Cover Story

Herizons 25th Anniversary Issue  by Laurie Soper
Herizons 25th Anniversary Issue

LEAD STORY: Indecent Acts and Everyday Rebellions

This interview first appeared in the Fall 1992 issue of Herizons.

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July 18, 1991 was one of the hottest days of the year. But when Gwen Jacob, a student at the University of Guelph, took off her shirt, the police charged her under the Criminal Code of Canada, Section 173.1(a), for committing an indecent act. In January 1992, Jacob was convicted, the first decision of its kind in Canada. She appealed the conviction.

In the summer of 1992, a year after she was charged, women staged protest rallies across Canada to show their support for Jacob, who launched a second appeal. A few days after an Ontario rally at the Peace Bridge between Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo, N.Y., Herizons caught up with Jacob at a Chinese restaurant. She talked for three hours between mouthfuls of spicy tofu, eggplant, steamed rice and Chinese tea.

 

LAURIE SOPER: What gave you the courage, the guts, the nerve to do what you did?

GWEN JACOB: I never had the nerve to do it until I did it. In that sense I am no different than any other woman. Really, I was shaking—you can ask my friend Suzie. Suzie and I had just come out of the air-conditioned University Centre into this 30-degree humid heat. Out of the freezer and into the fire. It was really gross. I started complaining about all these men walking around with their shirts off, feeling free and comfortable. Suzie said, “Hey, Gwen, are you going to take your shirt off, or am I going to listen to you complain all day?” I started shaking like a poplar leaf in the wind, because I guess somewhere inside of me I knew I would do it. My hands were trembling so bad I could hardly find my shirt to take it off. When a friend of ours met us on the green, Suzie said, “Hey Shirl, Gwen thinks it’s hot. She wants to take her shirt off.” Shirley said, “Go for it,” with a shrug that said, why are you debating it? It made me feel so good not to have to convince anybody. It was all I needed.

Whoosh—in just one motion my shirt came off, and I jammed it down the back of my shorts. It wasn’t just my shirt that I ripped off. I ripped off that whole mindset, that whole patriarchal definition of my body. It was amazing! Nothing even shadows the feeling of empowerment I felt at that moment. Then I went for a walk downtown. Like a normal, average, everyday human being, I went for a walk.

I was not acquainted with the character of Guelph when I did this. The only people I really knew in Guelph were left-wing student-radical activists. But when I walked down the street without my shirt, I met some of the other people in Guelph. But I wasn’t thinking, oh God, what if the police show up? I wasn’t thinking, what if someone honks their horn at me? The thought of getting arrested never crossed my mind. My only thought was, how am I going to handle taking off my shirt? Once my shirt was off, I could handle the rest of it.

Oh yes, and the breeze. My breasts felt their first breeze. It was the most beautiful breeze I had ever felt. I will always member that moment when I took my shirt off, breathed in the breeze and sighed, ahh, so this is what it feels like. When things get really tough, I just remember the breeze.

LAURIE SOPER: Some people think you are wasting precious court time pushing this issue through the courts.

GWEN JACOB: I didn’t charge myself. The cops are the ones who dragged me through the system, even though nothing in the Criminal Code specifies what a woman does with her shirt. The cops imposed on me their own interpretation of “indecent act,” and I have a criminal record to show for it.

LAURIE SOPER: I’ve heard other women say, this is ridiculous—I don’t feel the need to take my shirt off.

GWEN JACOB: You might not want to have an abortion either, but are you going to support another woman’s right to choose an abortion?

Women at the rally came up to me and said, do we have to take off our shirts? God, no! Do whatever you want! I am not fighting for a law that says women have to take their shirts off! I’m fighting for the choice to take our shirts off when we feel like it.

LAURIE SOPER: Some people say this is a trivial issue.

GWEN JACOB: There’s a big difference between trivial and basic. If the government passed a law forbidding women to wear nail polish, it might be a trivial issue, but holy shit—would this place turn upside down. Women would rise up yelling, don’t tell me what to wear on my fingernails!

You can look at it another way. I may want to take my shirt off on only 25 days of the year. The rest of the time it’s not hot enough. But the attitudes that have kept my shirt on since my childhood, the attitudes that have kept women’s bodies regulated and controlled for centuries, are in place 365 days a year.

