Michele Landsberg and her daughter, Ilana Landsberg-Lewis. (photo from West Coast LEAF)
Michele Landsberg and her daughter Ilana Landsberg-Lewis laughed and spoke over each other in an animated joint telephone interview with the Jewish Independent. The two women, who are among Canada’s most influential activists, agreed more than they disagreed, and their ideas and opinions flowed and meshed in a way made possible perhaps only through a lifetime of dialogue.
The mother-daughter duo will be keynote speakers at West Coast LEAF’s Equality Breakfast March 11. West Coast LEAF was founded in 1985, alongside its sister organization, the Women’s Legal and Education Action Fund (LEAF National), to ensure that the promises contained in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would become a reality for women in British Columbia. West Coast LEAF’s founders recognized that there would be challenges and great potential in putting the abstract legal rights of Section 15 (the equality provision) into action through the courts. The annual Equality Breakfast generally falls around International Women’s Day, which is May 8.
Landsberg is a writer and social activist who wrote for the Globe and Mail and Chatelaine before a 25-year run as a columnist for the Toronto Star. An officer of the Order of Canada, Landsberg’s name is synonymous with feminist perspectives on Canadian and global events.
Landsberg-Lewis is a labor and human rights lawyer. She is the executive director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which she co-founded with her father, the former leader of Ontario’s New Democratic party, who also served as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. The foundation works with grassroots organizations in sub-Saharan Africa to turn the tide of the AIDS pandemic.
Landsberg-Lewis said she never felt any pressure to go into the family business. In addition to her mother’s writing and activism and her father’s political and diplomatic career, her grandfather David Lewis was leader of the federal NDP.
“There was always interesting and lively conversation,” she said. “Whatever column Mom was writing, whatever Dad was doing … all three of the kids, but I was the eldest, were encouraged to be part of that thinking and lively debate. Yes, I landed very firmly a millimetre away from the tree but, if you ask me, that was the right place to be.”
In her work with her father, Landsberg-Lewis sees the catastrophic advance of AIDS in Africa, but is also inspired by the responses of women who are, she said, “the most affected and infected” by the disease.
“They’re bearing the brunt of the apocalypse of AIDS, they are raising the children, they are pulling their communities together, they are the ones who are trying to effect change, they are the ones who are most adversely affected by discriminatory laws and, on that level, it’s pretty grim,” she said. On the other hand, she continued, despite global funding for fighting AIDS flatlining, affected women are stepping up.
“Take the grandmothers, for instance, who are raising 17 million orphaned children, who were living in isolation, stigma, absolute abject poverty, and were terribly grief stricken because of the loss of their adult children, and they get up the next morning and they look after all these kids. And more than that now – you see that they are beginning to run for local councils and land rights councils and they’re pushing for pensions and pushing for better health care for older women, and so there’s a groundswell of demands for their own rights to be recognized,” she said. “The world is being negligent. This is not surprising or unusual when it comes to women, but the women themselves, as usual, are not waiting for that support, they’re just making it happen.”
Back in North America, a whole different type of change is happening, both mother and daughter agree. Feminists who remember the fights of the 1950s and ’60s are coming up against a generation of young women with a very different idea of what equality and feminism mean. The recent comments by former U.S. secretary of state Madelaine Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who is a friend of Landsberg’s, nearly led to inter-generational warfare on social media.
Steinem apologized for her comment that young women are abandoning Hillary Clinton’s campaign for Bernie Sanders’ “because that’s where the boys are.” Landsberg blames a grueling book tour and Steinem’s emphatic support for Clinton for the comment, but added she thinks Steinem was getting at an important point when she misspoke.
“I think she meant that young women are still swayed by the power dynamics of our very gendered system, our gendered culture,” said Landsberg. “Boys have more clout and presence in the political world and young women tend to take their cues from them still, quite often, not always, obviously. I think that’s what she meant: that they are swayed by young men’s enthusiasm for Bernie.”
Landsberg-Lewis interjected, contending that the division between Clinton and Sanders supporters is based on ideology more than gender.
Landsberg, who admits she has never shared her friends’ enthusiasm for Clinton, leapt on Albright’s comment, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
“If we really want to get it right, her quote is misguided,” Landsberg said. “It should be ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support feminist women.’ Not just any woman, because there was [British prime minister Margaret] Thatcher.”
Clinton, Landsberg said, is “not the kind of woman we can look to to undo the power that has oppressed many, many people.… She is part of the establishment, she is backed by Wall Street, she has endorsed many wars and would endorse more wars as president.”
The rise of Sanders, the democratic socialist whose campaign bills itself as a movement for change, is a good sign on several fronts, say the two. Feminism, among other movements, has struggled in the face of American individualism. This is something that differs in Canada, they agreed, but may signal a revival of movement feminism as more Americans hear Sanders’ message of shared responsibility.
“He’s talking about collective responsibility for changing the situation of women, collective power in collective action and vision,” said Landsberg-Lewis. “And I think that’s an extraordinarily powerful antidote to the individualism that has, I think, for young women – not all young women, not all the time – but has eclipsed the sense of feminism as really being about a movement as opposed to individual power.”
Moving to Canadian politics, mother and daughter both expressed optimism.
“I think the whole country woke up the day after the election and realized that that bad headache they’d had for 10 years was gone,” Landsberg said, laughing. “I think we had a nationwide depression under that grim regime and people felt a sense of relief that we had a new beginning.”
She’ll be watching the new government’s approach to a national child-care plan and worries that Trudeau may be too insulated in the world of “nannydom” to understand that affordable child care is key to women’s equality.
“It is very exciting to have a prime minister who runs around calling himself a feminist,” said Landsberg-Lewis. “I think that that is not a small thing. It’s a first time thing and it’s a big deal.”
“I am thrilled Michele and Ilana are coming together for our Equality Breakfast,” said West Coast LEAF interim executive director Alison Brewin. She said, “The fact that they are mother and daughter reflects the intergenerational nature of the fight to advance women’s equality. West Coast LEAF uses the law to make change, but the work comes in waves that catch and move mothers and daughters, fathers and sons – Michelle and Ilana represent our national struggle for justice.”
Tickets for the West Coast LEAF Equality Breakfast March 11, 7 a.m., at Fairmont Hotel Vancouver are $90 (tax receipt for eligible portion) from 2016equalitybreakfast.eventbrite.ca.