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Don't be fooled by Michelle Rempel's sudden conversion to feminism

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Michelle Rempel recently took to the pages of the National Post to plead to her audience to be better towards women.

Her parting words: "If it's truly 2016, sexism should be your problem to deal with, not simply ours," was a thinly veiled jab at the Liberals, possibly with a recent comment from John McCallum in mind, when he told her that she should smile more.

Rempel is a Conservative MP with leadership aspirations. She is sick and tired of the belittling, harassing comments that are far too common. She's speaking out. Fighting back against The Man.

Problem is, of course, she is The Man. Or, at least, she was.

Yes, Rempel should be free of harassment, just like all women. Feminists need to be careful, though, in erasing her role in upholding the very harassment she calls out, when they support her for speaking out.

Rempel's article is centred around the women staff who surround her: women who come to her to ask for support and strategies to fight against the sexism they face as political staffers. Her article reads as if she's reached a kind of breaking point, finally calling out her audience for forcing women to bear the brunt of confronting sexism.

And it's great that she's speaking out. But before proclaiming her a feminist icon, let's examine what she's asking for. Rempel isn't calling for anything except the opportunity to be treated like a man in the halls of Parliament and in Ottawa. She's calling for herself and her staff to have the same privileges as the men on Parliament Hill. Nobody tells them to smile, nobody slaps their ass to get a reaction and nobody hits on them on the daily in the course of work.

Well, okay. Finally, a Conservative woman has recognized the toxicity of a culture where patriarchal norms have long stood unchallenged behind the scenes. Hurrah.

But as we've written before, celebrating women breaking the glass ceiling only to use their position to make life worse for other women highlights the limitations of what is called bourgeois feminism, White Feminism and/or liberal feminism -- Rempel is concerned with her and her staff -- and her concern ends there.

Systemic sexism cannot be combated through addressing the individualized expression of it. It's a bit rich for Rempel to shed any responsibility she bears as a former member of government and potential leader of the Conservative Party. It requires the reader to forget every single attack waged against women, racialized and Indigenous women especially, while she was a minister of state for Harper's government.

Rempel has been a rising star in the party from the start of her tenure as an MP in 2011. The National Post took note of this when she filled in for Peter Kent, defending their government's climate change plans in Question Period.

As a former member of Harper's cabinet, her voting record is what you'd imagine it would be. She defended the Fair Elections Act, voted for the Barbaric Cultural Practices act, and supported Bill C-36, the Conservatives' reaction to the Supreme Court's Bedford decision.

Back in February, Rempel voted against pay equity not, as she insisted, because she opposes pay equity, but because she opposed the creation of a committee to examine it. So fighting sexism is only okay if it doesn't conflict with the ideological drive for smaller government.

That's why her "feminism" (?) doesn't conflict with her party closing 12 out of 16 Status of Women offices and nuking funding for the Court Challenges program, which "provide[d] financial assistance for important court cases that advance language and equality rights guaranteed under Canada's Constitution."

But Rempel isn't a hard right-wing ideological sycophant. She voted against Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth's attempt at re-opening a debate on abortion. Her NatPo article shows she's able to identify that there are layered oppressions in society and that she has a multitude of privileges aside from her elected office.

Rempel is a smart and competent parliamentarian. She waited until she was in opposition to call out sexism. Maybe it's easier to do when the Prime Minister sets the stage by calling himself a feminist. She was probably smart to downplay her liberal feminism when Harper was her party leader.

This makes for good politics but it shouldn't be confused with a call for change.

After a decade of Harper Conservatism, it can be easy to forget that there is a streak of progressive social values within the broad Conservative tent. The Red Tories were mostly sidelined after the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform, but the history of the party's success demonstrate that Canadians support Red Tory policies. The meanness inherent in the Harper Conservatives' approach was hardly that of former Ontario premier Bill Davis, Joe Clark or even Brian Mulroney.

Rempel is a contender for leadership of the Conservative Party and is likely trying to eke out her own little space to the left of the HarperCons and just to the right of Justin Trudeau. With Jason Kenney running on the extreme end of the right-wing flank of that party, Rempel could present herself as a moderate, reasonable, non-freakishly religious option that could probably take on feminist Trudeau.

But don't be fooled: Rempel's analysis reminds us why we have social movements: groups of people who understand that there's a connection between being being slapped on the ass by male co-workers and the persistent unequal pay gap that segments wages along gendered (and racial) lines. Who fight to make it impossible to ignore that it's not enough to call people out or lament the microaggressions only women face. We also have to take responsibility for (or perhaps, take stock of) what levers we can pull to also address and undo systemic sexism.

For progressives who feel like, finally, a small glimmer of hope has emerged in the Conservatives after years of extreme right-wing rhetoric, we have to keep our heads on straight and remember: it's politics, not 2015.

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