The Canadian Branch of Feminism


BCIT Communications instructor Tessa Jordan discusses the impact of cultural production on Canadian feminist history. Her upcoming book, Feminist Acts, examines how the 1970s women’s magazine, Branching Out, contributed to Canadian feminism.

 

In the summer of 1975, Rosemary Brown was making Canadian history as the first black woman to run for leadership of a federal party. She, along with the other candidates running for leadership of the federal NDP, appeared at a ‘meet the candidates’ event in Edmonton, Alberta. Sharon Batt, the editor of the magazine Branching Out, was there to witness the event unfold. While there, Batt made note of how many members of the audience, like herself, attended specifically to see Brown. This made her wonder, “Why haven’t we read more about Rosemary Brown in the newspapers?”¹  After all, Brown had already made a significant stride in Canadian politics as the first black woman to be elected as an MLA.

Yet this was the 1970s, a time when patriarchal and racial caste systems stood more stubbornly against progress. The mainstream publishing landscape was more likely to profile candidates like Ed Broadbent who ended up winning the federal NDP leadership, or rather, any white male politician whose representation in government did not challenge the social norm.

Sharon Batt, on the other hand, set out to write about Rosemary Brown that day. Branching Out would end up featuring Brown on its cover. Batt pursued Brown’s story as part of the publication’s editorial mandate—to “provide a forum for the discussion of topics relevant to Canadian women.”²  As Canada’s first national second-wave feminist magazine, the staff of Branching Out took it upon themselves to make space for women’s stories in the public domain.

Activists had (and still have) to find a way to summon public empathy and understanding towards the plight of women. Mobilizing a million women to march on Parliament Hill is one way to get attention, but the dialogue needs to be normalized among public consciousness.

For BCIT Communications instructor Tessa Jordan, changing hearts and minds goes hand-in-hand with updating laws that protect women. In her upcoming book, Feminist Acts: Branching Out Magazine and the Making of Canadian Feminism, she makes a case for the valuable role Branching Out played in elevating not just Canadian women’s writing, but the overall Canadian feminist movement itself. As she states in her 2010 journal article:

The belief in the printed word, with its long history and radical reform movements, was the lifeblood of the women-in-print movement, which was the centre of second-wave feminist organizing in Canada.

Tessa Jordan’s new book argues for Branching Out to have a more substantial place in the fabric of Canadian feminist history. She uses Branching Out as a way to demonstrate that culture can be a political act.

The makings of a women’s publication

Tessa Jordan conducted extensive research on Branching Out’s short-lived seven-year publication history. Feminist Acts: Branching Out Magazine and the Making of Canadian Feminism springboards off her 2012 dissertation from the University of Alberta. During the interview process, Sharon Batt told Jordan that the article on Rosemary Brown is one of the pieces she was most proud of.

Branching Out was a volunteer-run publication by a staff of mostly middle-class white women, but Batt’s piece on Brown made for a genuine effort to seek perspective beyond that lens. The editorial decision to cover Rosemary Brown was indicative of future trajectories in women’s publishing; in particular, the incentive to give a platform to trailblazers of marginalized identities. In the 31 issues that Branching Out managed to release, the staff was able to cover a range of issues such as the rights of Indigenous women, abortion, daycare, and sexual assault.

“The diversity of Branching Out’s content was not to the level or degree that we have come to expect of today’s feminist movement,” conveys Jordan. “But it was very trying to recognize the ways that women are not just one unified category. That means that the diversity and experience of women are dependant on all sorts of intersections and markers of difference.”

Jordan first came across copies of Branching Out during a course in Canadian second-wave feminism she took at the University of Alberta. She says she was struck to find how plenty of the issues covered in Branching Out still ring true today. “I started reading it and I thought, these are a lot of the same issues that we’re talking about today except written from the perspective of the 1970s.”

Initially, Jordan wanted to pursue a PhD project on feminist presses from the California Bay area, but her discovery of Branching Out was a serendipitous change of track. She recalls, “Once I found out there was a national feminist magazine published in Edmonton, and I was studying in Edmonton, it was an obvious fit for me, so I decided to write about it.”

In her research, Jordan engaged in conversations with 17 former Branching Out staff and contributors. This included long-time editor Sharon Batt, and the founding editor, Susan McMaster. “What struck me about both of them,” recalls Jordan, “is how generous they both were in terms of telling their stories and wanting the story of Branching Out to get out there.” Jordan says she knows that an academic book like hers won’t be a bestseller, but she is eager to further publicize the work of these women.

 

Branching away from American feminist pedagogy

In the 1960s, the Western feminist movement began gradually cementing its foothold on popular culture. This era saw to the rise of second-wave feminism—the body of feminist philosophies that expanded beyond the first wave’s suffrage movement in the mid-20th century; this entailed addressing issues such as women’s inequality in the workplace, reproductive rights, and sexuality.

