Category Archives: Smart Sisters

And I Heard the Door Open From Below….

This is part 2 of the blog post:  “Staying Alive and Following Your Dreams”


The other day I posted about Janice Butler and her “It’s a success” strategy for, you guessed it, success.  Today, I’ll recount the rest of the afternoon….

Location:  The Lakeview, Hamilton, Ontario

Purpose:  Professional development day.

Just before we broke for lunch we had a visit from Dr. Cooper who works in the Centre for Student Development.  He’s a psychologist specializing in addiction and gambling.  He’s your typical college psychologist, Birkenstocks, cords, untucked shirt, long hair, funny.  He took us through a relaxation exercise that I just wasn’t into.  He was really good at it; I peeped through my eyes and looked around the room, everyone seemed right relaxed.  I was, at first, for about 10 minutes, then I started getting antsy and fidgety in my seat.  He was going just too slow.  I needed to be relaxed faster.  When I heard the door open downstairs and footfalls echoing up through the stairway I thought, that must be her, and then for sure the session was over for me.  But I sat there and waited before I jumped up and went over to introduce and impress myself in her future only to get her name wrong in the process.  Can you imagine, I called her Mona Raynard?  Of course that would happen to me, the opportunity to be memorable for the tarnish rather than the polish.

She sat with us at our table during lunch.  And good thing there were other people or I would have totally monopolized her time with questions, questions, questions.  Mostly about writing, getting published, women’s issues and, of course, the perks of editing a women’s lifestyle magazine.  But my mother taught me to share and I refrained from taking over the talk.  It was more an opportunity to talk a bit about us, who we are and what we do.

After lunch Rona stepped up to the front of room to talk.  Slim and petite, she used an ipad for her presentation so she could free herself from the podium.  She was dressed in black pants with a black, white and grey flecked wool jacket, cropped at the waist. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.  But I was interested in what she was wearing.  Are you kidding?).  I was going to ask her the label and engage her in fashion talk, but that’s another blog.

She  stated right off the top that self-care is not selfish.  That’s a message that the women in the room know well and that we tell to those around us, but we often fail to take our own good advice.  It was good to be reminded.

As I listened to her recount her life and work  experiences, questions formed in my mind.  How do you adjust after life in the fast lane to not driving at all?  How do we relax enough to allow renewal when we’re so busy running from one aspect of our lives to another?  We are so caught up in our professional identities that provide us with real-world value in terms of jobs and occupations and life and death decision-making, that when we no longer are in those positions, we have no idea who we are or what makes us happy.  Couple that with the reality that retirement in the traditional sense is now considered a career transition as we prepare for longer periods in the workforce than our parents did.

It’s a brave new world for women in the workforce, with retirement plans contingent on lifetime earnings which run 60% of what men make. Older single women, living in poverty, longer and with more morbid health conditions than men, or serving as their partners caregiver, the future for the elderly woman can be a bleak one.  Best to keep opportunities, techniques and tactics that encourage renewal, of mind, soul and body.

Using her personal experience with change and depression, Rona mapped out the highs awarded by career success as well as the lows of being away from it that swung her into a debilitating depression and her subsequent success at the helm of Chatelaine.

Her description of the Chatelaine work-world was captivating. The excitement, the challenges, the problems to solve, the importance to experience.  When she spoke about the connection she made to the women who wrote in to comment about stories in the magazine, especially her appeasement of Mrs. Outrage, I felt a similar connection.  I can do that.  But I think I can do anything.  Don’t you know I’m Wonder Woman?  The truth is, I can barely maintain my blog empire never mind create a national women’s magazine every month.

I took notes.

As I said, Rona’s talk focused on renewal, how does it happen, why is it necessary, how do we benefit from it, where to find it.  She noted that for her, as for many of us, “the ultimate act of renewal is to move on”, from a job, a relationship, a friendship etc.  I know a few women who are in that process right now.  Scary, but exhilarating at the same time.  It’s in those times of renewal that we surprise ourselves by discovering new interests, new skills, new people, new ways of being.

Rona’s advice on managing renewal:

  • Stay fit
  • Remember to be grateful
  • Stay inspired

In response to a question about how to support someone who is depressed and suicidal, she offered the following words of wisdom:

  • be there
  • ask how they are
  • bring food
  • help with the kids
  • understand at work
  • listen
  • do unto others

I particularly like the last one.

After she left Chatelaine, Rona wrote a book, a memoir about her relationship with her mother, Fredelle Maynard, a Radcliffe-trained academic.

