Tessa Jordan. Feminist Acts: Branching Out Magazine and the Making of Canadian Feminism. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-77212-484-2. XLII, 266 p., ill. $34.99 (paperback).
“‘If you wish to write about your children, may we suggest Ladies’ Home Journal? We are a literary magazine’” (156). The above statement, received by American Pulitzer Prize winner Sharon Olds and recorded by Tessa Jordan in Feminist Acts, situates the need feminists felt to create their own magazines in Canada in the 1970s. At the time, women had scant few spaces in which to display their creative output and political opinions, and many women suffered from the assumptions of editors and art critics that their works were simply not as good as those by men. If that was true for women in the dominant print culture of the United States, what were feminists in the Canadian Prairies meant to do? It is against this backdrop that the Canadian feminist periodical Branching Out appeared.
With a foreword by noted broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, Feminist Acts is the first monograph to tell the story of Branching Out, a feminist magazine based in Edmonton, Alberta, and which ran from 1973 to 1980. Like Ms. Or Chatelaine, Branching Out was a mainstream publication, sold nationwide on newsstands in an effort to reach a wide range of Canadian readers and bring new women to the cause—taking “a medium designed to promote consumer goods and instead promoted women’s rights” (xxv). Amazing to find out, then, in light of its high subscription numbers and national reach, that the publication was staffed solely by volunteers located in Edmonton, well outside of the dominant publishing spheres in Canada. The magazine is further noteworthy for its balancing of fiction and non-fiction content. This commitment to the arts and politics in a feminist periodical saw writers such as Margaret Atwood publish poems alongside essays about daycare and Indigenous rights.
Using minutes, editorial board records, interviews, grant applications, and content from the magazine itself, such as letters to the editor, Jordan shows how the magazine is part of the larger story of second-wave feminism and the Women in Print Movement. The magazine opened a door to women in Canada, providing a space to display their work, discuss their views, and gain experience behind the scenes in an all-women publication. However, Jordan is careful to point out that the magazine complicates the commonly-held second-wave feminist narrative in specific ways.
The introduction and first chapter trace the major changes experienced in the magazine’s production, telling the story of its inception, struggles for funds, and eventual closure in 1980. These sections inform the reader about the key players and events in Branching Out’s history (such as the change of leadership after two years and the decision to move to themed issues), and provide several images of the magazine’s covers throughout the years. At the close of chapter one, the reader already feels familiar with the story of this magazine and understands why it deserves the deeper consideration Jordan embarks upon. Chapter two contextualizes Branching Out’s place in the field of Canadian feminist publishing and highlights how periodicals are ideally suited to bring together disparate views. Although it takes Branching Out as its main example, this chapter could easily stand alone to introduce how second-wave feminists used print as a form of activism, gathering space, and historical record in Canada.
Jordan goes on to take a closer look at how the magazine was produced, relying chiefly on interviews with women who worked on the staff. Here Jordan complicates the narrative of collective, so typical in discussions of feminist publications, by showing that although collective action was valued and consensus was aimed for, Branching Out benefited from a hierarchical power structure. Furthermore, the magazine’s national focus, a ‘for Canadian women by Canadian women’ attitude, that worked within government structures, is surprising when considering the grassroots and underground nature of so many feminist cultural productions of the time. Chapter four looks at a selection of special issues, arguing that the magazine did more than correct an imbalance through the publication of women’s work. Branching Out was not only a much needed space for women’s talents, voices, and debate, but was, Jordan asserts, itself a feminist action that had a role in “shap[ing] the feminist agenda” in Canada during these years (58).
The last chapter goes deeper into ideas about the feminism furthered by Branching Out’s content and publishing practices in the Canadian context, comparing radical feminism—viewed as an American import—to the cultural feminism favored by the magazine. It is when dealing with topics such as these that the book particularly shines, and Jordan offers an important focus on culture as a critical aspect of the women’s movement in Canada.
Feminist Acts is a well-written, thoughtful, and engaging piece of scholarship, and Branching Out provides a rich example of the ways feminism developed and was shaped in Canada in the 1970s. As well as a history of a single magazine and a discussion of Canadian feminism, the book is also a work of recovery: Branching Out, Jordan notes, had fallen almost completely out of cultural memory. Jordan clearly positions herself and her work as part of the same ideological movement that Branching Out furthered, discussing the book alongside recent feminist initiatives, such as #MeToo. The work is also timely. All copies of Branching Out have recently been made digitally available as part of the Rise Up! Feminist Digital Archive of Feminist Activism and the Alberta Women’s Memory Project, giving the public access to these and other printed feminist acts.
Ellen Barth, University of Münster