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On International Women's Day, let's build a national feminist movement

| March 8, 2016
Image: Screenshot, "Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada" (

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Depending on who you ask, there is and there is not a feminist movement in Canada.

Indeed, rumours of the death of feminism have been grossly exaggerated -- but critiques of the state of feminism organizing are bang on: is there really a national feminist movement to speak of?

Schrodinger's Cat feminism in Canada emerged from the ashes of the National Action Committee on the Status of Woman (NAC), the national feminist organization that helped to bring together feminists from across English Canada. NAC was an important site of struggle for feminists in Canada, but it didn't survive the 1990s.

Today, there are two generations of activists who have never organized in a world with a NAC.

In Quebec, national feminist organizations have survived and continue to intervene on public policy debates and political discussion. Their visibility and relevance offer a stark example of what is missing in English Canada.

In an era of neoliberalism and political atomization, the lack of NAC (or something that might have replaced it) has left mainstream feminist organizing rudderless. Women in English Canada can't decide to work inside or outside a mainstream feminist movement and this has important implications on the health of feminist organizing and debate in Canada.

The most important site of feminist activism is on the ground. Service organizations, direct action groups who confront Right-to-Life bullshit, campus women's centres: these remain critical to fostering feminist organizing and growth. But they have limited reach. Increasingly, what has replaced organizations are individuals who, either because of their good work, their access to a platform, their access to media or all three, have become the voice and face of feminist organizing.

There is a limit to this: feminism is not and cannot be a single person. And while those women who have dedicated their lives to fighting patriarchy should be commended, it's also critical to be honest about the limits of this model of progressive organizing: this represents the neoliberal face of feminism.

Neoliberalism has managed to obliterate our collective senses of community, and progressive movements have not been immune to this shift. The right-wing backlash to the gains of social movements has lead to widespread austerity policies that have targeted marginalized communities, including women. Many progressive movements have uncritically adopted the language of personal choice and retreat from identifying institutional and systemic causes of sexism. We've lost the proverbial plot. Instead, we respond to crises as they hit us in the face, especially after a decade of Conservative rule.

The necessary work of movement building, of common reflection and discussion and, most importantly, of relationship building has taken a backseat to fighting back against attacks waged on all fronts.

The pressure to produce celebrity activists has been aided by many structures: media platforms that demand spokespersons, the proliferation of punditry to fill the gaps that have formed in mainstream journalism and the professionalization of activism. These individual efforts, though often valiant, still reflect the privileges that affect every part of life in Canada.

Without question, they cannot replace a movement.

The rise of this individualized feminism has also been accompanied by new phenomena that spread around online platforms like a raging lady fire: debates about trigger warnings stand in for substantive discussion on serious differences in strains of feminist thinking and debate is mostly ritualistic and hollow.

Sometimes, retreat from these debates is a necessary attempt to find shelter from what can be a vicious storm. Sometimes, it's just an easy way out. What's worse: self-imposed isolation and refusal to engage is often the only way out of the stalemate.

The sum of these systems acting in concert is that meaningful debate -- debate that is constructive and that makes everyone feel like they just collectively conquered a Body Attack class -- is mostly dead. There is no common sweating out of our differences. We spin our wheels on defining safe spaces or what "consent" looks like, and mostly leave nothing in our tracks.

To be clear: there is a need for safe spaces within feminism that excludes, say, white women. There is a need for segmentation, isolation and mutual support that excludes certain people. And, there is a need to debate new concepts, their utility and efficacy and how we can collectively evolve them. But when that's all you have, when the conversations online reflect the sum total of "mainstream feminist organizing" it's hard to sit back and conclude we're collectively advancing anything.

Perhaps what is required to think through this dilemma is to imagine where and how a feminist movement could (or should) intervene in civil society.

Many self-proclaimed feminists see the most important site of their action as reproductive justice, and for a damn good reason: with daily news from south of the border about women's reproductive rights under attack, we have a lot to fight to save.

But where are feminist-identified activists fighting against hospitals in Saskatoon for their ongoing sterilization of Indigenous women? Have so-called feminists left the heavy lifting to Indigenous women who have borne the brunt of these attacks? How do we harness a national movement of feminist activists to bring the Saskatoon health authority to its knees over this practice?

Herein lies the problem of the current state of feminist organizing: we have no mechanism to do this work. No national space to hash out debates, or bring together struggles that are happening on the ground that aren't being amplified for whatever reason, including due to racism and colonial discourses that feminists have not adequately confronted. And, there's no collective body that exists that can consider the lessons learned (and the lessons not learned) by the experience of NAC.

International Women's Day give us a moment to pause and reflect on where we are and where we must go. As young feminists who, despite our own feminist activism, know very little of the debates and ideas that propelled NAC for so long, we hope that we can find spaces, whether online or physical, to build connections, learn from each other and grow our movements.

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Image: Screenshot, "Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada" (NFB, 2012)



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