Misogyny + Canadian photography


PROBLEM OF THE PAST - A Long Trail of Misinformation

In the 1960s and 70s, Laura Jones had a photography gallery on Baldwin Street, in downtown Toronto. Actually, she had a few galleries, some named the Baldwin Street Gallery, one called Sight & Mind, but all located along Baldwin Street over a number of years. Jones’s galleries displayed the work of many Toronto photographers but they gave special consideration to images by fellow female photographers.

If you google Michel Lambeth (1923-1977), you’ll find tributes to a photojournalist and filmmaker who worked for Star Weekly, Saturday Night, Maclean’s, Time and Life. What is not mentioned is the bag of excrement which he delivered in person to Ms. Jones, or the rock he flung through her door, in protest of the support she was giving women in their shared profession. To top it off, Mr. Lambeth made his deliveries with offensive, puerile and unprofessional comments. It takes little imagination to guess what they might have been.

I wish I could say that Mr. Lambeth’s act was an isolated one or that this misguided misogyny has drifted away from our present like so many other bereft ideas. I wish I could write something that would dissuade such thinking but that is also futile; the misinformed often remain so by choice. But perhaps, as a historian, I could let you know what might have inspired it.

Charles Darwin got a lot of things right about evolution. Understandably, the years following The Origin of Species (1859) made Darwin a Victorian star. By 1864, he’d won the most important science prize of his day, the Copley Medal. Without going into the minutiae of Darwin’s day-to-day life and his many other publications, The Descent of Man (1871) was his next big book on the subject. In it, Darwin noted that female birds do the selecting in mating. What this revealed was that the selection females exercised over time directed evolutionary development in species. It was what he had observed in his research. But that wasn’t going to harmonize with what white Victorian upper and middle-class males of his day wanted to believe about their important role in evolution or an insignificant role in evolution of the female sex.

Historians have pointed out, on the subject of human reproduction, that Darwin decided to side with nineteenth century patriarchy in his book. An intelligent man but ultimately a product of his time, he not only contradicted his research on birds, he intentionally disregarded all the animal kingdom examples in which powerful and skilled females ensured the survival of their species. In the chapters in which he spoke about Victorian women, he offered a jumble of unsubstantiated and unscientific assumptions, such as one suggesting that adult women were “intermediate between the child and the man” in terms of having evolved. In effect, it proposed that all women were inferior because they hadn’t gone through as many evolutionary cycles of development as men. If you think about that for just one minute you realize, like any contemporary biologist, how that is physically impossible. Darwin’s theory of natural selection holds up to modern science’s scrutiny. Yet the most absurd of his social constructions about women, the ones that have no basis in fact, seem to have a greater lifespan. Currently, professing to be a man heading a new era of masculinity, Jordan Peterson exhibits a form of craven Victorian male hysteria, one with which Darwin would have been familiar. What Peterson, Lambeth and even Darwin have in common is that such frantic emphasis on subordinating women demonstrates insecurity and fear, not confident masculinity.

Ms. Jones will never receive an apology from Mr. Lambeth, now deceased. But she can be confident that capable women like her, women photographers and maybe all women everywhere, scared the absolute living daylights out of men like Lambeth.

This article originally appeared in the Photo Historical Society of Canada's June 2018 e-newsletter. To find out more about them & sign-up to their e-news list, check them out: www.phsc.ca or contact: info@phsc.ca

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