The Satellite Sex
Interview with Barbara Freeman
Have the Canadian news media always given feminism a bad name, or have they been among the movement’s supporters?
Journalists in general have had a very contradictory and an uneasy relationship with this particular topic. We saw it did during the suffrage era in the early 20th century when women were fighting for the vote and several newspapers took an official stand against it. We see it now when writers for the conservative newspapers especially declare that the movement is dead, or make fun of feminist issues and treat all feminists as wild radicals. On the other hand, there have always been pockets of support for the women’s movement, particularly among women journalists. I think that it’s important to understand that in this country, the men and women who work in the news media have traditionally not been very radical or particularly progressive as a group. When it came to women’s issues of the 1960s, female journalists who were writing for the women’s pages of the newspapers, Chatelaine magazine, or producing or hosting CBC programming for women tended to be the most supportive, mainly because they were at the time trying to carve out a niche in what was very much a man’s world of news and current affairs journalism. They could not even join the National Press Club in Ottawa until 1970. Male journalists, many of whom felt threatened by their female colleagues for equality in journalism, were neither as well informed on women’s issues as they were, nor were they generally as sympathetic.
Have journalists ever covered women’s issues in a fair and balanced way or have they always let their personal feelings colour their coverage?
The idea that journalists should cover the news in a balanced way is really a fairly modern one because when newspapers first began publishing in this country they were specifically and openly biased, usually for one political party or the other. Journalists have been grappling with the whole concept of objectivity for about 100 years, and it has taken on various shades of meaning over time. By the 1960s and since then the emphasis has shifted to a slightly different ideal: and that is that reporters should provide balanced coverage, which usually involved “both sides of the story.” The problem with that idea is that there are usually far more than just two sides. But because of space and time constraints, it has usually been difficult for journalists to get at the real essence of an issue and do a proper job of analyzing it. To some degree journalists, being human, always let their personal feelings cover the coverage and this was true of their reporting on women’s issues in the 1960s and early ’70s. At the same time, as I analyzed this coverage I saw that most of them were very conscientious about following the rules of the journalism game in trying to provide balanced coverage. So my quarrel is not with them personally, but with the system of news gathering that resulted in coverage that was biased in both positive and negative ways, and did not always get at the underlying problems for women in Canadian society.
When it comes to women’s voices, is journalistic objectivity a myth and does it matter?
I think that journalism objectivity is a myth—or to put it more fairly—is really an impossible goal to shoot for. I would rather journalists were able to state their feelings and attitudes more openly in their news coverage, as long as we get a variety of perspectives in the same publication or on the same program. I say that because if you read between the lines of most news stories you get a general idea of where the reporter is coming from and the kinds of questions that were asked in the first place. I just think they should be allowed to be more up-front about it. Now in this particular case study of news coverage of women’s issues from 1966-71, the only people who were supposed to present their personal opinions were columnists and editorial writers. Some were editors of women’s pages and many were men who frankly did not really know much about women’s issues and cared even less. They were also in the game of trying to attract readers, or viewers, by being controversial, and that can certainly distort an issue fast enough. Then you had the so-called analytical articles which are not opinion pieces but suggest a particular perspective on an issue. Then you have straight reporting, and that is mostly what I was looking at—although I considered all kinds of journalism including photographs and cartoons which illustrated the articles because they carry certain messages as well. So, taken together, I think you can say that in this particular case study, I’ve been able to show that the ideal of journalistic objectivity was not upheld, and that affected the kind of coverage that women’s issues received. They received fairly wide coverage but it was seldom in depth.
Who were the women activists of the late 1960s and what were their concerns?
The women activists of the 1960s were generally middle-class, polite, well turned out leaders and members of various women’s professional and political organizations and social clubs. They wore hats and white gloves when out in public, generally spoke and behaved in a lady-like fashion and were incredibly well informed, astute and clever when it came to the issues that concerned them the most. It is important to understand the fact that women were at a great disadvantage in Canadian society at the time in their economic positions, their political clout, and social status. For example, there was very little in the way of equal pay legislation, women lost most of their rights when they married, the selling and advertising of birth control devices was illegal, and there was virtually nothing in the way of government-sponsored day-care for women who supported their families through paid work. This is what today’s critics of feminists tend to conveniently forget: that there was a great deal of injustice against women in Canadian society 30 years ago. They also tend to forget that the so-called Marxist feminist radicals—the hippie feminists if you want—appeared just a little later on in our history. They were not among the activists who first demanded a federal inquiry into the status of women back in 1966. What’s interesting however, is that these well dressed, well spoken ladies who asked for this inquiry were immediately tagged as radicals by the media of that time for the simple reason that they spoke out. In those days that was enough to brand you. So the term radical takes on different meanings in different time periods but it is always a dead giveaway—someone is rattling society’s cage and the people who run the media tend to react as nervously and defensively as anyone else who has a stake in holding up the status quo. I think one of the problems is that journalists tend to mix up the various feminist positions on the issues—and there are many—and cram all feminists into one category, usually of the radical variety. They did it then and they still do it now.
How useful was the media coverage in general in advancing issues such as equal pay for work of equal value and daycare?
It was very useful because it got the issues out in the media where ordinary women would see and hear them. The fact that women’s media was segregated from the main news pages and programming at the time was actually an advantage, I think, and more coverage, I suspect, more than it would have in the general news pages of today. But where it came to certain issues, not all the journalists understood or explained them; for example, the important differences between equal pay for equal work, and equal pay for work of equal value. This was a crucial factor for women in sex segregated jobs like clerical work and nursing because they were being paid far less than men doing equivalent work in other areas.