Quebec feminism - a family affair

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martin dufresne
Quebec feminism - a family affair

Why jump our national divide and read a book in French about the history of feminist movement in Quebec? To learn who finally fought down the Roman Catholic church, when it still imposed a « punishing level of reproduction ... based on the assumption that women were sows. » (Mordecai Richler)

Historian Micheline Dumont has written for her grand-daughter a thrilling travelogue through the last 100 years. The book really takes off with the sixties, when fearless TV hosts and divorce legislation ended the Holy See's stranglehold on Quebec women's lives, and a strong reproductive-rights movement was born on the shared energies of McGill and Centres de santé des femmes activists.

Copy-edited with the help of teenage Camille, this illustrated book reads easily, with reminders of our causes célèbres and short snappy portraits of a still vibrant movement first inspired by French journalists and British demonstrators to not only demand the vote but educate women out of patriarchal tutelage.

She recounts how Catholic bishops drove wedges between Catholic and Protestant Québécoises, to hold the vote at bay or boycott visiting American feminists such as Katherine Pankhurst.

With a light but precise touch and her own candid assessments - including a few blind spots -, Dumont revives a dazzling array of foremothers, grassroots organizations, marches, sit-ins, self-help campaigns, searing debates, backroom deals and pressure tactics, that might inspire today's women were they not carefully buried by media gatekeepers.

Indeed, Dumont pinpoints the moments where firebrands that spread hope via the mass media were replaced by reactionary ‘femininity' columnists, steering women away from the « bad type » of feminism, with tactics used to this day, qualms about « male fragility » for instance.

Dumont - who co-signed the monumental 1980s best-seller Histoire des femmes au Québec depuis quatre siècles - remains discreet about her own roles, but I found priceless her backroom view of events such as Sheila Finestone mobilizing the Fédération des femmes du Québec against the 1980 referendum (after insisting that the organization not take a stand).

Sadly, new gatekeepers sit at Rogers Communications (Châtelaine) and refuse to review this milestone book, precisely as they lobby the government to shut down the Quebec Status of Women Council. La lutte continue...

Le féminisme québécois raconté à Camille, Micheline Dumont, les éditions du remue-ménage, Montréal, 2008, 248 p. Order it here