Ten Thousand Roses

by Judy Rebick
ISBN: 0143015443

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A Review of: Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution
by Naomi Black

Judy Rebick, author of Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution, is a provocative journalist who from 1990 to 1993 was president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), the large Canadian coalition of feminist and feminist-friendly organizations. As she led NAC's very vocal opposition to the Charlottetown Accord, she became something of a public figure. Rebick identifies her perspective as "socialist-feminist." And it seems fair to say that, in general, her affinities are with the activist unions and the NDP. At present she holds the Canadian Auto Workers-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University.
Ten Thousand Roses, which Rebick describes as an "oral history" of the second wave of feminism in Canada, is a collection of texts based on interviews with more than eighty Canadian women who have been active in the women's movement since 1960. Canadian feminism is, she says, both more effective and more interesting than the American counterpart. Why? Because of the unique, defining characteristics she sees in Canadian women's activism of the last four decades. These are, first, cooperation between older women's groups and young radicals; second, an exceptionally influential socialist feminism; third, the alliance between autonomous women's groups and women in unions; and, fourth, multiculturalism with "strong leadership" from women of colour, aboriginal women, and immigrant women.
Not everyone would agree with Rebick's description or evaluation of the Canadian women's movement. The United States serves as her only point of comparison, here as elsewhere in the book. Certainly, the older American women's groups initially rejected women's liberation and a relatively subdued socialist feminism coexists in the U.S. with a stronger radical feminism than Canada's. But the contrast is less striking once we move overseas. In Sweden, long-established women's organizations were actively engaged alongside newer groups. Socialist feminism has played a commanding role in Britain. And in both France and Italy autonomous and trade union feminists have worked together effectively. As for the multicultural angle, American radical feminist Robin Morgan argues in her latest book that the American women's movement is the most multicultural in the world.
To be sure, every national women's movement is unique. But Canada's is perhaps most distinctive due to our peaceful history, our federal structure, our particular cultural and social mosaic, and our bilingual, bi-cultural founding myths and current realities. Rebick's book demonstrates as much, for she includes many texts dealing with the achievement of equality and particularly reproductive rights. The regional differences are striking, especially those between activism in Quebec with activism in other parts of the country. And the impact of federal structures and federalism is pervasive.
What Rebick's book presents is Canadian feminism as seen from the left (ideologically) and from central Canada and NAC (geographically). And why not? This is where Rebick was and is. However, there are reasons to be cautious about the contents of her book. But before discussing problems of inclusion and presentation, it will be useful to describe it.
Ten Thousand Roses is organized by decades. The 1960s get a single chapter that begins, like most accounts of contemporary Canadian feminism, with "Voice of Women for Peace". Rebick then looks at Women's Liberation in Canada, interviewing women who, as students at that time, broke away from radical groups dominated by men. This chapter has a fair amount of analytical text by Rebick. Interspersed are relatively short selections from interviews. The rest of the book consists of longer passages of interview material, with each section and chapter introduced by Rebick in a few pages.
The 1970s' nine chapters include collections of material from interviews with women active at that time as volunteers in Status of Women Committees in Manitoba and Newfoundland as well as in the Quebec women's movement, and in unions. Five other chapters are about activism around feminist issues of the decade (access to abortion, childcare, violence against women, sexual orientation, and Native women's rights). The last chapter is about the International Women's Day committees in Toronto.
For the 1980s, there is interview material about struggles stemming from the constitution, racism, and pornography. There is also a chapter about NAC's incursions into federal politics. Here, ignoring chronology, Rebick includes NAC's activities in the 1990s, in which she herself was centrally active. Other chapters are about the Morgentaler clinics, pay and employment equity, and the activism of women with disabilities.
Then, for the 1990s, there is a chapter about "backlash", the growing hostility toward feminism. Here we find interview material dealing with the Montreal Massacre of women engineering students, as well as the impact, on women activists, of the government's movement towards fiscal and other conservatism. The next to last chapter describes the consequences for NAC following its attempts to respond to women of colour, while chapter twenty presents interview material about the Quebec and World Marches of Women against poverty and violence. The second of these marches took place in the year 2000, and it enables Rebick to end on a high note of optimism. An Epilogue that focuses on globalization also refers briefly to the possible third wave of feminism. The book concludes with a quotation from Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy. To Roy's visionary challenge to "unite against empire" Rebick adds the word "patriarchy." Is it unreasonable to wish that she could have found a Canadian feminist to inspire us?
There's a lot of interesting material in this book, and a good deal of it seems not to have been previously available in print. But there is also a lot missing. Rebick notes that she did not include interviews related to any other national women's organizations besides NAC, or to the entry of women into the professions, eco-feminism, women's health, women and science, or to the enormous expansion of feminist activities on the Canadian cultural scene. She also leaves out discussion of religion and the ministry, the role of women in mainstream politics and inside political parties, women in the military, rural women, francophone women outside of Quebec, sex trade workers, Native women's organizations other than those concerned with issues of Indian status, sexism in language, marriage and divorce as well as child custody and mothering, and women's studies and the situation of women in the universities and colleges.
The selection of persons interviewed creates further limitations. Obvious absences include Lynn McDonald, controversial president of NAC and later an NDP MP, who lurks in a number of texts but has no chance to get her own version in. Other influential presidents of NAC are also missing, like Lorna Marsden. It would have been worth hearing from Pearl Blazer, who worked at NAC over a very long period, or from board members such as Newfoundland's Lynn Verge. But Marsden is a prominent member of the Liberal Party and Verge served as a Conservative cabinet minister. Over all, women associated with the federal and provincial Liberal and Conservative parties are thin on the ground. The result skews further the representation of what happened. Where, for example, are the voices of the Yvettes? Outside of Quebec, where are those radical feminists involved with issues other than such stereotypical concerns as sexual orientation and pornography?
However, this book is not just incomplete-as it is bound to be-but it is also unreliable. There are numerous errors. To give a few examples: Laura Sabia was never mayor of St. Catherines, Flora MacDonald was never Minister of Indian Affairs, the bookstore is Little Sister's not Little Sisters, it's Elsie Gregory MacGill and Lynn McDonald (not McGill and MacDonald), and there is no such group as "the Women's Temperance League." And so forth. Anyone can make mistakes, of course, but some of these are to be found in citations from women who ought to know better. One wonders if they read their texts as given in Rebick's book, especially as some of those interviewed appear to be making substantive remarks that seem unlikely for them to wish seeing in print.
Nobody wants to read more about those irritating errors, and I don't want to single out opinions possibly included by mistake. But it is important to remember that the interviews and other material in this book may be inaccurate. There are no references and no bibliography, and annotations are sparse and erratic. As a result, in spite of the marvelous women presented here, Ten Thousand Roses is disappointing. We now have Judy Rebick's view of the second wave of Canadian feminism, but its history remains to be written.

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