Doris Anderson had an impeccable manicure. The editor of Chatelaine from 1957 to 1977 loved the high-lacquer look. “When you would go into her office,” says Marjorie Harris, who wrote for the magazine in the early 1970s and was later associate editor, “she would get out her polish and start doing her nails. The smell of nail polish still reminds me of her.” For weekly story meetings, writers and editors would grab a quick smoke, then gather in Anderson’s sparsely decorated corner office in the Maclean Hunter building in Toronto, and hear her growl, “I don’t know, gals, what do ya think?”

Anderson died last year from pulmonary fibrosis at age 85, and in January of this year, Masthead ranked Chatelaine the second most influential Canadian magazine of all time. It named Anderson the greatest magazine editor in Canadian history because of her ability to balance business with the interest of the greater good. A committed feminist and a tireless activist, arguing for abortion rights and more women in parliament, Anderson was an uncompromising person who wrote about taboo subjects and rejected the prevailing assumption that the only fulfilling path for a woman was to become a housewife. But she also had a softer side and writers, editors and readers loved her for it.

Though she came from a generation of women who were expected to be voiceless, Anderson refused to stay quiet. And while many young women my age may be oblivious to what an accomplishment that was—and even bristle at the term “feminism”—it is only because of Anderson and others like her that we can graduate from university and be progressive journalists or do whatever else we want, free of female stereotypes or other constraints. We owe her a lot.

Anderson’s early life seems surreal to me. Born Hilda Doris Buck to a single mother in Medicine Hat, Alberta, on November 10, 1921—only a few years after some Canadian women won the right to vote—she was considered illegitimate and placed in a Calgary home for unwanted babies. But Rebecca Buck soon retrieved her daughter, telling everyone she had taken in a child to make some money. The difficult decisions her mother faced had a profound effect on the young Anderson and helped make her into a lifelong advocate for women.

When I was born 22 years ago, my mother, who was the age I am now, was unmarried. I can’t imagine a time when young women travelled to secret locations to have their babies and then gave them away. My mother and father did not get married until last year, though they raised my younger brother and me together. I thought this was normal until I went to a Catholic school. The other children were so astonished that my parents weren’t married I gained new-found pride in my unconventional upbringing.

After a turn as a fiction writer and a stay in Europe, Anderson landed at Chatelaine’s door in 1951. Hired to write advertising promotions, she also had to approach Eaton’s, Simpsons and Dominion to persuade them to design window and floor displays to coincide with upcoming features.

In 1952, Chatelaine editor Lotta Dempsey stepped down and John Clare, who had been managing editor of Maclean’s, took over. Anderson climbed the ladder under Clare, irritating him every time she suggested that not all women were content to be housewives. In 1955, after working as a staff writer, she became associate editor. For one story Anderson interviewed pioneer women who had followed the buffalo trails north from Winnipeg. These women gave Anderson precious old photos, which she hoped would accompany the piece. The magazine’s editors wanted to use an illustration of “a menacing native looming in the foreground” as art for the story. Though she was just at the beginning of her career, Anderson fought back, saying the design was ugly, frightening and off-putting.

Clare, a “gruff, pipe-smoking man,” often took exception to Anderson’s chutzpah and threatened to fire her more than once. Even when he left Chatelaine in May 1957, he showed no signs of supporting her campaign for editorship. “Doris was running the magazine,” says activist and writer Michele Landsberg, one of Anderson’s good friends. Instead, publisher Floyd Chalmers named Gerry Anglin editor. When Anderson threatened to resign, Chalmers told her, “You are going to be married and you will become a hostess and a mother.”

“I have been carrying this magazine for the past year,” she argued.

Despite heavy opposition, Chalmers relented. “They gave her the job,” says Landsberg, “which she should have had, and she immediately started making it a feminist magazine. You can’t understand how revolutionary that was.”

She hired tough writers, including Landsberg, June Callwood, Adrienne Clarkson and Barbara Frum, and assigned them to write stories, such as Callwood’s “The Problem of the Terrible-Tempered Husband,” about a battered woman. She also printed advice from experts that encouraged women to be who they wanted. Circulation grew from 480,000 in the late 1950s to 1.8 million by the late 1960s—by that point, one in every three women in Canada was reading Chatelaine.

