Myrna Kostash reflects upon the new women’s studies course at the University of Toronto in a 1972 Miss Chatelaine article
**The following article contains selected excerpts from Myrna Kostash’s article “The Joe College-Betty Coed Consciousness-Raising (It-Ain’t-Easy) Blues” from the spring/summer 1972 edition of Miss Chatelaine.
Although Miss Chatelaine knew last spring that there was going to be a Women’s Course at the University of Toronto, it wasn’t until last October that I made contact with the women teaching it. On Oct. 24, there was a meeting of all the section leaders, the “teaching collective,” to which I was invited. Kay Armatage, one of the section leaders, told me that the decision to admit me to the course would have come from the collective.
There were several objections to my proposed participation: I would be coming in six weeks late and would interrupt the still fragile flow of discussion and relationship: as an observer rather than a registered student, I would have a totally different set of attitudes and expectations: my commitments would be more opportunistic, and I would have ulterior motives.
In all honesty, I told the collective that I came to the course as a woman first, and as a writer second. Involvement in Women’s Liberation had been a desire of mine, and it was as a budding feminist that I had agreed to do the article in the first place.
It was a draw. No one except Kay was very happy to have me in the course, but it was agreed that if she was willing to have me in her section, so be it. I started the course the next day…
[…] Will it change my life? Why are the other women there? To what extent do our lives reflect the points being made about women and their situation? Is Women’s Liberation an evolutionary or revolutionary process? Is it going to mean more in the end, as a catalyst of ideas that have been in the air for years, a factor of social change, than as a brilliant one-shot revolution superseding all other struggles?
At the end of the first term, I can answer these questions only partially. To some extent, they are the wrong questions. Here are some better ones: How is a group of women going to get along? What can we learn from each other? How much are we willing to say about ourselves? What effect will “radical teaching” have on the experiences we have in class? These I can answer more completely.
Kay Armatage: It’s really important to break down the mystique of the classroom.
Connie Chapman (second section leader): In this course, not only are we involved in new subject matter with no set curriculum but also with a new way of getting people to learn. When students wait for us to give them The Word, all they do with it is to accept or reject it. If they come to it on their own, it will be more meaningful.
Kay opens class by asking about the greater awareness of how the issues relate to each of us personally and an attempt to develop a disciplined and intellectual analysis of these issues. (After all, we are at the university.) The reactions to this vary from a glib satisfaction that things are just fine, to ideas of how to improve the quality of the course. What we need is a critique, an analytical tool, that is unique to feminism and doesn’t depend on methods from male-chauvinist disciplines like clinical psychology and literary criticism. What we need is a way to go beyond just seeing what is good and bad and to actually live our new ideas about women. We should have a closer look at the books we’ve been reading because they are really interesting. What we need is less Beauvoir and Greer because their books are a drag. What we need is some experts from the sociology, history, biology departments (Hiss! Boo!). Finally, someone suggests that the class is just too big and should be broken into smaller groups which can concentrate on specific themes and then bring their conclusions to general meetings. This is a good idea. But it goes over like a lead balloon. People twiddle their thumbs and shuffle their feet. Why?
I don’t say anything at this class. Just take a look around. We are sitting in a big circle in what was obviously once a chapel. […] Except for the constant staring at Kay and Connie when the silences get too heavy, the people seem relaxed and talkative enough. Still too early to tell if it’s always the same people talking. There is a tendency, however, to present ideas defensively. “I don’t know what you think of this but…” As for the couple of men in the class (I wonder why they’re here?), they don’t seem at all uptight or even, surprise, patronizing. But maybe the discussion hasn’t got them where they squirm.
Barbara Buchwald, 27, grad student in biochemistry: The discussions on the family were very revealing. I’m the oldest of six children, and my father was very strict. After reading Laing, I wonder how I have any sense at all of my own worth or that I dare do things my father would never approve. My parents had very self-contradicting attitudes. On the one hand, they would tell me that I was not to throw myself away on marriage; on the other hand, their remarks about unmarried women with careers were very unflattering. So what was I supposed to do?
[…] The question that is puzzling the class is this: is there a way to be both a whole person and a functional member of this crazy society? And – even more important to us – how did any of us manage to survive the games our families played with us?
