As an aging feminist I am often asked to speak about the progress we have made as feminists and how much is left to do. It gets depressing sometimes because of the persistance of violence against women and economic inequality. I am despairing of the deep gendered divide in children’s toys and the heavy load placed upon young women expected to be beautiful, thin, successful, a great mom and too often chief cook and bottle washer at home. Not to mention daily viewing the old Reform party anti-feminists running the country.
During the 1993 CBC election coverage, when the Mulroney Tories were reduced to two seats (how I long to see that day again), I was asked what I thought of the new Reform Party members. “They make John Crosbie look like Gloria Steinem, “I quipped. Many of you probably won’t remember that John Crosbie, Minister of Justice at the time, was prone to putting is foot in it when speaking about or to women.
But this year, there really is something to celebrate and it’s not about what we normally think of as the women’s movement. It’s Idle No More. I’m thinking that Idle No More is perhaps showing us the way forward towards women’s liberation. I know that’s an archaic expression but somehow I think it’s more appropriate to describe what we need now. It came to me during a round dance in the Eaton Centre. It was a powerful expression of collective power, as rallies and demonstrations can be but there was a different feeling. It wasn’t threatening. Everyone in the round dance and everyone watching it was smiling. And when I looked around again, I noticed the vast majority of participants were women. As you know, the founders of Idle No More are women as were most of the local organizers. It seems to me because of that the movement had a different approach, a different feeling. It was just as powerful as any new movement, more powerful because of the place of Indigneous people in Canada and their history but it wasn’t confrontational or angry. People were standing up not so much fighting back.
When you fight back you take on the qualities of the institution against which you are fighting. We, in the second wave women’s movement, took on qualities of patriarchy. At least I did. I was already angry but I learned to be assertive, sure of myself, never doubting. One of my mentors, a man, told me, “Judy, if you act sure of yourself, people will believe everything you say.” A secret of patriarchy revealed and internalized. We cloaked ourselves in armour to take on the patriarchy and perhaps in those days we had to but in these days it seems to me something else is needed. We can’t be like them anymore or no one will believe things can be different. Women leading like women can make it different. In Idle No More, the men accepted and supported the leadership of women and respected their sensibilities instead of the other way around.
Almost all the barriers to women’s further equality is rooted in the neo-liberal system, including patriarchy and colonialism. All the new movements seem to understand that. More and more we are seeing a comprehension that every issue is connected to every other issue. We cannot have a white middle-class environmental movement. We cannot have a labour movement that ignores issues of sustainability. We cannot have a women’s movement that doesn’t include the job of changing men. l knew that one would be the most controversial.
Yesterday I happened upon a blog saying that it shouldn’t be call International Women’s Day, it should be called “where are the men day.” I wasn’t sure about that but embedded in the blog was a video of the actor Patrick Stewart speaking about growing up in a house where his father beat his mother. In it he talks about the rage he sometimes feels and says “violence is a choice for men.” He chooses not to be violent. It was moving and powerful and I started to think maybe she had a point.
There were other more traditional signs of progress. One Billion Rising, a day against violence against women, called by Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler seems to have mobilized more women globally than any other global feminist action I can remember. Some women criticized it as imperialist but it didn’t seem that way to me. In Canada, Ensler quickly responded to a suggestion that she include the rallies for Murdered and Missing Women on the activities of One Billion Rising since they were taking place on the same day. The biggest marches and dances seemed to be in developing countries where women are battling mightily to stop male violence. Global feminism is rising, and more and more led by women in the global south.
On Thursday, Barack Obama signed the Violence Against Women Bill in the U.S. I came upon the signing ceremony online and watched it. It was the first time in years that the Barack Obama of his first election campaign emerged thanking the advocates by name and giving them credit for the bill passing, including the measures protecting trans people, lesbians and Indigenous women that the Republicans didn’t want. The media credited a new combatitive Obama but it seemed to me it was the uprising of women during the election against the gross anti-woman comments of various Republicans. Women feeling our power again. The women on the page mostly Indigenous and Black were so happy. It made me cry.
And then even more traditional, women are now half of our premiers. I don’t have high hope for any changes coming there since to be the leader of a party women usually have to fit into the existing political system, which basically means you can’t change much. But still it must mean something.
I’m looking forward to the Toronto IWD March. It’s always a great time to see old friends and I like the theme this year. “Fires are Burning. We are Rising.” Hope to see you there.