"Feminism can come to men's rescue," Donna
Laframboise scribbles in her notepad. "Honestly?" Laframboise and
I are here, along with a couple of hundred people gathered at the
University of Toronto to hear Susan Faludi, one of the grand
dames of feminism, speak. Faludi, author of
Backlash and self-described "dame in shining
armour," is talking about her new book
Stiffed. It's a miserable, cold, rainy October
evening, and the lecture doesn't lighten people's spirits. The
audience stares blankly as Faludi discusses how feminism can help
teach men about defining gender roles. She talks about how
Sylvester Stallone feels trapped in some form of the feminine
mystique (this does get a chuckle). Laframboise sits with a
microcassette recorder on her lap, alternating between furiously
writing down her observations - "dismisses any responsibility of
feminism for anti-male ethos" - and looking bored, with one hand
on her cheek. This is the first time the 36-year-old with the
blond bob and pink lipstick has seen Faludi, but Laframboise has,
in her book and in her newspaper column, written critiques of
Faludi's earlier work. Now, with Faludi promoting this "let's
look at how men feel" idea, it seems that the two women might
share some ideological ground. Or not. Leaving the lecture,
Laframboise says, "I can't wait to see what Michele Landsberg has
to say about this."
But Laframboise has got her own
article to think about - after years of freelancing, she has
landed herself a newsroom cubicle. As a full-time feature writer
and, as of January 10, a biweekly columnist for the country's
third-highest circulation paper, Laframboise writes pieces that
land on almost 300,000 Canadian doorsteps daily, and she's done
it her way, baby. She's never cared for rules. "I just don't
think it's ever a good time to shut up and toe the line on
anything." And it's her opinions on things like the women's
movement, domestic violence and the
keep-your-legs-crossed-and-get-yourself-a-man-types that have
landed her outside mainstream feminist circles.
be a backlash babe. In the past decade we've seen a flood of
dissident women saying the movement ain't what she used to be,
women who've grown up in the wake of the second wave and who are
ready to make a few ripples of their own. Laframboise is one of
the new dissident order and one controversial lady. She's been
labelled a poster girl for antifeminist right-wingers, a woman
who's playing into the hands of the Mike Harris set. In feminist
circles, she's so unpopular that the likes of Michele Landsberg
and Judy Rebick refused to comment on her for this piece.
Landsberg politely explained that she says what she has to say
about Laframboise in her column. Rebick abruptly refused even to
say why she wouldn't comment.
Is Laframboise a Tory
dream girl who automatically trashes anything progressive, or is
she asking genuine questions about issues that perturb her? Some
media people think she's a voice that needs to get louder; others
think she should shut up already. Not likely.
always going to be a writer. She grew up in a house filled with
her parents' western and romance novels. Her father worked as an
auto mechanic; her mother worked at a number of low-paying,
unskilled jobs. From her mother she got a push to succeed -
because with an education she "could get a good job and afford
nice clothes." Mom also passed on something else: "I have a real
obstinate streak," Laframboise says, "and once I decide that my
position is right, I don't back down." Her grandmothers were also
not subdued stay-at-home types. Not that the Laframboise
household was a hotbed of political or gender discussion. By the
time she was a teenager, Laframboise was opinionated and
argumentative. She fell away from the Catholic church in her
early teens because of its stance on birth control and premarital
sex. At 16, she had what she describes as her "virgin experience"
at ticking people off in print.
That experience took
place at Lively High School in October 1979. Laframboise had left
the all-girls Catholic Marymount College in Sudbury, Ontario, to
go to Lively High. At an age when most kids got excited over what
to wear to the school dance, one decidedly uncool, "bored to
death" student had twisted her knickers in a knot because at
Lively she still had to say the Lord's Prayer and listen to
snippets of the national anthem every day. She wrote a piece for
the Lively school paper about what a letdown her new school
turned out to be. That piece got picked up by the weekly
Walden Observer. In it she wrote:
Everything that Marymount had lacked and had made my
personal schooling there so unbearable, Lively supplied: boys,
jeans, and freedom. No more dull classes without the excitement
of the opposite sex. No more green socks, grey sweaters, and
black shoes. No more two to a locker. No more ridiculous prayers,
which so few said or meant. No more wasted minutes on a national
anthem that so few sang or believed in. Or so I thought.
