a review of Ten Thousand Roses
by Judy Rebick
Penguin Canada, 2005
Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution is Judy Rebick’s chronicle of the second wave of the mainstream feminist movement in Canada. Rebick herself was an active participant in the latter part of this movement and remains a well-known feminist today. As such, she is well placed to take on a project to document a history that is in danger of being lost or that might be assumed to be no different from the US feminist movement. In fact, as is revealed throughout the book, the Canadian feminist movement was unique in terms of the issues that mobilized women, the struggles and challenges faced, and the victories won.
Ten Thousand Roses is structured chronologically along the latest four decades of intense feminist activity in Canada, starting in the 1960s and going through all the way to the 1990s, with an epilogue that looks to the future of feminist organizing in Canada and beyond. For each decade, Rebick begins by contextualizing the movement within the broader social, political and economic climate of the time. She also includes brief references to other social justice movements of the time (such as the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s and 70s) and how feminism interacted with them. Within each decade, every chapter focuses on a specific sector (such as the Quebec womenï¿½s movement or Aboriginal women’s struggles), issue (such as male violence against women or childcare) or mass action (such as the Abortion Caravan).
The narrative is brought to life through over a hundred recorded interviews with leading feminists engaged in struggle around these issues and within these sectors. Rebick herself only enters the chapters as a narrator with an introductory synopsis. In this way, Ten Thousand Roses is predominantly an oral history told from a multitude of perspectives.
Rebick’s narrative does a good job of capturing the shifting momentum of the women’s movement over time. The 1960s and ’70s were full of grassroots organizing efforts and mass mobilizations, as women took to the streets in huge numbers to engage in direct action for their liberation. By the 1980s and ’90s, however, emphasis was increasingly put on lobbying the government as feminist organizing became bureaucratized and grew dependent on government funding. Fewer women were being mobilized for change.
Ten Thousand Roses is a useful and informative account of the mainstream women’s movement in Canada. Gains are celebrated and some important criticisms of the organizing that happened within the movement are revealed in the book. However, the book should be taken for what it is: an account of a movement of mostly-white, mostly-able-bodied women. It does not include women’s organizing that took place within immigrant, Aboriginal and people-of-colour communities and often in mixed-gender settings, such as the Canadian Farmworkers Union. Just because the women’s movement in Canada was friendlier towards socialist politics and slightly more open to being challenged on the grounds of race and ability than the American women’s movement is no cause for celebration in itself.
In fact, there are moments in the book when Rebick makes some dangerously grand claims, such as that Canada had, for a time, “the most multiracial women’s movement in the world.” The back cover even claims that “these stories define the Canadian women’s movement as one of the most successful on the planet.” As someone who identifies herself as a socialist feminist, I would have hoped that Rebick would have done a better job in situating Canada in the international imperialist context. Women’s movements in the global South have often been strongly linked to national liberation movements, and women’s movements throughout the world have always been unique to their social, political and economic landscape.
Moreover, Rebick’s claim to superiority of the multiracial nature of the women’s movement in Canada is worrying because it provides a tool for white women in Canada today to be complacent in fighting racism within themselves and in their communities. Rebick, among others, seems to have missed the point: anti-racism cannot just be about a politics of representation, of having more women of colour involved in the women’s movement. Anti-racist feminism involves, rather, a fundamental shift in what we consider “women’s issues” and what kinds of organizing we consider to be part of the women’s movement; it involves interrogating the notion of “sisterhood;” it involves examining our own privileges; and much, much more.
In sum, Ten Thousand Roses is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in fighting patriarchy, particularly budding young feminists interested in the history of the mainstream women’s movement in Canada. Despite its shortcomings, the women’s movement can provide us with much inspiration for the continued struggle for women’s liberation and for social justice for all our communities.
- Kirat Kaur
(This is an abridgement of a review that appeared in Upping the Anti No. 2, January 2006.)
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