A quotation from the book’s dust jacket sums up nicely the significance of mothers:

A woman’s identity is forged in her relationship with her mother, whether close and tender or fraught with conflict.

I’d say I agree with that, speaking from my experience with my own mother, who taught me the important life lessons like sharing, the value of relationships, trust, and reciprocity, love, understanding and acceptance.

Her mother, Fredelle Maynard, authored the book Raisins and Almonds, which I was first introduced to in grad school studying immigration history.  Her book is a collection of finely crafted stories drawn from her experiences growing up on the Canadian prairies, the daughter of a devoted father, a Jewish girl in a land of often unkind gentiles, a 20th-century, educated, modern woman.  I checked it out of the library on the way home from work yesterday.  I’m looking forward to reading it again, as a prelude to reading Rona’s memoir of her relationship with her mother.

Rona gives workshops on memoir writing.  She brought copies of her book, one of which I walked away with.  I paid for it first, of course.  That’s 2 books in one week, directly from the hands of the authors (dedicated and signed!).

Do I sound like a groupie?


Staying Alive and Following Dreams

This is part one of a two-part post.  It was getting too long so I cut it in half.  Part two will come tomorrow.


I work at the best place.

The director of our department hosted a professional development day earlier this week.  Our director believes that it’s important to provide opportunities for staff to gather outside of the workplace, to engage their minds in thinking of the many possibilities in life rather than of the restrictions that often guide us in our daily dealings.  Our director rocks, to be truthful.  She’s got a reputation of pure gold all across the organization and it’s richly deserved and worn well.  This year the event was held at The Lakeview on the shores of beautiful Lake Ontario in Hamilton.

I was excited because I found out a couple of days earlier that Rona Maynard, ex-editor at Chatelaine magazine would be our afternoon speaker.  She left the masthead of the magazine back in 2004 when, as she said to us, she lost the desire for the problems at Chatelaine.  Now, as an aspiring writer and a avid reader of Chatelaine – I even wrote a paper on the magazine for one of my university courses – I looked up to Rona Maynard.  She sat in the top job in Canada for women’s magazines, a job I used to dream of having when I had those dreams.  Her departure left the magazine in a turmoil in terms of editorial leadership.

Chatelaine sent me my first rejection letter from a woman’s magazine and I’ve never been published there.  I went for the best when I pitched:  The Atlantic, Walrus, New Yorker, Chatelaine.  Only the best rejection letters for me.  I met once with their health editor when I worked at a women’s health resource office years and years ago.  I was all eager and looking for a mentor; she was looking for story ideas.   I gave her one and we never talked again.  She didn’t seem too interested in it at the time but I later found evidence she pursued it.  I think my take would have been a bit different, but I’m glad she picked it up. Welcome to the sisterhood.

Nevertheless, needless to say, I was excited about the day.

We began at 9:00 with a short warm-up activity, to get us energized.  It was a game of “who’s got …. in her purse”.  Now, we number almost 100 and the men are in the <5% range and I don’t think any of them brought their purse, but they did have backpacks and briefcases so no one was left out.  I carry almost nothing with me but the barest I need: wallet, notebook, change purse, electronics (phone, ipod, Livescribe, camera, ear buds, memory stick) and keys.  Oh – and lipstick (Deep Violet).  Brand new.  Bought it the other day.  The only thing I could get my hands on quick was my memory stick – which to me seemed too common to call out so I was content to watch the others.  Until I heard the words “memory stick” and my hand shot straight up into the air “ME” I yelled out while my other hand furiously sought it out of the pocket in the bag.  Woo hoo, I won – second comer – but I won. Lipgloss. I guess that’s my measure of this week’s luck gone – best save the lottery money for next week.

The morning speaker was Janice Butler, who runs Creative Breeze Training in New Brunswick.  She was perfect for the morning, a bundle of energy dancing to the music and spreading positive messages:  we are born to be alive, the importance of dreams and the necessity to act on them.

She asked us to think back to a time when we were kids and what it was that we spent hours doing, when time flew by we were so engaged in the moment.  For me it was making newspapers, cutting up other pictures, creating headlines.  I only wrote the front page, but I remember it so vividly.  That and reading.  The reading was constant, unstoppable, like breathing.  Still is.  She said to reconnect with it, somehow find a way to incorporate it into your life; you will be surprised at how it can carry you to new, dream-realizing experiences.

