Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Review: And Still We Rise

[Linda Carty, ed. And Still We Rise: Feminist Political Mobilizing in Contemporary Canada. Toronto: Women's Press, 1993.]

Because human beings learn, any act of reading shifts the context in which future reading takes place. In the last year or so, because of the particular chapters that I have been (slowly, slowly) writing in my social movement history project, I have been reading and responding on this site to a fair number of books coming out of and reflecting on the women's movement in Canada, many of which (but not all) have been anthologies. One of the odd implications for a pattern of reading like this is that it means I not only react to books like And Still We Rise as individual volumes, but also as instances of this particular class of books -- this is not necessarily a good thing, I realize, but it is unavoidable.

One impact of the fairly consistent presence of books in this class in my reading list over that period of time has been to dampen my enthusiasm for them a little bit. Partly this is because I have historically been used to wending a very idiosyncratic, zig-zaggy path through the universe of books and I have come to chafe a bit at the focus mandated by orienting most of my reading to the needs of my work (while still appreciating the opportunity for sustained learning that it provides me). Partly it is because some of these books have themselves been fairly unexciting. In the current instance, inertia from my own passive resistance definitely delayed me plunging into the text, but thankfully this one is among the more engaging in this category that I have read and my enthusiasm built up some steam as I got into it.

Another outcome of doing some fairly sustained reading in this area has been the slow, disturbing realization that most of the books in this category are not new. I know that there is related material that was published beginning in the early '70s, but the publication dates of the ones I have read range mostly from the mid '80s to the late '90s, with perhaps one or two sneaking into the '00s. I may just be missing the more recent stuff, but I don't think so. I'm not sure what this implies about shifts in the women's movement and in the publishing industry in this country, but it doesn't feel positive.

Yet another product of this focus is increasing frustration about my inability to figure out to my own satisfaction how best to respond in writing to broadly focused anthologies. Not all of these books have been collections, but many have. Addressing whatever theme unifies the book can be useful, but this often results in comments that are quite vague, while engaging even just a ilttle with the specific ideas presented in each essay can easily turn into something that reads like an annotated laundry list. The best approach I have come up is the rather dubious one of trying to find a tasteful way to do both.

And Still We Rise is an anthology that was produced by Women's Press in Toronto as part of its difficult but valiant growth into a feminism committed to fully integrating opposition to racism and other forms of oppression. The essays within are written by and talk about the experiences of indigenous women, lesbian women of colour, Jewish women, women living in poverty, Black women, women living with HIV/AIDS, women of colour in the shelter movement, and others. The essays present diverse material in other ways too -- they include focused histories, political memoir, qualitative social research, roundtable discussion, and more.

As always in anthologies, the included pieces varied both in their quality and in their interest to me. Much of Carol Allen's essay on the struggle for lesbian and gay equality, for example, is dated, because of the significant changes in that area over the last decade and a half. Her warnings of the political dangers of a shallow, mainstreamed approach to queer equality feel prescient, however. Nahla Abdo's piece on the struggles of Arab women in Canada has a lot of politically important stuff in it, but I was disappointed that I found it a bit hard to follow. I have encountered a fair number of more recent things about the challenges faced by the mostly immigrant women of colour in the Canadian garment industry so the essay "Are These Clothes Clean?" didn't really grab my attention the way it otherwise might have (which is not at all a comment on the situation of women who work in that industry, which remains dire). The roundtable of women active in the National Action Committee on the Status of Women contained important history and reflection on attempts at anti-racist organizational change, but it also at times had a tone of smugness to it that I found distracting.

However, most of the pieces were useful and powerful, even a decade and a half after their publication. Two of the strongest pieces in the book are right at the start: a brief history of feminist publishing in Canada to that point and then an examination by white Jewish lesbian feminist Amy Gottlieb of her own political evolution, particularly with respect to racism and Zionism. I really liked the two other roundtables, one involving Jewish lesbians and lesbians of colour and the other focusing on feminist activists living with (and struggling against) HIV. I appreciated Donna Kahenrakwas Goodleaf's analysis of the Oka crisis, particularly because I had the opportunity to see Alanis Obomsawin's film "Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance" over the summer so I already had context and images to associate with it. I was also happy to see an essay that focused on a particular struggle here in Sudbury, around efforts in the early '90s by (initially) non-unionized clerical workers at Inco to achieve pay equity. Two essays on the history of African Canadian women's organizing and one on the history of organizing by women with disabilities in Canada -- the only piece of work on that subject I've ever heard of -- were also very useful to me.

Of particular interest to me was the last essay in the book, "Power or Empowerment: Questions of Agency in the Shelter Movement", by Rita Kohli. I interviewed Rita for my project, and found her analysis to be among the most consistently challenging of any of the people I talked to. For various reasons, one of the harder decisions I have had to make in turning 47 interviews into a partially completed book has been the one not to feature her material as a focus for a chapter on its own, though I may use a few choice quotes from this essay and from my interview with her in the chapter I am currently writing. This essay draws on her own experience as a woman of colour -- when I interviewed her she was quite explicit about identifying as a lesbian woman of colour living with visible and invisible disabilities -- working in the shelter movement as well as on interviews with seven other women of colour who do or did work in the shelter movement. The essay is a powerful indictment of the ways in which small-scale expressions of social relations of power can get inside and mess with spaces that are reputed to be progressive and liberatory, and on the huge barriers that racialized women have faced in the context of the mainstream shelter movement and the white-dominated women's movement more broadly.

I often end posts like this with a summary of how useful the book was to me and my best shot at a recommendation about how useful it might be to other people. Certainly in this instance I have no hesitation saying it was very useful to me, both because of the specific details of some of its contents and because it was interesting and useful political education for me in a more general way. However, my recurring attention to this class of books has, in a strange way, made me think a bit more deeply about how people in the Canada of 2007 learn about the feminist movement, and what that means for my unsolicited book recommendations. What do people read? How do they find out about those resources? I'm not sure at all how to think about appropriately endorsing a thick, fifteen year-old, out-of-print book of essays, no matter how much good stuff is in it. Nonetheless: If you are sufficiently motivated to read even a few books about feminism and the women's movement in their specifically Canadian incarnations, there is a strong case to be made that this should be one of them.

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

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