The Observer was getting mail from
outraged readers three weeks later. Finally, the editor put a
notice in the paper asking people to stop sending them.
She'd been reading books such as The Law Is Not
for Women by June Callwood. It wasn't as if she got any
of that in an English class centred around male coming-of-age
novels. More Lord of the Flies, anyone? After
Laframboise complained to the teacher, he added
Antigone, the Sophocles play about Oedipus's
daughter, to the reading list.
Hugely unstimulated in
Lively, she transferred to Espanola High School, which she
graduated from in 1982, after Grade 12. After moving to Toronto
to study journalism at Ryerson, she dropped out after first term
because - as the hotheaded 19-year-old told the department head -
she wanted "to make history, not write about it."
Laframboise spent the next two years "living and
breathing the peace movement" in Toronto. It was at a peace
protest in 1983 that she met her future husband, Alan Dean, who
"looked like he slipped right out of the '60s," his army jacket
stuffed with pamphlets (they married in 1989). She could usually
be spotted wearing her button that said "Real Men Don't Read
Pornography" and slapped "This Insults Women" stickers on some of
Yonge Street's seedier shops.
In 1984, she returned to
school, at the University of Toronto, where she graduated magna
cum laude in 1989 with a degree in women's studies and English.
To support herself, she worked as a clerk, first at Doctor's
Hospital, later at St. Michael's. As the CUPE representative for
clerical employees, she changed all the "he's" in a 40-page
employee contract to "she's." "Obviously," she says, "I wasn't
the most popular person."
In 1989, she started
freelancing pieces for The Toronto Star's
op-ed page - it seemed like the easiest section to break into.
Her first article, cowritten with fellow "peacenik" Simon
Threlkeld, lamented the influence of Soviet-aligned organizations
on the peace movement.
Another early piece centred on
the 1990 Into the Heart of Africa exhibition
at the Royal Ontario Museum, a show that was indirectly
responsible for her growing disenchantment with the Left and with
feminism. She had been at yet another protest, a pro-choice rally
(the last pro-choice demonstration she ever went to). One of the
organizers grabbed the megaphone and started talking about how
the ROM exhibition was racist because its curator, Dr. Jeanne
Cannizzo, included artifacts that Canadian soldiers and
missionaries brought back from Africa. "I've come here to
demonstrate about choice, I have not come here to even have a
discussion about the exhibit up at the ROM, much less be part of
a protest about that," she remembers thinking. "You guys have
stepped way over the line in assuming that I'm going to agree
with everything you say." She left the protest, regretting that
she couldn't get back the $20 she'd put in the fundraising
bucket. Although the incident didn't seem like a big deal at the
time, the more she thought about it, the more she realized she
couldn't go along with a group that tacked on a checklist of
issues to the pro-choice agenda.
After selling a few
pieces to the Star, she invited the op-ed editor, John Ferri, out
to lunch in February 1992 to ask how she could get a column. The
idea of having her own space in the paper appealed to Laframboise
- it seemed like a great chance to "poke people's complacency."
Ferri told her to write a letter to editor John Honderich. In it,
she wrote that she would bring "insight, personality and strong,
well-reasoned arguments." Plus, Laframboise promised, when it
came to feminist debate she would not hesitate to express
unpopular opinions. Honderich invited her to his office. "I want
you to know," he said, "that I don't meet with everyone who
writes me a letter saying that I should give them a column." But
he wanted to meet the outspoken "Gen X" writer because her views
"were different than the classic feminists who went before her."
The Star announced her first "twice-monthly
contribution to the Opinions page" on April 28, 1992. Her
inaugural piece that day was a good indicator of things to come.