If a girl shows signs of being tough, aggressive, opinionated, adventurous, sexy and intelligent – of developing a mind of her own – her parents become alarmed, interpreting her behaviour as abnormal. A boy with such characteristics is encouraged in them because they correspond to social myths of masculinity. If a boy is thwarted in his growing up, he has recourse to certain tactics which are directed outward: running away, delinquency, the army, fighting, bumming, travel. A girl, frequently denied the means to her economic independence, trapped in the family circle, expected to live out her parents’ fantasies about her womanhood, all her energy and anger directed back to herself, goes crazy.
This is extremely put, of course, but through Laing you begin to see how family dynamics and social myths interact to frustrate women in their pursuit of personality. Not only do we have to overcome the psychological traps of the nuclear family but the cultural propaganda as well, which teaches us to be what we manifestly don’t want to be. Whew!
There is a General Meeting today, called by one section inviting all other sections and section leaders to come discuss the way the course is going, and what its future should be. About 25 out of 250 people show up. There is at first a lot of reticence, but as the group gets smaller, people talk more.
It is agreed that the women in all the sections aren’t talking as much or as well as they could, perhaps afraid that their ideas will be put down by more radical and aggressive women. Perhaps afraid of talking before virtual strangers or of saying something stupid. Somebody suggests that this is an example of how we’re socialized into believing that “women couldn’t possibly have anything important to say.”
Gabrielle Roy’s novel, The Tin Flute, is already a classic in Canadian literature, and it pops up again in the Women’s Course. For good reason. Two of the central characters are a French-Canadian working-class mother and her daughter in the Montreal of the 40s. Roy’s graphic description of their situation and their feelings about it is a pretty stunning indictment of economic exploitation and the desperate condition of women within it. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, disease, perpetual pregnancy. Each person with his or her dream of escape. A son joins the army, a daughter dreams of a middle-class marriage, another wants to become a nun, the father survives in the bar, boasting about all the things he’s going to do. The mother, exhausted and almost resourceless, is left holding the bag of daily realities. She is the one – the life-sustaining earth mother? – expected to cope while the others get into the more “important” work of daydreams and schemes.
The questions that come out of the discussion book show some of the limitations of Women’s Liberation among middle-class women. They want to know – why do these people get married at all if they know the marriage is going to be a miserable affair? And why do they have so many children? Perhaps they marry to escape an intolerable situation at home or perhaps, who knows, to join destinies in a struggle that would overcome a person on his own. Connie partially answers the second question from her experience working at a community clinic. Working-class women have a lot of children because of inaccessibility to birth control information, false information, indifferent doctors and complex abortion laws. They invest their lives in children, believing that they will then be worth something. They don’t have any real control over their own lives. Middle-class women can determine how many children to have and why, but the working class has everything done to it: welfare, social workers, unemployment, pregnancy. At this point, a girl interrupts, rather scandalized, that maybe the working class doesn’t see children as the big hang-up that we do. Our values are not necessarily theirs. Maybe they even like children.
[…] The Women’s Course is probably the most vital thing we could do at university and all we do is listen politely and nod our heads about how oppressed we are. But there is no question that the course is a good thing: one girl admits that her attitudes about women are “shitty.” One of the group leaders says it would be justified if only it helped women “grab their own autonomy.” There should definitely be a follow-up course next year for those who want to develop the ideas they’ve picked up this year.
Kay and Connie lead off the discussion today by saying they are going to leave. And not come back until and unless they hear from us about whether or not we want them any why. The purpose of this tactic is to put the ball back in our court. Cut off our dependency on the leaders and make us get it together on our own. This is our course, after all.
“Hey, you can’t do that! We need you. You’re supposed to be resource people.”
“Whatever you may think of the structure of the class, I think that we need an authoritarian figure around here.” And then the subject is changed, immediately, as if to decoy Kay and Connie into an exciting and important discussion so that they won’t want to leave.
