Margaret Trudeau—AKA the mom of the guy who might become the Prime Minister of Canada on Monday—is a girl-power party girl who got YOLO with Andy Warhol, didn’t bother wearing a bra, and was just generally a progressive badass. Here’s 6 reasons why we need more people like her in politics, by Kristen Cochrane.
If you’re a Canadian, you know that this year’s federal election has been intense, with attack ads floating through our cultural psyche like a bad divorce. If you’re not Canadian, trust us, this is a historical election campaign. Incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party is holding onto his image of cool, “I’ve-got-it-all-under-control” daddy figure, while the Liberal Party’s handsome, immaculately coiffed Justin Trudeau has come in with a commitment to economic redistribution and reform for the almost comically troubled Canadian senate. And while women are usually left out of the political picture, it’s worth remembering during this election that it was Justin Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau (born Margaret Sinclair), who was one of the coolest yet underrated feminist icons this country has had. Tellingly, the way the press scrutinized her joie de vivre and ultra-liberal spirit as a young woman only emphasized how avant-garde she really was.
If you’re outside of Canada, you might not know about Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Prime Minister we had from 1968 through the 70s, and then again in the early 80s. Trudeau was the perfect fit for an era whose ethos needed a progressive spokesperson for the ideological revolutions of the late 60s. His youthful persona and refusal to remain tight-lipped about social norms and taboos at the time is argued to have led to his election and perennial support. In 1967, a year before he was to become Prime Minister, he famously uttered the line “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” appropriate for a decade where people were fighting for their sexual autonomy to be respected.
But enough about Pierre, and onto his wife (especially considering how the lives of women are routinely erased, overshadowed by the triumphs and mythos surrounding a celebrated male figure). I’ve always been fascinated by the legend of Margaret Trudeau, who is still alive and has penned memoirs chronicling her adventures, including her difficulties with mental illness.
My mother, a twentysomething during this period (known as “Trudeaumania”), was fascinated with Pierre Trudeau, and subsequently with his wife Margaret Trudeau. I remember my mom casually mentioning (without judgment) that Margaret would walk around with a camera around her neck and no bra on. Curious about the validity of a bra-less first lady, I did my research. Mother was telling the truth. Margaret was quoted as saying “If I don’t feel like wearing a bra I don’t wear one. I’d never let my nipples show though—I’d be frightened the old men would have heart attacks.” Touché, Margaret.
Margaret Trudeau’s stories, as rich and abundant as they are, are not only interesting as gossip and shock value, but surprising—even in 2015, where anything goes. Instead, they illustrate the social and political risks that Margaret took, as a woman, as the wife of a politician during various tense political moments, and as a mother. Women continue to be shamed over what they do once they have an assigned domestic duty. A wife shouldn’t do that, or, now that she’s a mother, she shouldn’t be doing that, etc. From Demi Moore to Amber Rose, women have been fighting to prove that marriage or motherhood does not negate the ability to enjoy the pleasures of life. In honor of Margaret Trudeau’s badassery and the erasure of her cool stories, here are some of the reasons why Margaret paved the way for female agency, emancipation, and rule-breaking.
Margaret Trudeau and Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell at the legendary New York nightclub.
1. She was a very inspirational, independent groupie (maybe). In 2007, Rolling Stones drummer Ronnie Wood penned an autobiography that detailed his dalliance with the recently separated Margaret Trudeau in 1977. However, she was no Penny Lane, chasing a rock star in vain. According to Wood, it was he who had to realize that he could never be with her, and that he was setting himself up for heartbreak.
Sexist and moralizing, a cover of a 1978 book on Margaret Trudeau as a “runaway wife.” As far as I know, there is no relationship between myself and the author of this book.
2. As a result, the press was unkind to her, but she didn’t care. In a 1977 People magazine article, her photography of the Rolling Stones’ now famous surprise show at Toronto’s El Mocambo raised eyebrows. Everyone thought she was sleeping with Mick Jagger, but as Ron Wood revealed, it was he and Margaret who were inseparable. Whether they just hung out or not is their secret, but it showed Margaret’s personal and sexual agency.
3. She didn’t care that future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had cultural and social capital. When Margaret, 18, first met Pierre, 48, while they were both vacationing in Tahiti, she was not romantically interested in Pierre despite his position as a successful activist, law professor, and politician. It took Pierre a year to convince her that he was good enough for her.
4. She has always been a pro-sex feminist. Even in the Trudeaus’ monogamous relationship, where Margaret said “we both gave up our lovers when we were married,” she did not think that sexuality and feminism were incompatible. “There’s nothing antifeminist about showing a lovely body; it’s part of the person you are. I have strong sexual energies—I’m just being myself,” she once said. “I don’t have a single sheer negligee, but I’ll normally wear garter-belt and stockings. I like putting them on. It’s a turn-on. I like the ritual.”
Andy Warhol takes a picture of Margaret while she dances at Studio 54.
5. She and Pierre were friends with Fidel Castro. In 1976, Margaret and Pierre went to Cuba to visit with Fidel Castro. Margaret wore Levi’s jeans and a Liberal Party t-shirt. Fidel cuddled their late son, Michel, and in pictures, a wet spot was visible on Fidel’s uniform from Michel’s baby saliva. When Pierre passed away in 2000, Fidel made the trip to Montreal for the funeral, despite his own ailing health.
6. She has been a mental health advocate for years. In 2006, Margaret revealed that she had been suffering from bipolar disorder her entire life, formerly known as manic depression. Since then, she has advocated for mental health awareness as an activist and public speaker.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her previous essay for Slutever, about the film Fire Song and the way that gender identity is portrayed in film, HERE :)