Anderson aimed to shatter the pre-feminist stereotypes found in competing women’s magazines, and she wasn’t afraid of the controversy that followed. She wrote about abortion rights in a 1959 editorial. As soon as the issue hit the newsstands, Chatelaine’s phone lines lit up as readers cancelled their subscriptions and called for Anderson to be fired and the magazine to be shut down. “I was appalled,” wrote one reader. “If she suggests the abortion laws be changed [then] why not the murder laws and the laws against mercy killing?” She continued: “There is no such thing as an unwanted child; there are thousands of couples who are longingly waiting for a child to adopt.”

Undaunted by the attacks, Anderson addressed a workplace issue that was close to her heart in a 1960 editorial. “A large Canadian supermarket chain reported that a woman doesn’t stand a chance of being appointed to an executive position, even though women store managers, during the war, did a good job,” she wrote. “What happens then to all those bright girls who lead their classes in school and at university? … Are they always to be toiling away on the lower levels for lower salaries? Is there always to be a kind of iron ceiling above their heads? I’m afraid, until someone proves otherwise, that I am forced to conclude that there is.” As Penney Kome, editor for straightgoods.ca, an independent online newsmagazine, sees it, “Doris played … a crucial role; she was such a pioneer in waking women up to the inequality that accompanied the roles they were expected to play at that time.”

Anderson’s Chatelaine also allowed women to debate the increasingly controversial issues surrounding marriage and motherhood in the early 1960s. Valerie Korinek, a University of Saskatchewan history professor who wrote Roughing It in the Suburbs: Reading Chatelaine Magazine in the Fifties and Sixties, believes the magazine created a special community. “If they were participating in the readers’ page, they got not only a sense of what the editors thought would be of interest or important to Canadian wives and mothers,” she says, “but also what other women were thinking about and how they were responding to the periodical.”

As I researched Anderson’s life, I found a 1973 National Film Board documentary, Women Want, which I thought would help me understand the history of Canadian feminism. In one scene, a woman sat at her office desk and said her husband didn’t oppose her working—she just wasn’t sure he was terribly happy about it. Another admitted, “I like going to the bank and being able to take out money.”

I watched the film from my couch in my bachelorette and couldn’t believe how much has changed over the last 50 years. I realized the independence I take for granted might have infuriated my parents if I’d been born two generations earlier. I was angry about the injustices these women faced, but I also felt ashamed and selfish because I’d never had to work up the courage to fight for my rights.

When Chatelaine received galleys for a new book in 1963, Anderson declined to run an excerpt because it covered ground already well-trodden in the magazine. The book? Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. “I think she was well ahead of the curve in talking to women about the issues and concerns that really mattered to them,” says Kim Pittaway, Chatelaine’s editor from 2004 to 2005, “rather than focusing only on the issues and concerns that were ‘supposed’ to matter.”

And Landsberg told me: “In the ’60s, when nobody else talked about this, we had articles on how women are the poor and how poverty was a major play on racism written by black women. We had native women; we fought for native women’s rights.”

And yet, Anderson’s editorial vision didn’t fully resonate with me. As a young biracial woman, I was struck by the lack of diversity in her magazine; I began to see how the second wave of feminism was conceived primarily for the benefit of middle-class white women.

Reading a 1959 Chatelaine article, “My Daughter Married a Negro,” helped me better understand the contradictions. I couldn’t believe how intimately the piece described a mother’s relationship with her daughter as she struggled to understand the relationship between her white daughter and a black man. The honesty in the piece was inspiring as the mother came to love her son-in-law and his family, who felt uneasy themselves about the relationship. My admiration for Anderson grew as I realized what courage it must have taken to run such articles at the time.

But in a 2006 journal article from the Canadian Journal of Communication called “No Go to No Logo: Lesbian Lives and Rights in Chatelaine,” Carleton University journalism, media history and gender studies associate professor Barbara M. Freeman pointed out that whenever there was a strong backlash against an article, Anderson assumed she’d gone too far and would drop the subject for a while.

I can’t think of Anderson without thinking of my great-grandmother Alice Glavine, who was born in 1917 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and died at age 89 in Toronto. She gave birth to nine children and was a housewife all her life. She may have wanted to have it all, but at that time, mother-hood was not a choice—it was the only choice.

