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August 15, 2010

The Toronto Women's Bookstore, how I became a feminist (and how I learned to be alone)

Last Thursday, it was my absolute pleasure to be buying books at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore (and the book was Sweet by Dani Couture, if anyone’s asking, along with C is for Coco). It was my absolute pleasure, because a few months ago it looked like I might never be buying books at the TWB again, and I was a bit heartbroken about that. Although I hadn’t been around to the bookstore for a long time, truthfully, but about ten years ago, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore saved my life.

It all has to do with how I became a feminist, which, interestingly enough, has much to do also with how I learned to be alone. I can’t remember exactly what the catalyst was, but it all had to do with magazines like Bitch and Bust, and this place where I could go to buy them. But I’ll backtrack to just before that, to when I was about twenty, and would pick up a copy of Cosmo if I needed something to read on a long journey. I didn’t know that there was an alternative to that kind of media, and I was also the type of girl who claimed to be a “humanist”, because “feminist” was too confrontational, too exclusive.

I was also totally, and completely boy crazy, in a way that I never entirely got over, and there’s nothing really wrong with this, except that it seemed a boy’s opinion of me was my sole determination of self-worth. Which might have been fine, actually, if a boy had actually held a high opinion of me, but no one did, and it made me crazy, and lonely, and a little bit sad. (At this point in my life, I also wore tye-dyed t-shirts with floor-length skirts and running shoes. You really couldn’t have blamed the boys…).

Anyway, may I connect all this to the How to be Alone video that swept the world last week, and which Russell Smith opined was “anti-feminist” in The Globe & Mail (which I won’t link to, because I hate The Globe‘s link-baiting. What joy it would give me to link to an article because it was actually good, but anyway, you can read about it here).  When I learned how to be a feminist, it was when I learned how to be alone. It was when I began to let go of my obssession with using male affection to define myself and my value. It was when I realized that sex wasn’t as empowering as I’d considered it to be, because I’d thought I was garbage unless someone male was looking at me admiringly, and I would have done anything to make sure that look lingered. It was when I realized that I’d been waiting for a boy to come along and save me, to liberate me from aloneness, and I was thinking that only then would my real life finally begin.

When I became a feminist, it was when I realized that real life could begin anyway, on my own terms. And I learned this when I started reading magazines like Bitch and Bust, and magazines I’m now far to old for, and even scoff at, but back in the day, they were a revelation. First, I learned to celebrate a far more diverse kind of beauty than any I’d ever seen before in a fashion magazine. I learned about women’s sexuality in and of itself, beyond simply a way to attract male attention. I learned about women’s issues beyond my insular little world, and realized the need for something called feminism was as strong as it ever was. I learned about something I might have called “sisterhood” about thirty years before, but couldn’t put a name to at the time because “sisterhood” was twee, but it basically came down to the fact that womanhood itself was powerful. And I’d never even realized. All the things I didn’t need a man to do, let alone define who I was.

And yes, I remember the first time I ate in a restaurant by myself (during the summer of 2000), and taking off on my bike to Toronto Island where nobody knew where I was, and when I decided to produce my own photo-copied feminist zine (which became legendary in a certain circle), and going to the movies alone, and driving my own moving van, and how I was determined to spend the summer of 2002 backpacking through Europe all by myself, which I did, and it was the discovery of feminism, the discovery that I was a feminist, that made any of this possible. I was nothing before it.

And that even in “post-feminist” turn of the century Toronto, that there was a place where one could go to be a feminist meant everything. It meant the movement was still vital, and that a community was thriving (the proof in the plethora of flyers posted just inside the door), and all the books and magazines that so inspired me on my way. I was finally a part of something bigger than myself, and it even bigger than being a part of a couple.

If we were actually post-feminist, than none of this would have been necessary. If we were actually post-feminist, however, Russell Smith probably wouldn’t be writing articles about women in publishing being “hotties” either, and I also think it’s interesting how articles such as Smith’s hottie piece, with its abject objectification, actually condition women to feel badly about not being on the receiving end of the admiring male’s glance. How Smith is not even a symptom, he is the disease, and then he has the nerve to decide what “feminist” is?

The point of all this being that the Toronto Women’s Bookstore was so important to me once upon a time, and I shouldn’t have turned my back upon it just because I don’t need it anymore. Because you never know when I might need it again, or how many other women are lacking empowerment just like I was, and the freedom they’re sure to find there once they venture through its door.

6 thoughts on “The Toronto Women's Bookstore, how I became a feminist (and how I learned to be alone)”

  1. Carrie says:

    love this post!

  2. Britt Gullick says:

    Finally, an opportunity to complain publicly about Russell Smith’s article. How disappointing that he interprets “How to be alone” as being “How to be single”. There are so many of us, men and women, single and attached, who have trouble being alone. We’d rather surrender our concert tickets than go without company. We pull out our cell phones the minute we are forced to sit at a lunch by ourselves. We cling to email, facebook, our blackberries – ANYTHING that makes us feel less alone when forced into a situation that we can’t at least drag an acquaintance along to. Is this a problem that particularly affects women? Probably. Maybe because we are taught to feel vulnerable in any situation that makes us appear to be unable to get a date, unpopular, or maybe more practically makes us less safe. Men and women alike: we all need to liberate ourselves. And like that video suggests it really does start small, and if you are amazing enough, maybe ends with you dancing alone at some club, or as my friend Jeanine suggests we all do, attending a music festival alone ( That is real courage, I’m sure of it.

    And if Bitch magazine helped to make you more brave and less vulnerable, I get it, and that is really important. Too bad all it takes is one douchebag like Russell Smith to make you feel small and stupid again, sitting there with your knitting and doing all the women of the world a disservice with your sad face.

    1. Kerry says:

      He’d be calling me Auntie Feminist if he found out how much I loved knitting tea cozies.

      Also, when I saw I can do many things alone (ride a plane, go to a beach, a restaurant, out for coffee) I am lying. I can do these things in the company of a book, which is some of the best company I know. But I think it still counts.

  3. I haven’t been there for quite awhile either but am so relieved that they’re still around: thanks for the reminder and for the inspiration to mend my errant ways.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I have met a number of guys who feel strongly that alone is a disaster. They would *never* go to a movie alone, or even cook a meal. They are completely reliant on another person to give time structure and a point. When they are single, or the partner is out of town, they work, sleep, and watch television. I mean, I know women who do this too, but people seem to notice it less with guys.

    Russell Smith must know some unusually self-actuallized folks. Our culture is way too couple-centric, and that’s a gendered problem, but not only a gendered problem.

  5. patricia says:

    The video is sweet and entertaining, and I quite like the poem. The artist is making a good point, though I must confess that overall it is a bit too ‘twee’ for my tastes.

    Never at any point in the video did I get a sense that it was directed only for an audience of women. Like the commenter Britt mentioned, being alone is something very different from being single.

    Russell Smith’s article is telling us everything we need to know about the diseased mind of Russell Smith. Sad, silly man.

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