It is International Women’s Day 2010, 40 years after the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. A generation has passed, my generation. In some ways, there has been a revolution in the status of women since that time. 

When I went to McGill just before the hearings of the Royal Commission’s  only 30 per cent of the undergraduates were women and almost no professors or graduate students. In four years of study at McGill, I never read a book written by a woman nor had a female professor. Abortion and information about birth control were illegal. Women were paid less than men for doing exactly the same job.  There was only one woman in Parliament.

The Royal Commission broke new ground in women’s rights and human rights on a global level. It recommended legalizing abortion, establishing a national child care program, equal pay and of course an increase the number of women in Parliament and in leadership positions in corporations and civil society. The burgeoning women’s movement took up the struggle and in the next decades won legal equality for women in the Charter, legal abortion, pay equity, employment equity, rights for Indian women,  a stronger rape law, established a network of women’s services across the country including rape crisis centres and women’s shelters and perhaps most importantly liberated women’s consciousness so that today young women believe that they can do anything and most men believe in gender equality, even if they don’t always practice it. With the exception of a national childcare programme, we achieved and surpassed the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

So why have we stalled and in the last few years started to move backwards?   A recent report written for the UN by the Canadian Labour Congress and FAFIA states, “in 2004 the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, Canada was ranked 7th. In the 2009 Gender Gap Index, Canada ranked 25th.”  This shocking drop in the status of women is not only due to a series of policy changes by the anti-feminist Harper government. It is also due to the impact of corporate globalization on social programme, poor people, workers and on the women’s movement itself.

While no doubt thousands of women and men will still join together to celebrate IWD and in some cities still go into the streets, there is little question that the women’s movement is a shadow of its former self. The strategy of second wave feminism was firmly rooted in the welfare state. Women’s equality depended on social programs like social assistance, women’s services and child care. The neo-liberal turn begun by Brian Mulroney in the 1980s and continued by every government since put not only the women’s movement itself but almost all the policies we had fought for under attack. It was no accident that the National Action Committee on the Status of Women was the first organization to protest Mulroney’s neo-liberal turn towards free trade.    NAC saw that the turn represented by the Free Trade Agreement with the United States would impact disproportionately on women, through loss of jobs and attacks on social programs.   Women political scientists like Janine Brodie and economists like Marjorie Cohen have documented the impact of free trade and  corporate globalization on women’s economic and social equality.

And women’s organizations themselves were under attack. It was not only because they were a strong voice against this right-wing turn but also the very idea that women’s advocacy groups should receive government funding was discredited by a conscious campaign organized by what was then the far right Reform Party and R.E.A.L. Women. Funding for women’s groups was a leftover from the 1960s when Pierre Elliott Trudeau saw the importance of funding groups without voice in the political process, partly no doubt to co-opt the powerful youth movement of his time. Nevertheless women’s groups in Canada did receive significant government funding and managed to maintain political independence despite it. NAC, for example, was prominent in opposing not only Mulroney’s economic policies but also his political plans, like the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.

Canada’s most powerful women’s group had its funding cut several times beginning in the late 1980s. It became a major target of attack for the emerging social conservative right-wing today holding government power.

While women’s groups began alternative funding plans after the first set of cuts in the late 1980’s, there wasn’t enough time to make up for the depth of cuts that followed in the 1990’s. Women’s groups were forced to put their energy into fund raising and restructuring that at first took attention away from  advocacy and then exerted a conservatising influence. It was the Liberal governments under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin that used funding to manipulate women’s groups to focus more of their energy on research and less on advocacy. Stephen Harper’s cuts were the last nail in the coffin of the brilliant women’s advocacy that had won so many rights for women in Canada.

Of course the women’s movement was not alone in this dynamic. The social movements, which, emerged from the 1960s, transformed into NGOs who focussed on policy rather than organizing and in some ways integrated into the state. When the elite political consensus moved significantly right, as it has in almost all developing countries, these NGOs changed their language and in many cases their tactics to try and influence policy.

Many people have blamed the anti-racist struggle in NAC for the decline of the organization. I reject these arguments. Instead, women of colour coming into leadership in NAC helped the organization remain vital long after it might have without the influx of new and more radical women challenging it on every level. Moreover, the women’s movement remains the most diverse social movement and pioneered the process of change that is now influencing many other social organizations. Organizations that remain white dominated will be left behind in the next rise of social struggles.

If neoliberalism is a major reason for the decline of the women’s movement then the persistence of patriarchy is the other. The continuing domination of men in almost all positions of power whether in government, corporations or media demonstrates the failure of the women’s movement to successfully transform these institutions or in the parlance of the day “smash patriarchy.” The worsening of women’s objectification and infantilisation in advertising and women’s continuing as the primary parent, despite significant changes in this regard in new generations,  is another sign of the limits of the challenges to patriarchy.

Perhaps it will take longer than we thought but too many women in positions of power simply step into the shoes of men instead of seeing their role as one of transformation. This is a longer discussion but you can find more of it in my book Transforming Power: From the personal to the political. Third wave feminists have emerged to challenge patriarchy in ways that my generation either stopped doing or failed to do at all.

In the end, my conclusion is that the inter-locking systems of patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism will maintain the oppression of women.  There is only so far we can go without challenging all of them.  That’s why I am thrilled to see the women’s movement become more global, more diverse, more radical and more integrated into other movements for social and environmental change.  Even if in the short time, we are less effective in making change, in the long term the change will be deeper and broader.

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is one of Canada’s best-known feminists. She was the founding publisher of rabble.ca , wrote our advice column auntie.com and was co-host of one of our first podcasts called Reel Women....