Doris Lessing’s story of an intelligent, lively middle-class woman who marries and has a family determined that her life is going to be “different” from other women’s lives and who ends by committing suicide, keeps us going for awhile. How realistic is this story? Is it realistic to assume that an intelligent, aware and liberated woman cannot avoid the traps of domesticity? That she can’t have her cake (marriage and family) and eat it too (remain a person)? Apparently not. It’s typical of all women that, in spite of themselves and their best intentions, they identify with their children and grow apart from friends and husband. They fill their lives with other people’s needs, then wonder why they feel so empty.
Why do women have children if it’s such a drag? Who would want them, knowing what they were going to do to your freedom, your autonomy and your privacy? The two men in class insist on a biological urge to reproduce. The women are indignant. The compulsion to have babies is a result of conditioning, acculturation, unnatural “baby-lust” to fill up the existential emptiness. Men do things, they act against this estrangement. Women have babies.
There is a lot of scepticism about the instinctive basis of reproduction. How can the desire to have children be instinctive, beyond our influence, when every day we thwart it by using birth control? Perhaps it is the preservation of the species which is instinctive, and animals behave accordingly, increasing or decreasing the birthrate to keep the population stable. Are humans still this sensitive? Is there any point in comparing us to animals when we have the capacity to rationalize and abstract our experience, thus altering our behaviour quite self-consciously?
It seems to me that it is not important, finally, whether or not there is a biological urge to reproduce or preserve the species. What is important is that human society has mechanisms – biological, cultural, psychological, etc. – to ensure the survival of the race.
And that human beings have free will. We as individuals have to come to terms with these mechanisms within our particular culture. Each has to make her own decision to have children on the basis of a careful consideration of the assumptions, myths and stereotypes of our culture.
I remember the discussion starting off on the topic of abortion and ending with a screaming match, almost. The details of the arguments are no longer clear to me, but I do remember that finally people are talking where it matters. Not just reasonably and intellectually, but emotionally and viscerally. We forget sometimes too to be polite. It is quite exhilarating.
It is a strange conversation because it starts with everyone in basic agreement about the right to abortion on demand and ends with some of the women speaking rhapsodically about the joys of motherhood. A bizarre twist: on the one hand, a fierce insistence on the right not to bear an unwanted child; on the other, a sentimental commitment to the image of a fecund abundant motherhood. What is being disputed – and rightly so, I suppose – is the right of a woman to determine her own biological destiny. This means the right to abortion and the right to bear a child, if she so chooses. Members of the class are upset by stories that welfare mothers are having their “tubes tied” against their wish or without their knowledge, that there is pressure from groups like Zero Population Growth on lower in-come families to have no more than two children, that birth control and abortion mean, in some cases, a deliberate attempt to control the population of “undesirable” groups. In other words, these issues are political, and we should be suspicious of politicians, technicians, doctors, bureaucrats, etcs., who say it is desirable that certain classes be limited numerically. Has anyone dared suggest that the birth of another Kennedy is as much, if not more, an ecological disaster as the birth of a child in Cabbagetown?
These points are valid. Still, it is weird listening to a group of struggling feminists who just a few weeks ago deplored the sentimentalities of pregnancy and family, who insisted on a new image of themselves other than incipient mother, now plead “the cause of a woman on welfare, pregnanct with hre tenth child and without the financial support of a working husband, saying it is her right and suggesting that the skeptics are fascists. Who has asked the woman how she feels and what she wants?
Why do women take Women’s Courses? Almost all the women I talked to had similar reasons. Accelerating interest in women’s issues, especially after reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and in seeing one’s own life in terms of oppression and liberation. A concern about what to do in seeing one’s own life in terms of oppression and liberation. A concern about what to do in life: get married, raise children, work, travel, live in communes, never have children? Experiencing chauvinism at school or on the job, being angry, wanting to hit back. Wondering how to be liberated and still live with men. Wanting to learn new ways of getting along with women.
Barbara: As a grad student in biochemistry, I know I must be treated differently from the male students because of the ghastly attitudes toward women among the professors. I don’t feel that I “belong.” The men get together once a week to talk science; women are not allowed. A female professor wasn’t promoted for years and her work was never fully accepted and recognized. I would like to be able to change these things.