Feminist presses and publishing were instrumental to the movement’s mobilization. General history elevates American writers, in particular, as the central pioneers of bringing women’s rights to the foreground of public consciousness. The Feminine Mystique, the tumultuous 1963 work by American author Betty Friedan, is often credited as the book that kicked off the second-wave. Later in the 1970s, magazine publishing began to house political pieces. Women’s rights icon Gloria Steinem co-founded Ms., a liberal feminist magazine rooted from Los Angeles and Arlington, Virginia. And unlike Branching Out, Ms. still runs to this day.

With the ubiquity of American literature, it’s easy to be under the impression that women’s movements in Canada are piggybacking off their neighbours to the south. After all, the most widespread, hot-button issues surrounding today’s feminist dialogue (e.g. the #MeToo movement founded by American activist Tarana Burke over ten years ago) are dominated by U.S. platforms.

Tessa Jordan is keen on enlightening us about the key differences between Canadian and American women’s movements.  She notes that American feminism is more closely associated with anti-government and anti-establishment rhetoric, while Canadian activists more often have a tighter connection with state actors. “In Canada, we are more likely to consider that the state can help us forward our agenda on progressive social issues.”

When it comes to the culture that Branching Out featured, Jordan was quick to assert that it was a moderate publication. It published poetry, short fiction, photography, and illustrations; the staff refrained from hard line politically-confrontational content. “They wanted to see what they were doing as more supportive and inclusive”

In fact, as Jordan was conducting interviews, women who worked on the magazine could not agree on the level of politics the magazine engaged in. Some simply thought of it as a Canadian magazine for women, while others fully associated it with feminist advocacy. But as Jordan explains in her dissertation, “Branching Out analyzed the Canadian political and cultural landscape in terms of sexual politics, and in doing so, advocated for women.”

Overall, as with any political landscape, culture can be a powerful tactic to engage people. Regardless of how political the Branching Out staff themselves would describe the magazine’s content, acknowledging the impact of culture is key to ushering progressive change.

Changing hearts and minds

In 1971, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women conducted a multifaceted overview of the most pressing issues that Canadian women faced at the time. The 166th recommendation out of 167 addressed Jordan’s sentiment. It called on governing bodies to attempt shifting cultural mindsets to be conscious of women’s social inequality. They tabled a mandate “to create a favourable climate for equality of opportunity for the women of Canada.”

“If we just change the laws,” says Jordan. “We don’t change people’s hearts and minds, then we hadn’t had enough progress.” Initiatives like Branching Out – in particular, the kind of culture that it features—are helpful in pushing forward this notion. “Within Canadian feminism,” she explains. “We have an understanding of the important role that culture plays in changing hearts and minds.”

Almost seven years have passed since she published her dissertation in 2012, and the evolution of feminism has crossed over to what many are terming as fourth-wave feminism—a wave with a staunch emphasis on intersectionality. For her upcoming book, Jordan had the task of updating her thesis’ ideas to complement the recent developments in the movement. What Branching Out represented, in the end, is a call for women’s representation in the publishing world.

“Both the feminist and the mainstream media has a responsibility to promote initiatives and work by women until we get to that point where [all genders’] voices are equally valued.” Asked what female writers of today can learn from the women of Branching Out, she advises she still thinks there is a place for women-only spaces.

Back to 1975, when Sharon Batt interviewed Rosemary Brown the day after the event, she also asked for the politician’s insight on this similar sentiment:

“Sharon Batt: What do you think of the strategy that many feminist groups have taken, of separating themselves from political parties, from various male organizations, and trying to work as women’s groups?

Rosemary Brown: … I maintain that you fight in the arena that’s best-suited for you. And certainly, there are groups of women that find that it is important for them to come together and raise their own consciousness and identify for themselves how the struggle is relevant to them.”

These days, writing by women for women has become more widespread, and yet it continues to hold tremendous cultural value. Getting women to write about their own interests and issues cultivates an authenticity in their voices. Authentic voices in culture are a sincere way to touch people’s hearts and minds.

Jordan says there is still room to progress further. “I would say that while they were aware of the diversity of women’s experience within the second-wave movement, activists, of course, are a product of their historical moment.  We see more visible engagement in the third-wave and beyond, but we can still do a better job of elevating diverse voices.”

Tessa Jordan’s new book, Feminist Acts: Branching Out Magazine and the Making of Canadian Feminism, is due for release in October 2019.

 


1 Batt, Sharon. “The Radical Tradition of Rosemary Brown.” Branching Out, July 1975, 16.

2 McMaster, Susan. “Branching To?” Branching Out, December 1973, 3.

3 Tessa Jordan. “Branching Out: Second-Wave Feminist Periodicals and the Archive of Canadian Women’s Writing.” ESC: English Studies in Canada 36, no. 2 (2010): 63-90.

4 Jordan, Tessa. “Branching Out, 1973-1980: Canadian Second-Wave Feminism, Periodical Publishing and Cultural Politics.” University of Alberta, 2012, 215. Education and Research Archive.

5 Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. 1971. Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. Ottawa: Information Canada.

6 Batt, Sharon. “The Radical Tradition of Rosemary Brown.” Branching Out, July 1975, 19.

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