BORN: Calgary, Alberta • 10 November 1921
We are what we eat and read. Chatelaine,the major Canadian woman’s magazine, was full of recipes and, while Doris Anderson was editor for two decades beginning in the late 1950s, feminist articles. The magazine’s circulation increased during this period from 460,000 to over a million, and the groundwork for the rise in political, economic, and social power won by women from the 1960s onward was laid in its pages.
An illegitimate child, Doris McCubbin grew up in her mother’s Calgary boarding house. Her father eventually married her mother, but he was a difficult parent and her home life was troubled. She made her way through school and, during the Second World War, through university, propelled by her strong will and inner (and outer) toughness.
Heading to Toronto to get into journalism, she found herself held back because of her gender and limited to composing adver¬ tising copy. So she left for Europe, where for a year in London and Paris she tried her hand at writing. Then she returned to Toronto and, in 1951, persuaded Chatelaine to take her on as an editorial assistant.
She became indispensable. Over seven years, she rose through the ranks to become successively assistant editor, associate editor, managing editor, and finally editor in 1958. She won the last position only when she threatened to resign if a less-qualified male was appointed. Her bosses at Maclean-Hunter were amazed that McCubbin, soon to marry lawyer David Anderson, would not want to be merely a hostess and mother.
Soon enough, Anderson was the mother of three boys.She revamped the stodgy, boring magazine, turning a money loser into the company’s cash cow that carried its other titles, including Maclean’s. She found better writers, produced a more attractive design, and introduced a strong feminist slant in the editorials she wrote each issue and in the stories she commissioned.
There were features on Canada’s antiquated divorce laws, on child abuse, on discrimination against women in politics and trade unions, and chilling data on the wage discrimination under which women laboured—including Anderson, whose own salary, though high, was always significantly lower than that of comparable male colleagues at Maclean-Hunter. “The articles!” Michele Landsberg commented: “Incest, child battering, divorce, lesbians, and the Royal Family.”
The emphasis, another writer noted, was on challenging conventional wisdom, not coddling it, through an approach that was at once feminist, woman-centred, and outward¬ looking. “The view,” Susan Crean observed, “may have been from the kitchen, but it reached as far as world politics.”
The 2 million readers of her magazine were not only sensitized to women’s issues but politicized about the abuse of their rights and the national need for programs and legislation to protect them and their children. Chatelaine ran well ahead of women’s magazines in the United States—and increased its circulation while the more conventional American maga¬ zines were faltering.
The creation of the Royal Commission on the Status ofWomen in 1967, something Anderson had demanded in print, was an indication that the times were changing and that Doris Anderson had changed them.
Although she had been successful at Chatelaine, Anderson failed to get the job she wanted as editor of the troubled Maclean-Hunter flagship, Maclean’s. Women’s magazines were women’s work was the message from the executive offices, and, despite promises, the editorship went elsewhere.
Anderson’s bitterness over her treatment was sharp and remains so, to the point that it dominates two of her three novels and her memoirs. In 1977, finally, she left after disagreements with the magazine’s publisher.She turned to writing fiction and to seeking election to Parliament as a Liberal in a 1978 by-election.
Although she lost, her reward was appointment to the presidency of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status ofWomen. The council, full of party hacks, was little known and unimpor¬ tant—until the members, caving in to pressure from Lloyd Axworthy, the minister responsible for the status of women, baulked at holding a scheduled national conference on the constitution in 1981.
Anderson promptly resigned as publicly as she could, forthrightly pronouncing Axworthy “a bully” and adding, “I don’t see why women should be bullied.” Her departure galvanized the successful lobbying campaign to change the wording of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it affected women’s equality rights.
Anderson then became president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in 1982 and continued the fight for equality. “The woman’s movement has no armies,” Anderson once wrote. “It hoards no secret cache of deadly armaments.All we have is numbers”—and she turned those numbers into a highly effective political force.
No single woman is responsible for the increasing role of women in Canadian life. No individual deserves credit for the legal protections that have enhanced the lives of women in this country.Even so, any short list of those who led the battle has to include the very tough-minded Doris Anderson, who had the courage to call a spade a bloody shovel at a time when many of her contemporaries were satisfied to be their husbands’ hostesses.