Friday, December 03, 2004

Review: Gendering the Vertical Mosaic

Though it was not, in fact, the first study to expose in detail the reality of Canada as a class society [Marsh 1940], John Porter's The Vertical Mosaic [1965] was the first that was widely recognized and it shaped the discpline of sociology in Canada for two decades after its publication. It focused in part on describing the relationship between ethnicity and class, and how elites in Canada were primarily of British descent while people of other ethnicities tended to have fairly constrained possibilities within society. It seized on the notion, common even then, that Canada is a mosaic rather than the supposed melting pot of the United States, and argued that not all tiles in the mosaic are equal but, rather, they are hierarhcically arranged.

Much has changed since 1965, and many academics and other intellectuals have expanded the body of work on the interlocking hierarchies of power and privilege that define Canadian society. There is now a significant body of political economy-focused work discussing class in Canada in relational rather than distributive terms, as Porter did. Race and racism have received more focused attention in at least some recent analysis, contrary to their treatment as a minor aspect of ethnic exclusion in Porter's framework. There is also a great deal of material out there on the role of sexism in shaping Canadian society -- Porter's classic work largely ignored gender.

Gendering the Vertical Mosaic: Feminist Perspectives on Canadian Society by Roberta Hamilton looks at Canada's social hierarchies through a feminist lense, and, as the title says, genders the vertical mosaic first formally identified by Porter.

In responding to this book, it is important to keep in mind that though it explicitly links to the tradition of The Vertical Mosaic it is quite a different sort of work. Rather than a pioneering work of research, it seeks to bring together into one place knowledge and experience from three and a half decades of feminist scholarship and movements, in a straightforward and accessible way. It is an introduction and a survey. I think it would be most effective if used to teach people to whom feminist theory was new, or people to whom the idea of Canada as shaped by hierarchies was new, or both.

In general, I'm glad I read it. It contains a fair bit of content that was new to me. I appreciated the concise and contextualized pieces of herstory from Canadian women's movements. I also enjoyed the basic theoretical background that was provided -- much of it wasn't new to me but I think I still benefited from it being presented in such a straightforward manner. In fact, I think the idea of introducing both various strands of feminist theory and analysis of a real, existing society is a good approach to integrating the teaching of theory with the teaching of factual content.

My main concerns have to do with the inherent limits of the survey as a form, however. The obvious limitation is depth: the broader the survey, the shallower the coverage must be. This particular book does not just survey content, which I would expect from a work of this sort, but also surveys different theoretical analyses. On the one hand, this is true to the reality that feminism is not a unitary entity but rather a diverse grouping of interrelated but differieng and often conflicting theories and practices. Seeing this reality reflected is a good thing. On the other hand, trying to accurately reflect a number of distinct and conflicting analyses in the same text has some odd side effects, and I'm not sure the best choices were made in this paricular attempt.

One impact of this survey of analyses was purely aesthetic: it limited the unity of voice in the piece, which made it a less interesting and less powerful read.

A more substantive concern is that it became politically mushy. In other words, the way that different strands of feminist thought were presented was much the way that newspaper reporting seeks balance. In the press you will often see "He said X" and "She said Y" juxtaposed, without deeper examination of other sources which could leave the reader with a better understanding than just the fact that two people disagree. In this book, the different feminist analyses are often presented as, "Women of colour led the way in insisting..." or "Socialist feminists argued..." and juxtoposed with the previous norm they were reacting to rather than rigorously integrated. In other words, the different analyses are presented as being different, but the opportunity for deeper understanding is limited. Does class really matter? Was sufficient consideration of race ommitted in theory X, Y, or Z? What does that mean? How do these things impact social movements? These are important questions, and they are not completely avoided, but often it was just left with the idea that different feminists don't always agree.

Now, I agree that it would have been a tough dance to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of, say, liberal feminism without personalizing it or judging in a dismissive way, but I think the book really could have used a more sophisticated and grounded painting of the relationships between the different standpoints. This cannot be done by trying to stand above the different strands of feminism and be "objective" or "impartial" but must come through getting one's hands dirty and taking sides in an open and honest way.

In a way, this is where my aesthetic concern above becomes very political. There are flavours to the passion, the anger, the woundedness, the strength of, say, radical feminists or anti-racist feiminists I have known or read that this book does not do justice to. There is a pain to seeking alliance despite a history of exclusion, to seeing sisters in the movement doing things that look like selling out and leaving others behind, and I don't think you do justice to feminisms by omitting that pain, and by relating such conflicts in a relatively superficial and purely factual manner.

When I was considering how I wanted to write this segment, I thought back to last Christmas when I was given a chance to look at a zine produced by a collective of Women's Studies students from a small Ontario university. Mostly I enjoyed it, but what sticks out in my mind is one page whose title I cannot exactly remember but which was something to the effect of "Sisterhood is global." The content of that page was a line drawing of a woman in a burqa. A book that is quite possibly going to be introducing students to aspects of feminist theory and critique of Canadian society probably should lay the basis (even if it doesn't deal specifically with this example) for the learners to easily understand why a group of mostly white, first world feminists using a woman in a burqa as their exclusive symbol for global solidarity amongst women will completely infuriate many third world feminists and anti-racist feminists here in Canada. And I don't think this book does that.

In the book there was also some stuff specifically around race and racism that I found peculiar or even problematic. Whiteness was relatively invisible. The difficult position of, for examle, middle-class white women as both oppressed and oppressor was not ignored but I didn't get the feeling it was stressed enough to really challenge those who benefit from racial and class oppression to reflect deeply on our privilege. And I was puzzled why, though African Canadian women and Aboriginal women and even white Jewish women merited some specific discussion in the context of racism, Asian Canadian women (East, South, and West) were largely invisible.

I want to stress that much of what I've been criticizing is related to the structure of the book in a pretty intimate way. I don't know the details of the author's politics and I would suspect that, as a person, she has reflected on these issues far more deeply than I have. But the structure of the book as a survey of different analytical standpoints with insufficient attention to relating them in critical theoretical and practical ways makes the overall standpoint of the book tend towards uncritical liberalism, regardless of the author's intent. This interests me particularly because my own project is going to result in a document that could also be considered a survey of analytical and experiential standpoints. The goals are different and the raw materials are different, but I'm still concerned about piecing it all together and ending up with something that lacks narrative unity and falls by inadvertant default into liberalism. I have definitely learned from this book, both in terms of content and its illustration of form.


Hamilton, Roberta. (1996) Gendering the Vertical Mosaid: Feminist Perspectives on Canadian Society. Toronto: Copp Clark Ltd.

Marsh, Leonard C. (1940) Canadians In and Out of Work: A Survey of Economic Classes and Their Relationships to the Labour Market. Toronto and Montreal: Oxford University Press and McGill University.

Porter, John. (1965). The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


The Canadian said...

Progressive volunteer writers needed.

Scott said...

(Comment spam deleted.)