Janice uses a visual board to keep her dreams before her eyes and suggested that we do too.  A visual board is a large poster board containing images of aspects of your dream and you in them.  She used her example of her dream to go on the Ellen Degeneres show and she showed us a picture she used of Ellen interviewing a guest only Janice put her head on the guest’s body.  Keeping your dream at the forefront of your mind will inspire you to act on it in many tiny ways and it will inform your thinking about future opportunities.  Well, Janice hasn’t yet made it to the Ellen Degeneres Show, but she was invited as a guest on a local New Brunswick talk show similar to Ellen’s.  One step closer every day.

Janice also shared with us the example of her sister and brother-in-law who had a dream to visit Tuscany.  Teamwork brought them to a Quebec television show that offered people the chance to win their dreams if they satisfactorily met the challenge presented.  Their challenge was to correctly identify, by tune, the 104 symphonies of Hayden.  None of them were familiar with Hayden, never mind his symphonies.  But positive messaging (It’s a success!) and teamwork served them well.  They attacked the problem together and when the challenge came, and Janice had to answer for her team, don’t you know she won!

Isn’t that amazing, how something they thought was impossible became possible through teamwork and positive thinking.

I’ll leave it here and relate my meeting with Rona tomorrow.

Until then – remember:  it’s a success – whatever it is….

Enough is enough….

The scientist who helped eradicate smallpox has issued a warning that the human race will be extinct in 100 years. He claims that overpopulation and the over consumption of resources will do us in.

If you ask me, population control has gotten a bad rap over the last 100 years.  The eugenics movement began in the last quarter of the 19th century and continued unabated until the horrors of Germany’s wartime medical experiments and white race-superiority arguments dealt population control proponents a death blow by the middle of the 20th century.  Now it just has bad connotations.  Maybe we should find a more acceptable euphemism.

Early feminists have fought for women’s right to reproductive choice – to self-determine the number of children they have.  Prominent among these women are Marie Stopes in England, Margaret Sanger in the United States, and Elizabeth Bagshaw, who advocated for, and witnessed the birth of, the first Planned Parenthood clinic on John Street in downtown Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.  The work of all these women has been tarnished with the taint of the eugenics movement, from which they drew support.  Which is too bad, because the work they did was good work and the message they carried was one of freedom for women.

But despite our distaste for the word, eugenic arguments haven’t disappeared, they’ve simply taken on a more subtle nuance.  Building a better baby is now not limited to race supremacists.  Every parent is encouraged to take part; we continue to seek ways to influence the genetic make-up of our offspring.

Nowhere is this more evident in the desire for a baby boy.  Sex selection is illegal in the UK, but that hasn’t stopped people from traveling abroad to ensure that the baby they want is the baby they get.  In fact, gendercide, the killing of one sex, overwhelmingly girls, is on the rise with the combined technologies of sex selection and ultrasound screening.  The desire for boys is so great that families will spend tens of thousands of dollars, or pounds, on the guarantee that no girl will disgrace the family honour or that their “last chance child” will be of the sex they want.  Many women are travelling, to India in particular, for corrective surgery, that is, abortion, to rid themselves of unwanted female fetuses.

Genetic testing has been available for years that will identify certain genetic conditions (e.g.:  spina bifida, Downs Syndrome), which are “accepted” grounds for the abortion of children considered “not quite right”.  And as our knowledge about the human genome increases and we can identify more and more genetic markers for adult disease, it will be interesting to see how this will play out in decisions regarding who gets to live and who gets to die as we move forward in our medical knowledge, and maybe backwards in our ethical decision making.

Population control is a contentious issue.  As the New York Times pointed out back in February, “no rapid solution to the population problem is in sight”.  Why is this?  Why is it that policies, such as those that exist in China that limit families to one child, are considered abhorrent?  Admittedly, the one child limit is a bit drastic, and while two seems more humane, the abhorrence of it lies in the fact that the population has to be coerced and the law enforced.  The people don’t have a handle on the bigger picture.  This is evident when we see the results of the Chinese preference for sons combined with a one-child per family policy:  an oversupply of eligible but unmarriageable young men.

As Fred Pearce points out in The Prospect, no matter whether rich or poor, educated or not, most countries are currently experiencing a reproduction revolution, that is, most women have been having less and less children over the last 20 years.

Yet, in developing countries, over 200 million women still need or want contraception. This need is not simply tied to population control but, more importantly, to the quality of life for women, for whom childbirth is still a dangerous activity, and their children, who live under the threat of growing up orphans.  This has been the central argument for feminist birth control advocates from the beginning.

The Michelle Duggars of the world notwithstanding, most women, if given the choice, would want to limit the number of children they have.  That is already evident in the world I see around me and Pearce documents it in his book (so he says, I haven’t read it).

