Trajectories in Feminism

  • Michele Landsberg
    Writing the Revolution. Second Story Press (purchase at
  • Joan Sangster
    Through Feminist Eyes: Essays on Canadian Women’s History. Mother Press Media, University of Alberta Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Sally Mennill

“Revolutions echo down through generations” says Michele Landsberg in the conclusion to her 2011 compilation of articles, Writing the Revolution. Landsberg chronicles her experiences of the feminist movement between 1978 and 2003 via a carefully chosen and curated collection of her Toronto Star articles published during that time. Similarly, in Through Feminist Eyes, Joan Sangster offers a collection of her feminist academic writing from 1978 to 2011, in which she chronicles the writing of women’s and gender history in Canada. Together, these works offer a compilation of some of their authors’ life’s work to date, with a view to outlining the trajectory of elements of feminism over time. Sangster presents a historiographic look at both the writing of women’s history in Canada, and her own implication therein. Landsberg reflects thematically on her career as a feminist activist and journalist. Both authors trace generational growth and renewal in their own streams of feminism.

Landsberg’s compilation celebrates her journalism career while at the same time offering a review of some of the major issues tackled by feminism over more than thirty years. While the book claims to be specifically about the second wave, it certainly bridges second and third wave issues, though discussion of the challenges posed to feminism do not include those within the movement itself. Landsberg’s tome is structured around issues as she encountered and wrote about them—including women’s liberation, sexual harassment, male sexual entitlement, child protection, immigration and refugees, and other crucial elements of the second wave. Landsberg focuses on lamenting women’s challenges alongside celebrating some of feminism’s victories, while perhaps glossing over divisions within the movement, and the so-called “transgressions of our foremothers.” Many struggles that are ongoing are minimized, for example childcare and socio-economic divisions, while others, namely the 21st century neo-liberal erosion of women’s rights, are featured. Adding a measure of hope, Landsberg ends with a nod to more recent elements of the feminist movement and waxes poetic about future generations. Writing the Revolution is a poignant, thorough narrative of Landsberg’s revolution, and a pedagogical gem for those of us who teach women’s and gender history.

Sangster’s work, also a pedagogical gem, though more at the graduate student level, also offers a semi-autobiographical analysis of her role in Canadian feminism. Far more self-reflexive and necessarily focused on the academic realm, Sangster analyses her experiences with the growth and change of the movement for writing women’s and gender history in Canada. Organized chronologically, Sangster offers a collection of her written essays with retrospective editorial content. After an elaborate introduction offering analysis of trends and current elements of local and international histories and historiographies of women and gender, Sangster starts with one of her earliest publications, paying allegiance to her historical materialist roots and offering insight into the beginnings of her career at a time when “doing women’s history” was new. Ever careful to analyze the context in which her own work was created, Sangster notes some of the naïveté in her approach, but also highlights the continuing usefulness of her early work. Her second section shows an extensive engagement with labour histories in Peterborough, introducing a broader theoretical engagement with the onset of “the linguistic turn” in women’s and gender history.

Much of the remainder of the book focuses on the use of oral history, how Sangster methodologically synthesized the advent of poststructuralist historical study with interview approaches, and a theoretical reconciliation of her labour historian allegiance to historical materialism and her gender historian interest in postmodern analysis. This is, in my opinion, the richest part of Sangster’s narrative; a masterful integration of Sangster’s own approaches throughout the 1990s and 2000s and critical analysis by theorists and historians alike. She then turns to some unanswered questions in current historical debate, offering insight and ideas rather than a definitive conclusion. Like Landsberg, Sangster offers a nod to future generations of feminist historians, opening up ideas for extended study.

Together, these two collections narrate the personal experiences of two particular streams of feminist thought in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. With different intentions, approaches and disciplines, an in-depth comparison is not effective, but on the surface it is useful to note that these books both analyze the ongoing careers of two extraordinary women, inextricable from their roles in the feminist movement. They are both at once activists and analysts in their own ways, perhaps because it’s impossible not to be.

This review “Trajectories in Feminism” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 167-168.

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