Ten more remarkable than the American one because

Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution is Judy Rebick’s attempt to provide a historical account of the second wave of the liberal feminist movement in Canada.  Rebick, who not only participated in the latter part of this movement but is also a well-known feminist today, is arguably one of the most knowledgeable individuals capable of tackling the project of recording a history that is in danger of being forgotten, and that is often incorporated into the history of the feminist movement in the United States.  However, as the book reveals, the Canadian feminist movement was unique in its own right especially in regards to the struggles and challenges women faced, the issues that mobilized them, and the victories that were won all in the name of female equality.

Rebick’s choice of sources, which are mainly comprised of an array of voices and stories, act in consensus with a key factor of feminist theory, which transfers attention away from the personal and towards the social and political.  As a former president of what was once the Canadian women’s movement’s largest umbrella organization, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), Rebick seems to be the most delighted in the fact that “we succeeded here for a time in creating a multiracial women’s movement, with strong leadership from women of colour, Aboriginal women and immigrant women.”1 Nevertheless, understanding the intricacies of identity politics is still very much a work-in-progress. 

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With its focus on the grassroots process of how to organize for social change, Rebick drew her main inspiration for Ten Thousand Roses from Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999), a book that provided a history of the American women’s movement.2 Using the information from Brownmiller’s book, Rebick claims the story of the birth and growth of the Canadian women’s movement is possibly more remarkable than the American one because of Canada’s wide coalition of liberal, radical and socialist feminists.  The socialist feminists even negotiated an essential alliance between the labour movement and the women’s movement, which proved to be mutually beneficial for both sides.  Canada’s women’s movement benefited from the actions of both working-class and middle-class activists, and Canada’s trade unions became known as “the most feminist in the world”.3

The uniqueness of the Canadian women’s movement and its distinction from the overly popular US feminist movement was not the only factor that prompted Rebick to write this book.  The deaths of Kay MacPherson and Rosemary Brown, two ground-breaking feminists, impressed upon Rebick the urgency of recording a history that is now decades old, and at risk of being forgotten or erased as the memories of those who were there begin to dissipate.4  Most of the literature that has been written so far on the Canadian women’s movement has focused on the individual gains and losses that women had as well as statistical changes to women’s positions in society during this second wave of the feminist movement.  Rebick provides a basic account of how these changes transpired, and uses the stories and voices of feminists who actively participated in the movement to bring to life the emotions that existed in collaboration with the successes, losses, and the lessons that were learned during the late twentieth century.  Unlike other reflections on the Canadian women’s movement, which tend to focus on “what was accomplished, which laws were changed, and the number of positions women now occupy,” her account focuses on “how those changes happened.”5 The book is, arguably, addressed to two generations, to “the women who were part of the magnificent struggle for women’s liberation as well as to the women and men who know only its legacy and mythology.”6 Through this statement alone, Rebick is connecting her audience, those who only know the legacy and mythology of the Canadian women’s movement, with the feminists who were a part of the movement and provided her with oral interviews for this book.

Ten Thousand Roses is structured chronologically following the last four decades of intense feminist activity in Canada, beginning in the 1960s and continuing through to the 1990s, with the inclusion of an epilogue that looks to the future of feminist organization, not just in Canada, but through the world as a whole.  For each decade, Rebick begins by reviewing the movement within the larger social, political and economic climate of the time, with a particular emphasis being placed in a North American context.  She also includes brief references to other social justice movements of the time, such as the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s and 70s, and how feminism interacted with them.7  Each chapter focuses on a specific element of the women’s movement, from different sectors, including the Quebec women’s movement and Aboriginal women’s struggle, issues such as male violence against women or childcare, and mass action with a prime example being the Abortion Caravan. 

The book examines more than 30 years of feminist activism, from the founding of women’s groups such as Voice of Women and the Committee for the Equality of Women in Canada in the 1960s, through the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and the abortion caravan that traveled from Vancouver to Ottawa, the “first unified action of the women’s movement”8, and the Native women’s march from Oka to Ottawa to change the Indian Act in the 1970s.  It moves to the research that was compiled, which documented the alarming extent of male violence against women in the decade marked also by agonizing constitutional debates of the 1980s, and culminates in the ground-breaking election of the first woman of colour as NAC’s president and the astonishing success of the “Bread and Roses” march against poverty by women in Québec in the 1990s, the very march that gave inspiration to the name of this book.

She begins in the 1960s, where the birth of the second wave of the women’s movement began with three streams of feminism: Voice of Women peace activists who spoke out against the Vietnam war, the Cold war hysteria and the threat of nuclear war; young radical women who were heavily involved in student and anti-war radical organizing as well as organizing around women’s health and sexuality and against both mainstream and patriarchal notions of beauty; and middle class mothers and career women.9  The 1970s saw a major growth in lesbian women’s organizing, resistance to male violence against women, and working class feminist organizing within trade unions.  The tension in the women’s movement grew stronger in the 1970s not only between reformists and revolutionaries, but also between socialist feminists, who believed women’s liberation could not be achieved while capitalism was still in existence, and radical feminists who, first and foremost, believed in fighting against patriarchy.  While these tensions were occasionally overcome and women were able to unite in times of great need, there were instances when peace was unachievable.  For example, divisions occurred during the planning for the first International Women’s Day action in English Canada in 1978, when radical feminists banned men from participating in an International Women’s Day march and organized a separate women only event the night before.10

The 1980s, proved to be a large step forward for the women’s movement as several groups of women began to fight for their own rights.  Women took courageous actions to defend their right of choice, women of colour and disabled women began to emerge as significant members of the women’s movement, and NAC made its debut on the stage of federal politics.  Rebick proceeds to expand on the backlash that occurred against feminism in the 1990s and the monumental moment when the only national women’s organization in Canada had its first woman of colour president, Sunera Thobani, in its twenty-year history.

