Doris Anderson, the mother of us all

When my colleague and Chatelaine's inspiring former editor passed away in March at age 85, the nation lost an intrepid force – the best friend women could ever have

The strange thing about a national icon is how often you don’t realize she is one. It has something to do with Canadian modesty and, in Doris Anderson’s case, with a level-headedness that laughed off puffery and conceit. Doris was so darn down-to-earth, it never occurred to me that, as a Chatelaine writer in the ’70s, I was working for one of the key figures in Canada’s feminist history.

In fact, I considered Doris to be solidly mainstream, with her house in tony Rosedale in Toronto, her lawyer husband, her Liberal party membership and her enjoyment of fashionable parties. Looking back, I’m astounded by my youthful ignorance. Doris had already, in the late ’50s and ’60s, carved out the most sensationally progressive editorial territory in the country. At a time when the “women’s sections” of Canadian newspapers were filled with society weddings, recipes and advice on etiquette, Doris was using Chatelaine to challenge the abortion laws, spotlight the male dominance of Parliament, militate against racism and decry women’s poverty. She was decades ahead of her time, and canny enough to get away with promoting a women’s revolution right in the heart of Maclean Hunter’s deeply conservative publishing empire.

Her generosity was amazing and often hidden. Author Sally Armstrong recalls that when she became editor of Homemakers magazine (a direct competitor) in the ’80s, she phoned Doris for advice on sharpening the feminist content. Doris took Sally for lunch and advised her to go for it. “Just do it. You’ll get the readers, and so long as you have the readers, no one can touch you.”

Her U.S. counterparts at major women’s magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping were astonished at the way Doris, in her lighthearted editorials, could mock the rigid stereotypes promoted in the ads – and still manage to keep the ad revenue rolling in.

The secret was, as she told Sally, the readers’ loyalty. Canadian housewives loved Chatelaine‘s sturdily practical recipes and budget-wise advice. They kept right on reading even while showering the magazine with indignant letters about our feminist heresies. The tone of those letters was sparky, scolding and assertive – a tone they would never have dared use with male newspaper editors. It meant that they owned Chatelaine and they were right at home giving us hell. And Doris kept those mainstream readers firmly and respectfully in her corner. Although she never pandered to them on the important issues (and thousands of them slowly came around to feminism), she made sure to serve their practical interests with scrupulous care. If Eveleen Dollery, our glamorous and blithely upscale fashion editor, insisted on photographing a $100 silk blouse, Doris would rule her out of order. No reader of Chatelaine could afford a $100 blouse, and Doris considered it outrageous even to suggest it.

Born Hilda Doris Buck in Medicine Hat in 1921, she had a tough Alberta childhood – fatherless for most of her early years, which she spent working hard in her mother’s Depression-era boarding house. Those years primed Doris with an instinctive frugality that informed our entire magazine. The supply cupboard was rigorously monitored against frivolous usage, no one had an expense account, and a woman who didn’t recycle her grocery bags and sew her own slipcovers had little hope of winning the annual Ms. Chatelaine contest.

Our own salaries were pathetically low for the times. It wasn’t until I read Doris’s remarkable memoir, Rebel Daughter, late in the 1990s, that I realized that Doris was as underpaid as the rest of us, earning $23,000 in comparison to the $53,000 for the man at the helm of Maclean’s. Still, Chatelaine was a wonderful, privileged place to work. Doris, although never an ideologue, was unswervingly committed to fairness. Her idealism was so understated that it’s only now, looking back, that I can see how she helped shape a generation of Canadian women who were receptive to feminism. She snapped up female writing talent: Barbara Frum, Eleanor Wachtel, June Callwood, Christina McCall, Erna Paris. All were nurtured at Chatelaine, and Doris welcomed me when no newspaper editor would hire me because my husband, Stephen Lewis, had become leader of the Ontario NDP.

Marjorie Harris, now a famed garden guru, was working at Chatelaine as an editor when I was the staff feature writer. We still love to remember Doris behind her big desk in the corner office, presiding over our editorial meetings with relaxed though undisputed authority. “Well, girls, whad’ya got?” she would drawl, leaning back and casually painting her nails as we frothed over with enthusiasm or passion for some burning topic that we just knew had to be on the cover. Tall and handsomely dressed in a designer suit – with a loose button dangling or a snagged stocking because she was, after all, the mother of young sons Peter, Stephen and Mitchell, with no time or patience for perfection – she would cackle good-naturedly as she presided over the uproar.

Doris finally left Chatelaine in 1977, after she was unjustly denied the publisher’s job; it was given instead to an ad man. What a lucky thing for all of us that she went on to chair The Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. There, she defied the government of the day and insisted that women had a right to help shape the Charter of Rights. When the government refused, Doris resigned on principle and provoked the furor that resulted in women’s rights being protected in the Charter. And that was just the beginning of two decades of work in national and international women’s activism.

In 2001, for Doris’s 80th birthday, a bunch of us (calling ourselves “Dames for Doris”) planned a bang-up celebration to highlight her life’s achievements. More than 1,000 guests practically blew the roof off Toronto’s stately Royal York Hotel ballroom as we roared a song penned by soprano Mary Lou Fallis: “Doris, we sing in chorus …”

Doris kept lobbying tirelessly for proportional representation (the only way, she thought, that women would ever achieve a full and fair share of power) right to the end. She was an adventurous traveller, curious, resilient, self-reliant and unfailingly encouraging to her many friends. I never knew anyone with such a quiet confidence and yet so completely unegotistical.

“Like many feminists, I never dreamed – or wished – to be rich,” she wrote in Rebel Daughter. “We wanted far more than that: We wanted to change the world.”

Dear, dear Doris – you did.