The Leacock debate (University of Toronto, Wed. Feb. 26, 2003)

The Leacock Debate
Wed., Feb. 26, 2003
Hart House, University of Toronto

The motion: A woman's proper place is in the kitchen

For the affirmative side, Barbara Kay

It is indeed a great honour to be standing here as a participant in this prestigious event. When Peter Oliver approached me about appearing tonight, he briefed me on the Leacock dinner's short but illustrious history, citing many of the famous and brilliant people who have debated in years past. Much intimidated, I said, "But Mr. Oliver, I'm a complete nobody in relation to these other guests," and he said, "Oh I know that, but we wanted Anne and she wouldn't agree to come unless you were part of the package." So here I am, someone without influence, power or any special achievements, and nonetheless, entirely on the basis of my proximity to celebrity, accorded prestige and a superficial appearance of importance. (Pause). I ask you: How Canadian is that?
I will return to the question - How Canadian is that - in a few moments. First, though, I would like to say that as the only speaker of the panel here tonight who has actually spent a married lifetime in the kitchen, I bring both experience and credibility to the literal rendering of the resolution that A Woman's Proper Place is in the Kitchen. I am a member of the last cohort in history to have majoritarily regarded homemaking as an honourable and desirable life choice. It saddens me that women today feel ashamed to admit their yearning to be at-home wives and mothers.
I blame the feminists, of course. Oh sure, they got us the vote and comfortable jogging bras. But you can thank the feminists for those abandoned kitchens leading to the rise of fast food empires and the scourge of soaring obesity rates, amongst other social ills, not to mention the myth that a woman's needs and goals are the same as a man's. Alpha feminist Gloria Steinem famously said: "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." To this I can only invoke George Orwell's equally famous dictum: "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man could be such a fool."
The feminists' betrayal of women set me to thinking on a larger scale. As a result of so much change and disruption in the relations between men and women, our nation has changed too. And that is what I want to talk about tonight. Just as women repressed their authentic natures to live up to an artificially constructed ideological agenda, so has Canada lost her way in trying to meet nationalist criteria that contradict her own natural instincts.
So my amended, but totally in-the-spirit-if-not-the-letter take on tonight's resolution is "Canada's Proper Place is in the International Kitchen". For I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that Canada is in her character not only a woman, but the archetypal homemaker.
Canada was England's chatelaine first, and happy to be so. First of all, she felt proud to be allied with the muscular British Empire in the palmy days of its hegemony. In her role of dutiful mate, she performed magnificently in both World War I and II. Being England's woman allowed her to feel culturally distinguished from America, and gave her confidence that she had her own sphere of influence and her own identity. 'You're not the boss of me!' she could say to America, 'because England is the boss of me!'
Canada was the go-between, the honest broker between Great Britain and the United States, the hostess passing around the party sandwiches, making sure the drinks were topped up, providing that lovely comfortable ambiance only a devoted homemaker can achieve. We felt important, empowered as good women can when they facilitate important work between dominant men. We became peacekeepers. We poured tea all over the world and made sprightly conversation while enemies glared at each other over the blueberry muffins. Sometimes we tried to keep the peace and… well, boys will be boys…and then we just picked up the broken cups and scrubbed the bloody carpets, and pretended it never happened.
We drifted apart, England and Canada. We thought we wanted more independence, and England seemed more interested in hooking up with the new Europe. We were single for a while, and we didn't much like it, because let's face it, our nature is womanly, we felt vulnerable, and deep in our hearts knew we weren't made for the responsibilities that come with real autonomy. We liked politics when it was about us - our constant identity and language crisis - are we British? French? American?;- what does it mean to be Canadian…but internationally we were timid and naïve. And credulous? Oh yeah, we believed everything we were told, even from the most disreputable of foreigners, like Cuba and China.
We needed a strong, worldly man to save us from our niceness, and well, there he was, the big palooka next door that we had ridiculed when we were England's arm candy. You could say it was a marriage of convenience. It certainly wasn't a love match on either side. And now that marriage is in trouble.
Can this marriage be saved? What if Canada and the U.S.A. were a real man and woman? Let's pretend. Let's call them "Candy" and "Tex".
Everyone said it was a perfect match. They were both gorgeous. They spoke the same language. He wasn't much older than her, he was way richer, and most important - where she was soft, sheltered, sensitive, compassionate, like a real woman should be, and needy for approval, always worrying about how she looked, and fussing with her appearance - he was broad-shouldered, manly, fit and aggressive.
He was the diamond-in-the-rough type, that is to say a little scary, because he wore twin six-shooters and a sheriff's badge right out in the open. Yet being with him made her feel safe: it meant she could quit those boring self-defence classes and concentrate on making herself pretty for the A-list parties he made sure they got invited to.
Tex had knocked around the world a bit, he'd been through some pretty divisive and uncivil family scenes as an adolescent, and the scars had made him street-wise. People seemed to either love him or hate him, but one thing was sure - there was no shortage of Tex 'wannabees' talking his talk and trying to walk his walk. Oh sure, he could be a bit crude, but a lot of that came from leaving home and having to be self-reliant at a young age, from his stubborn faith in his ideals, and from having to fight for them against other tough guys in his neighbourhood.
They complemented each other. Tex was amused by how Candy would act so ladylike and almost frosty in public, but in private couldn't get her lush and fertile body close enough to his. Oh, they bickered, as married folks will. For example, once when she read him a story she'd written, he said, "Dangnab it Candy, your stories are so durn depressin'. Why is someone always fallin' through the ice in a howling blizzard, or gettin' beat up by life? Cain't you write somethin' with a hero, who fights the bad guys and wins and gets his dream gal and ends up happy?" She would naturally be very hurt, and say, "I guess I can't expect a big dumb Hegemon like you to have the sensitivity to appreciate art, eh? I guess you'd be happier if I had a big shootout every ten pages and sexy bodies lying all over the place covered in blood, eh? And he'd say, 'well, it would shore hold my interest is all I'm sayin'."
But on the whole, considering it was a marriage of convenience, there was mutual respect, and even affection. He made her rich, and she made him feel like a man wants to feel, like he's bold and successful, and appreciated.
But lately, things have changed. Oh yes, their marriage is in trouble. Everyone's remarking on it. She's never there for him in the old way. A while ago he got mugged by a gang of guys who hate him. He staggered home bruised and battered, and what happens? Oh sure, she fusses with the Polysporin and Band-Aids, but then she says, 'well maybe if you didn't act like such a big shot, flashing your gold Rolex around in front of poor people, maybe they wouldn't have done that'. Tex was stunned by her lack of sympathy, and things were never right between them after that.
A man needs to feel his wife supports him. A man needs comfort, and if he can't find it at home, well…Tex has been pretty cozy with some other gals lately, know what I'm saying? Candy got drunk at a cocktail party a few weeks ago and called her husband a moron. Everyone heard. It was, like, a total embarrassment for him. It's separate bedrooms now, I understand. Sad. So much potential…
To conclude, I want to say, 'Candy, Candy. Remember what Ann Landers always used to say: Ask yourself, are you better off with him or without him? You have to realize it's not always about you and your niceness. Get over yourself. You're a woman. There's no shame in it. So when you're tempted to tell Tex you have a headache, instead just lie back and think about that condo in Fort Lauderdale you have your eye on. Because if you want your man to stand by you - and the day is surely coming when you will - then you must heed the words of that womanly icon Tammy Wynette: Canada, you gotta' stand by your man.