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Anne Kingston: A Feminist Journalist Who Made a Difference

Sharply critical and a fine writer — she blazed her own path.

Jenn Jefferys 24 Feb

Jenn Jefferys is a freelance journalist and independent communications consultant living on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation (Ottawa, Canada). Reach her by email here or follow her @jennjefferys.

In a world where ‘feminism’ has become a cheap marketing tool for some, Anne Kingston was authentically and unabashedly feminist.

Kingston, who died this month at 62, was insatiably curious. She was driven to demand better of everything and everyone. Hers was the calibre of journalism that left editors’ minds spinning, and competing writers — myself included — jealous and desperate to understand her magic formula.

Kingston peeled back layers. She exposed the complicated machinery behind curtains of power. She went literary places others dared not go. Her bio on the Maclean’s magazine website said "Senior writer and columnist Anne Kingston covers contemporary culture — everything from medical politics to the politics of food."

That’s range.

Maclean’s was home to her final bylines, which some may see as a curious place for a feminist to hang her hat. But she was never afraid of a challenge, including being outnumbered by men in newsrooms most of her career.

Today’s intersectional third- and fourth-wave feminist activists roll their eyes at the cautious complicity of the second-wave feminist generation into which Kingston was born in 1957. But Kingston was neither cautious nor complicit. Her strong character and critical mind were shaped in part by growing up in a single-parent household. She saw injustice and wrote about it.

Throughout her career she questioned everything from Canada’s relationship to the monarchy to our so-called world class health care system to intimate partner violence, long before the Women’s March became a thorn in the side of the current U.S. president.

And everyone from sharp young court reporters to seasoned editors for Canada’s oldest magazine seems to agree that in the world of Canadian news media, Kingston’s writing had a special place.

Kingston covered Hollywood mogul and serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein with fearlessness and ferocious critical insight right up until December, two months before she died of cancer.

Mandi Gray, a PhD candidate and feminist activist, saw the news media in action during the 2016 trial of a man charged with sexually assaulting her.

Kingston was different, she says.

"Anne Kingston was incredibly important for bringing issues of gendered inequality to a demographic of Canadians that are either ill-informed about the issues, or simply reject the premise that gender inequality exists," says Gray, who added that her father — a lifelong Maclean’s subscriber — is not the easiest arm to twist on gender justice. But he read Kingston’s columns anyway.

"I met Anne at a conference on campus sexual violence in 2016. I was surprised she made the trek to Kingston, Ontario, to sit through two days of a conference. She told me she was there to learn about what was happening on campuses across Canada," Gray continued.

"That really struck me. So rarely have I met journalists who are there to listen and learn (again, likely a perk of having full-time permanent employment). She wasn’t there just desperately searching for the next big headline about campus sexual violence. In our meeting, Anne was kind and thoughtful."

The year 2016 could be classified as a cultural turning point in Canada. We had a new federal government. Celebrity CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi was on trial for sexual assault with multiple accusers.

Toronto Star reporter Alyshah Hasham met Kingston in the courtroom during that trial. Kingston was there for every brutal detail of testimony, but she wasn’t filing stories the same way Hasham was. As a columnist, Kingston took her time to observe and ruminate.

"Anne didn’t do stereotypical reporting," Hasham says. "She was thoughtful, layered. She would contextualize things, including the advocacy happening outside the courtroom."

Seated next to Kingston during the Ghomeshi trial was Sarah Boesveld, filing for Chatelaine.

"She treated me as a colleague and an equal, despite the many questions I peppered her with," says Boesveld. "We shared observations about what was playing out in front of us — hers so incisive and intelligent it felt like she was on a different plane from the rest of us. Seeing more, understanding more."

"Despite Anne being such a wonderful generalist, I feel like she really made her mark writing about gender dynamics and issues that affect women’s lives," adds Boesveld. "I looked up to her immensely while working that beat at Chatelaine. While the rest of us needed so much time to absorb what was going on in front of us during #MeToo and in the years that came before it, Anne was miles ahead. She knew the sexual violence she was reporting on was really about power."

Jesse Brown, who hosts Canadaland and has been credited as one of the first to begin investigating the Ghomeshi allegations, interviewed Kingston around the time of the trial.

"Her coverage of the Ghomeshi scandal and trial was very strong," Brown says. "Media groupthink at the time was in full effect. Anne thought for herself and saw the big picture. Amid all of the gasps and dramatic courtroom revelations about forgotten letters and which model of Volkswagen Ghomeshi drove, [Anne knew that] the key question of consent went overlooked."

An unmarried woman, Kingston wrote on many provocative subjects. In 2018, she wrote a feature titled ‘I regret having children’ sharing the stories of silently guilt-plagued mothers who wound up feeling "trapped or suffocated" as a result of their choice to have kids.