To control your own body is not a trivial thing; it is the most basic right we have. Patriarchy dictates our body image. Once, when I was a guest on a Toronto radio show, a woman called in and said, “Gwen, I’m 100 percent behind you; all my friends support you. I only wish I could do it. But I’ve had three kids, and my breasts sag.” Suddenly, I was yanked from the political battlefield of the airwaves into the personal life of one woman. Everyone else vanished. It was just me and this woman. I said, “Your breasts are supposed to sag. You’ve had three kids. If your breasts didn’t sag, I would think you’ve got silicone in there somewhere.”

I can’t tell you how many women have said to me, I couldn’t do it, I’m a size 44D; or, my breasts are too  small; or, one breast is bigger than the other; or, I have scar tissue. This is probably the thing that hurts me the most. This is what I am fighting. I am fighting the definition of [acceptability for] women’s bodies. I am fighting the idea that we have to be ashamed of ourselves if we don’t have Barbie doll breasts, or whatever breast shape is in fashion. It floors me. It’s almost insurmountable.

Many people have said, “Ms. Jacob, would you be doing this if you had breast cancer?” If I had breast cancer, or if I had had a mastectomy, it would be 10 times as important for me to take my shirt off.

LAURIE SOPER: I guess trivial issues don’t stir up so much controversy.

GWEN JACOB: Exactly. If people feel threatened by something, their first reaction is to discredit it any way they can, so that they don’t have to deal with real challenges.

During the Peace Bridge rally, a woman from New York yelled at me, shaking with rage, “Stay away from my children!” When I tried to talk to her, she wouldn’t listen. We walked away from her, through a park where about 20 kids were playing; the oldest may have been six or seven. We sat on the swings, and one by one the kids stopped to look, and then they went back to playing. So, if six-year-olds can handle it, what’s wrong with the adults?

LAURIE SOPER: Do you see this issue as just one little thing?

GWEN JACOB: I don’t see it as a huge sacrifice on my part. It’s just something that I did one day, and now I’m dealing with it. It just moved right in and became part of my life.

LAURIE SOPER: How has it become part of your life?

GWEN JACOB: Well, for instance, I work with a bunch of guys in a warehouse. If I’m working outside and it’s hot, my shirt comes off. If they can’t deal with it, it’s their problem, not mine. It’s ridiculous. I get razzed for taking my shirt off on a hot day, and meantime these guys have newsprint photos of breasts wallpapering warehouse washrooms. It’s okay to see women’s breasts in strip joints, pornography, erotica, on television, in movies, advertising and art, but it’s a criminal offence for a woman to take her shirt off on a hot day.

For every woman, taking off her shirt is a unique revolution. I can talk about it from the perspective of a young, white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, flaming radical feminist. But for every woman who is not me, there are different barriers to overcome. Last weekend, I saw breasts of every shape and dimension you can imagine.

It was fantastic. Everybody thinks their breasts look terrible. But there are as many different sizes, colours, shapes and textures of breasts as there are women.

When I make speeches at universities, I get right into it and describe the varieties: some breasts hang down like sausages, and some look like grapefruits— and I’ll describe 20 different kinds of breasts, until people are falling off their seats.

LAURIE SOPER: What do you think it is that keeps the rest of us from taking off our shirts on a muggy day?

GWEN JACOB: I think fear is a big part of it. We have to deal with the fear that inhibits us from challenging our restrictions. If we make the invisible visible, then all we have to do is break the fear.

LAURIE SOPER: And then?

GWEN JACOB: Then the revolution! If you want to start a revolution, you’ve got to start with your own life.

LAURIE SOPER: Such as the feeling of the breeze?

GWEN JACOB: Oh yes! If I never knew it before, I certainly know it now, that one person can make one hell of a difference. If anyone ever tells me again that one person can’t change anything, they’re going to get an earful. Oh yeah? Well, back in the summer of 1991....                                                                           

UPDATE: After five years, Gwen Jacob won her battle for the right of women to be topless in public. Her December 1991 conviction on one count of an indecent act was overturned in 1996 by the Ontario Court of Appeal, making it legal in Ontario for women to take off their shirts without facing arrest.

At the time of her conviction, an Ontario judge had ruled that a prohibition against women baring their breasts was necessary because men regarded breasts to be erotic. However, the Court of Appeal ruled that Jacob did not exceed “the community standard of tolerance when all of the relevant circumstances are taken into account.”

Jacob’s case led to the acquittal of women in British Columbia and Saskatchewan who faced similar charges. It was also cited in cases involving women's right to breastfeed in public. Jacob lives in Ontario with her partner and two children. 

This is the first of the 25 articles featured in Herizons 25th anniversary edition celebrating feminist activism in Canada. Order the entire issue or subscribe by International Women's Day March 8th and receive the special double issue as part of your subscription.