Toronto Star

November 28, 1999

White Ribbon tinged with unease

By Michelle Landsberg
The Toronto Star

THE CHANDELIERS glitter, the silver coffee pots sparkle, the ice tinkles musically in the goblets, the Royal York's Canadian ballroom is packed as the good people tuck into pancakes and scrambled eggs - and all this in the name of men striving to end male violence against women.

It would have been unimaginable nine years ago, when a few stalwarts braved the suspicion of feminists and the sneers of macho guys to begin the White Ribbon campaign against male violence. Indeed, attendance at Toronto's White Ribbon breakfast last Thursday vaulted in one year from 300 people to an impressive 1,100. The occasion was upbeat. Mayor Mel Lastman jovially proclaimed Nov. 25 to Dec. 6 as official White Ribbon Days. Noeleen Heyzer, director of UNIFEM, the United Nations women's agency, came from New York to deliver an affecting keynote speech, praising the history of women's activism, saluting the men for their efforts, and declaring that day - Nov. 25 - as the first U.N. International Day To End Violence Against Women and Girls.

Most poignantly, Therese Daviau, mother of one of the young women slain 10 years ago at Montreal's cole Polytechnique, implored the audience to educate their children against violence, and said, ``Our girls must not have died for nothing.''

The coffee came around again. Jack Layton, co-chair of the White Ribbon Campaign, reminded us that every man who pins on a white ribbon is pledging ``never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women.''

All the money raised at the breakfast will go to local front-line agencies: Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, Assaulted Women's Helpline, Education Wife Assault, the December 6 Fund, Family Abuse Crisis Exchange, Dressing for Success, Native Women's Resource Centre, Woman Abuse Council of Toronto and Riverdale Immigrant Women's Centre.

And White Ribbon suffers no shortage of money. Of its $250,000 annual budget, it gives $50,000 a year to the Canadian Women's Foundation. White Ribbon has a downtown office, four full-time staff members and a new education bureau to distribute an anti-violence education kit to thousands of schools. Shoppers Drug Mart celebrated the breakfast by presenting a cheque for $20,000. Without a doubt, the White Ribbon is one of the more dramatically successful advocacy campaigns on ``women's issues'' that I've ever seen.

So . . . with all this goodwill flowing, why did so many feminists in the crowd choke a little on their pancakes? What made so many of the front-line women from agencies that will benefit from White Ribbon's largesse feel guiltily, just a little, furtively, as though they'd like to - well, not exactly bite - but maybe just take one small nip at the hand that feeds them?

These are, after all, the allies that women have needed. We know that all the defiant Take Back the Night marches or candlelight vigils in the world will not actually stop rape, battering or murder. Every shelter worker, rape counsellor and worn-out female fundraiser in that ballroom had to feel intense relief that these men were taking up the battle.

Relief, too, that these guys got the message and were ready to acknowledge and share with the sisters in the cause.

So, why that little edge of unease?

I can answer that question. Gazing around the ballroom, listening to the news that White Ribbon groups have sprung up on every continent, I was stunned by the sheer, graceful, effortless display of male power. In 25 years of the women's movement, not a single anti-violence women's organization could ever have filled a ballroom with so much money and influence. Education Wife Assault, for example, has worked tirelessly for two decades, in a church basement, with just $70,000 in core funding from the United Way - and it probably could have slaved away for another 20 years without getting so much as a sandwich lunch from corporate coffers.

Corporations don't give to feminists; they give to guys. White Ribbon's success, in fact, is built on the same male entitlement and pride of place that makes lesser men think they have a right to pound out their fury on their wife's body, the same male privilege that lets men rape their date and get away with claiming it was ``consensual.''

What's wonderful is that, at long last, so many men are trying to use that male privilege positively, to stop the steady, underlying thrum of aggression and brutality.

Oh sure, I know that some men who pin on a White Ribbon are reluctant to confront even minor abuses of male power.

They wouldn't dream of challenging a buddy's sexist joke or speaking up against a harassing colleague.

Still, in the history of the world, it's a minor miracle that a group entitled to power would take the radical step of beginning to shift the balance. Feminists are grateful. A little grumpy, but grateful, and intensely glad to have some brotherly help in changing the world.

Michele Landsberg's column usually appears in The Star Saturday and Sunday.

Contents copyright © 1996-1999, The Toronto Star.