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Not again; what a bother. But oh, it can’t wait. Music—that’ll do it. Aha! Dinah Shore: two minutes, 30 seconds and here comes the song. She’s ready, Dinah starts; and off she goes—Mil’s gone.

This always happens to Mildred MacDonald. Her 23-year-old bladder behaves with urgent, octogenarian unpredictability. That is, only when she’s on air. The familiar tingle creeps up her legs, just below her belly until she’s desperate for a “relieving” musical interlude. But again, only on air, between 11:15 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. on weekdays, when she’s hosting CHAB’s women’s show in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

The hem of her skirt—yes, never slacks—dances about her calves as she bursts out of Studio A. Her dark hair, in pretty waves, lifts off her shoulders as she makes her way through the sully plume of smoke and chatter. The boys—they light their cigs in the hallway. With their parted ’dos and sleeves rolled to the elbows, they watch MacDonald, sweet in her rush, and smile at her pace. The men in the control room share more than a smile, conspiring to lock the studio door. Oh my, wouldn’t that be a hoot! Mil, baby, you’d be stuck outside!

The facetious fellas are just talk, though, and MacDonald slips back in the nick of time. She’s skipped the bathroom gossip—that’s for the secretaries. MacDonald, after all, is the only CHAB girl with a mic. And she’ll be damned if she lets her skirt, or her bladder, get in her way.

And, boy, they sure didn’t. She reported for the women’s pages of Regina’s Leader-Post, then fixed her hat, curled her lashes and hosted women’s radio shows. At the mic for 50 years, she went on to work for 34 radio programs and five television shows at CBC in Ottawa. Basic Black, In Town and Out, Marketplace—hell, she did it all. A sweet thing-turned-venerable reporter, MacDonald was a trailblazer. Yes, she kicked her high-heeled shoe through the studio door long before women really lit up radio. So did Barbara Frum, Florence Bird and Jeanne Sauvé—the girls we all remember for noisily rattling cages and clearing the path for women in Canadian radio. MacDonald also broke ground. She just did it more quietly.

She went after the human interest stories, even as she began to cover social issues, all while unabashedly coordinating her hat and scarf. She started earlier and lasted longer than most other ladies of her time, modestly doing her job, and doing it well. And in that simple, quiet way, MacDonald made strides for women in Canadian broadcasting. But today, most of them haven’t a clue about her. When she died of pancreatic cancer in June 2009, her friends and colleagues celebrated her contribution to radio, but many in the industry didn’t even notice. As former colleague Susan Toccalino says, “Young people who come to CBC now don’t know who she was.”

* * *

MacDonald started in the industry before her curls could set. On the beat at 18, she got a job at the Swift Current Sun in 1945, reporting for the women’s pages. Then she blew it—she got hitched. Larry was a lanky guy; handsome, yes, but skinny as hell. A war veteran with unrelenting pain from shrapnel lodged in his leg, he took little Milly, then 19, to be his wife and she swapped her pen for a spatula. “It nearly fucking killed her,” says Alex MacDonald, the pair’s daughter, born two decades later. “She had nightmares about not getting the bathtub clean enough.”

So she tossed her apron at her mother-in-law and dropped the housewife bit. She got the gig at CHAB in 1951 and sweet-talked station manager Sid Boyling into giving Larry a job too. Larry, who was working at a meat-packing plant, had no experience in journalism. Don’t sweat it, MacDonald told Boyling, he’ll find his on-air voice. And he did. A few years later, they packed up and moved to Ottawa and, following a short stint atCFRA, landed at CBC. Larry fell for television; MacDonald stayed true to radio.

Her first big break came in 1954. Still the kid at CBC and just five weeks on the job, she was sent to pick up the Queen Mother in Virginia. Nervous as hell, but determined as ever, MacDonald boarded a Royal Canadian Air Force plane to begin her coverage. “I’ll tell my listeners all about it when I return,” she told Thom Benson, assistant director of CBC’s Outside Broadcasts. Ah, such naïveté. She would tell her listeners parts of it. Wrinkles and vogue—that would be MacDonald’s beat.