It was titled "Don't Let Self-Righteous Define Debate"
and in it she wrote, "It is rare these days for difficult and
complex social questions to be discussed in an atmosphere of
civility and mutual respect. Many of us are convinced that our
own position is the only right one. People who disagree with us,
people who fail to immediately recognize the inherent superiority
of our point of view, are dismissed as being part and parcel of a
vast system of oppression. It then becomes okay to slander them,
to harass them, to demand that their views be censored, and so
Each 700-word column paid her a mere $200. And
she was right about voicing unpopular opinions. On the National
Action Committee on the Status of Women's "No Stance" in the
Charlottetown Accord referendum (September 28, 1992): "Whomever
[NAC] represents these days, it isn't ordinary Canadian
women...Canada's foremost women's organization is now controlled
by people who are an embarrassment to feminism, people who don't
deserve a penny of taxpayers' money in order to promote their
agenda." On feminist assumptions about gender and violence
(November 23, 1992): "Women are once again to be viewed as frail
creatures in need of special consideration and protection. And
men are back to being uncivilized beasts - rapists, wife-beaters
and Marc Lepines in disguise." And on the Ontario government's
1996 anti-sexual-harassment policy, which encouraged girls to
report incidents to police and the Human Rights Commission (March
26, 1996): "Many feminists seem intent on undermining female
self-confidence whenever anything sexual is involved. He called
you a slut? Oh dear, better run to mommy and daddy over that."
While the message behind these columns - NAC should speak for all
women, women need to know how to defend themselves, girls aren't
fragile - is hard to dispute, Laframboise tended to minimize the
situation. Would girls really take comfort in Laframboise's
advice that "calmly and firmly telling someone he's out of line
and that she doesn't appreciate such comments is usually all
These were only a few of Laframboise's
ever-growing list of problems with the women's movement. Besides
the incident at the ROM, June Callwood's resignation - amid
accusations of racism - from the board of directors at Nellie's
(the hostel for battered women she cofounded in 1974) led to
another turning point. One of Canada's best-known philanthropists
a racist? "My God, we're really fucked up," Laframboise remembers
thinking. "We're really fucked up if this is what's happening. I
thought if you can spend decades in the women's movement giving
it your heart and soul and then people just try to destroy your
reputation very lightly - that's a terrible thing. That says
something pretty disturbing about the women's movement. What we
saw with the June Callwood affair was that the politics of the
women's movement are ugly and mean and nasty - and that a world
run by these kinds of feminists would not be a better place."
Laframboise continued writing for the
Star until 1996, when, as she tells it, her
column was killed because in a piece about recovered memory
syndrome she indirectly disagreed with fellow columnist Michele
Landsberg. Such criticism, she says she was told, was against
Star policy. For his part, Honderich can't
remember why Laframboise left the Star, but he
says it had nothing to do with what she wrote. "I know we just
don't do that. We don't fire people for having a different point
of view." Meanwhile, she had moved to Montreal (her husband had a
job there), got herself elected to the board of the Canadian
Civil Liberties association and written a book, The
Princess at the Window, which Penguin published in
1996. In it, she argued that feminism had become "extremist,
self-obsessed, arrogant and intolerant," and that the time had
come "to re-examine the assumptions that underlie our beliefs
about men, women and sexual politics, and to give a fair hearing
to the ideas percolating in the emerging men's movement." She got
to keep her Star column until the book tour
was over (because all the promotional material read that she
wrote for the Star). But when the tour ended so did her job at
the paper, appropriately enough, she jokes, on April 1. To
promote the book, she developed her website, www.razberry.com.
The website also served another purpose, as I found out when I
went to her house for dinner.
When I first called Donna
Laframboise for an interview, she started the questioning: "Do
you hate me?" She was only partly joking, and I kidded back that
I didn't know her - outside of her role as the National
Post's resident dissident feminist reporter. Now, NAC's
nemesis is giving me a tour of her home. It's clear that a
neat-freak lives here. I see the Starship Enterprise-shaped phone
that lights up when it rings, the video collection, including
Austin Powers - she liked the first one better
than the sequel - and the bookshelves lined with the entire
Farley Mowat collection, a prize from a high-school writing
contest. "This is all my porn," she announces, pointing to the
top of a shelf in her home office. I notice she hasn't slapped
any "This Insults Women" stickers on this material. There are
nine cardboard magazine holders, eight for
Penthouse, one for Playboy.
She pulls down a Penthouse and starts leafing
through. Black dots cover the naughty bits, a result of the
Butler decision, the Supreme Court's 1992 pornography ruling. She
used to scan the pictures onto her website as her way of sticking
it to Canada Customs by showing how ridiculous she thought the
law was. She used to buy American editions, sans black dots, to
drive home a point when giving lectures at universities.
