With abortion back on the front pages, I am reproducing here a tribute from legendary feminist columnist Michele Landsberg to a hero of the pro-choice movement Norma Scarborough. It was delivered at a recent memorial to Norma, who died last year,
“Our dear friend Norma was the queen of the unexpected, the doyenne of the doubletake. When I first saw her on the television news, in the mid-‘80s, I was astonished by the vision: in defiance of a mob of yelling protesters, mostly male, all looking as thuggish and menacing as Mike Harris, there stood Norma — calm, sturdily mainstream, unflustered, with her crown of glistening white hair, introduced as a mother of five and a grandmother of multitudes. She spoke in cheerfully moderate tones about a woman’s right to reproductive choice, as though it were the most natural and sensible thing in the world, which, of course, it is.
I marvelled. Had we put out a Canada-wide casting call for the most sublimely acceptable, unthreatening, normal-looking spokeperson, we could not have done better than Norma. And her name! Scarborough! The quintessence of — at that time — Anglo suburbia! I actually thought that her name was an ironic stage moniker, like those of the Raging Grannies or the Guerrilla Girls.
But everything about Norma was real; I’ve rarely met anyone with as little fakery as Norma. She had been, she told me — still in wonderment years later — a modest school secretary in, yes, Scarborough, when she first read an article in Chatelaine about the abortion controversy. She was shocked, galvanized into attending a meeting at the Royal York, where Laura Sabia fired up the troops for a march in Ottawa. Norma did go to Ottawa, and to the founding meeting of CARAL, where she was elected to the executive.
Norma was the most stalwart of CARAL devotees. It turned out that a steady, rational indignation at stupidity and injustice was a better fuel for the long haul than rage. I never saw Norma lose her cool, and she was the one I regularly turned to, in my journalistic work, for instant, thoughtful and reliably accurate information. Although she was modest all her life about her own role, she had no need to be — she stood out for sheer competence and knowledgeability.
Of course, she had a wilder streak — she told me once that she wistfully went out and bought combat boots and a knapsack because she wanted to be like those tough young street fighters of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics, taking on the anti-choice jerks in front of the clinics. But she couldn’t bring herself to wear them, after all — it just wasn’t her.
In later years, I came to know Norma more as a person — a person with deep family commitments and a venturesome nature that belied her appearance. She was the first of my acquaintance to get involved in running bulletin boards (this was long before e-mail, when she felt seniors ought to use computers to stay in touch) and she coached me through my first efforts at electronic communication.
And she had a highly interesting love life, which others will have to tell you about.
In her latter years, Norma’s long and cherished friendship with Doris Anderson intensified. The two of them, according to Norma’s description, would nod off together at movies and then go to lunch and madly talk about the movie they hadn’t really seen. They lunched together weekly, sometimes joined by me and Sheila Kieran. On those occasions, we could practically talk about the choice movement in code, so familiar was the history with its highs and lows, and all the players in it.
I once asked Norma what she and Doris talked about at their lunches. “We loved to talk about sex,” Norma chortled.
Norma made a huge contribution to our movement. Her steady and unflagging work behind the scenes was a backbone of the choice movement, but also as a spokeswoman her gift to us was enormous — at a time when pro-choice activists were demonized as shrill harpies and baby-killing extremists, Norma put the face of mainstream Canada in front of the TV cameras: sane, temperate, progressive and good-naturedly articulate.
We must mark the graves of our heroes and tend their memory with love, pride and gratitude. The strength they lent us when alive will be with us in the battles yet to come.
Norma, you will be our inspiration.”
You can add your voice to Michele’s tribute by contributing to the Norma Scarborough Emergency Fund at Canadians for Choice