* * *

“We have seen her in a great many colours,” says the sweet voice. “Mostly her favourite, blue.” MacDonald’s cadence is meticulous. She delivers each word with the gentle precision of a parent reading a nighttime story. “But we seem to have seen that Her Majesty has changed from the very pale blue that she loved 15 years ago to the more, deeper tones of sapphire.”

* * *

That was journalism back then. The boys covered politics; the gals gave clothing reports. “They were the women’s pages of the air,” says Barbara Freeman, a Carleton University journalism professor whose specialties include gender and diversity in the media. These “women’s pages” spoke to the girls at home; the housewives who “yearned” for fashion news and child-rearing tips.

The kitchen shackles had come off in the 1940s because the men were fighting the war, and someone had to deliver the news. But when the soldiers returned, it was back to the pantry for most women. There were some, including Kate Aitken, whose on-air presence was not confined to wartime. Mrs. A, as everyone called her, gave CBC listeners candy-coated coverage of cooking and etiquette.

Then there were exceptions such as Betty Kennedy—perhaps best known as a panelist on Front Page Challenge—who joined Toronto’s CFRB in 1959. “I was unique in that I had complete autonomy,” says Kennedy, who later became a senator. “I treated my show like a news beat. The only instruction I ever got was, ‘Try not to get us sued.’”

MacDonald and many others trod somewhere in between, swallowing their temporary worker status. Married women weren’t full-time staff at CBC in those days. Surely hubby’s income would be more than enough. What’s a marriage for, after all?

Instead of stomping her feet, MacDonald tackled the inequity much more cunningly: through her reporting. As the ’50s turned into ’60s, she shed the clothing stories.

* * *

“I have no doubt in my mind that it was a case of racial discrimination,” John Shertulian tells MacDonald onAssignment in 1960. Shertulian and his wife believe an Ottawa landlord turned them away because of their West Indian heritage. “I had to have an income of at least $4,200. Secondly, I had to have no pets.” Not a peep from MacDonald; she lets him tell his story. “I had no pets. My income is over $4,200… Three or four days afterwards, I got a call from the agent telling me he could no longer rent me the house… I asked him why. He had no reason.”

Knowing tolerance for inequality is changing, she probes. “Mrs. Shertulian, maybe you can tell us about this: what sort of reaction have you had since this story was made public?”

“The phone rang nonstop,” chimes the contented voice. “Everybody was very, very sympathetic.”

* * *

Sympathy came with peace and love, at least outside the newsroom. The big changes would come to the studio the following decade, but heels were starting to graze the ground. Hell, there was even a woman or two delivering sports broadcasts on the radio! These ladies and their progress! Lucky for the old-fashioned fellas, most of the girls were still at home. But they wouldn’t be for long. Not with new space age inventions shaving hours off household to-do lists: the new disposable diaper from Pampers, wrinkle-free permanent-press fabrics and some sort of innovative self-cleaning oven (imagine that!).

And, of course, the pill, which made the cover of Time in 1967. Its social impact was enormous, giving women new control over their bodies, their careers and their lives. Power was hers, for a change. And fueled by books such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, more women started taking advantage of that power.

Also in 1967, Ottawa broadcaster Florence Bird chaired the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW). Despite over 20 years in journalism, she told the Ottawa Citizen in 1998 that she wanted to be remembered for her work for women. “In journalism,” she said, “my ideal was to write of important things. I wanted to improve things for women—and I believe I made a contribution.” Indeed, those contributions set in motion changes that would reinvent the role of the Canadian woman. There was still a lot of bunk to get through, of course, but MacDonald could keep the boys in line.

