Of the more than 30 courses I took, from 1964 to 1972, only one was taught by a woman.
A professor in Educational Psychology (I took a B.Ed. program because the idea of education as anything but a means to an end seemed an impossible and expensive luxury for someone with my background) told us that he was well aware that the women in his class were there only to find a husband, not really to learn anything. But he expected us to "try" to do the work anyway.
So it became clear that women were not exactly welcomed as equal participants in the academic work. Still, I think of my university years as wonderful, rich and exciting, and perhaps it's only in retrospect that I can see the oppressiveness of those first few years. In graduate school I first heard the word "feminism," and first read Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, a book that changed my life with its analysis that named so perfectly my own experience and that of the "flawed" women in the literature I was studying.
In my own writing, however, I was beginning to see that the feminism that was increasingly interesting me was not what interested the publishers and reviewers. What they did seem to approve of was writing that dealt with my rural background, my growing up on an isolated farm 500 miles north of Edmonton. Since I'd spent many years at the University of Alberta embarrassed about this primitive background, it was exciting to discover that other people would actually find such a childhood interesting. In my third and fourth books, Land of the Peace (which won the Canadian Authors' Association award for best book of poetry in 1980) and North (both from Thistledown Press), I dealt exclusively with that background and with the pioneering experience in Alberta.
To people in the east, such experiences were already several generations removed and I suppose my narrative poems about farming with horses, about the poverty and isolation and extreme cold, and about my own struggles to leave, satisfied their ideas of what Alberta was all about -- a frontier. I guess I began to see, too, how quickly that way of life was vanishing. As the first settlers, my parents' generation, began to die, I thought I had an obligation to document that history, which is really what Land of the Peace and Northbound do.
What those books don't do, however, is include my specifically feminist poetry, because I was quite sure, from my earlier experiences, that it would "endanger" the books in the eyes of the critics. If I slipped in a feminist poem here or there (such as "Mother with Child," reprinted here), I made sure it was not a "threatening" feminist poem. I think Northbound is probably the best book I've written, but I still feel uncomfortable with the way I edited and censored myself, although I believe, too, that a more overtly feminist tone would have meant less positive reviews.
Of such silencing and compromises I know many women writers have spoken. My last poetry book, Private Properties, is explicitly feminist ("Aprons" is from that collection), and, sure enough, there followed a predictable frothing review calling it a "feminist tract". The other reviews were reasonably positive, but it only takes one such attack to shake a writer's confidence.
Of course writers are supposed to ignore such critics and go on writing what they must, but that's impossible. I don't know of any writer who is impervious to them. I've read a great number of reviews over the years, and the attacks on women are outrageous. It isn't women per se who are attacked, only feminist women -- it seems to me that women's books are much more likely than men's to be judged on content instead of style and technique, and if that content is feminist the critic is much more likely to be hostile. Once I began clipping such vicious reviews for a talk on women's writing I was to give, and I was appalled at how many I found and how easily, and how vindictive and destructive they really were.
But the good news is that more women are doing reviews, and while that doesn't guarantee a favourable or a feminist perspective, it does even the odds a bit. Some of the best new poets in Canada now are strong feminists, and it's not as easy to dismiss these brilliant and confident women as "shrill" or "strident" or "boring" or "propagandistic".