“Feminism is dead.” This is the headline of a new study reported in the Daily Mail as I write this. Last year, Lillian Davis pondered the question “Is feminism dead, dying, or outdated?” in ModViv, a daily online newsmagazine (August 1). Clearly, feminism is proving hard to kill—over 14.5 million sites online today purport to address the “Is feminism dead?” question.
For me, this question ceased to have much meaning at all when I came to know Shauna Butterwick and Darlene Clover, two of the editors of Women, Adult Education, and Leadership in Canada. For both women, I think it’s fair to say, feminism is not a thing separate from themselves that can be taken off or declared “dead.” Rather, it is a way of breathing, of being in the world. In Chapter 1, Shauna refers to the “feminist language of critique and the feminist language of possibility.” The work of both women entwines these languages, with a special emphasis on animating—and celebrating—the inspiring possibilities that they see around them in women’s lives and in women’s learning.
When I first met her in the early 1990s, Shauna was hard at work in the community, where she usually can be found, collaborating with a group of women who were living in poverty and seeking ways to be taken seriously in their efforts to access good job training (they kept getting sent either to “life skills” classes or to menial jobs). Later in her career I watched from a rather safer academic office as Shauna went night after night to a dodgy part of the inner city, encouraging a group of women to express their difficult stories through community theatre. Never shy of a fight with authority over unfairness, Shauna once surprised her colleagues by marching with students against her own university to protest a proposed policy that would have doubled their fees. Like Shauna, Darlene is a devoted cultural activist who works with and through the arts. When I first met her she was focusing on environmental adult education. I still smile at recalling how wonderfully she startled a roomful of British academics with her passion about transforming Earth-human relations. She has also transformed much academic work, showing how the arts—visual, textile, spoken, and sound—can be a powerful mobilizer. Back in 2002, I recall her working with a group to make quilts protesting a gas-burning power plant. At one conference that she convened, she arranged clotheslines to be strung throughout the foyer, displaying quilted and other artistic representations of community research projects. I found her in tears in the middle of this riot of colour and threads, overcome by the stories they conveyed.
As you may appreciate, the paths taken by Shauna and Darlene are among the most difficult, lengthy, often frustrating, and sometimes least-celebrated ways of doing research and academic work in general. Both women have made a life-lasting impression on me and many others for their ingenuity in finding creative ways to rally community activism, and for their courage in speaking out on issues that those less energetic may consider too unfashionable, or perhaps too difficult to tackle—to live feminism, in other words. True to their collaborative roots, Shauna and Darlene worked on this book in collaboration with Laurel Collins, an early career researcher, and with Donna Chovanec. Donna is a keenly felt absent presence here, a most generous and spirited adult educator who is deeply missed by those of us privileged to have known her. The book itself presents an inspiring array of women—both the chapter authors and in the women they describe—who, like the editors, have lived to help others learn together how to make life better for everyone.
For any adult educator, these stories are fascinating to read. The chapters here reveal not only the critical role of women and their unique approaches to mobilizing adult education and social change, but also the substantial contribution of Canadian perspectives and approaches to developing adult education as a global movement. Some may still see Canada as a very young country with a harsh climate, a dispersed population, and what Margaret Atwood called the “malevolent north.” Its powerful neighbour to the south can easily obscure international understandings of Canada”s achievements and special challenges, and the useful lessons for other countries here. What does it take to build a democratic society in a young country roughly the size of the United States but with a population less than 12% of America’s, in which peoples from over 200 countries and cultures can co-exist peacefully with one another and their natural environments, and enjoy equal life chances? Despite the onslaughts of neo-liberalism and the pressures of supra-national organizations, the basic welfare state notion still survives in Canada. Its education system is one of the best in the world (scoring just below the frequently celebrated Finnish system in international assessments such as PISA, for those who put faith in these). Canada’s struggle to acknowledge and work towards reparation of the oppression inflicted on its Aboriginal peoples is unique globally, and its French-English relations have been a valuable study for other countries confronting sovereignty movements. And in a time of disturbing moves elsewhere to close borders, Canada continues to employ a comparatively open approach to welcoming immigrants and grappling with ways to tolerate many voices, including those that may not be so tolerant in return.
This is the stuff of these chapters, for adult education infuses the development of strong communities that value freedom, peace, sustainability, and well-being for all. The central themes in Canada’s rich history of adult education are of collective action and experiments in radical social change. Initiatives created here, such as the 1920s Antigonish movement and the 1940s Farm Radio Forum, have been imported around the world. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Institute, another iconic movement in Canada’s adult education history, which has been commemorated in various events here in the United Kingdom in the past few weeks. Women consistently have been at the heart of these key initiatives, catalyzing citizens’ political participation, extending urban universities’ reach into farflung areas, fighting for equality, defending public spaces, and, generally, developing civil society.
For me personally, this book is like coming home, reading the words of so many women I have known who have been key leaders in advancing adult education across Canada in recent decades. The chapter authors not only represent top scholars of adult education, who happen to do their work in Canada. These authors are also the people who have kept the associations going, coordinated the conferences, initiated community events—put up the clotheslines and carried the pickets—to make things really happen in the field of adult education and in social change, with global reverberations.
I am honoured to be asked to write the Foreword for this volume. I heartily commend it to readers as an important—as well as illuminating and entertaining—book, to savour and to share.