Kay: I’ve always been interested in studying women, but I’ve also felt like a second-class citizen for wanting to. I’ve studied women novelists and I’m doing my PhD on Gertrude Stein. I’ve read Doris Lessing and Jane Austen for years and felt for a long time that this wasn’t quite as good as doing Spenser or Matthew Arnold if you wanted to be a high-powered academic.
Valerie: I went away once on a weekend course in community relations. The three professors were into NDP, Ivan Illich, radical solution to social problems, ways people see each other and how you give a person scope to realize himself. Meanwhile, all the women – there were five of us and eighteen men – were in the kitchen cleaning up. We pointed this out to them and they thought it was funny.
Although no one admitted to being oppressed in a conventional sense – barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen – there were innuendoes, hints, offhand confessions that belied the privileged situation of middle-class women. Brow-beaten mothers, authoritarian fathers, a mortifying adolescence, frustrated ambitions, exploitative love affairs, timidity and insecurity and resignation in the real world. Low expectations of other women.
Almost everybody said they wanted to form new kinds of attachments with women. Learn to relate to them in other ways than as potential rivals and competitors in the sex hunt. Become friends.
Barbara: The very first day of the course, a discussion went around the room about why we were interested in studying women. A lot of the reasons were very personal: one person had got a lot of crap from her father; somebody else wanted to be a lawyer and nobody took her seriously. Then, for a long time, no one would say anything personal in class, but that’s changing as we get to know each other better. We’re relaxing. But there’s no solidarity among us yet.
Valerie: I’m trying to get to the point where I can regard men and women as neutral. Where I no longer believe that there are qualities men should have and others that women should have. Even sexual qualities. I wanted to say in class once that Mick Jagger had helped me arrive at this conclusion because of his androgynous nature which is still sexual. I’d like to be able to see every person that way.
Mark: I went to the course originally to see how I would get on with a group of women. I was completely intimidated at first. Because I didn’t feel capable of representing all Male Humanity and answering for it. I don’t feel this way anymore. I feel confident. Because the women always laugh at my jokes? Because they don’t represent the same challenge and competition that a group of men would? Because they’ve been open and honest and the “mystery” about them has been dispelled? But I have had my suspicion confirmed that women don’t relate to each other nearly as well as men do. I was expecting there would be genuine togetherness, a sisterhood. There isn’t.
True. The sisterhood is slow in emerging. There is much to learn first. The class listens politely to whatever is said, exchanges commonplaces on events and ideas, discusses dispassionately the very things that are tearing us apart. In our anxiety not to be the caterwauling bitches and shrill shrews of folklore, are we falling victim to excesses of niceness? Because we don’t want to be catty and mean, are we falsely kind? Genuine camaraderie and fellowship is more honest and less indulgent than that. Because we have believed too long that we have nothing to offer, are we settling for less than the best from each other? It seems too that in our anxiety to avoid gossip, idle chatter and gruesome confessions, we have lost sight of the personal dimension in which ideas and issues of liberation unfold themselves in the first place. Our reticence to talk to each other intimately and candidly may be the result of trying to be as academic, intellectual and detached as any group of university men, but it may also mean that we are missing out on one of the innovations of Women’s Liberation: women coming together around real life.
Ellen: The main thing that is wrong with the course is that it is about eight miles removed from reality. And it has a tendency merely to salve consciences. “I’m a woman, I know I am oppressed, so I guess I’ll take this course and feel better.” You don’t actually have to do anything about it. Another thing is that we meet in this weird room with chapel windows and revolutionary posters on the walls, we sit in a friendly circle and listen to people changing their heads. This is a counter-community. While we’re here, we’re safe.
Pat: Personal experiences do help to illustrate points being made, but if I really want help, I’ll talk to a friend or my husband. One of my first reservations about the course was that it would be a therapy group with the conversation going around and around about personal problems. It hasn’t been like that, and I’m glad. After all, it is a course, and I want to learn something more than what can be learned by gossiping about how mean men are.
Anna: I have a friend with whom I have always talked about women and our problems but more with teenage turbulence than with an awareness of the social and political implications of what we were saying. This awareness is now possible through things like this course. Consciousness-raising. You become aware of the kinds of things women have been through historically and the subtle attitudes you take for granted. Like being a woman means something different from “human.”