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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2005

Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution

Wendy Robbins
Judy Rebick. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2005; 280 pp; ISBN: 0-14-3015-44-3, paper $24 ca.
"The women’s movement saved my life," acknowledges Judy Rebick, "as it did for thousands of women of my generation. I hope that I have done it justice." (p. 270) She has, abundantly so. In a remarkable and innovative book which reads like an oral history in print, Rebick weaves together interviews conducted with more than 80 activists, both widely acclaimed and little known, which she punctuates with contextualizing "big picture" essays and reflections based on her own extraordinary experience.

Ten Thousand Roses brilliantly paints a collective Canadian portrait of courageous activist women from many different backgrounds and walks of life who were fired by a unifying, principled and passionate desire for a more egalitarian society and a better world. Rebick ties it all together with her characteristic attention to inclusion and signature penchant for ribald good humour.

A self-styled "radical uppity woman" and "kick-ass shit disturber," Rebick is a distinguished sociology professor at Ryerson University, the publisher of the alternative online news source and, indisputably, one of Canada’s leading "second wave" feminists.

Rebick’s choice of medium — a multiplicity of voices, a diversity of perspectives — is in harmony with a key message of feminist praxis, which shifts attention from the personal to the social and political, from centre to margins and contexts, from product to process and from single to multiple focus. 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 proudest of all of 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." (p. xii) Nonetheless, understanding the complexities of identity politics is still very much a work-in-progress.

With its focus on the grassroots process of how to organize for social change, Ten Thousand Roses was inspired by Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999), a history of the American women’s movement. Rebick claims the story of the birth and growth of the Canadian women’s movement is even more interesting than the American one because of the wide coalition here of liberal, radical and socialist feminists. The latter negotiated an important alliance between the women’s and labour movements, which was mutually beneficial. Canada’s women’s movement benefited from the energies of both working-class and middle-class activists, and Canada’s trade unions became "the most feminist in the world" (p. xii) — though "still too patriarchal," Rebick added during her recent cross-Canada book tour.

Unlike other retrospectives on the feminist movement, which focus on "what was accomplished, which laws were changed, and the number of positions women now occupy," her assessment concentrates on "how those changes happened." (p. xiii) The book is 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." (p. 270) The testimony is mostly celebration, not last rites, but it does not ignore those lessons learned the hard way, not from change and triumph, but from setbacks and failures (e.g., the strangulation of women’s groups dependent on government funding, the implosion of NAC and the lack of a fully-implemented national childcare program even now).

If one construes NAC as the Canadian feminist movement’s main embodiment, then indeed "the 1990s was the decade in which the women’s movement died on the vine." (p. xiv) Thus the tone and content of Ten Thousand Roses are oddly hybrid: part moxy "best practices" manual for successful social change; part paeon to late 20th century feminism’s golden age; part analytical post mortem.

The book traces 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" (p. 36), and the Native women’s march from Oka to Ottawa to change the Indian Act in the 1970s; to research which first documented the shocking extent of male violence against women in the decade marked also by agonizing constitutional debates, the 1980s; and culminating in the landmark election of the first woman of colour as NAC’s president and the extraordinary success of the "Bread and Roses" march against poverty by women in Québec in the 1990s.

Strategies for building a mass movement, described in authentic first-person-narrative detail, include small group consciousness-raising; distributing information about issues with the skill and guidance of feminist journalists; mobilizing networks and organizing community meetings; setting up frontline services for women (transition houses, sexual assault crisis hotlines, women’s resource centres); founding and fundraising for advocacy groups; establishing women’s magazines (e.g., Kinesis, Herizons); negotiating coalitions of groups; doing research; formulating well-targeted demands; leafleting and distributing posters; holding workshops; disrupting events that demean women (e.g., beauty pageants); lobbying politicians; using threats about mass action (pace Laura Sabia) 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 (it worked once); instigating lawsuits and court challenges (LEAF); and even petitioning the UN (as did Tobique’s Native women, led by Sandra Lovelace).

Activist organizations on the leading edge of participatory democracy and social change need constantly to develop decision-making processes that empower the people who will be affected most by the decisions, to root out vestiges of "internalized sexism," and to take the time necessary for healing. Akua Benjamin, of the Congress of Black Women, reflects that "you cannot take up the issues of difference, whether it be race, gender or poverty, without a process of healing." (p. 140)

Rebick’s book may be faulted for being too "NACcentric." Many women in Canada — the underrated silent majority — support feminist goals without necessarily joining organizations. Many activists who were members of women’s organizations, including NAC, nonetheless chose not to participate in NAC conferences. The AGM was often brutally confrontational, and the annual door-banging lobby of politicians on Parliament Hill, broadcast on national television, became counterproductive, playing into the stereotype of all feminists as irrational, angry and out of control.

The book gives short shrift to women’s experiences with national consultations such as the Royal Commission or the Panel on Violence, and it shortchanges the work of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, which was, for two decades, arguably Canada’s premier feminist research organization, one that liaised with community groups and was headed, before NAC, by a woman of colour and an Aboriginal woman. (Rebick is factually mistaken about the arms’-length government agency’s reporting requirements.)

There is no discussion of the founding of women’s studies programs in universities — another highly effective strategy to achieve ongoing social change. This omission inadvertently reinforces the notion of an unbreachable divide between activists and academics. Clearly Rebick, like hundreds of others, is both. (Reportedly her editor, because of space limitations, required a cut to a planned section on this theme.) Some discussion of cyberfeminism — how the new communications technologies started to be adopted and adapted by activists — might well have been included (it does not all belong to the "third wave").

The book, which will certainly find its way onto reference library shelves and women’s studies courses, should have included a bibliography.

Notwithstanding these few thorns, Ten Thousand Roses is a "must-have" treasure-trove of historical detail. Did you know that Chatelaine magazine did not have a woman editor until 1957? That until the 1960s Québec had a law that declared married women minors? That the 1970s opened with only one woman in the House of Commons? That the first Native woman to reclaim her status, having had it taken away because of marrying a non-Native man (while the reverse was never the case) did so only after the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was proclaimed in 1985? Or that "the only senior management field in which women are in the majority today is human resources?" (p. 255)

In the epilogue, Rebick speculates about a structure for a new feminist movement, a new coalition, perhaps modeled on the World Social Forum that assembled in Brazil in 2001. The book’s last words, by Arundhati Roy, are confidently optimistic: "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." (p. 257)

Wendy Robbins, chair of CAUT’s Women’s Committee and a cofounder of women’s studies at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, has been active in the women’s movement for the past three decades and is a cofounder of the feminist listserv PAR-L.