The entirety of Rebick’s book is dedicated to strategies for building a mass movement.  These strategies, described in a first person narrative, include the spread of awareness through small groups; the distribution of information about issues using the skills and abilities of feminist journalists; mobilizing networks and organizing community meetings; setting up vanguard services for women, such as transition houses, sexual assault crisis hotlines, and women’s resource centres; the founding of and fundraising for advocacy groups; establishing women’s magazines; negotiating coalitions of groups; doing research; formulating well-targeted demands; leafleting and distributing posters; holding workshops; disrupting events that demean women, such as the Miss University beauty pageant discussed in her introduction; lobbying politicians; using threats about mass action and taking protest to the streets by staging rallies, demonstrations, and marches; occupying band council or other buildings; calling politicians to account in an all-party leaders’ debate; instigating lawsuits and court challenges; and even petitioning the UN, as did Tobique’s Native women, led by Sandra Lovelace.  These strategies, while not directly outlined the way I have done here, are spread throughout the book as examples of how the women’s movement grew to the size that it did.

The narrative is brought to life through the incorporations of over a hundred interviews with leading feminists who engaged in the struggle surrounding these issues and sectors.  Rebick herself, while an active participant in the latter half of the movement, only appears in the chapters as a narrator with an opening synopsis of each individual decade.  In this way, Ten Thousand Roses is largely an oral history told from a multitude of perspectives.  In some ways this is useful because reading and exploring first hand accounts from women in leadership positions during the major points of the women’s movement can provide insight into the ideas and analysis which spurred their actions, and also gives the reader a sense of the drive and enthusiasm of the movement and those who participated in it.  Rebick examines female leaders of all calibers, from the national level to the grassroots, however, it felt as though the nationalist framework of the book meant that more focus was put on looking broadly at how the movement unfolded across the country, with a few specific provincial and municipal examples, rather than focusing on the movement from the ground up.

 

The way in which Rebick has laid out this book, the shift that the Canadian women’s movement experienced becomes quite clear.  The 1960s and 1970s were the beginnings of the second wave, where grassroots organizing efforts and mass mobilizations were emerging, and women were taking to the streets in huge numbers to engage in direct action for their liberation.  By the 1980s and 1990s, grassroots organizing had mostly ceased and emphasis was being placed on the lobbying of the government.  Feminist organizing became bureaucratized during this time as well, and was tied precariously to government funding and women were, for the most part, not mobilized for change.

In general, Ten Thousand Roses is a useful and informative account of the mainstream women’s movement in Canada.  Gains are celebrated and some important criticisms of the organizing that happened within the movement are revealed in the book.  However, it should be taken for what it is: an account of a movement of mostly white, mostly able bodied women.  It does not include women’s organizing that took place within immigrant, Aboriginal and people of colour communities and often in a mixed gender setting, such as in the Canadian Farmworkers Union.  While there is some discussion of the incorporation of coloured women, Aboriginal women, and disabled women into the movement, Rebick does not go into the same amount of detail as she does with the plights of mainly white and able-bodied women.  Just because the women’s movement in Canada was seen as being somewhat friendlier towards socialist politics and slightly more open to being contested on the grounds of race and ability than the American women’s movement, does not mean it is something to be celebrated.  Minorities and disabled women were still often overlooked in this larger, mainly white history; an interesting fact to note as well is the two categories of ‘women of colour’ and ‘disabled women’ never converge in the book. The book either discussed coloured women or disabled women, however, never disabled women of colour. 

In fact, there are some moments in the book where Rebick makes some dangerously ambitious claims, such as that Canada had possibly been the only multiracial women’s movement in the world at the time.  However, her grandest claim comes from the back cover of the book, which says, “these stories define the Canadian women’s movement as one of the most successful on the planet.”11 This is a very grand statement to make, especially given the fact that this book is a history of the women’s movement in Canada, and does not present the movement in relation to a global context.  It is difficult to say if one women’s movement is more successful than another, simply due to the fact that every movement is unique and plays off of the social, political, and economic landscape in which it works out of.  The successfulness of a women’s movement should not be something that is viewed in competition of with other movements, but rather should judged based on how successful it is for the individual country in which it occurs.

In summation, Ten Thousand Roses is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in fighting patriarchy, and particularly for budding young feminists interested in the history of the mainstream women’s movement in Canada.  Despite its shortcomings, the women’s movement can provide us with substantial motivation for the continued struggle for women’s liberation and for social justice in all of our communities.  Notwithstanding these few thorns, Ten Thousand Roses is a treasure-trove of historical detail, necessary for anyone interested in the Canadian women’s movement.

   

 

 

1 Judy Rebick, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2005), xii.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., xi-xii.

5 Ibid., xiii.

6 Ibid., 270.

7 Ibid., 13.

8 Ibid., 36.

9 Ibid., 1-14

10 Ibid., 133.

11 Ibid., back cover.