Why Western women were 'fed up' in 1968 - Macleans.ca
 

Why Western women were ‘fed up’ in 1968

How Anne Francis’s fighting spirit put Canada’s social system on trial, leading the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada


 

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    This is Anne Francis, Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. She’s never been exploited, discriminated against, patronized or bored. She’s trying to find out why most women are.

    THE CROSS Anne Francis has to bear was painstakingly fashioned 40 years ago in the classrooms of Bryn Mawr College, where to this day only the best-bred young American ladies are educated, by a gentleman named Samuel Arthur King, a Shakespearian actor by trade and a teacher of elocution by avocation. He urged — insisted — his girls “bring those vowels up, up, up, round and out,” and would demand they diligently recite, “Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,” thus producing a Bryn Mawr accent, circa 1920-30, which is both singular and yet unmistakably very, very Eastern Seaboard Aristocratic. And Anne Francis seems compelled to apologize frequently for sounding that way: she says it makes her sound “an expensive sort of grande-dame type, when I’m not at all really.”

    She is not. The evidence of Raoul Engel alone is enough to prove it. He is a CBC radio producer who in 1966 produced Anne Francis’s hour-long documentary on Hungary, where she spent three weeks marching around wielding a shoulder-bag tape recorder. One morning he kept her waiting in the CBC’s seventh-floor Château Laurier Hotel studios in Ottawa while he went to breakfast. Then, 15 minutes late, he rode the elevator to the seventh floor and was about to step out as Anne Francis — fuming — sailed in.

    “I will not be treated in this way,” she said. “I will not work with you. I am going home. Good-by.” Delivered in those vowels that come “up, up, up, round and out,” it was a scathing, seemingly unanswerable announcement, but Engel stayed aboard for the downward trip to “schmoozle” her (his word) into a change of heart. By the third floor it seemed he was winning; at the ground she didn’t get out, but stayed for the next trip up, listening to the sort of blarney that can only be produced by those who are Hungarian by birth, temperament and choice, and, in Engel’s case, tend to vivid, even lyrical hyperbole which prompts one to wonder why he isn’t a performer as well as a producer.

    Up, down; up, down . . . four times the elevator made the trip with other passengers gazing with sidelong fascination as Engel, 35 and darkly handsome, “schmoozled” and Anne Francis, 58 and elegantly patrician, slowly melted until finally, laughing and arms linked, they left the elevator on its fifth trip to the studio floor. “Raoul is one of the best producers I ever worked with,” she said later. “He’s interesting, amusing . . .”

    “ . . . I love that woman,” says Engel, sitting buried behind a pile of recording tapes in his Toronto office. “I used to think she was a plummy, patrician, cold woman but there we were in the elevator, with everyone watching and me talking and talking and saying anything at all I could think of, and she loved it. My performance, I mean. She’s a bewitching woman with a fabulous sense of humor, and a damned good professional as well.”

    Above all, Anne Francis is not a feminist; not one of the New Suffragettes who lobbied the Liberal government until it finally appointed a Royal Commission on the Status of Canadian Women, with Anne Francis as chairman. Her husband — and her husband’s friends — say she is a wonderful wife. She is accepted as a good journalist in an occupation where performance is all important, and where, given that performance, being a woman can be a help rather than a hindrance. She is childless, yet played mother to two young boys evacuated to Winnipeg from England during the war: a role more difficult than that of natural motherhood. She is, in fact, the quintessential “competent woman who enjoys the confidence of Canadian women,” who, the powerful feminist Committee for the Equality of Women urged, should be appointed chairman of the royal commission set up to decide: Are Canadian women discriminated against?

    The answer, of course, is: yes, they are. And Anne Francis, who has never suffered because of her sex, must decide how the federal government can set the rest of the nation a good example in providing women with equality of opportunity.

    Equality of Opportunity? It sounds like the Fabians’ war cry from some misty yesterday, or Martin Luther King on the trail of a Nobel Prize, or Pierre Bourgault arguing separatism. In fact, it's what my wife, sister, mother — all wives, sisters and mothers — want, if they're honest with themselves. Equality of opportunity is all that a feminist such as Mrs. Laura Sabia asks when she declaims, “We're still chained to the Biblical concept of women as virginal, submissive, seductive and totally left out of all decision-making that affects her. It's a concentration camp of comfort and when any woman tries to escape we meet the myth of the castrating bitch that says given equality woman will emasculate man.” Mrs. Sabia, a mother of four who is a St. Catharines, Ont., alderman, is chairman of the Committee for the Equality of Women, an amalgam of Canadian women’s groups which lobbied for the establishment of the Anne Francis Commission.

