Women’s Histories

Reviewed by Linda Morra

Published out of Edmonton, Branching Out was Canada’s first second-wave feminist periodical, which entirely excluded men from its production and content; it had a seven-year lifespan, extending from 1973 to 1980, and included thirty issues. Tessa Jordan’s Feminist Acts: Branching Out Magazine and the Making of Canadian Feminism, published by the University of Alberta Press, relocates the periodical historically to chart its evolution over this period and to suggest its changing face to respond to and accommodate a more national and representative range of women. In so doing, Jordan also observes the kinds of challenges inherent in such an enterprise, from the struggle of raising appropriate funds to produce the periodical and support its editor (its second editor, Sharon Batt, remained unpaid), to the difficulties of managing volunteers, to the complexities of “branching out” to include different literary forms (fiction and non-fiction) and a polyphony of voices and beliefs (radical feminists to more conservative ones, the BIPOC community, and women from various income and education levels). On the one hand, Branching Out provided an alternative to “male-centred mainstream media,” while on the other, it offered a “more moderate approach than the radical feminist press.” It was not a publication that grew out of an event, Jordan fundamentally argues, but rather its “beginning was itself the event.”

The book is divided into five chapters, with a foreword by Eleanor Wachtel, whose endorsement is appropriate given that she herself was a contributor to the periodical. The first chapter charts the periodical’s history over three phases, and its shift therefore from alternative women’s magazine to feminist periodical. Jordan also examines the magazine’s production, funding sources (and lack thereof), and regional representation, and analyzes the visual representation of its covers (also happily included in the book). Branching Out, Jordan observes, attracted both mainstream and emerging writers, and embraced both the arts and more explicitly political content. The periodical certainly engaged a wide range of writers across the country, so it was indeed more national in its representation than its production in Western Canada might otherwise suggest, including the likes of Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Marian Engel, Mavis Gallant, Aritha van Herk, and Jane Rule. Jordan examines the various ideological commitments of these writers and the relationship they held to the periodical. As one example, Rule, Jordan maintains, was elitist in her contribution—a charge by which Branching Out itself was habitually confronted—because she believed that women should not work in the service of the feminist movement, but rather above it. If elitism played a role in shaping Rule’s assumptions, so did particular ideological currents of American culture, which would have informed Rule’s sense of working beyond what Marilyn Schuster called the “constraints of identity.”

The second chapter locates the periodical in broader terms, analyzing the role that it played in the 1970s feminist movement. The third chapter provides a more practical look at its operational structure, the leadership roles within that structure, and its day-to-day operations. The fourth chapter assesses the periodical’s complex engagement with cultural production and political activism, while the fifth chapter endeavours to define the brand of feminism that this periodical espoused by locating it within the 1970s women’s movement, citing particularly the work of Judy Rebick and the digitization project Rise Up! A Digital Archive of Feminist Activism.

Jordan frames her discussion by arguing that researchers have habitually taken a “piecemeal approach to reading periodicals.” Her book offers a welcome correction, contextualized within the trajectory offered by Sean Latham and Robert Scholes’ scholarly work, by examining the periodical as a whole in order to derive a broader understanding of its audience, purpose, and reach. The book is accessible and enjoyable as a read, and the historical material largely well researched and well analyzed. Jordan undertakes crucial archival work and interviews with former staff members to reconstruct not only a history of this periodical, but also multiple literary and cultural histories related to women and the women’s movement in Canada.

This review “Women’s Histories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 30 Nov. 2020. Web.

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