Quebec is not a province like all the rest. It never has been. Women got the vote federally in 1918; by 1922 all provinces but Quebec had enfranchised women. In Quebec, 40,000 signatures were collected by a coalition of women’s associations renouncing their claim to suffrage.
Similarly, the first women lawyers could practise in Ontario in 1895, and by 1923 all provinces except Quebec allowed women to study and practise law. Although women had gradu ated from McGill Law School and applied to the Quebec Bar as early as 1914, they weren’t permitted to practise until 1941, (women finally got the vote the year before). Woman’s place was in the home; that theory kept them from sitting on juries in Quebec until 1972.
Thus, in 1976, when the second wave of feminism was generally considered to have peaked in North America, with articles proclaiming “The Death of the Women’s Movement” rippling through the media, Quebec feminism, continuing to move to its own inner tempo, made a dramatic resurgence. That February, an explicitly feminist novel, a “woman’s Bible”, L’Euguelionne by Louky Bersianik surfaced and immediately became the literary happening of the year —more than 27 weeks on the bestseller list. In March, poets, novelists, and historians, Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, Michèle Jean, and others formed a collective to publish a monthly newspaper, Les Têtes de Pioches (literally Pickaxe Heads or any stubborn, determined person). Then in November, the first provincial government dedicated to the separation of Quebec was elected. With the Parti Québécois in office, the energy of women activists for so long siphoned off into the nationalist movement —just as women were absorbed into the New Left and S.D.S. in the late ’60s prior to the second wave of feminism —could be released and rechannelled.
And what more natural medium for feminist action than the very stuff at the base of the nationalist movement: language! Critic Gilles Marcotte has pointed out the centrality of language in Quebec culture even in the economic arena. While elite English-Quebecers were industrialists, entrepreneurs, and merchants, law politics and religion —occupations with an emphasis on words —fell to their French counterparts.
We put a stronger stress on speech, on the expression of ourselves, thereby establishing an essential link between our collective existence and the expression of that existence through speech —and primarily by the written speech of literature. We were — and still are, up to a point —nominalists: we believed that by naming things we possessed them.
When women turned to language, they found every word weighted with a sexual bias, an affront. French is a gender-based language, so very soon the message became the medium. Lan guage itself had to be explored, broken down, re-invented to accommodate new ways of thinking —often by writers with Ph.D.s or other advanced degrees in classical programs. Like abstract painters, they already knew how to draw portraits. Writing became an experiment and seems as a result less acces sible to those reared on traditional forms.
In describing the work of Nicole Brossard, Louise Forsyth writes (herein: “The Novels of Nicole Brossard: An Active Voice”): “Brossard will not use writing for the accumulation of a series of illusory events and characters who acquire the semblance of reality as a result of the order and coherence of the text. Such is the process of social myths, by which women (and members of other dominated groups) have received an image and a role too often taken as the faithful reflection of an objectively verifiable material reality.”
Old moulds cannot contain the new forms. There’s a blur between essay and “fiction”, with, for example, Madeleine Gagnon’s “Mouth Full of Words” seeming to parody the social science essay. Puns, homonyms, and other types of word play abound. The title of Monique Bosco’s “Mooring-Buoy/Moored Body” is “Corps-Mort” in French, with resonances available only in the original. In one line, for example, she writes, “sea, bitter mother,” la mer, lanière mère.
Words are sought, chosen, and handled like the ingredients of poetry, and the writing translated here must be approached with the same patient care as that summoned for poetry. The awkwardness, the ostensible ungrammatical passages are deliberate, and painstakingly reproduced from the original French. The reader is no longer a passive receptacle; she has to get her feet wet, to wade in and do some work.
Again, Louise Forsyth believes this must apply to all “feminine criticism”, and calls into question the role of the reader as object. With respect to her review articles on Brossard’s novels, she writes: “You may find that it is rather strange stylistically, as compared to the usual review of novels. However, I did not thinking it could be otherwise in view of Nicole’s own use of language. To write about her writing, particularly for a woman, in completely detached and objective terms, would be to take a position quite untrue to the texts themselves. In addition, there is considerable discussion in both France and the United States about the need for criticism in the feminine if texts written by women are to be read in terms they themselves establish. The question is still in a very early stage, and so there are not well- developed methods which one can use in order to be an effective critic of feminist texts.” Rather than an explication of the text, Forsyth immerses herself in it and invites us to come along.
In addition to nationalist and feminist concerns with language, we would be insular not to also take into account the influence of modern writing in France: the ‘nouvel roman’ and the work of Nathalie Sarraute, Monique Wittig, Marguerite Duras, and so on. A flat cinematic style that belies the con ventions of the naturalistic novel.
An obsession with words invests writing with a significance. Dive in. The rewards haven’t been discussed since Shelley wrote about the poet as legislator.
La Barre du Jour (the first light of dawn), a Quebec literary quarterly, invited Nicole Brossard to edit a special double issue of women writers. Subtitled le corps les mots I’imaginaire (body, words, the imaginary), it appeared late last year (nos. 56-7, mai-aout 77) and was quickly recognized as “the most important literary event of recent times.” (Emergency Librarian) Nine pieces have been translated for this issue. EL’s review went on to remark that
It is with great pleasure that one notes side by side with the two writers already mentioned (Nicole Brossard and Madeleine Gagnon) and other “younger” writers, the presence of such well-known poets as Cecile Cloutier whose sensitivity and craftsmanship, drawing strength from a new awareness, constitutes no mean contribution to the body offeminist writing.
At a time when, for obvious political reasons, there is a visible decrease in general literary productivity in Quebec, it is tempting to prophesy that this drop will not extend to the women of Quebec who have finally developed the voice and weapons necessary for a struggle which is barely, here as elsewhere, out of its birth-pangs.
Until recently, Quebec women writers do not seem to have played as dominant a role in national culture as have their English counterparts. From the distance now gained through the feminist perspective, they are turning a discerning eye to the government they helped into office to see in fact what is being done for them. Not, it turns out, all that much.
A report in August 1977 by the Council on the Status of Women (CSF) states: “Ten months after the election of the Levesque government and four years after the inception of activities by the CSF, women of Quebec still live their daily lives in feudal insecurity, facing the danger of losing their jobs because of pregnancy.” (my translation) (It is ironic that these conditions prevail and the social history digested at the outset of this piece occurred despite the fact that there have been proportionately more women in the Quebec labour force than in any other province.)
Historian Michele Jean warns of the danger nationalist movements represent to feminism. There was some apprehen sion that greeted the P.Q. victory. Nationalism is often consonant with kinder kirche and küche: “les partis nationalistes sont souvent des partis familistes et natalistes.” Times of political and economic turmoil aren’t necessarily conducive to the establishment of day care centres and abortion facilities; those are the kinds of issues which must be subordinated to the ‘greater’ good.
In the cultural and political maelstrom of contemporary Quebec, a group of women is finally achieving its own momen tum. Their questioning and experimentation, while quite distinctive, speaks to concerns we share. These commonalities, as much as the unique setting, give their work its force and interest.