* * *

Early evening, 1968, and MacDonald waits in a dimly lit theatre for Duke Ellington. She’s covering his Ottawa concert for CBC Radio’s Bright Lights. After several futile calls to his agent (who had no idea what time he’d arrive) and speaking with several hotel operators (who had no idea who he was), MacDonald finally spots a shadowy figure on the stage. As his fingers test and tickle the piano’s keys, MacDonald moves down the centre aisle. The stage is lit just enough for her to distinguish the Duke’s face, and for him to look upon hers. With her full lips and prominent cheekbones, she is undeniably pretty.

“Did you say your name was Mildred?” Ellington asks. “This is what I think of when I hear the name Mildred.” And as he seduces a tender melody from the piano, MacDonald lets a smile break. It hides her reporter’s skepticism. “Oh, yeah,” she’ll later write in an article, “and at the next place, he asks, ‘Your name’s Donna? This is what I think of when I hear the name Donna.’”

After the serenade, she interviews him over steak sandwiches. The next morning, she receives an unexpected call. “I have a lot of radio and television interviews to do in Montreal today,” Ellington says, “and I can’t do them without you.” MacDonald politely declines, but it’s not the last she hears of him. Every Christmas, without fail, she receives one of his personally designed cards. She opens the last one six years later, shortly before he dies. “May all your life be merry,” it reads. “I love you, Duke Ellington.” 

* * *

Swooning interviewees were one thing, nonsense in the newsroom was another. One boss told the guys to cool it with the swearing. Not for her adorned ears, he said, until she told him to cut the crap. (MacDonald slipped four-letter words now and again. Especially to machines.) Women’s voices, too, were a topic of debate. “The early attitude was that a woman’s voice was not well-suited to radio,” says Donna Halper, media historian and author of Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting. Technology was often the scapegoat—a lot of hooey, but it worked. Freeman adds: “Women were told that because of the sound technology of the time, their voices didn’t resonate as well as men’s voices. You could take that at face value, and some of them did, and they tried to pitch their voices lower.” That wasn’t exactly what MacDonald did, but the heads at CFRA did tell her to speak with a little more “breath.” So she learned how to sound—erm—sexy. Then she got to CBC and was told, “That’s not how women talk at the CBC.” So she learned to speak with authority. MacDonald certainly wasn’t compromising. She just wanted to tell her stories. And if that meant putting on a silly voice (or maybe dropping it), so be it.

 * * *

Darn, that won’t do—interview. Nope, not then either—editing. MacDonald is sitting in her gynecologist’s office, trying to schedule a baby. At 39, she never planned on getting pregnant. Bully to staying home and knitting booties, though. She’ll work until the first contraction. If that means following a story up the Peace Tower in Ottawa, lugging a reel-to-reel machine and carrying a baby nearing the eighth month of its incubation, so be it. She needs to capture Dominion Carillonneur Robert Donnell ringing the bells, and it has to sound authentic.

* * *

“She wouldn’t have done it from the ground,” says her daughter. “For the sound effects, you want to be up there.” And Alex knows what makes for good sound bites. From the time she was little, she trotted alongside MacDonald in-studio and on interviews. What about daycare or maternity leave, you ask? Ha! Show me a man on the moon and I’ll show you maternity leave. Well, MacDonald certainly wasn’t staying home. So Alex became a regular in CBC Radio’s joint on the seventh and eighth floors of the Château Laurier. “If you had a kid, you were definitely expected to leave,” says Freeman. But there were some women who said, “Okay, I’ve had my kid, I’m back, now do something with me.” Pregnant in the mid-’40s, radio reporter Marjorie McEnaney informed her bosses that she’d be back after three months. They scoffed, of course, and hired a man. Three months after giving birth, McEnaney simply showed up and started working. CBC eventually reinstated her, but just as a temporary worker, naturally.

The feminist movement shook up these policies and attitudes in the 1970s. Women chucked the sweetie-pie bit and demanded to be treated as equals. Bird produced a report for the RCSW on how the “equal” treatment of the sexes was faring in 1970. For those who thought all was well, she threw down pages of recommendations to make sure the girls got what they were worth. And the journalism girls caught on. An internal task force on the status of women at CBC led to the creation of an equity office in 1975. Pair that with labour legislation amendments, which meant equal rights for women in the civil service, and real changes were taking shape.

