It’s a confusing time to be a feminist in so-called Canada. With labels like “feminist” and “activist” becoming more popular, but effective community organizing proving harder to find, the lines between ideology and identity become more blurry by the day. What does it mean to be a feminist when the leader of our country — one responsible for environmental devastation, increasing austerity, and the continued oppression of Indigenous peoples — uses the same title? I’ve been long aware that my feminism is not Justin Trudeau’s feminism, nor is it the feminism of “girlboss” CEOs or conservative women’s groups, but for many young radicals, the question remains: what does feminism mean?
Writer and activist Nora Loreto authored her second book, Take Back the Fight, to answer that question. The book is a manifesto, a scathing criticism of the status quo, and a call to action for the next generation of feminists all in one. Over 10 chapters covering everything from the rise of neoliberalism to the complexity of digital organizing, she meticulously examines Canadian feminism’s past, present and future and creates a blueprint for feminist movements in the modern age.
Loreto begins by analyzing the failures of past feminist movements, focusing especially on the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. While the big-tent organization brought together organizers of all stripes and led landmark political battles, it was doomed by years of national funding cuts and a lack of intersectional analysis within the organization. “NAC’s mostly white membership could not accept and enable the success of its first racialized president,” Loreto writes. “If feminists are going to learn from the successes and mistakes of our past, the collapse of NAC reminds us that only a confrontational, radical and intersectional feminism will have the strength necessary to force the powerful to heed feminist demands.”
The collapse of NAC, as well as several other large-scale coalitions, led to a vacuum in the feminist sphere filled by a combination of single-issue organizations, progressive pundits, and popular feminist bloggers. Loreto writes that our individualist culture has replaced feminist collectives with celebrities and lone voices, and everyone has paid the price: it’s essentially impossible for individuals to create significant change without a collective behind them, and those voices also often have to face the brunt of the backlash they receive for fighting for change. The latter is an issue that Loreto knows well — she’s spent years facing a coordinated right-wing harassment campaign after tweeting about how gender, race, and class affected Canadians’ perception of the deadly Humboldt bus crash in 2018.
The book also explores the commodification of feminism by political actors. Loreto dwells on the example of Michelle Rempel, a conservative politician who’s vocally criticized sexist incidents in the House of Commons but has actively fought against progressive legislation for her entire career. This is the crux of the problem presented earlier: what does feminism mean if anyone can be a feminist? One of the biggest issues here is the individualization of feminism; the idea that feminism can be claimed as a personal identity without meaningful work behind it. Loreto criticizes both Rempel and Trudeau’s approaches to faux-feminism: “There is tension between someone assuming the label of feminist and someone who has committed their work to making politics more feminist, and it’s at the heart of the problem with individualized feminism versus collective feminism.”
Feminism has hit the mainstream. But is that a good thing? In the last chapter of the book, Loreto raises an urgent point. “The fact that the word [feminism] has been undemonized should concern many feminists; is it popular because society is shifting in such a way that feminism is becoming an undeniably important concept? Or is it popular because it’s no longer threatening?”
Loreto’s extensive experience with online feminism as well as in-person, large-scale organizing makes her analysis a refreshingly informed read. She’s gained a following online for her excellent reporting and honest, unflinching takes on current events, and seems to draw on that experience in much of her writing about digital organizing. As an online activist myself, those chapters echoed what I’ve been feeling for years with eerie accuracy — and, honestly, I’m overjoyed at the idea of other young activists being able to read those insights in a book instead of having to experience Twitter for themselves.
Perhaps Loreto’s most important point is this: “Feminism can no longer be understood by some as a struggle for minor changes that benefit only a few, and a new feminist movement must change opinions so that people come to understand this. Challenging the status quo is hard work, and we need to find a way to organize a feminist network that is capable of confronting Canada’s status quo, especially as the far-right rises, fuelled by misogynistic and racist rhetoric and violence.” Take Back the Fight takes an unflinching look at the failures of feminism’s past and present, but it also offers a hopeful look at its future. I hope it becomes mandatory reading for young feminists across the country.
Rayne Fisher-Quann is a writer, organizer and speaker based in Vancouver. You can follow her on Twitter @raynefq.
Author image: Samson Learn