Pearce says over-consumption is the real threat.  I agree, but what, exactly, is over-consumption and who gets to define it?  The example over the last few millennium has been that the drive for more and more is what has pushed our world to where it is, beginning on ancient trade routes that carried tin and copper to markets far from their sites of origin.  We are hardwired, it would seem, to suck it all up.

But we are also given the capacity to reason and the way we reason, research is showing, can affect our hardwiring.  As I understand it, we could, conceivably, rethink our culture, one person at a time, laying down novel neural networks, to a different way of being, naturally.  But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Interestingly, Fenner, the scientist who took on smallpox and won, doesn’t see his part in bolstering our ability to survive the assault of our natural enemies.  We have more people because the way people used to die naturally from disease don’t anymore.  And the better we get at preventing disease, the longer we get to live, this is particularly important for children, for whom immunization programs have done a world of good.  But we don’t have to have 5 children to ensure that 2 will survive through childhood.  Not anymore.  The greatest threat to our children today is misadventure through risk-taking and suicides.

What’s going to kill us, and kill us en masse, are the effects of diminishing resources upon a population that has come to depend upon the everflowing bounty of them.  Truly, I get scared when I think of the consequences tomorrow of our actions today.

It’s only simple logic, more people = more consumption, even if we come to miraculously manage to reduce our desire for more and more and come to appreciate the “simple things” in life, we’re at the point where even the “simple life” is much too much for our environments to withstand.  Many people would agree, we’re already past the tipping point.

I’m all for population control and I think women hold the key.  It is imperative, however, that we bring a clear head to the conversation, one unclouded by the smell of baby powder and newborn skin.  Children satisfy so many of our selfish needs – to replicate, to leave a legacy, to care for us when we age, to have to love us as some sort of parent-god, to fulfill god’s will.  Whatever.  So much of our identity as women is tied up in motherhood and our role as a mother.  Tough to give that up, tough to fly in the face of the cult of motherhood, where celebrity-moms make it all look so easy and free.

I would advocate the right of motherhood for any woman, but we all have to know when enough is enough.

Toronto Women’s Bookstore

This note was forwarded to me on a list I belong to.  I’m sending it here.

If any of you are in the vicinity – stop in, browse the shelves and buy a book or two.  Small independent booksellers provide a service that you can’t find in Chapters or at  And if you’ve got time, take a moment and stop in at Good For Her and buy yourself an holiday gift for being such a good girl.

The Toronto Women’s Bookstore is in extreme danger of closing down.

I have worked there for over 6 years and it’s changed my life, as well as many of my friends lives. I am asking all of you to drop off cheques, send money, shop at the store and create your own event to help this amazing institution. Independent bookstores all over are in jeopardy, Pages has already closed down, and all of us will suffer if we don’t help TWB and other indie bookstores. Please support in any way possible. The store will be sending out a community email this week but I am taking the initiative to start generating some funds. I will be planning a fundraiser as well, with folks who would like to support. If you have any questions please email me. for more info on the store go to:

in solidarity rosina kazi lal/community centre

Christine de Pizan – Early Feminist Historian

Evidence of early female Masons?

Evidence of early female Masons?

In 1365, a baby girl, Christine, was born to Tommaso de Benvenuto da Pizzana, a municipal councilor in Venice.  Christine was a fortunate young girl for her father believed in educating her.  This was extraordinary for the time.

Christine was married at 15, but found herself widowed at 25 and with 3 children after her husband died from the plague.  With no other means of support and no inheritance (her father died impoverished five years earlier) Christine turned to the pen and pursued a career in writing.

Her literary accomplishments were prolific; she served as the official biographer of Charles V, had a number of aristocratic patrons, and was one of the first authors to supervise the copying and illustrating of their works.

Christine wrote on a variety of topics, but the majority of her works can be set within two broad themes:  peace and the recognition of women’s contribution to culture.  Writing about peace isn’t that much of a surprise, Christine was a God-fearing woman of her time and her time was rife with civil strife.  It’s her writing on the recognition of women, part of what was termed the querelle des femmes that carries Christine down the centuries and before us today.

The querelle des femmes, quarrel of the women, swirled around the court culture of Europe in the 14th century (1300 – 1400).  At its centre was the most popular work of medieval France, The Romance of the Rose. Christine took exception to what she, and others, considered misogynist statements concerning women’s character.  The Book of the City of Ladies is Christine’s commentary on the querelle.  In it, she argues that if women had a hand in writing the stories of the past, those stories would be told different.

