Having begun life as, in her own words, “a docile little girl,” Michele Landsberg became a journalist whose descriptions in a 1981 column on female genital mutilation smacked a reader so hard that he fainted dead away while waiting for a flight to arrive at Pearson Airport.
That column is included in “Writing the Revolution,” a new collection of some of the 3,000 columns she wrote between 1978 and 2003, as the Toronto Star’s “woman columnist.” The Feminist History Society, whose stated mandate is to “create a lasting record of the women’s movement in Canada and Quebec for the period between 1960 and 2010,” approached Landsberg to curate a selection of her columns, and the book was born.
Landsberg is considerate of her readers: opening, for example, the column advocating Canadian support for African women’s organizations working to end female genital mutilation with a gentle caveat: “this is not going to be a pleasant column to read, so put it aside if you’re feeling squeamish or the kids are around.”
But the polite caution is also a challenge, characteristic of Landsberg’s work, inviting the reader to join her unflinching eye with our own, so that together we can look closely at the “women’s hidden realities” that she has teased out “from the male-dominated news of the day” with painstaking, evidence-based research.
Reading her columns is sometimes difficult work, and rewarding for that very reason. One cringes, clenches, sometimes has to shut one’s eyes for a moment of respite before re-embarking down the page. But you end up caring. “Caring is a form of connectedness; most people would rather be alive to the world and hurting on its behalf than to be withdrawn into a numbed apathy,” writes Landsberg, reflecting on how her “drive to advocacy” has “fired” her analysis of current events for Star readers.
In some ways, Landsberg’s personal introduction to the collection is the most interesting part of the book, because it reveals the chronicle of her own history: the story of an outsider, who used her difference to her own advantage as a columnist.
The docile little girl in bows transformed herself into a rebellious teenager, by ditching the pressed dresses of her peers in favour of a pair of fly-front blue jeans borrowed from her older brother. Her early years were difficult not only because of the frustrations she experienced watching others heap entitlements on to her brother, in which she had no share, and no one in whom she could confide, but also because she was Jewish, experiencing the “main-stream anti-semitism of Toronto in the 1940s and 50s which singled us out and held us at arm’s length.”
These facts expose her double outsiderness. She was different, and, she says, “difference…made me what I became.”
When the editor of the Toronto Star hired her, and “handed [her] the slingshot to aim straight at the forehead of male hegemony,” Landsberg joyfully embraced her outsiderness, using her column as a platform to question the logic, evidence, and views put forth in news stories written by the “entire jackal-pack of journalists” who could often be relied upon to “howl the same tune of male sexual entitlement” in their coverage of “women’s issues.”
In fact, whenever she heard them yelp in unison, Landsberg writes, alarms would sound in her head, tipping her off to a new subject that needed tackling, and she would be off, working on another column, in the fight to include women, on their own terms, in the conversation of this country.
You can see Landsberg speak tomorrow in an interview with Susan G. Cole at the Toronto Reference Library from 12:30 pm – 1:45 pm.