Tuesday, April 1, 2014


A birthday speech, given at the celebration of the 30th birthday of the Northern Woman’s Book Store on March 30. The Northern Woman’s Book Store opened in 1984 and it is now the last surviving women’s bookstore in Canada. Joan M. Baril

Tonight we are celebrating the written word. Also a miracle of survival of this book store in an economic melt down of the book business generally.

It seems to me, thinking back, that the great second wave of the women’s movement that occurred in 1968 up to the end of the 1980’s, was carried by the written word. The written word was the conduit.  It is not that it “got the message out.” But it got new ideas out, new ways of thinking, new information out, it opened doors in the mind and it opened a lot of possibilities in women’s lives.

By the written word, I mean pamphlets, position papers, reports from women’s bureaus and NGO’s, many many magazines, newsletters, news sheets such as the Northern Woman’s Journal as well as many books. A great wave of publication, a tsunami of publication, arrived at the end of 1969.  Much of this enormous volume of written material (enormous to fill this book store and much bigger women’s bookstores in larger cities) was written by feminists, produced by feminists, published by feminists, distributed by feminists and sold by feminists.

A Little History. In 1969, Lakehead University hosted a Canada wide conference of university student organizations. I was handed a paper. This was the first revolutionary feminist piece of writing I ever held in my hands. It was called, The Politics of Housework. Housework as revolution? But we knew, even in those early days that “the personal was political.” That slogan alone was powerful enough to light many fires—and leave many sinks of dishes unattended.

A second paper, Psychology Constructs the Female by Naomi Weisstein, was a scathing critique of the huge confining structure the great gurus of psychology had devised for women, a structure based on no scientific evidence whatever but created by centuries of blabble about what women were like and what they should be like. Naomi blew it all away.  Puff it was gone.  Naomi’s paper was as revolutionary as the housework analysis.

Shortly after, a group of us founded Thunder Bay Women’s Liberation.  These two papers were all we had and we read and discussed them both. In 1969, there were no women’s bookstores, no feminist  magazines, and very few books. We had Betty Freidan’s Feminine Mystique and Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, which had just been translated and, in our small city, difficult to get.

When we, in Woman’s Lib, heard that a women’s newspaper called The Pedestal had started in Vancouver, we immediately wrote for copies.  And shortly after we began out own newsletter.

Then by the end of 1969, so much happened so fast. The Book Tsunami arrived.  It was as if the goddess of literature, Caliope, and the goddess of poetry, Sappho, and the goddesses of scholarship tipped their cornucopia and books rained down. Books about women on every topic were pouring into stores.  

 To my delight, the goddess of history, Clio, also deluged us with many new books, memoirs, biographies, stuff that previously would never have found a publisher: diaries and letters of women who crossed the prairies or fought in the Second World War or set up Red Cross hospitals in Northern Ontario. Old tomes that had languished in forgotten corners of university libraries were being reprinted. I went broke buying books once hard to get or out of print: the works of Nellie McClung, Christine de Pisan (the medieval feminist), Mary Wollstonecroft, memoirs of the suffragettes and so many others.

The following three books are often mentioned as sources of the feminist insurgence:  Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1969); Doris Lessing’s Four Gated City (1969) and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970).

But what is often omitted is Canadian material. So I have brought along some Canadian best sellers that were ground breaking at the time. I’ll start with The Report from the Canadian Royal Commission on the Status of Women, 1970 which became a surprising best seller. I bought my copy in Eaton’s! A government report becomes a best seller? This is what I mean when I said that the written word carried the revolution. So you can see why women’s bookstores were springing up all over the continent.

In 1984 this bookstore opened. And stuck it out. Still carrying the written word.  Thank you goddesses and, above all, thank you founder, Margaret Phillips.

1 comment:

  1. A great analysis, Joan, and a great speech. If I ever wanted to be anywhere it was to be at the 30th anniversary celebration of the bookstore. So glad you wrote this!