Christine employs allegory to tell her tale.  The story opens with Christine in her library searching for a book of poetry when she comes across a small volume given to her with a number of other books.  After browsing through its pages she is left wondering:

… how it happened that so many different men – and learned men among them – have been and are so inclined to express …. So many wicked insults about women and their behaviour …. They all concur in one conclusion:  that the behaviour of women is inclined to and full of every vice (pgs. 3-4).

Well, Christine doesn’t quite buy it.  She tells her reader that she knows the “natural behaviours and character of women” (pg 4) from all social strata:  high-born ladies, middle and lower class women who tell her things and share their lives.  Yet, despite what she believes in her heart, she concludes after investigating learned author after learned author:  “…that God formed a vile creature when he made woman” (p. 5).  Christine falls into deep despondency.

While sitting in her library preoccupied with her thoughts she is visited by a ray of light which raises her eyes to the vision of three beautiful crowned ladies standing before her.  They identify themselves as:  Reason, Rectitude and Justice.

Reason responds to Christine’s sorrow:

Dear daughter… have you lost all sense?  Have you forgotten that when fine gold is tested in the furnace, it does not change or vary in strength but becomes purer the more it is hammered and handled in different ways?  Do you not know that the best things are the most debated and the most discussed?

Reason concludes, “For you know that any evil spoken of women so generally only hurts those who say it, not women themselves”. (1.2.2)

Guided by their wisdom, Christine sets about laying the foundation and building the City of Ladies through revisiting the classic stories of women of the past.  She groups the stories according to accomplishment or claim to fame: military and political leaders, ladies of learning and skill, vision and prophecy, faithful and steadfast wives, chaste and pious daughters.

I’m not going to go into all the women Christine rescues from obscurity.  There’s too many; way too many.  But I will share with you one of my favourites; the story of Dido.

Dido was the founding ruler of Carthage.  She gave refuge to Aeneas and the fleeing Trojans after their defeat in the Trojan War.  Under the influence of Eros, the god of love, Dido falls in love with Aeneas.  She considers herself his wife and she offers him a share in her kingdom.  After some time, Zeus visits Aeneas to remind him of his destiny – the founding of Italy – and to put an end to his dalliance with Dido.  Aeneas prepares his ships for departure.   When Dido realizes his plans, she reproaches him, “unfaithful man, did you think you could…..skulk from my land without one word” (Virgil, Aeneid, 4.305).  Aeneas hid behind his son Ascanius, putting Ascanius and his future forward as the reason for his departure.

Dido, the woman who saved a defeated Aeneas and his men, who allowed them the space and the resources to rebuild their fleet, and who offered him a share in her kingdom as well as undying love, was cast aside.  She implored him to wait for favourable winds, to give her time settle into her grief.  But he said no; I must go now.  As he sailed away, she instructed her sister to build a funeral pyre on which to burn Aeneas’ sword.  However, Dido climbed up onto the pyre, fell onto his sword and died, suffering an agonizing death.  She is often depicted as a woman lost in her emotion and senseless to rational thought; pulling her hair and crying to the wind as Aeneas sails off.  That’s Virgil’s story.  Christine has a different take.

It is Reason who introduces the story of Dido, the Phoenician royal princess who escaped the violent machinations of her evil brother Pygmalion (he murdered her husband, Sychaeus).  Reason points out that Dido, then known as Elissa, settled the land that came to be Carthage by charming the people who lived there with her grace and generosity. They, in return, offered her as much land as she could gather up in a cowhide.  Dido took the cowhide and cut it into a long, thin, continuous strip that she used to map out the circumference of her new kingdom.  Reason concludes with the statement that Dido was a constant and just ruler.  It is in the next book, when Christine asks if it is as men say, that women are unfaithful lovers, deceptive and malicious in love that Rectitude reminds Christine of the story of Dido and Aeneas:

…even though he had given her his pledge never to take any other woman and to be hers forever, he left after she had restored and enriched him with property and ease, his ships refreshed … filled with treasure and wealth, like a woman who had spared no expense where her heart was involved.  He departed at night, secretly and treacherously, without any farewells and without her knowledge (p 109)


The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine de Pizan, Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards, (New York: Persea Books, 1982)

Suggested Reading:

A Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honor: The Treasury of the City of Ladies.  Christine de Pizan, Translated by Charity Cannon Willard, ed. Madeleine Pelner Cosman. (New York:  Persea Books, 1989.

Susan Groag Bell, “Christine de Pizan in her Study” Cahiers de recherché médiévales/ Journal of medieval studies,