Thursday, December 14, 2006

Women and Children First

by Michele Landsberg (Markham, Ontario, Canada: Penguin Books, 1983)

[Review by Frieda Werden]

As a fairly recent immigrant to Canada (2002), I have catching up to do about Canada's feminist history. This book helped a lot. Michele Landsberg was a columnist for a number of newspapers, notably the Toronto Star, and also articles editor of Chatelaine magazine for seven years. ( Chatelaine, according to Canadian feminist media activist Judy Rebick, was a mainstream magazine but also so feminist that when US founding feminist Betty Friedan was trying to place some excerpts from her then-forthcoming book The Feminine Mystique, Chatelaine rejected it as being too old hat. )

In the Introduction, Landsberg describes herself as "neither a radical nor a traditionalist... a committed feminist who is also a monogamous wife and devoted mother." In those roles alone, she appears to have had quite an impact: her husband is Stephen Lewis, who is currently [2006] advocating for a much more powerful and better-funded organization for women at the United Nations; one of her three children, Avi Lewis, is married to and works with Naomi Klein (whose own mother, Bonnie Klein, made the anti-pornography film Not a Love Story); Landsberg and Lewis's two daughters, Ilana and Jenny, are both described as feminist in an article on the Stephen Lewis Foundation website ( ) .

Women and Children First was my travel book on a recent trip to Jordan, and it made a big impact on me. For one thing, Landsberg advocates passionately on behalf of maternal leave, breastfeeding, and childcare. In light of the recent abolishment of the very new Canadian national childcare plan by the recently-installed Conservative government, this reading gave me a huge pang for more than 23 years of feminist effort and advocacy for the childcare cause in Canada -- finally come to fruition and then cruelly set back by Bush-wanna-be Stephen Harper and his Republican clones.

The essay on breastfeeding evokes a kind of sensuous motherhood rarely seen in print [see my previous blog entry on Sharon Olds, for another author with similar sensibility], but it isn't in the least sentimental. Landsberg explains that as infants are "dependent, with a ferocity of need that non-parents simply can't imagine, an immediate response from the mother is the barest minimum of courtesy." In another paragraph about negative responses to breastfeeding in public, she writes,
  • It's hard for new mothers to understand that mentality which associates loving nurture with obscene sexual display. But there it is. Two warring views of the world. Which shall prevail? The babies , of course, must have right of way.

I really like it about Landsberg that she keeps building bridges between the personal world and the political world. We did used to say that "the personal is political" -- and it still is.

Each chapter in this book consists of a group of Landsberg's columns from the Toronto Star, sewn together by later-written integuments. A particularly trenchant chapter is called "Our Bodies, Men's Rules." It includes columns on

  • an all-female mental women's mental health clinic
  • the reality of menstrual cramps (it's not "all in your head") and a new treatment using anti-prostaglandin drugs
  • toxic shock syndrome and the shocking revelation that "feminine hygiene products," including tampons, required no government testing or labeling (unlike condoms)

and goes on to deliver a smashing indictment of the encroachments of anti-abortion extremists, and a caring view of women's right and necessity to make their own decisions about their bodies.

Another chapter takes on a myth that is still being pushed in major newspapers of Canada (and the US) today -- the idea that somehow there is a conflict going on between feminists and mothers. Landsberg writes

  • many women I know manage to combine feminism and motherhood in a comfortably pragmatic blend. They are aware that the price of motherhood is very high, and feel that the cost should be shared more democratically than it is now. Feminists have been among those who fought for more humane childbirth, maternity pay, day care, neighbourhood support centres, and a heightened social empathy for the tasks of parenthood... less singling out of mothers when things go wrong.

If you want to know the history of the sexual equality clause in the Canadian constitution, you can find it in here, too. As all equality-seeking activity has just been removed by the Conservatives from the mandate of Status of Women Canada, this, too, is very current and may help us in winning the next round.

1 comment:

  1. ‘Finally, a UN agency for women’
    Piece by Lesley Abdela in Britain’s Guardian Newspaper 27 May 2009 -

    Many say the UN system has failed the world's 3 billion-plus women – but a new 'super-agency' may bring welcome change
    Read at


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