Jun 16 2013

Of privilege and prostitution

Women advocating for the abolition of prostitution on the steps of the Supreme Court (source: www.ctvnews.ca)

For a few years in the 1990s, I had the privilege of bylining a column in the Vancouver Sun. Every week, I’d write 750 words on pretty much any topic I wanted, and the Sun (a broadsheet not affiliated with the tabloid chain) would disseminate it to hundreds of thousands of readers.

That’s where the privilege came in. Pre-Facebook, Twitter and widespread Internet use, having a newspaper column gave you a singularly influential platform.

After three years, a new editor-in-chief decided to replace my overtly feminist voice with that of another more conservative-minded woman whose opinions more often aligned with those of the new owner (and yes, his name was Conrad Black).  I doubt that my views ever registered on Mr. Black’s consciousness, but from the day he became the major shareholder of the paper, my own editor began second-guessing my commentary, calling me up to inquire, “Are you sure you want to (write about breast feeding, contradict yesterday’s editorial about same-sex parents, or encourage police to do a better job of investigating the disappearance of aboriginal women on the Downtown Eastside)?”

(This was years before the Port Coquitlam pig farmer was finally identified as the man behind those disappearances, and I continue to regret that I only devoted one column to the topic, instead of 5, or 10.)

Yesterday, the Ottawa Citizen gave me space to write about some of the issues currently being considered by the Supreme Court regarding the decriminalization of prostitution. The debate over the wisdom of what’s being advocated by Bedford and company is one that divides feminists, and I respect the perspectives of those who take a different view on the matter.

But I’m siding with Aboriginal women on this one. The Native Women’s Association of Canada is one of seven organizations that make up the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution. The Coalition used its intervener status at this week’s Supreme Court hearing to advocate for the decriminalization of prostituted women, but not the legalization of brothels or pimping. (You can read the full column here.)

Although mainstream newspaper columns don’t have quite the same dominance as they once did, being able to focus thousands of readers’ attention on an issue you think is important remains a privilege. I appreciate it every time I’m given the opportunity.

And I am genuinely thrilled every time a woman who has attended an Informed Opinions workshop, or heard me speak, takes advantage of a similar forum to amplify her voice on a topic she knows and cares about.

Our site now features more than 100 of these interventions, with many more to come. And royalties from the sale of every copy of I Feel Great About My Hands support more women in being heard.

Nov 30 2011

On Laura Secord, long skirts and women’s history

My mother grew up a Secord near Niagara-on-the-Lake, so I pay attention when someone slags my famous ancestor, and the story makes headlines. When it happened last week I took the advice doled out by screenwriter Nora Ephron’s mother (“it’s all material”), and turned the slight into an op ed, which appeared this week in the Ottawa Citizen, the Edmonton Journal and the Vancouver Sun:

As insults go, it’s a pretty mild one. But as Canadians gear up to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle that secured our future as an independent country, a gauntlet has been thrown down, and the bravery of our most famous heroine has been dismissed as a mere walk in the park.

Trashing the iconic Laura Secord has proved to be an effective way to generate attention for Betsy Doyle, a previously unheralded American patriot who apparently went the extra mile for her own country during the War of 1812. Now news reports are pitting the feats of one heroine against the other with headlines trumpeting “SURPRISE ATTACK” and “Round Two.”

I forgive the hyperbole – it made me read the story. And I don’t blame Catherine Emerson, either. She’s the U.S. historian who’s responsible for promoting Betsy Doyle’s compelling heroics. (The woman trekked 400 kilometres – with her children! She loaded guns – with red-hot cannonballs!) Apparently Emerson made her disparaging comment about the lameness of our Laura during a presentation to a group of New York lawmakers. My guess is she was merely seeking to underline how unfortunate it was that Betsy Doyle’s country had failed to recognize her feats. Contrasting the U.S. heroine’s low profile with the celebration heaped on Laura Secord this side of the border was no doubt designed to shame them into correcting the oversight.

I hope it works. Because really, in the context of a historical event that boasts a host of male heroes, and a media culture that focuses a lot of attention on under-dressed women, surely there’s room for one or two more fully-clothed female models.

Chances are that the War of 1812 inspired heroism in many other women whose lives were profoundly affected by the conflict, but whose stories haven’t yet been told. History is full of amazing women who – while they may once have been written out of the official records – are now being posthumously feted for their intelligence, inventions and artistry. French sculptor Camille Claudel has recently emerged from the shadow of her lover, the more famous Rodin; author Beatrix Potter apparently had some claim to the discovery of penicillin; and Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, may have contributed to his Nobel-winning research.

As for Laura Secord, even if the length of her 28-kilometre walk pales in comparison with the 400 km clocked by Betsy Doyle, that doesn’t make her act any less heroic. (You try negotiating a ten-hour journey through dangerous territory on an unseasonably hot June day sporting an ankle-length dress and inappropriate shoes.) And the cow that she was supposed to have dragged along with her for cover while crossing enemy lines? That was a bit of fiction, apparently invented by a government official.

They say history is written by the victors, but even victorious women – unless they happened to be queens – generally lacked the “room of one’s own” that would have permitted them such a luxury. When Laura Secord returned home after warning General Fitzgibbon of the impending American attack, it was to five children, an invalid husband and no washing machine, microwave or nearby supermarket.

And even if she’d had the time, she was apparently a woman of admirable discretion and humility, declining to boast of her exploits for many years after the fact for reasons of national and – no doubt – personal security.

Her silence, and history’s chronic erasure of women’s contribution on all sorts of fronts, is given new context by recent research into the persistent under-representation of women’s voices in mainstream media two centuries later.

Informed Opinions, a non-profit project that helps to connect female experts to journalists, has found that even in 2011, qualified women are much more reluctant than their male counterparts to provide commentary and analysis to the news media when asked. Lack of time remains an issue, but so does the tendency to discount the value of their knowledge or the importance of their contribution. Dozens of the more than 200 women surveyed have also indicated a discomfort with any activity that might be seen as self-promotional.

This is unfortunate, not just because it will perpetuate the absence of attention to women’s accomplishments, but because it robs us of their capacity to help make sense of the many pressing issues we face.

So I salute Catherine Emerson for raising awareness of Betsy Doyle’s story; her heroism is worth celebrating, and in no way diminishes Laura Secord’s. We all benefit from inspirational role models, of any gender, from any age.

(Note: My sombre expression in the photo was an attempt to determine whether any family resemblance persisted six generations on… What do you think? If you worked behind the counter at the Laura Secord store, would this photo convince you to give me free chocolate?)