    Some of the inequities that will be presented as evidence to Anne Francis are demonstrable. Outside Quebec, wives have no legal claim on husbands’ property. Federal adult-retraining programs are run largely for men. Hardly any university departments are headed by women. Income-tax laws penalize married women if they work — and the Carter Commission proposals would make it worse. In some places, teachers lose seniority when they leave to have babies. Laws that deny a woman an abortion are made and mostly administered by men. Girls have difficulty getting into professional courses at university: they’re usually shunted off to the BA production line. And, in one of the more obscure legal absurdities still offensive to feminists, a 12-year-old girl may get married if she is pregnant — and if a man, her father, decides she should: the mother need not be consulted.

    However lamentable these and other instances of discrimination are, it’s really the Canadian social system Anne Francis will have on trial when her five-woman, one-man commission begins hearings this spring. Even though a third of the nation’s job-holders are women, equality of opportunity at work and under the law is only a token objective. More important is the seldom-acknowledged but totally cataclysmic fact that Western womankind is fed up. As Anne Francis says, “The commission was set up because large numbers of women are dissatisfied with the way things are. Our job is to find out just how widespread this dissatisfaction is, why it exists and what the federal government can do to remedy the situation.”

    None of this is as simple as Betty Friedan or as complex as Simone de Beauvoir or as conveniently sexual as Helen Gurley Brown. It’s not enough to say they're tired of being the good woman behind the throne and want a crack at the throne itself, though that may often be true. Neither is it enough to say they want their own throne, different but equal, though that, too, is true. Women themselves can’t put their finger on the itch. But collectively they’re unhappy, frustrated, dissatisfied. So, in turn, are their husbands, and the divorce rate goes up and more women smoke and take drugs and join AA or ought to, and . . . and Lester Pearson gives Anne Francis the job of playing judge and jury to her sex, Canadian society and Canadian men in the hope that, as she puts it, "we might show the federal government how to eliminate discrimination in its own bailiwick.”

    It is, perhaps, revealing that Anne Francis, broadcaster and royal commissioner, prefers to be known as Mrs. John Bird, wife of editor and columnist John Bird (“Anne Francis” is a professional name she adopted when she began writing and broadcasting). She is a big woman (five-foot-eight) and stately: producer Engel describes her as “an armada of a woman.” She has a waist-long mane of once-blond and now-white hair worn, with deceptive severity, in a chignon. The long Julie Andrews-type chin, a mild case of tweediness, that undeniably plummy voice and a sit-up-shoulders-back posture irresistibly suggest huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. When recently she met some Carleton University students, one girl said, “She makes you think she must have played field hockey.”

    The accent she readily explains. The chin she can’t help. The tweediness is smart. The posture is explained by the fact she broke her back in a riding accident just before the war and, as a result, has to perform elaborate calisthenics every day. Otherwise, she is passionately fond of sports.

    It is, one gathers, a sort of Bobby Kennedy-touch-football-athletic avocation: when young sports were healthy and social and filled the long Rhode Island summer-place summers where there were boats to sail and horses to ride and pools and sea to swim in. But for Florence Bird there were also books for reading, a Steinway for playing, an avant garde psychiatrist father who liked to argue and expected excellence whatever your sex; the sort of Mandarin background (Philadelphia Mainline in this case) that at best produces a human animal so subliminally sure it can achieve whatever it sets out to achieve that it is startled if anyone suggests otherwise. It was as natural for Florence Bird, at 24 and without having graduated from college, to lecture McGill University alumnae on political history and economics as it was for her to become a writer-broadcaster without conventional training — or even a royal commissioner.

    She is, in fact, a royal commissioner in the Great Canadian Tradition which says you never ask a pipe-fitter to solve the plumbers’ problems. Carter was never burdened by income taxes, or Carl Goldenberg by his union contract, or Robert Fowler by the details of actually producing a TV show. Florence Bird has never suffered from discrimination because she’s a woman.

    “That’s one of the reasons I took this job,” she says. “Because of the way I was brought up and because of the wonderful man I married I’ve always been able to do the things I wanted as a person, not just permitted to do on sufferance as a woman. And yet I believe I’ve always been accepted as a woman as well.”

    It’s also true Florence Bird has never coped with some of the other problems that beset modern woman. She regrets not having been able to have children — but because of it she’s never coped with a tribe of kids when she felt she ought to be finishing chapter three of the Great Canadian Novel. Neither has she ever had to come to terms with never-ending housework because she’s usually had a housekeeper; is able to say she adores cooking largely because she hasn’t had to produce three squares a day for her 40 married years, and hasn’t ever been poor enough to have to devise a way to feed a family of six on a pound of hamburger.

    To hear her tell it, you might think the Birds were poor in the late 1920s and the Depression. They’d married in 1928, lived in New York and Montreal, but never exactly been hard up: in Montreal John Bird made $60 a week writing editorials and a series called Down And Out In Montreal for the Star — and in the Depression $60 a week was a fortune. They’ve never been poorer than that: in the mid-1930s and early 1940s John Bird was editor of the Tribune in Winnipeg, where Florence became a broadcaster.