Attitudes were slower to come around. “You can have all the rules and regulations you want,” says Freeman. “You still have to work through the prejudices.” Jeanne Sauvé and others had already flipped the bird at those prejudices. Sauvé, who later became Governor General, defied the stereotypes, hosting Opinions on CBC in the ’50s and ’60s. The politically charged show was her baby—she picked the topics (including premarital sex), chose the guests, did the research, wrote the copy. In the ’70s, June Callwood, who combined journalism and social justice, confronted the contentious: child abuse, test-tube babies and, of course, feminism. And Bird, who was appointed to the Senate in 1978, continued to advocate for women’s rights. Though they shared a profession with MacDonald, they were a damn lot louder. Maybe that’s why we remember them.

* * *

By the ’80s, MacDonald’s always on the go (just look at the junk in her car), reeling in the stories and making a name for herself. No more fluff—today, she’s covering the National Action Committee on the Status of Women’s annual meeting.

The voice is as sweet as 30 years ago, if plagued by a touch more vibrato from an overworked larynx: “Today’s family law is based on a social custom that goes back to the 13th century. This is where the man provides the necessities in exchange for the woman’s domestic and exclusive sexual service.” Very matter-of-fact. “Now, as long as the marriage works, women assume that property and money being acquired belongs to both of them. And it’s only when the marriage breaks up that the woman learns that the law doesn’t recognize that value of the work that she’s done in the home.”

Not a syllable overemphasized, not a point overstated. No preaching, just reporting. She doesn’t tell her listeners about how she learned to drive at age 50 after she and Larry separated. (Her father had said, “Nice girls didn’t,” so she’d never learned.) And she doesn’t tell her listeners about the constant anxiety of being a single mother and working freelance. No, she simply tells them about the conference. Other people’s stories interest her, not her own.

* * *

Every Saturday, MacDonald went to Wilfrid’s Restaurant in the Château Laurier to flip through the newspapers and maybe knock back a martini or two (three olives, very cold). From her corner booth near the window, she “interviewed” her waiters, learning their names, where they went to school and who they were dating. “In a very subtle way, she could get the information she needed or wanted out of someone,” says Rob Clipperton, who worked with MacDonald for nearly 20 years on Ottawa’s In Town and Out. “She could just make everybody totally relaxed.”

MacDonald conceded to retirement in 2001. It was those damn machines. She could never keep up; digital wasn’t for her. But that doesn’t mean she quit. No longer propped up by her mic, she leaned on her pen, writing for a couple of Ottawa newspapers, Forever Young and Capital Parent. She’d started out at theLeader-Post at a time when there were so few women that the newsroom had only a men’s bathroom. (Luckily, the staff at the Simpson’s department store a block away put up with her frequent trips to the ladies’ room.)

But she lived long enough to see Jennifer McGuire, a former radio producer, become head of CBC News. No more lone skirts, either. By 2008, women made up 45 percent of CBC/Radio-Canada’s corporate workforce. Chances are, most of them know how Bird’s protesting and Callwood’s activism helped them secure a spot. Little do they realize, MacDonald’s skill did too. “There are people who make the headlines and bring about the attention that can be a catalyst for change,” says former CBCer Abby Hagyard. “But I think the real change comes when people like Mildred just do the work. Just get it done.”

* * *

And MacDonald, known as the “woman with a smile in her voice,” has a few tricks up her pretty turquoise sleeve to help her get the work done. “This is Mil—aw, fuck.” She stops the tape. Funny, MacDonald only fumbles her words with extremely nervous interviewees. “Oh well, it’ll be edited anyway!” Her interview subject seems a little less on edge. 

“Shall we try again?”


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About the author

Robyn Urback was the Front of Book Editor for the Spring 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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