Historicist: The Importance of Being Doris
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Historicist: The Importance of Being Doris

In 1971, more than half of Canadian women worked outside the home. In the opening of a Take 30 episode from that July, host Adrienne Clarkson notes the practice has become rather unremarkable, and the balance between career and homemaking no longer made a woman an “oddity or social outcast.” The main subject of the episode was, at the time, one of the most famous working mothers in Canada—Chatelaine editor, Doris Anderson.

CROPPED Doris Anderson at her desk as Chatelaine editor  June 1962 Vol 25 Issue 6 P  1

Doris Anderson at her desk in 1962. Rogers Media.

Born in 1921 in Alberta, Doris had a difficult upbringing in her mother’s Depression-era boarding house. She learned a frugality that became imbued in her later work at Chatelaine. According to journalist Michelle Landsberg, there were no expense accounts at the magazine, the supply cabinet was closely monitored, and, in the adjudication of the annual “Ms. Chatelaine” contest, spendthrift women held little chance against pennywise competition.

Doris graduated from the University of Alberta in 1945, and, finding little work out west, moved to Toronto to begin her career in journalism. A familiar story to modern journalists, she held down multiple jobs, including copy editing for Eaton’s advertising department, and researching and writing for one of Canada’s first female radio hosts, Claire Wallace.

She began her relationship with Chatelaine in the advertising department in 1951, and, through intense determination, quickly received promotion to the editorial staff. After five years under editor John Clare, Doris took the reins as managing editor for what became the most studied and controversial period of the periodical. Under her direction, Chatelaine developed a feminist approach, publishing articles about sexuality and women’s rights. The magazine would quickly exceeded the circulation of any other Canadian monthly, despite the formidable competition of U.S. publications.

Doris and boys late 1960s Toronto Star

Doris Anderson with her three sons in the late 1960s. Toronto Star

According to The Globe and Mail, while she was named editor the same month that she married lawyer David Anderson, she was only officially brought on to the post a year later, after the manager at parent company Maclean-Hunter was confident that Doris could commit to both marriage and her career. Like most employers of the day, the company had no maternity leave policy. Anderson continued to work until her children were born, then took a handful of weeks off before returning to work. In her autobiography, she notes “that what I wanted more than anything else was to be able to look after myself and make sure that every other woman in the world could do the same.”

Her feminism and ambitions were not always well received: “When we began writing articles on working wives,” she commented, “we got floods of mail accusing us of breaking up the home. And I was frequently attacked for not staying home and minding my kids.” Despite the attacks, by the late 1960s one in three women opened a copy of Chatelaine each month, roughly three times the circulation that it had had under her predecessor. The magazine and its editor stood at the vanguard of second-wave feminism in Canada.

Chatelaine June 1971

Cover of the June 1971 issue of Chatelaine, featuring Margaret Trudeau.

Beginning in 1957, Anderson’s editorials called for proportional representation and greater representation of women in political life, an appeal that she continued unabated for a half century. Her 1959 editorial on women’s reproductive rights and access to abortion led to threats and calls for her to be fired and the magazine to be shuttered.

In her 1960 official report to the Royal Commission on Publications, she described the role of Chatelaine as “a kind of trade magazine for Canadian homemakers.” However, in a personal response to a dissatisfied reader, she identified the goal of a magazine as “to point out the problems that should be brought to the attention of the public.” It was in this realm that Anderson succeeded as editor, assigning well-researched pieces on abortion, wage inequality, women in politics, and discriminatory divorce laws, while still providing the practical and well-loved articles and recipes for which the magazine was known.

Chatleaine July 1971

Article from the July 1971 issue of Chatelaine.

Admired and considered influential by countless other women in the profession, she was once asked by Sally Armstrong, former editor of Homemakers, about her approach: “Just do it,” was her response. “You’ll get the readers, and as long as you have the readers no one can touch you.” While Anderson made Maclean-Hunter rich, she was quite personally aware of the wage gap affecting women, as she made less than half of her counterpart at Maclean’s.

Denied the role of publisher, Doris left Chatelaine in 1977, but did not shy away from public life: She pursued a political career that began with a failed 1978 by-election campaign, and continued with women’s rights advocacy. She was appointed chair of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CACSW) two years later.

Never one to back down from her beliefs, Anderson resigned from CACSW in protest in 1981, when government interference resulted in the cancellation of key CACSW conferences on constitutional issues. Her departure became a catalyst for the formation of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. The ad-hoc lobbying campaign included a conference of 1,300 women in Ottawa and successfully fought to guarantee women’s equality through Articles 15 and 28 in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

She continued to advocate tirelessly for the rights of women in Canada, acting as president of the National Action Committee until 1984, and publishing The Unfinished Revolution: The Status of Women in Twelve Countries in 1991, which contextualized the rights of Canadian women on the international stage. Writing as a columnist for the Toronto Star from 1982 until 1992, she pushed for social reforms and progress in healthcare, employment, and women in politics, many of which are still outstanding today.

Doris and Adrienne Clarkson 2001 Canadian Women Studies Journal

Adrienne Clarkson and Doris Anderson at Doris’ 80th birthday, 2001. Canadian Woman Studies Journal, Volume 26, Issue 2.

A Canadian feminist icon, Companion of the Order of Canada, and recipient of several honorary degrees, Doris Anderson is one of eight subjects of the exhibit Toronto the Just: Stories of Women and the Struggle for Equality, opening on March 8, International Women’s Day, and part of the Myseum of Toronto’s Intersections festival. The launch event will include a presentation of a Heritage Toronto plaque commemorating Doris Anderson and her importance to the city’s past and present.

(Disclosure: The author is employed by Heritage Toronto as its director of programming.)

Additional material from: The Toronto Star (16 April 1970; 12 July 1977; 17 October 1978; 6 September 1977; 2 June 1983; 24 June 1997; 3 March 2007; 9 November 2011); The Globe and Mail (3 October 1960; 30 April 1973; 8 July 1977; 15 September 1978; 26 January 1981; 5 October 1996; 6 May 2005; 3 March 2007; Chatelaine Magazine; Doris Anderson, Rebel Daughter: An Autobiography (1996); CBC Digital Archives; Library and Archives Canada

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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