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Kate Alderdice, 1945-1983

This is the Introduction to Various Quills: A Selection of Writings, an anthology of essays and articles by Kate Alderdice, published in her memory in in 1984.

by Lis Angus

Kate Alderdice, a feminist and a socialist, an organizer and a writer, affected many people. Her life was one of struggle—for clarity, for justice, for humanity. This selection of Kate’s writings is intended to make a portion of her work and thought accessible to us all.

Kate grew up in New Liskeard, a small town in a mining and farming region of Northern Ontario. She was the eldest of eight children born to Lillian and Keith Alderdice: Katherine, Jeffrey, Jim, Elizabeth, Lois, Wendy, Fred, and Ann. In later years, after Kate left home, she loved going back to New Liskeard for the big family reunions at Christmas. She looked forward to visits in Toronto from her mother, sisters, and brothers; she felt a strong tie throughout her life with her family and the community in New Liskeard.

Kate attended New Liskeard Public School and New Liskeard Secondary School. In addition to being an outstanding student, she was a member of the drama club, editor of the school paper, and a member of the school band, where she played the clarinet. She wrote a weekly column in the Temiskaming Speaker, the community newspaper. By the time she graduated from high school in 1963, she had already developed a passion for truth, justice, and equality.

In the fall of 1963, Kate enrolled in Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her excellent standing in the final high school examinations won her an Ontario Scholarship, a Dominion-Provincial grant, and an entrance scholarship from Carleton. Kate also supplemented her income by working as a waitress during the school year. Characteristically, one of her first activities at Carleton was to join in a sit-down strike to protest having to take part in the pyjama parade—one of the ordeals of "frosh week."

Kate became active in the New Democratic Party at Carleton, and quickly found that her beliefs placed her in the left wing of the party. Like many others of her generation, she was profoundly impressed by the achievements of the Cuban revolution, and deeply opposed to the intervention of the United States in Vietnam. She was also—ahead of most of her contemporaries—a committed feminist.

By 1964, Kate had become a Marxist. With characteristic zeal she threw herself into reading and mastering the classics of Marxism. She believed that Marxist theory best explained the contradictions of the society she lived in, and offered the way toward a world where all could share equally in the fruits of society’s productive efforts. She joined the Young Socialists as the fifth member of its newly formed Ottawa chapter. Kate and her political associates read and argued about Marxism, exploring its implications for contemporary politics, and participating in the day-to-day work of building a socialist movement in Canada.

Financial pressures forced Kate to leave the campus before completing her degree. She took a job with Northern Electric in Ottawa, joining the United Electrical Workers, where she was soon elected to the position of shop steward: a fit beginning to years of activity in the union movement. In 1965, at the age of nineteen, Kate married Gary Porter, a fellow socialist and Carleton student. Later they moved to Toronto and subsequently to Vancouver, and both became leaders of the Young Socialists and the League for Socialist Action (LSA). Although their marriage ended in 1969, Kate and Gary developed an ongoing friendship in later years.

Kate made a significant contribution to the development of the radical left in Canada. In the LSA, her skills as a political organizer, as an educator, and as a journalist quickly became evident. She was a regular contributor to the socialist press, and later joined the full-time editorial staff, where she soon learned to edit rigorously without infringing on the ideas and confidence of new writers. For a decade and a half, she devoted her efforts to the building and consolidation of an emerging team of young leaders in the socialist movement. She believed that there was no contribution she could make to society more valuable than this patient work of bringing together those who shared a common understanding of the need to fight for a socialist world. In particular, she played a major role in making the members of this team aware of the power of the struggle for women’s liberation as a key force for social change, and she inspired a generation of young socialist women to think and act for themselves.

While in the LSA and its successor, the Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue Ouvrière Révolutionnaire, Kate organized and led educational classes on socialism and its implications, managed fund raising campaigns, and coordinated conferences. She wrote many articles and discussion papers examining issues of the day: exploitation of the Third World and Native peoples, the rights of women, youth, tenants, and immigrants.

Kate was also active in the trade union movement, the anti-war movement, and the abortion movement, which included the campaign to defend Dr. Henry Morgentaler. A powerful speaker, she was able to explain complex ideas simply and in easily understood form. In the 1974 federal election, Kate ran as the League for Socialist Action’s candidate against Mitchell Sharp, then Liberal minister for external affairs. She seized the opening to call for Canada to break from NATO and from complicity in suppression of Third World revolutions.

In 1974, Kate and John Riddell formed a companionship that changed both their lives. At the same time Kate developed close sustaining friendships with John’s mother Kay Riddell and his sister Susan Riddell Stylianos.

Kate was a pioneer in the fight for women’s entry into nontraditional jobs. Between stints as a full-time socialist organizer, she was an electrical worker in Ottawa and Toronto, a postal worker in Vancouver, a typesetter in Toronto, and an aircraft assembler in Malton. She believed firmly that women must support one another, and she herself offered strength and clear-sighted encouragement to women struggling for greater equality in the workplace.

For Kate, it was never "just a job"; she threw herself into each experience, learning new skills and confronting fresh challenges. This is perhaps best described by Wendy Johnston, a close friend and coworker:

      "Kate was among the first women hired since World War II by McDonnell Douglas Aircraft in Malton. During the two-week training course, the new women workers struggled to learn the unfamiliar skills of blueprint reading and riveting. Kate’s manual dexterity, revealed in her carefully crafted wall hangings and quilts, was applied to the challenge of riveting aluminum. Some of her male co-workers were amused by her habit of holding rivets between her teeth, ready for the next hole, much as a seamstress holds her pins when working on fabric. One day a nearby co-worker couldn’t restrain himself any longer and burst out, ‘Don’t sneeze, Kate, or you’ll rivet me to the wall!’

