It is the 28th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. The misogyny that is the background in most mass killings was in the foreground in Montreal that terrible day, December 6, 1989. After dividing the men from the women in an engineering school classroom at L’École Polytechnique, he slaughtered the women, saying: “You’re all a bunch of feminists and I hate feminists.”
Even though the killer told us why he was killing women, most of the media, especially in Quebec, at first refused to accept the explanation of feminists that this was an extreme example of the male violence women face every day.
Quebec feminists were accused of “using” the tragedy for their own purposes. Only a year later, when the families of the victims came forward, linking the murder of their daughters to violence against women, hoping that their personal tragedy could help stop violence against women, did the media change its tune.
In the rest of Canada, we were able to turn the story around more quickly and like today, the media suddenly discovered how common was violence against women. Suddenly, murders by intimate partners or former partners made front-page news.
Some men started thinking about their roles in violence against women, founding the White Ribbon Campaign. Governments began to take action, most notably the “War on Women” report issued by a Parliamentary Committee on the Status of Women, a Blue Ribbon Panel on Violence Against Women, a strengthening of the Rape Law, and a law naming December 6 as a National Day of Commemoration and Action against Violence Against Women. The attention lasted about two years and nothing really changed, except we remember December 6 every year.
We didn’t have social media back then, but we mobilized in the streets under the slogan “First Mourn, then Organize.” Almost every woman I know, including myself, remembered the violence and harassment we had suffered at the hands of men throughout our lives. Those days are burned into my memory. It was when I, a socialist feminist, who had focussed on abortion rights and economic equality, started to pay more attention to violence against women.
Of course, women had been fighting male violence for a couple of decades by 1989. There was a broad network of rape crisis centres and shelters across the country. Sexual harassment was added to the Human Rights Code and judged by the courts to be gender discrimination in the early 1980s. Around the same time, the rape law was strengthened to make marital rape a crime for the first time. None of this made much difference either.
And since then, there have been many more moments where the light of public attention shone on violence against women. Anita Hill’s charge of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas in 1991, the SlutWalk starting in Toronto in 2011, the Jian Ghomeshi scandal in 2014 — each produced public interest in sexual violence and harassment, each promoted forms of mobilization and storytelling, but with the exception of some better language against sexual harassment, we have yet to seen massive change.
Today, rape is the only violent crime that has not declined to the degree that most other violent crimes have. In Canada, women reported 553,000 sexual assaults in 2014 according to Stats Canada. Fifty-three per cent of all women and 82 per cent of young women told pollsters that they experience sexual harassment in a 2017 Abacus poll. Levels of violence and harassment against Indigenous women, women of colour and women with disabilities are even higher. There has been a decline in domestic violence, but 32 women were killed by intimate partners so far this year in Ontario.
After almost 50 years of feminism, patriarchy and its most powerful tools — misogyny and gender-based violence — are still alive and well. If we had any doubt, a look south of the border will confirm that. But there is a massive uprising against powerful men abusing women, and that is something new and important.
To an old radical like me, it’s annoying that we needed movie stars to out Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, but the massive media coverage and obvious concern by huge corporations that covering up sexual harassment and abuse will kill their brand, means there is a shift in the balance of forces that we have never seen before.
Women are half the population, almost half the workforce, more than half of post-secondary students, and the majority of consumers. It’s about time we started acting like it.
My generation broke the silence on violence against women, and told our stories about sexual abuse in childhood, sexual harassment, rape and male violence throughout our lives. We created safe spaces for women and children and places for women to heal. But it’s men who must take responsibility for ending their violence.
That means speaking out, standing up and taking sides. It means facing your own sexism and privilege, and stepping aside so that women and people of colour can play leadership roles. It means taking responsibility for changing a culture that still makes white men the heroes and women the victims, and assumes — whether in corporate boardrooms or radical collectives — that we will devote our lives to work and ignore family and community responsibilities.
I am heartened by the writing in mainstream media by women about the economic and social bases for sexual violence and harassment, and by the attempts of women in Hollywood to address the white male dominance of their industry on almost every level. New bystander training about how to intervene in sexist or racist harassment is another important development.
On December 4, I attended a #metoo rally in Toronto. It was the first time that I felt a real generational change in the women’s movement. There were a few older women like me, but mostly it was young people, mostly women, but also quite a few men. On the platform, all the speakers were BIPOC, trans or disabled. Someone said that while women were the vast majority of victims of sexual violence, men, especially young men, were also victims and should be included. There was applause for that. Twenty years ago, that person would have been booed off the platform. There was also talk about eliminating the phrase male violence since women could be violent too. No applause for that, I was happy to see. A non-binary trans person spoke about an approach to gender-based violence that was quite radically different than what I’m used to. The final speaker was a white male from the White Ribbon Campaign. There wasn’t much yelling and chanting at the rally but there was a recognition of the need for emotional support. They had “listeners” as well as marshals.
Some have suggested that what we are seeing in the toppling of one powerful male after another is an uprising of women starting at the top. I am a little skeptical about that, but I do think that something new is happening and I hope against hope it will transform the patriarchal culture that is so deeply embedded in our lives, and so profoundly linked to the violence so many of us suffer.
Photo: L’École Polytechnique
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