranks, where, in their characteristic view, women belonged, to the point where she was editor in all but name. When she threatened to resign they caved in and gave her the title, but they never felt comfortable with her or the magazine's growing feminist content, for they were the kind of men who would boast, "I'd never let my wife go out to work." When Anderson first put the word "sex" on the cover, they almost had a corporate stroke. But by then she and the magazine were so popular it was too late to throw her out.
Even so, they got their revenge. While Anderson might exhort her readers to go out to work, run for Parliament, and fight sexism on all fronts, in her own workplace she met with blatant discrimination. She was paid far less than the male editors of Maclean's magazine, and Chatelaine's profits were milked to support other ventures, notably the foundering Maclean's. When, years later, she put in a bid to become Maclean's editor, the dinosaurs in the top office still didn't believe that a woman, even one as successful as Anderson, was worthy of being appointed. She resigned in 1977, tired of manipulation, broken promises, and editorial interference.
The backstage clashes at Chatelaine, which Anderson describes with tart amusement, never made headlines, but when she became chair of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, her run-in with Lloyd Axworthy certainly did. Then in her fifties, and divorced, Anderson was still eager to advance women's rights, but soon found politicians and their minions to be as retrogressive as company executives. The council, whose original mandate was to advise government on women's issues, had by 1979 largely become a reward for Liberal Party hacks. Anderson's attempt to restore its original purpose was resisted, and when Axworthy, the minister to whom she reported, cancelled a conference on the Charter of Rights & Freedoms as it affected women, she resigned in protest. When the media picked up the story, women across the country-many of them loyal Chatelaine readers-rushed to the barricades. As a result, a conference was held and a new section added to the Charter, making men and women equal under the law, something women still have not been able to achieve in the U.S., and confirming Anderson's belief that "women frequently make the most progress when men make colossal mistakes."
Anderson does not write only about the skirmishes in her professional life. She is equally candid about her affairs, marriage, motherhood, and divorce, and her other careers as writer of novels and newspaper columns, taking us through several decades at a bracing clip. But her outstanding role has always been as a rebel with a cause, and for that Canadian women have reason to be truly grateful.

Barbara West is a Toronto editor who was on Doris Anderson's Chatelaine staff in the seventies.


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