      "Kate was always interested in the opinions of her co-workers. To spark conversations on the job at the Malton aircraft plant, she often wore T-shirts and buttons expressing the demands of various political struggles. In 1980, to celebrate May 1, the international workers’ day, she arrived with every button she owned pinned to her blue denim work apron. Aircraft construction suffered that day, but political discussion flourished."

The intensity of Kate’s political and intellectual life was never at the expense of her personal life with family and friends, her concern for physical fitness, or her artistic interests. She always tried to set aside time for the things she loved to do: daily jogging and workouts at Hart House, sunbathing on Kay’s deck, talking with friends over a bottle of wine, trying out new recipes, going to plays with a friend or a group of students, walking through the woods on the Bruce Trail, exploring the countryside and browsing in the village craft shops with John. She treasured this private time and called it "recharging her batteries."

In 1978, with John’s encouragement and his family’s help, Kate returned to full-time study at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she majored in English literature. Her intellectual and personal abilities quickly distinguished her as an exceptional student. In the words of one of her professors, "Kate made irrelevant the distinction between student and colleague." Her clarity of thought and expression, sharpened by the daily demands of years as a social activist and Marxist writer, was now applied to the challenge of literary criticism. She demanded excellence of herself, never presenting an essay until it met her own exacting standards. Kate’s commitments to social justice and to feminism became part of her approach to literary criticism, and she struggled to integrate the political and intellectual aspects of her life as a woman in contemporary society. This struggle was one she shared with many of her women colleagues who came to look to her for insight and inspiration.

Kate’s promise as a scholar was soon recognized. In 1982, she won the Gold Medal in English at Victoria and the Governor General’s Gold Medal for the highest marks in all courses at her college. She was offered one of the Canada Council’s coveted Special M.A. Scholarships for graduate study at a Canadian university, and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, offered her its top entrance scholarship: the Andrew D. White Fellowship. After much discussion with John and her professors at Victoria, Kate decided to accept the Cornell offer. In the fall of 1982 she entered the Department of English at Cornell where, as a fellow graduate student puts it, "Kate became an acknowledged center of strength. She spoke with such precision and care that she invigorated all her classes."

Although Kate was unable to participate as a member of the Revolutionary Workers League after 1981, she retained her political convictions, and liked to use John’s visits to Cornell to take part in free-wheeling debates with her friends on socialism.

Kate was a woman of remarkable intellectual talents and great personal warmth who inspired love and admiration in many people. At the same time she often struggled against depression, an illness whose causes are not known, and for which effective treatments have not been found. Kate fought with great courage and determination against this illness, but she was finally overwhelmed by a sudden and serious attack in January of 1983, which resulted in her suicide four months later. Kate’s struggle against depression was known only to her closest family and friends. To those who were impressed by her personal strength, her death seemed not only tragic, but incomprehensible.

On June 11, 1983, John Riddell spoke of this to a large gathering of Kate’s family and friends who came together to celebrate her life:

      "Depression is an illness that is simply not understood, and we cannot know how it was that it so suddenly and unexpectedly swept Kate away. But she herself analysed the guilt and pain she so often felt, and considered the problem to be not individual, but social. Kate cried out against a society that punishes us, that punishes women in particular, who strive for a free life, for truth, and for a better world. She found her life exciting and rewarding, and believed it was troubled because it was transitional, spanning both the dark years of women’s confinement and the bright promise of the Cuban revolution, of women’s liberation, and of the struggle for socialism.

      "During the illness that overwhelmed her these last four months and isolated her from her friends, she lived in hope, lived for each moment of joy. She planted the flowers, tended the grass, encouraged the trees, and marched through the countryside, the impatient field-marshal of spring. And how she fought on! She was determined to live normally, and as fully as she could. ‘I’ll recover when the lilacs bloom,’ she said. When the blackness rose up, she hung on, fighting for each moment of happiness. She made plans for the future: a shift in her views on literary theory, new ideas for integrating her literary and political convictions, plans for her life with me. If we ever face such giant obstacles, let us all fight on with the courage and with the hope that Kate had to her last day.

      "She affected us all, and she changed us. We shared her ideas and fought along with her. Kate believed we are strong when we are together. So she was the great organizer—of socialist branches, of newspapers, of her workmates, of her fellow unionists, of classrooms—trying to unite us and to give us confidence. We all share Kate’s passion for justice and for the truth. That brings us together. We’ll go on working for these goals, and that’s how Kate will live on among us and continue to bring us joy."

* * *

The articles and essays in this selection fall into two groups, spanning the two major thrusts of Kate's life: her political writings, focusing on women's issues, and her literary essays. The political articles have been selected from the scores that Kate wrote for the socialist newspapers, Young Socialist Forum and Labor Challenge, during the ten years between 1966 and 1976. They show a freshness and force that make them relevant even today. The article by Robert Simms, "Kate Alderdice debates Mitchell Sharp," is included to give a flavour of Kate's speeches. The three essays have been chosen from the many that Kate wrote while she was an undergraduate student in Toronto between 1979 and 1982, before she entered Cornell University for graduate studies in English.

Lis Angus
July, 1984

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