    She decided the CBC should produce an easy-to-understand news program to enable children and immigrants with poor English to follow the war. She proposed the idea to station CKY in Winnipeg, whose management first “thought I was just a society woman with a good idea but could never carry it out myself.” She did though: three programs a week for $20 the three.

    It was the beginning of a career that blossomed when, after the war, John Bird became head of the Southam News Service in Ottawa. As Anne Francis (the maiden name of a great-grandmother), Florence became a journalist and, mostly, a broadcaster. She never lost what she calls “this Haw-Haw English voice,” but in the postwar heyday of radio public-affairs programming, when it was de rigueur to listen to Capital Report if you wanted to find out what was going on, those plummy tones were an advantage: you could always recognize Anne Francis.

    Thus she played the dual role which she sees as women’s biggest problem today: the wife and mother on one hand and the worker on the other. “I think this dual role that women are playing is one of the more significant areas for us to study,” she said one day recently when she’d quit work early to cook for her husband, a recent victim of the dentist, an easy-to-eat mushroom soufflé. “I believe I have been tremendously lucky in that I have never suffered from the conflicts that so many women suffer from when they try to do a job well and be wife and mother at the same time. That’s partly because John and I have been in similar fields but not competitors, and because we respect one another as people first and as a man and a woman second.” Florence Bird, Royal Commissioner, is now reluctant to express too many opinions about the status of women: she prefers to discuss areas her commission should examine. “Social attitudes are more important than legislation. Our brief is to determine whether there's discrimination in federal laws and areas of endeavour — job retraining programs, for example, and the civil service — and to suggest how these might be remedied.

    “But I think we also want to find out whether all women want at least the chance to play a dual role — and whether all women who are already doing so enjoy it. Does it harm their psyches? What do they need and want? A lot of women are apparently happy with the way things are, but is that because society has brainwashed them into it? Do we need more day nurseries to enable women to work if they want to? What labor laws and property laws must be changed? Oh — the questions are endless, and some of them only men can answer.

    “You know, it used to be that a woman’s life pretty well ended with the menopause. Well, today she’s coming into her own at 40. The horror has gone. She knows she's not going to suffer agonies, that her sexual life doesn’t have to suffer, that she's got 30 years of exciting life ahead of her. Husbands should be grateful.

    “But if they're not careful, couples end up in homes empty of children looking at one another across the table. What have you got to talk about? What do you have in common? For years I worried about the day when I would wake up and find I was a dull old woman of 42 or so. I was worried that John would come home and wonder what he could say to me in the evenings. The last time I had that thought I suddenly realized I already was an old woman — of 52. And John was even older.”

    The mushroom soufflé was nearly done. “Charles Templeton interviewed me on television and asked me whether I wanted to be a man — the fool. I enjoy being a woman and I'll be damned if I’d be anything else: I happen to like men very much. Equality and femininity aren’t necessarily exclusive, but the attitudes of some Canadian men are often ghastly — Victorian and antiquated. For instance, I can't stand parties where the men go to one corner and the women the other. It makes for terribly dull parties, too. There's an awful lot of crap [the word was the more damning because of that Bryn Mawr accent] talked about the differences between men and women. Women aren't chattels and men aren’t the overlords. We’re all people.”

    No time to forget

    The soufflé was ready, and we parted until the next day when, at lunch, Mrs. Bird said it had been delicious and she was sorry I hadn't been able to join them. That afternoon, over tea at the Rideau Club, John Bird talked for 90 minutes about how he and Florence had enjoyed one another. In his own distinctively plummy Oxbridge accent, he said. “I've always thought I was a lucky man. Her family didn't really approve, you know. They sent her off with her mother on the Grand Tour of Europe to make her forget me, but I had college friends at embassies and places wherever they went and they were always met by one of them who would spend hours telling Florence and her mother what a fine chap John Bird really was.”

    Unwittingly, he offered a clue to his matrimonial bliss. “We still always have lots to talk about,” he said. “Except in the morning, that is. I’m not very chatty in the morning. I think Florence found that out fairly early on. So she stays in bed for a while and I get up and we read the papers. Oh yes, we have a paper each.”

    At the Kent Street offices of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, Anne Francis’s staff of 30 women and one man were busily preparing for the public sittings that will probably begin in spring. Mrs. Sandra Came, the public-relations officer, was pondering her constant problem: how to persuade newspaper city editors — overwhelmingly male — to put reports of commission activities in the news columns and not relegate them to the women's sections. Other women were trying to determine how vital is the role of women in industry.

    “The coffee break is always a bit of a relief,” said one. “We don’t have enough men on our staff. It’s a good thing we're on the same floor as the Royal Commission on Farm Machinery. That’s mostly men, and the farm boys always have coffee with us. We have sex appeal at coffee time, and sometimes at lunchtime, too.”

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