Robert Fulford's column about Chatelaine magazine

(The National Post, March 27, 2001)

Half a century ago, the publishing executives at Maclean Hunter fell under the sway of a wondrously naive idea. They decided that putting out a magazine was an abstract art, emotionally unconnected to subject matter, and that any good journalist could do just about any job. This is how, in 1952, a man named John Clare became editor of Chatelaine, a position for which he was comically unsuited. He did it for five years, hating every minute.

This season, two decades in the grave, he reappears as a villain of Roughing It in the Suburbs: Reading Chatelaine Magazine in the Fifties and Sixties (University of Toronto Press), Valerie J. Korinek's book about a women's magazine helping its two million readers cross the long divide between traditional womanhood and the new world promised by feminism.

Clare was a gruff old newspaperman, a former war correspondent who had no interest in the subjects his readers were supposed to care about: child-rearing, cooking, decorating, gardening and fashion. He was the first male editor in the history of the magazine and no doubt the last. Korinek, a University of Saskatchewan historian, notes that he didn't like to "interact with the readers," which understates the case. As I remember it, the work so bored and frustrated him that he became the kind of drinker who didn't have to ask the bartender at his favourite restaurant to pour him a triple Scotch at lunchtime; the man did it when Clare sat down, and again when Clare waved for a refill. Afternoons were unproductive.

In a little piece Clare wrote about marriage, Korinek discovers "undertones of romanticism, paternalism, and a decidedly heterosexist, bourgeois view of what constituted a normal individual." The word "heterosexist," unknown to most dictionaries, will produce curiosity in some readers and a sigh of familiarity in others. A heterosexist assumes that male-female sex is normal and everything else marginal. It's used in the branch of academic cultural theory called "queer studies," where Korinek sometimes works. In 1998 she gave a paper called " 'Vixen in the Snow' and other Queer Tales: Odd Girls in Chatelaine Magazine, 1950-1969," an exercise in what she called "reading a mass-market women's magazine from a queer perspective."

In her history of Chatelaine she speculates at one point on whether the lesbian orientation of the art director affected the choice of cover models. She also tells us that Chatelaine's star author of the 1950s, Dr. Marion Hilliard, was a lesbian, finding it among "the ironies of Chatelaine in this era that the most respected, and beloved, expert on women's heterosexuality and health was herself a middle-class, closeted lesbian professional." Hilliard's articles, ghosted by June Callwood, were collected in 1957 as a book, A Woman Doctor Looks at Life and Love.

Doris Anderson succeeded Clare, and in all ways did a better job, for which she and her bosses were rewarded with healthy circulation and advertising. That was one reason Anderson could smuggle feminism into Chatelaine under the very muzzles of the male guard dogs in the business office and sales department. On issues such as divorce, abortion and the scarcity of women in politics, her writing and editing embodied the emerging feminist line. Her work created what Korinek calls "a community of readers" whose responses helped shape the magazine.

Few Chatelaine readers are likely to open Roughing It in the Suburbs. It's a work of cultural studies, which severely limits its audience. A scholar in this field typically selects a hugely successful example of mass culture and discusses it in a way that only those also working in cultural studies can understand. A skilful academic could study Baywatch, the most successful cultural product in history, and turn out a book that would be read by only 473 people, all of them professors or graduate students. In the course of performing this service to humanity, the academic would almost certainly receive several grants.

It is assumed in cultural studies that all reasonable people see the world through leftish eyes. Korinek, for example, speaks of the time "when feminism was under siege from the right-wing regimes of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney." Forget Thatcher and Reagan for a minute, and consider poor old Mulroney. He greatly expanded the place of women in the public service and the judiciary, and women became so much a part of his cabinet (in justice and defence as well as foreign affairs) that his party chose a woman to replace him. But his reputation is such that you can write any nonsense about him that you like and your editor at the University of Toronto Press will just nod in agreement.

Korinek makes the point that few people except former readers and editors know that Chatelaine accomplished something vital; most, including many feminists, assume the articles were as silly as the ads -- and filled with the same banalities. But even when Anderson was at work, only those readers who paid fairly close attention understood what she was doing. The articles that questioned the roles of men and women were surrounded by a great deal of material that didn't. And, as Korinek acknowledges, Chatelaine published such a wide range of material that you could use its contents to support almost any argument.

Korinek borrows a little from the semiotics of Roland Barthes and Michael Foucault's theories of power and knowledge, though it's hard to tell what good they do her. She sometimes lapses into the argot of postmodernism (she prioritizes, she problematizes), but patient readers will discover that when she reverts to a simple narrative she tells her story reasonably well, and that her research in the Maclean Hunter archives illuminates some odd corners of the mass media.

She tells us that in 1958, when Chatelaine was sickly, its famously nationalist owners turned for help to the Motivational Research Institute of New York, headed by Dr. Ernst Dichter, then notorious for allegedly influencing consumers through devious Freudian strategies. Dichter's 210-page report uncovered a strong current of nationalism among Canadian women and urged Chatelaine to appeal to it. So the Canadian editors expressed their nationalist feelings under the guidance of Americans. These things are always so much more complicated than they appear.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image