Anderson challenged the notion that all women were born housewives. “We’ve been brainwashed about the ease of keeping house with all the ready-mixes, miracle cleaners and general gadgetry,” she wrote in 1964. “Our society tends to assume that all women are born mothers and homemakers, in the same way that all ducks can swim.”

But Anderson was beginning to embrace marriage and motherhood herself. In 1957, she married lawyer David Anderson. Her first son, Peter David, was born in 1958, a year after she became editor of Chatelaine, followed by Stephen Robert in 1961 and Mitchell Richard in 1963. Each time, she worked until her due date, breaking an unwritten rule that pregnant women resigned from their jobs at five months. After each birth, she returned to work, flouting another custom of the times. She took almost no maternity leave. “My mother was an incredibly busy woman,” says Mitchell Anderson. “I mean, my mother loved us a lot, but she was also doing some pretty important stuff.”

Chatelaine’s mix of stories always reflected the lives of modern women—women who, like Anderson, held strong opinions on abortion but also maintained a drawer full of dazzling nail polishes. The magazine was a place to learn about fashion and the latest food trends too. Pieces such as Meals of the Month (“Tired of cooking the same old thing? This month’s suggestions with our readers’ favourites could be your favourites too,”) and “The New Look of Spring ’57” (“The versatile cape is back, suit jackets are shorter, skirts are easier,”) offset the controversial pieces and appeased advertisers and readers expecting a more conventional tone.

By this time, she’d been passed over for the editor’s chair at Maclean’s in 1969. Anderson had wanted more authority, more opportunity and more money, but the job went to a young Peter Gzowski, who had been the managing editor there for the previous seven years. “I believe to this day that I could have put out a fine magazine,” Anderson wrote in her memoir, Rebel Daughter. “I have always regretted never being given the opportunity to prove it.”

Over the years more and more liberal articles appeared and Anderson’s Chatelaine editorials became increasingly vocal. And there was a drastic transformation in her photo in the magazine. In the 1950s, she was a demure, well-coiffed woman in a business suit and pear-shaped diamond necklace. In 1975, she appeared with short hair, shoulders slouched and legs apart, with her hands hanging low, wearing a slightly stern expression.

Anderson stepped down as editor of Chatelaine in 1977 and a year later ran for office in a federal byelection as a Liberal, but lost. She accepted an appointment as chair of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women in 1979 and then played a crucial role in the development of Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, barring discrimination based on race, origin, colour, religion, age, disability and sex. When Lloyd Axworthy, then employment minister, cancelled a 1981 conference with the Council to discuss the gender equality clause, Anderson resigned. This act was the catalyst that provoked 1,300 women to gather in Ottawa and march on Parliament Hill. “What is this minister saying? ‘We can’t have our say on the constitution?’” remembers Senator Nancy Ruth, “and women got mad.”

The following year, Anderson became president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, a coalition of more than 700 women’s organizations. She served until 1984 and then went on to write a column for the Toronto Star, three novels and TheUnfinished Revolution, a book about women’s movements.

At her 80th birthday party in 2001, which she humbly thought no one would attend, more than 1,000 friends gathered at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. Soprano Mary Lou Fallis sang “Song for Doris,” which she had written for the event. “We ended up all singing,” remembers journalist Rosemary Speirs, “and at the end of it everybody twirled their napkins in the air.”

Reeling through Chatelaine on microfilm, I read every editorial by Anderson. I spoke to some of her friends and influential Canadian feminists, listening to their stories and fond memories. Each spoke with such clarity and passion; as a younger, less-experienced female journalist, I was intimidated but invigorated by their words.

In February, Iranian-born Maryam Sanati became the editor of Chatelaine. She told CBC that women are at a unique time in history—leading rich lives, but “still responsible for most of the child-rearing and taking care of elderly parents.” Perhaps her willingness to voice her opinion so early in her tenure means Sanati will take advantage of Chatelaine’s large forum to continue Anderson’s fight for equality.

In her final editorial, Anderson bid her readers farewell by writing about advances women made during her tenure. “When I took over as editor … women in politics, medicine, law and business were as rare as whooping cranes. Today all that has changed.” It sure has: while the world is not perfect, young women have many freedoms. And yet, it’s easy to lose sight of what Anderson’s generation faced. I now realize that I owe many of the opportunities I have to her and those who joined her in the fight for women’s rights. But I wonder if she will be properly remembered by those who come after her and if they—we—will carry on the work she began. I hope that we do.