Sunday, March 30, 2008

Seduced by feminism

i was talking last night with my friend susanne about becoming a feminist. the setting was ironic, perhaps: we were at a fashion show with chic girls and pretty boys in their irritatingly early 20s. my modern vintage t-straps had me in agony, which i thought would be sexier than it was. i didn't realize that at this fashion show we'd be standing all night, and i didn't realize that "all night" would be as long as it was. when the invite said doors at 7, i thought that meant show at 8, so i had my friend renee pick me up at 7:30. suffice it to say, we pretty much opened the party. and so, here i was, three hours later, with pain radiating up and down my spine and the mortifying thought that i was going to have to take my shoes right off, as if i was at a wedding reception in a community hall and not at a fashion show at an independent gallery.

anyway, having chosen the best boy-outfit and the best girl-outfit, having outed the boots that were trying too hard and exhausted the treats table, talk turned to whether we'd ever imagined a career in the fashion industry. me, i grew up idolizing long-haul truck drivers. susanne's parents, it turns out, were in the high-end retail business in germany. the upshot was the same: neither of us fancied a career in fashion, both of us became professors. but was style absent? susanne described her first women's studies prof, a redhead the same age as her mother but who wore black leather, played in a rock band, and dated women. even by the standards of 1980s berlin, she was cool.

i was similarly seduced by the lifestyle of the intellectual class. i graduated from high school in 1984 here in edmonton and headed straight to university. i had figured out by that point that i wanted to teach. i didn't care for children and barely survived junior high the first time around, but perhaps i could become a professor. it must be said that in 1984 i had no idea what "being a professor" meant. nonetheless, as soon as i hit on this idea, i knew it was for me. i imagined long periods of reflective study punctuated by socrates-like sessions with devotees; i saw fierce arguments in smoky bars; i pictured myself toiling away on a misunderstood masterpiece all alone in a garrett. we didn't have garretts in edmonton, as far as i knew, so this life would pretty much have to take place elsewhere, probably toronto. once i was a feminist, my imagination became sharper: i imagined coming home after a long day in the library to a tiny apartment redolent with garlic and steamy with pasta, all made by my live-in boyfriend. what can i say? it was the 80s; we ate a lot of pasta, and "common-law" felt radical. i'm getting ahead of myself a little, but it's a measure of my misplaced idealism that i most wanted to become a grad student after reading margaret atwood's the edible woman.

from my vantage point as an eager undergraduate, my professors' lives did appear to conform to my dreamy notions. it's about 1986, a saturday night, and my boyfriend and i are milling around in the now-defunct weinlos books, attending a reception for a visiting poet. i can't remember who it was now -- bp nichol, perhaps. anyway, the talk was all about the canadian long poem. talk? arguments, impassioned ones, among poets, professors, book merchants, and grad students. i didn't have the first clue how to participate in the conversation, but i covertly purchased a copy of the 1979 long poem anthology that night and set to work on it. the book was edited by michael ondaatje, the "early michael ondaatje," we have to say now, the ondaatje of coming through slaughter and there's a trick with a knife i'm learning to do. ondaatje's always been sexy, but he used to be our very own pretty boy.

however, not even michael ondaatje was as sexy as mid-80s canadian feminism. in those heady days, women's studies was just being established at the UofA. in keeping with feminism's commitment to inclusiveness, undergraduates were encouraged to get involved in the hiring decisions. we didn't have the first clue what we were doing. there was a fantastic quebecoise up for the job of chair whose expertise was labour movements among immigrant seamstresses in montreal, but we collectively pooh-poohed that in favour of the candidate who studied Women's Spirituality. c'mon: woman-centred spirituality? for a girl just five years out of braemar baptist church, that was pretty bold. though i didn't use that term exactly. "hers is a more gynocentric approach," i recall saying, knowingly.

anyway, of all the exciting things going on, nothing was more exciting than the book launch for shirley neuman's anthology a mazing space. to give you a sense of how long ago this was, the gerund was not yet ubiquitous in academic titles. there are images of clam shells and spirals superimposed on the pages of the book, which was designed by one of shirley's husbands. can i say that again?: one of shirley's husbands. she was like edmonton's elizabeth taylor. most scandalously of all, there's an essay in the book called "how the cunt lost its tongue." i was agog. "cunt"? in an academic book? you can do that? it was the linguistic equivalent of susanne's teacher's punk haircut.

the launch of a mazing space was held at garneau books (now a high-end CD store). it was the first book launch i'd ever been invited to, and i had no idea what to expect. i thought for sure it would take the whole evening. i thought there would be a formal program. i thought it might be like the symphony, with dignitaries, speeches. i was quite surprised to discover that a book launch amounted to a whole lot of wine-drinking and milling about. kind of like a fashion show, come to think of it, only i was wearing doc martens. these people -- my people -- were so blase about the intellectual life that they could squander it in small talk and boxed wine.

nothing could have seduced me more.

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