Was Jack Layton a feminist?

Published in Shameless magazine | Winter 2010 | Circulation: 3,000

Seven years ago, I handed Jack Layton a condom and anarchist patch.

I was distributing anti-oppression, pro-choice and pro-sex materials with the Student Christian Movement (SCM) at the University of Victoria. Jack walked right over to our messy do-it-yourself silkscreening station, not caring that his grey suit was perilously close to open paint, sloshing dirty water and drying patches.

“I used to go to the SCM Bookroom all the time,” he said, recalling our former Toronto bookstore. “You couldn’t find radical books many other places, it was an amazing resource.”

Who knew then how important this smiley mustachioed man would become as leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP)? Nor the incredible acclaim he would receive following his death from cancer this August?

While most posthumous accolades have focused on his optimism, few explore his actual beliefs. The media ignored Jack’s activist roots, but I will always be inspired by Jack as male role-model..

Jack was a rare breed.. What inspired me – as a man – was his gentleness, his quiet, collaborative approach, and the importance he placed on relationships.

Even though he espoused pragmatic compromises (what opponents label ‘selling out’), I believe he was essential for the radical Left. In his leadership on Canada’s residential schools apology, Jack went further, calling the schools “racist” and linking them to land theft and conquest.

Recently, I spoke with Judy Rebick, renowned feminist author and friend of Jack.

“Jack was a real feminist,” Judy told Shameless. “There are few men of his generation I can say that about. He made women’s issues central, in both his behaviour and his politics.”

She met the Toronto city councillor outside the then-illegal Morgentaler abortion clinic, protecting women from anti-choice harassment. He was an early ally of the queer community..

In 1989, after a feminist-hating man murdered 14 women in Montreal, Jack helped form the White Ribbon Campaign of men opposing violence against women.

Jack viewed the massacre as an extreme example of women’s daily experience of violence, at a time when the media attacked the women’s movement for politicizing the massacre.

Not everyone in the women’s movement agreed with the campaign – the media had fixated on male activists, sidelining women’s leadership. But Jack, and the campaign, acknowledged their privilege.

“He really wasn’t an alpha male,” Judy recalls, unlike many political figures – male and female – who dominate and coerce.

“He was the other way: very consensual and consulting.”

Of course, it’s not hard to find faults. His pragmatist approach led Jack to compromise the NDP’s already diluted inheritance, continuing the drift from its parent Cooperative Commonwealth Federation – a radical labour party which demanded gender equality, status for migrants, halting deportations, dismantling free market capitalism, and ending war.

“Most of what I wrote to him was critical,” Judy said, particularly around the NDP’s lukewarm positions on gun control and law and order.

In fact, despite being “weak on foreign policy issues,” in Judy’s view – for instance, his reluctance to support Palestinian rights – Jack kept pro-Palestinian feminist parliamentarian Libby Davies as one of his closest advisors.

“In that way he was remarkable. His way of working was to bring people together and to forge consensus.”

The Left – long-divided on the effectiveness of electoral politics – were nonetheless cheered by the NDP rise in 2011. Even militant anti-capitalists expressed sorrow at Jack’s passing. He had, compromises aside, protected the NDP’s embattled radicals from reformist elements, ensuring that feminist, anti-capitalist and internationalist voices could still be heard. As one of those voices for fundamental social change, I felt profound sorrow to lose such an ally, in an era when hope is elusive.

The media missed the mark on Jack’s politics, but it’s hard to miss his collaborative style.

“That’s a feminist model of leadership,” Judy concludes. “We live in a patriarchal society; it’s not easy to work like that. We’re taught that you need to squash your opponents. But that’s what Jack showed us – how to work from love, and from hope.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s