Julie Delahanty, past executive director of Oxfam Canada and a well-known Canadian feminist, found that particular Kingston column interesting. But there were others she found unfair.

"I think she kind of started the whole Trudeau fake feminist story," Delahanty said. "At the time I remember thinking: who was she to decide who is and isn’t a feminist?"

Kingston’s fiery 2016 column "Is Justin Trudeau a fake feminist?" presented a meticulous critique of the Trudeau Liberals’ first year in power. But if you read the piece thoroughly, she walked a fine line: complimenting brave public gestures one moment, calling out fragile masculinity the next. As was her style, she was critical, but classy.

"Trudeau’s propensity for progressive public gestures — his gender-parity cabinet, turfing two Liberal MPs after two female NDP MPs reported being sexually assaulted and harassed, his Snapchat advising men on how to be better feminists (‘don’t interrupt women, and notice every time women get interrupted in conversation’) — is not in question," she wrote.

"Where doubts are growing is over a prime minister who vocally identifies as feminist without calling out and drilling down into the hard intersections and injustices that underlie gender inequality, particularly those faced by women on the margins."

The relationship of an editor and a writer is intimate and complicated. Sarmishta Subramanian worked alongside Kingston for close to two decades at Saturday Night, the National Post and finally Maclean’s. Subramanian penned a powerfully heartfelt tribute to her late friend and colleague in ‘Anne Kingston: Her beat was life.’

I asked Subramanian to tell me what Kingston meant to her.

"There were so many things I admired in Anne as a journalist — her open mindedness, her curiosity, her ability to zero in on the questions other people weren’t asking, her dogged reporting," she wrote in reply. "She derived a lot of her authority from the details and facts and stories her reporting turned up and from her astute analysis, rather than from opinion. It’s a labour-intensive approach that is I think becoming increasingly uncommon in a changing media landscape."

Subramanian pointed to the important work Kingston did over the years: her work on Ghomeshi and on #MeToo; her investigative articles; her political pieces on Michael Ignatieff or Elizabeth May or Trudeau’s feminist record.

"But there’s also the sheer breadth of her stories on women’s lives. It says something that she wrote about the case to not have children, about women who regret having kids, and about the situation infertility of women who wanted kids yet for various reasons didn’t. She was interested in all of it," Subramanian wrote.

"It’s hard for me to pinpoint what I learned from Anne — we worked so closely for so long. But the precision and stylishness of her writing were certainly an influence, and her fearlessness was inspiring. Anne didn’t care if someone didn’t like what she wrote about them; her loyalty was to the story and getting it right."

Four years post-Ghomeshi, #MeToo marches on. Survivors of sexual violence wait as Harvey Weinstein’s verdict looms below the border. Meanwhile, the Toronto Star’s Hasham is still covering some of Toronto’s most horrific trials as a court reporter.

"I was thinking, after [Anne Kingston] passed away, I really did learn a lot from reading her work that I apply to my writing today," Hasham says, pointing to one of Kingston’s last columns, which came out on Dec. 5, 2019.

"When that column came out, I was working on a piece about domestic homicide about a plea case where a man murdered his wife. I read that piece and really tried to apply the approach Kingston spoke to [of covering gender-based violence in the active rather than passive voice] in my writing. We need to be critical [as journalists] and think about the words that we use."

That headline for Kingston’s Dec. 5 column: "Let’s finally call ‘violence against women’ what it really is." Maclean’s published it 30 years after the Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, a day forever etched in the minds of Canadians because of one cowardly act of femicidal hate. Kingston presented us with a rallying cry and call to action, as was her style: driving readers to feel something, then do something.*

I first met Kingston over email in 2015 as she and a colleague were working behind-the-scenes on a Maclean’s interview with my former boss at Equal Voice.

Kingston was a difficult person to get close to. I gathered she was an introvert and a deep thinker like many great writers. In our first interactions, I may have come off as an overzealous fan girl. It took me years to finally work up the courage to reach out to her to directly to pick her brain.

To my surprise and delight, for whatever generous reason, she made herself available. I would have a chance to call the Anne Kingston by phone.

"Carry a pen and paper everywhere," she instructed me. Never stop writing. Never stop scribbling down ideas. Kingston lived and worked in Toronto while I was based in Ottawa, making an in-person connection difficult. Somehow, I still felt a connection.

Our last correspondence was over email one year ago this month, as we were trying to connect for coffee in downtown Toronto while I was passing through.

We never did have that coffee. But somehow, from a distance, Kingston found little ways to mentor me as I suspect she’s done for countless others in and around Canadian media throughout her life.

She was classy and generous. She led by example.

She was Anne Kingston.

*Story updated on Feb. 24 at 3:30 p.m. to correct that the Montreal Massacre occurred 30 years ago, not 40 years ago.  [Tyee]

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