LADIES, UPSTAIRS! My Life in Politics and After.
My Life in Politics and After
McGill Queen's University Press
Monique Begin tells a heroic story of great accomplishment and occasional self-reflection. Rife with name-dropping, settling old scores, and rewarding friends, Ladies, Upstairs! My Life in Politics and After is a mine and a minefield for activists, politicians and scholars. It was hard to put down.
Begin's class origins were modest. Born in 1936 to a Belgian mother and French-Canadian father in Lisbon, her arrival in Quebec during la grande noirceur of the Union Nationale's Maurice Duplessis seemed unpromising. As it turned out, a young woman with few social credentials but great ability was well positioned to ride the crest of Quebec's Quiet Revolution and the feminist renaissance of the later 20th century.
Money limited her educational options, but the young sociologist was swept up in the progressive excitement that produced Quebec's so-called "wise men," of whom Pierre-Elliott Trudeau is the best known. Begin came to national and English-Canadian feminist attention as the executive secretary of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1967. Her account of those years is insightful and entertaining (if you are not a target). This sudden immersion in national politics deepened the liberal feminist's view of government as the primary instrument for equal opportunity.
In 1972, Begin was the successful Liberal candidate for Montreal-Saint-Michel. While recognizing herself as a "tolerated exception" due to her gender, she became an irrepressible glutton for work. The reward was a parliamentary secretaryship to the minister of external affairs in 1975. More significant was her appointment under prime minister Trudeau as minister of health and welfare in 1977. Her left liberalism, reminiscent of today's former Liberal cabinet ministers Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould, was a progressive force in struggles for universality, the Canada Health Act, the Canada Assistance Plan and improved Aboriginal welfare. That last mandate led to a new awareness for Begin of neo-colonialism. She also reflects on what it meant to be a feminist federalist facing Quebec sovereigntists.
In 1984, Begin retired from parliament and began a career as a visiting scholar. Recognition of her expertise in the social determinants of health, notably for women, brought her the deanship of the faculty of health sciences at the University of Ottawa in 1990.
Ultimately, Begin paints a picture of a life lived with flaws but also one lived with courage and determination.
REVIEW BY VERONICA STRONG-BOAG