Oddly enough, it was her feminist education that made
her question her stance on porn. She fondly remembers learning
that "if you want to convince people in the long term, make a
strong intellectual argument. Pornography was the first to fall.
There are very emotional arguments, but they're not very strong."
Predictably, Laframboise hasn't been shy about voicing her new
take on pornography. "Not all of us think pornography is the
misogynistic monster it's made out to be," she wrote in a 1992
Star column. "Personally, I don't think it
deserves a fraction of the attention it receives. Nor do all of
us, by far, believe that state censorship is the answer."
After she left the Star, Laframboise
continued to be a thorn in feminism's side freelancing for the
Globe, Montreal's The
Gazette and Toronto Life. When she
and her husband returned to Toronto after less than a year away,
she pitched some ideas to Saturday Night.
Although editor Ken Whyte didn't commission any work, he had
admired her "strong point of view" since her
Star. days and offered her a chance to go to
"boot camp," as she calls it, meaning the Southam bureau on
Toronto's King Street. There, she spent the summer of 1998
writing stories about Martha Stewart's line of linens and the
Canadian Walk of Fame for Southam papers. Whyte was preparing her
for her soon-to-be job as a reporter at the National
Post when it launched on October 27, 1998.
long before she landed that job, her reputation was entrenched.
Perhaps what gives Laframboise the confidence to poke at sacred
cows is her thoroughness as a researcher. She's notorious for her
excessive organization, meticulous fact-checking packages and
mountains of files (she had to rent storage space near the
Post because there was no room for them at
home or the office). "She's not mouthing unexamined platitudes,"
says Post writer Patricia Pearson. "There's a
kind of freshness to her, a sort of
Post reporter Mitchel Raphel says
that people can feel uncomfortable with Laframboise's work
because "it's not fitting into one category or the other. That's
why she always gets labelled as being a right-wing feminist.
Donna's much more of a political hybrid." Pearson agrees: "She
just tends to recoil at dogma on either side."
her point of view comes through loud and clear, Laframboise's
reasoning isn't always sound - sometimes it comes across as
hopelessly one-sided. "I feel as if sometimes she goes to
extremes in her views," says one writer. "Sometimes she'll just
have an axe to grind. It seems to me that she hates any kind of
feminist organization, so she leaps on them without really
examining them all that carefully."
women's shelters, maybe? "While accountability is a buzzword in
the women's movement where male behaviour is concerned, report
after report has stressed that accountability is sorely lacking
in feminist-run social services. Tens of millions of public and
charitable dollars are handed over every year to organizations
with long records of financial and managerial scandal," she wrote
in "Battered Shelters," which ran in the Post
in November 1998. "Rather than attracting people who can put
aside differences and comfort the afflicted, these organizations
have become magnets for militants who seem instead to view such
services as an opportunity to proselytize."
despite being meticulously researched, made sweeping
generalizations. Focusing on a few examples, Laframboise
condemned countless other no-doubt-worthy organizations. Former
Homemaker's editor Sally Armstrong wrote a
response to the piece in an editorial. "On a scale of one to 10,
it gets a solid 11 for cheap shots....Leave the women alone."
Ever prepared to take the unpopular view, on December 6,
1999 - the 10th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre - a day when
CBC Newsworld dedicated an entire day's coverage to the tragedy,
Laframboise tried to point out how men were hurt by being lumped
together as potential Lepines. But in her eagerness to defend
men, she sacrificed logic. "It's time to ask why, as we condemned
Mr. Lepine's scapegoating of women for all his problems, we too
sank to his level. Mirroring back his unsound reasoning, we found
our own scapegoat: men," she wrote. "But this skewed perspective
is no closer to reality than were Lepine's views regarding women.
For every Lepine, there are thousands of male
volunteer [her italics] firefighters who risk
life and limb in order to assist others in times of tragedy."
While she may have set out to say that all men are not brutes,
the firefighters example was superficial and didn't address the
reality of violent misogyny - even if it is acted out by a
relatively small percentage of men.
