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.

thank god for dames

“ONE DAY LAST SPRING I was standing in the reception area of a fashionable hairdresser’s in midtown Toronto, waiting to pay my bill ($12 for a stark haircut that made me look exactly like one of the Presbyterian aunts I’d spent most of my life avoiding looking like). Ahead of me in the line was this very slick, chic lady of maybe thirty-eight or so dressed exactly as such a lady should be when she is going to spend the morning at the hairbender’s (that’s what chic ladies call all those rickety-cheeky Cockney boys who’ve taken over big-time women’s barbering in the last half-decade) and then on to luncheon with an old friend from school and maybe a meeting of the women’s committee of the symphony. She was wearing a beautifully cut midi coat and dark stockings and a Kenneth Jay Lane bracelet and the kind of tan you get in Acapulco when your husband feels he just has to get away in that dreary time between the skiing and the sailing, and her hair was pale and perfect.

“While the cashier was ringing up her $25 bill (pale and perfect costs more than stark and Presbyterian), she stood looking idly out the window. At that moment, passing in the street, was a couple in their late teens or early twenties, the kind of kids the chic lady doubtless calls hippies, though the way things are going now with kids they may very well have been graduate students in aerodynamics, for all I know.

“The boy had a lot of hair tied back with a leather thong and one of those Iranian embroidered skin vests and very narrow hips and jeans that did them proud, and the girl looked like some kind of curly pre-Raphaelite Madonna in a long wool challis dress with a lot going on underneath that obviously had nothing to do with lingerie. She was sucking an orange and licking the overflow juice from her fingers, and he was holding on to the wrist of her other arm and laughing at her, and they both looked happy or sensually aware, as the Gestalt therapists call it—in any case, as though it was pretty good to be nineteen or twenty-one and with no underwear in the sunshine in late April. The chic lady turned abruptly away from the window and I caught a glimpse of her in the mirror behind the cashier and she was touching her hair with a little rapid patting gesture and in her eyes was this unmistakable look of fear, the kind of o-my-god-why-has-thou-forsaken-me? look, her god being Good Taste or something like that.

“The whole incident didn’t take any more than a minute, but it was a pretty important minute for me because it left me wanting to rush out and phone somebody and say, “Listen, I think I’ve just been witnessing the death of slick.””


(from the *essay “Requiem for the High Life” in My Life as a Dame, [personal and political essays] by Christina  McCall)

*Originally appeared in Maclean’s, September, 1971.