this is not a review: my life as a dame, by christina mccall

I’ve been time-travelling recently, spending happy hours in the late fifties, sixties, seventies and early eighties, with Christina McCall, one of the ‘lady journalists’, or dames, from that extraordinary era, and author of the collected essays in My Life as a Dame.

It was after the war. Technology was king (definitely not queen); women’s equality was still a quaint if irksome notion. Chaps were growing their hair and women taking off their gloves and corsets. Jane Jacobs had just arrived in Canada and wondered what was our problem with ‘identity’—“When you come here from outside, as I did, you know immediately what ‘Canadian’ means and that it is this very Canadian quality that has so far kept your cities liveable. Your saving grace is common sense…”.

Trudeau was a mania and George Ignatieff (yes, Michael’s dad) was the Man Who Should Have Become Governor General, if only the rules of the whole game hadn’t changed and then nothing was ever the same again. Yonge Street was just starting to get grubby, the Four Seasons was a still a motel on Jarvis and CanLit was a few talented writers with pluck.

It was a world of Bloody Caesars at mid-morning meetings, swingers, bad hair and the birth of bilingualism in Ottawa. “With their end-of-June paycheques, civil servants got an institutional green pamphlet telling them in effect to learn French or resign themselves to dead-end jobs.”

McCall wrote for magazines such as Macleans, Saturday Night, Chatelaine (during the Doris Anderson years), among others. Her subjects were people and politics; her slant was that of justice, a dissection of class, an attempt to understand various aspects of society, including her own distinctly privileged middle class one. In fact it was her own class and those ‘above’ it that were often her favourite targets. She observed the banalities of privileged lives but not in merely a cursory way—her essays inspired neither outrage nor indifference, but a changed perspective, or at the very least, thoughtfulness where once a vacuum had been.

She was especially passionate about women’s rights and defended them well (while wearing hat and gloves, naturally) and at every opportunity. One of my favourite pieces in the collection, ‘Some Awkward Truths the Royal Commission Missed’, refers to the document published in 1970 to study the status of women. She charged many things about it that were disgraceful in its execution and, even worse, the presentation of the final document: a long, dry, statistical non-account of things.

“I sat in on those hearings….and I found it one of the most engrossing, moving and involving experiences I’ve ever had. The women who appeared before the commissioners weren’t silly suffragettes in defensive hats or mannish harridans seeking unearned privileges. They were professors, farm women, nursery school teachers, Aboriginals, deserted wives, nuns, disaffected suburbanites—all real women with real problems of poverty, alienation, loneliness, and prejudice. Surely, something of their quality as human beings should have been imparted in the report, some part of their individual stories should have been told so that all those who couldn’t attend and hear for themselves would have been affected, as were the audiences at those hearings. At one session in Ottawa, for instance, when an Aboriginal woman from the Caughnawaga reserve was eloquently describing the hardship of her life, another woman in the audience, the very model of a Rockcliffe matron in an expensive dress and careful hairdo, sat with tears rolling down her face. Something of the eloquence and the tears should have been in the report.”

However, my MOST favourite essay comes last in the book: ‘What Won’t Appear in My Next Paradise’, written in 1970, in which she outlines what she hopes the world, especially as it relates to women, will have achieved by 2020. It begins:

“…For I belong that nameless generation of the 1950’s, that uncommitted company of the cool who were born in the years just before the Second World War: educated in the expectation of equality, confronted by the realities of domesticity and the double standard, too young to have been gulled into believing in the feminine mystique (as was the generation of the 1940s, for whom happiness was supposedly a man, four children on three levels, Birks sterling, real pearls and a grand slam at the Victoria College Alumnae annual bridge tournament) but too old and—oh! shameful admission—too liberal to be affected by the Sisters, Unite-Against-the-Capitalist-Imperialist-Phallic-Society! militancy of the new women’s liberation movements.

“If you add to the uncertainties of my whole generation my own specific experience—too many dues paid to feminism in the form of five years spent on a women’s magazine writing such mind-blowers as ‘Why Can’t We Treat Married Women Like People?’ and ‘Working Wives are Here to Stay!’—you realize that it would be paradise enough for me if by A.D. 2020 people had simply stopped talking about women as though we were a national problem… “

She then outlines five simple (and I mean s-i-m-p-l-e) but brilliant points—markers—that if achieved, would indicate a somewhat more enlightened world.

It’s both stunning and interesting to note that, in the almost half century since she wrote the piece, not one of those points has been realized by the so-called ultra modern, progressive, and so very very savvy society we think we’ve become.

From the Re-Run Series: originally posted in June, 2010.

5 thoughts on “this is not a review: my life as a dame, by christina mccall

  1. Mary – I adore women of that generation. They absolutely inspire me. Even the June Cleavers, because they’re finally old and brave enough to admit that those pearls were choking them…

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