"I think that what
she's trying to do is acknowledge that the picture is more
complex than we think it is, but sometimes in trying to do that
it may come across as an oversimplification in the other
direction," says Chatelaine columnist and
contributing editor Kim Pittaway. "I think that Donna likes being
her own broad. I think that it's about not wanting to be seen as
She's certainly no neo-con puppet.
Ask her if she's neo-conservative and her eyes pop out (as they
do whenever she gets excited) and her hands go flailing as she
exclaims "I'm not a right-winger!" She got a chance to back this
statement in her response to Danielle Crittenden's '50s throwback
book What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us. In an
opinion piece about the "nice girls don't" squad, Laframboise
attacked Crittenden. "Ms. Crittenden ultimately reduces marriage
to a financial transaction. In her view, sex is a bargaining chip
- one that women should exchange for nothing less than a wedding
"It was one of those pieces where even Donna's
detractors sent glowing e-mails," says Post
writer Jeannie Marshall. "So many people disagree with Danielle
Crittenden to begin with that it was kind of a relief to see
someone challenging it - and to see someone who is thought of as
being like her, challenging it. So I think it was Donna's chance
to differentiate herself from that crew."
Back at the
Post, Laframboise sits up straight at her
computer with Bruce Springsteen on her headphones (she's still
not quite used to working with other people around). I'm probably
keeping her from her work, but she's too polite to tell me to get
lost. Her cubicle is decorated with magnets of pulp fiction
covers with titles like Reefer Girl, Marihuana
[sic] and Vice Rackets of Soho. The rest of
her space is covered with books, papers and boxes of files.
Laframboise is working on her Faludi article. Perfectly coiffed
and wearing her usual uniform of a sweater and dress pants,
Laframboise is easy to picture as the nerdy kid with pigtails and
The nerdiness may be a thing of the past, but
Laframboise is as outspoken as ever. Whyte says she is often a
favourite target of other writers. "If Donna wasn't writing with
a lot of passion and authority, no one would be responding to
her. The fact is, they are." Are they ever. "I'm interested in
how she's always bringing up the other side," says
Star media writer Antonia Zerbisias. "She
seems to take the exception and make it the rule. Everybody's
entitled to their opinion, but she's made it a crusade."
It's easy to think that Laframboise is on a crusade for
men's rights; sometimes even she wonders if she is. "Maybe I am,"
she says, "and part of the reason is I'm one of the very few
people who is writing about this. If more people were doing it, I
wouldn't feel the need so often."
Does the fact that
Laframboise goes against the feminist grain make her the enemy?
"That's either/or thinking," she says. "It says either you agree
with me or you're the enemy. You know what? Life is a little more
complicated than that. I'm just as appalled at the right as I am
at the left, so what are my choices?" Still, Laframboise does
call herself a feminist. "Feminism is supposed to belong to all
of us. Where did the idea come from that there were a few media
celebrities and they got to decide what the women's movement was
and what it stood for, and everybody else is like, 'Who are you?'
"I'm sure Preston Manning thinks of himself as a
humanitarian," says Penni Mitchell, editor of
Herizons, a feminist magazine, when asked
about Laframboise donning the feminist label. "She's an
antifeminist and she's making a career off of arguing that women
don't really need equality rights. It's more attractive to
criticize and beat up feminists instead of attacking inequality.
I'll bet if Donna Laframboise were an actual feminist she
wouldn't have the profile that she has."
says she's not reaping any great benefits in terms of profile or
money. Instead, she thinks that she's paid a price for being
labelled an antifeminist, that there are editors who would not
want to work with her because of her views.
at Indigo on Toronto's Bloor Street she smiles warmly when she
meets me. Over a chai latte she says that her writing, so often
incorporating mountains of documents, can be "boring and stodgy."
That may be true of her work, but people have never described the
woman herself that way - whatever else they may say about her.
And people will probably have lots more to say now that she once
again is writing a regular opinion column.
As if angry
reactions would stop Donna Laframboise. "The reason I'm vocal on
women's issues and gender issues is because I think there's a lot
of crap being talked out there. If I'm going to write a story,
I'm going to try to find something important to write about that
other people haven't said 10 times. I haven't held a position to
be popular with anyone in my life. I'm used to a lot of