The F Word
On different wavelengths
There is a moment in Pure Flame when the writer Michelle Orange stops to reflect on a trendy twenty-first-century T‑shirt slogan, one you’ve probably seen floating around on Instagram: “The Future Is Female.” “The phrase contains all the old questions: of identity and essentialism; what it means to be female, and what it should mean; and perhaps most critically the question of transmission.” What will we carry into the future, Orange wonders, and what will we leave behind? “What stories does a female future tell about the past?” Given that feminism — like any intellectual or political movement — has had its share of intergenerational tensions, the question seems germane in a book of social history, cultural criticism, and, especially, stories of mothers and daughters. What are the values of a feminist (though perhaps not female) future? What should we learn from the women who have gone before us, including our moms?
Orange, who was a producer with TVOntario before studying film at New York University, is the author of a previous essay collection, This Is Running for Your Life, which The New Yorker named a best book of the year in 2013. (She has also written for that magazine, as well as the New York Times, the Village Voice, The Nation, Slate, and McSweeney’s.) Her sophomore book largely focuses on the five years or so leading up to her mother’s death, in late 2018. Jackie Boyle, a woman whose life her daughter describes as “a neoclassical epic of self-determination,” spent her twenties as a housewife, increasingly unhappy in her marriage and worried about her prospects for financial independence. In her mid-thirties, she earned an MBA and got a corporate job at a bank in London, Ontario. After she found out that a new guy had joined the firm with lesser qualifications but was making a great deal more money, she asked for pay parity. When she was refused, she found herself an even better job in Toronto, which meant returning to the family home only on the weekends.
Jackie’s decision to work in Toronto drove a wedge between herself and her daughter. The two were estranged until Michelle was well into her thirties. “The breach between us had not been a cost of her emancipation,” Orange writes, “but its requirement.” Besides the literal distance, there were other differences: especially conflicting ideas about emancipation, self-actualization, and feminism.
Jackie, we’re told, liked “her job, respect, and diamond earrings” and “talked of the Impressionists as though no one had thought to love them before.” She liked to be put together, believing that beauty and its rituals represented not vanity but rather a form of resilience. (Even while on bed rest, waiting for her lungs to fail, Jackie kept her toenails painted poppy red.) Whereas Michelle, shaped by the “feudal sellout wars” of her youth, disdained the corporate ladder, her mother climbed all the way to the CEO rung of the Canada Savings Bond program. And whereas Michelle, shaped in part by the third-wave feminism of her adolescence, mulls over the movement’s principles, Jackie always insisted that she was not a feminist. “Feminist identity was limiting, more pigeonhole than portal,” Orange writes. “Even as she seeded her independence my mother failed to see what all those shouting women in bigger cities had to do with her.”
Eventually, text messages became the medium through which mother and daughter renewed their connection, and Orange sprinkles excerpts from their conversations throughout. The snippets range from the poignant to the hilarious, with spaces between the lines bursting with things left unsaid:
40s are amazing
Loved my 40s.
Came into my own. Took back
Lost it in my 30s
I can look around the house for it
if you want
Haha. Not there. A sweet
trusting person is there.
Have i seen Lego movie?
I don’t know, have you?
Orange complements her account of her mother with discussions of feminist texts, mostly from the suffragists and the second wave. For her, Simone de Beauvoir’s well-known critique of the construction of woman as “Other”— not universal, not worthy of story, existing only in opposition — is something of a touchstone. Orange returns again and again to the question of myth, of a positive answer to the question “What should a woman be?” She also argues — and not without textual support — that in its push for women’s rights, “the movement’s second wave had emphasized certain forms of severance: from the old ways, systems, and mythologies and perhaps especially from one’s mother.”
Drawing on Susan Faludi’s idea of a matricidal turn in mid-twentieth-century feminism, Orange writes that modernism, coupled with the notion of consumerism as liberation, worked to disrupt the “generational transmission” of women’s experiences. She then observes this break as a theme in the lives of many feminists. Gloria Steinem, who worried that her mother’s despondency would follow her into her own life, felt that severing the maternal tie was no less than a matter of “survival.” Beauvoir faulted her mother, a devout Catholic, for lack of original thought. Susan Sontag, with that gleaming weapon of an intellect, adored and abhorred her mother in equal measure. And Judith Roof argued that seemingly basic generational discourse lends itself to linear narratives of progress that obscure key differences of race and class.
