Do You Hate Me?

For the National Post's Donna Laframboise, the question is rhetorical

Jennifer O'Connor
June , 2000 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

 

"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.

Ah, to 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.

She was 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 forth."

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 that's required"?

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.

But 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 oh-my-God-you-won't-believe-what-I've-just-discovered quality."

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."

But while 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."

Organizations like 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."

The story, 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 anybody's puppet."

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 ring."

"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 glasses.

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."

Laframboise 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.

One morning 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 hostility."

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