Gathered together, this commentary on motherhood, art, and freedom offers an interesting if incomplete picture. While it’s worth noting how common intergenerational resentment can be, it’s also strange to lay the failure of maternal legacy at feminism’s feet. Couldn’t one argue, just as easily, that it has fostered a sense of legacy? And what about that misogynistic strain of popular culture dedicated to caricatures of mother-daughter relationships? In describing her own mother’s experience, Orange could have developed more pressing lines of inquiry: Has the workplace been the liberation we hoped for? What have later feminists said about the value of care work? What of maternal legacies that are not discarded willingly but are taken away — in the name of progress, modernization, assimilation?
Orange’s own stance on feminism proves impossible to pin down; indeed, agnosticism might be the best description for her approach to the larger questions. Orange writes only that she is “a product of similar if not the same confusions” as experienced by Beauvoir, who refused to identify as a feminist until well into her seventies. She needles her mother on the question of women’s rights but admits that “on the subject of feminism my mother and I were doomed to a series of canned exchanges, neither of us knowing or caring much about Sheryl Sandberg or Gloria Steinem, but having absorbed the idea that we should.” Elsewhere, she is critical of the culture’s emphasis on wellness retreats and performative self‑care, but she refuses to throw her weight behind any particular vision for a feminist future. Does she believe, as Elizabeth Hardwick did, in a parallel myth of female genius, or is she a fan of Germaine Greer’s vision for collective, egoless art? What does it all add up to?
In other words, Pure Flame does not fully address the issues it raises. Depending on their tolerance for ambiguity, fence-sitting, and elliptical self-examination, readers will find this subtly compelling or infuriatingly noncommittal. (They must also contend with a fair amount of overworked prose. Walking through London’s National Portrait Gallery, Orange finds herself “outside the human flow that moved in a somatic rhythm bent on eventual expulsion.” Describing “crowds of people heading for the door” just wouldn’t have the same ring, I guess.) Some of Orange’s circumlocution arises, one suspects, because she sets out to avoid sentimentalism, to write something that “would privilege argument over plot, ideas over narrative, something else over straight memoir.” When an editor asks her why, she answers that it’s “the hardest thing I could take on.” A writer like Orange may well enjoy that challenge, but this reader, at least, does not.
What Orange does do well, especially in her closing chapters, is capture the duality of feeling that comes with growing up for good: the abiding pain of a parent’s failures, held next to an abiding compassion. Everything else falls away when confronted with the finality of death, and that’s when her relentless intellectualizing gives way to something raw. The stakes are higher, but they also feel more real. By her mother’s side — first at home, then in the hospital, then in palliative care — Orange writes that “expectation itself became a thing my mother and I considered from a remove, a relic of some other life.” In these final pages, the prose becomes incandescent: “In this new place, only surrender to each moment made way for the next one. Only very close attention kept the horror away.”
At one point, Orange contemplates the price that Jackie paid for her ambition and imagines a man in her mother’s shoes:
Did he spend his working years driven to the point of collapse, and did his body retain the scars? Did he burn out, triumph, divorce, prevail? Did his life transcend, negate, exceed the hypothetical, and was the price of this transcendence his containment in a limited, physical form? Was he forced to reckon with the fact that not only did he have a body, he was a body?
It’s in moments like this that the daughter recognizes in herself something of her mother. But even as Orange honours her mother — even as she becomes, in part, her mother’s legacy — the line that truly sticks in the reader’s mind is one she quotes from Beauvoir: “Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consolation for death.”
Questions of legacy also animate The Unconventional Nancy Ruth, Ramona Lumpkin’s immensely readable (if lengthy) biography of the former senator Nancy Ruth. An unabashed feminist, Nancy Ruth used her considerable wealth — a handsome $9‑million inheritance back in 1980 — to support a range of causes, including the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund and the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Her commitment to women’s rights was shaped, in large part, by her sometimes fraught relationship with her mother. So while the book is something of a tribute to Nancy Ruth — with whom Lumpkin has had a long-standing friendship — it’s also a moving account of a daughter setting out to make her mom proud.
Christened Nancy Ruth Jackman in 1942, Nancy was the youngest of four children and the only girl born to Mary and Henry Jackman, a wealthy couple from Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood. Mary had grown up there, the daughter of Newton Rowell, a former chief justice of Ontario. Having studied law at Harvard and Osgoode Hall, Harry had set his mind to making a fortune in finance. At the time of Nancy’s birth, he was the member of Parliament for Rosedale and the finance critic for the wartime National Government party, which would become the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.
While the Jackman surname, which Nancy Ruth dropped in the ’90s, guaranteed her a life of privilege, she often found herself in the role of the “outsider/insider.” As Lumpkin describes it, she was a woman who trailed her brothers in her father’s estimation, a Progressive Conservative who couldn’t find her place in the party’s political mainstream, and a lesbian among a traditional elite.
Nancy Ruth grew up in a family that contained two distinct sets of values. Her mother, raised in the Methodist home of staunch Liberals, believed in the social gospel, loved Virginia Woolf, and enjoyed travel. But she struggled to express herself within a turbulent, sometimes abusive marriage. Watching her parents, Nancy understood, even at an early age, “that what the world respected was about the values my Father held, the values of amassing capital, the value of doing unto others as they would do unto you, the values of progressing forward and upward in a class-based society.” She wanted her father’s approval, which was not forthcoming, and she often resented her mother.
To write this biography, Lumpkin enjoyed unfettered access to some six decades’ worth of personal records, including diaries, love letters, and newsletter clippings. She uses them well to paint a captivating picture of a young woman who had a reputation for being brash and outspoken but who was also deeply insecure. And if Nancy wanted desperately to “be something,” as the committed young diarist often wrote, she had little sense of a calling. For the most part, Lumpkin manages to sidestep the poor-little-rich-girl archetype (though there is the requisite period of fabulous Euro-drifting). She’s able to do that thanks to her subject’s own writing, which is rather beautiful, full of yearning and unexpected humour. “Exams were Scripture which was a sin and literature was a stinker,” Lumpkin quotes from a boarding school diary. She also includes this lovely line about the desperation of a first, intense love: “I cannot let love go free — I cannot hold that quicksilver loosely in the palm of my hand — I clutch.”
Religion and feminism would later come to form the two great (and conflicting) passions of Nancy Ruth’s life. The former she embraced while at a World Council of Churches youth camp in Bali, where she “woke up one morning and understood that God loved me.” The latter she encountered at a World Student Christian Federation conference in Finland, where, “for the first time in my life, women hit the agenda.” For Nancy Ruth, who spent most of her life feeling alienated from the values of the Jackman empire (but not, it must be said, its assets), feminism offered a tradition within which she could locate herself. And by the early 1980s, she was among the ranks of women fighting to include equality rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
While the movement gave Nancy Ruth the sense of purpose that had long eluded her, it also transformed her relationship with her mother. The two became allies, if not friends, and the most moving chapter of Lumpkin’s biography is the one that explores this relationship and its influence on Nancy Ruth’s philanthropy, which she would come to view as an attempt to “redeem” her mother’s life.
Lumpkin doesn’t offer much of an intellectual genealogy, but the former senator’s views seem to align closely with those of second-wave feminism. “Sisterhood is all-important,” she told a group of Queen’s undergraduates in 2019. Power is possible only “if women support & work for other women, and see the problems not as personal but as systemic.”
Nancy Ruth was never afraid to put her money where her mouth was; she was generous in her support for women across party lines and donated thousands to Liberal and NDP candidates. But it’s also clear that she didn’t always understand the limitations of her altruism. She was disappointed when the women she supported, financially or emotionally, balked at her lifelong affinity for the Progressive Conservatives (though any reader with an intersectional lens should understand that reluctance quite easily). And as was the case with many of her generation, Nancy Ruth’s notion of sisterhood did not always extend to trans women. She once argued that Bill C‑279 — meant to amend the Criminal Code to protect transgender rights — excluded cisgendered women, who should have the same rights by virtue of biology. “This bill will privilege men who choose to become women over women who are born female,” she said on the Senate floor in 2013.
For the most part, Lumpkin does not properly question her subject’s stances. That gives The Unconventional Nancy Ruth more than a hint of apology. Yes, Nancy Ruth could be brusque and intimidating, but she had a heart of gold. Sure, she was entitled, but she used her inheritance for good. Lumpkin even assures her reader that rich people are just like the rest of us: Nancy Ruth too “had to climb barriers, ford streams, overcome crippling self-doubt to make her way in the world.” And while there’s plenty of narrative in this book, there’s not enough in the way of critical appraisal (except of Nancy’s formative years). That means we get a play-by-play of Nancy Ruth’s various donations, her three failed attempts to win office, and her many tussles as a senator, but even after 400-plus pages, some of the tougher questions remain unasked: What are the limits of feminist philanthropy when it comes to social change? How has Nancy Ruth benefited from her charitable donations? What does she have to say about taxing the rich?
Lumpkin writes that her subject “knew from hard-won experience growing up in a patriarchal household the importance of bearing witness to the truth that women’s lives matter.” If The Unconventional Nancy Ruth speaks to that experience, it also reminds us of the stories that remain untold, outside the corridors of power and far away from the mansions of Rosedale. Perhaps that’s the story a female future ought to tell about the past: that the movement has belonged to all of us, and the future should too.