A lot of people are feminists; they just don’t want to use the F-Word
The reason may be patriarchy. But I suspect it is also orthodoxy from within.
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It’s easy to be cynical about International Women’s Day, an event rooted in radical socialism (one of the first Women’s Day events was organized in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America), that is — in its current form — about as politically radical as a Santa Claus Parade.
After all, the celebration’s modern proponents include Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobil, and of course Dove cosmetics — always there to remind you that “you are beautiful,” even when you haven’t slept in two days and you have a zit on your chin the size of Gibraltar.
But if you can get past the insipid social-justice grandstanding by corporations and celebrities, International Women’s Day is kind of like feminist Yom Kippur: a perfect occasion for reflection and repentance.
It is a day on which everyone has a certified excuse to ask herself: What’s going well in the world for women and what still sucks? And most importantly: What can we do to make it better?
So let’s expound on the good news first.
Whatever your feelings about eternally sunny Justin Trudeau and his wife’s ill-timed a capella scatting, the federal government has done some very decent things for womankind of late.
For example, just yesterday International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced that Canada will contribute $81.6 million under the United Nations Population Fund in support of women’s health services in developing countries — including existing abortion services.
We are also committed, evidently, to gender parity in cabinet, a new norm instituted last year by the prime minister, who joined the ranks of modern heroes Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard) when he publicly declared himself a feminist.
Despite the grumblings of jaded conservatives, this is no small thing. Just as it is hugely significant for black American kids to grow up with a black president in the White House, and gay Ontarians to grow up with a lesbian premier at Queen’s Park, it is also hugely significant for Canadian girls — and boys for that matter — to grow up with a self-avowed feminist at 24 Sussex — or Rideau Cottage — or wherever Trudeau happens to be living at the moment. (Perhaps he is staying with his “other” mother, Kim Cattrall).
But Trudeau’s self-professed feminist designation is important most of all because the adverse realities for women — from crappy work-life balance in institutions built by and for men to an abysmal sexual assault report rate — will never turn around if engagement and identification with feminism remains dismally low.
Which brings me to the bad news: While feminism in Canada has an exceptionally loud voice — thanks in large part to social media — it has a depressingly narrow reach. A survey of 1,000 Canadian women aged 35-45 conducted by Chatelaine magazine late last year revealed that 68 per cent of Canadian women do not call themselves feminists; similarly a global poll conducted by Ipsos in 2014 indicated that only 17 per cent of Canadian women identified as feminist.
This finding is especially bizarre because the study showed significant support for equal rights between the sexes on questions where the issue of feminist identity wasn’t present. Which means: A lot of people harbour feminist values; they just don’t want to be associated with the word feminist itself, or the culture around it.
The reason for this may be patriarchy at large, as many within the movement profess. But I suspect it is also orthodoxy from within: namely an obsession with ideological purity and a rush to shame newcomers who don’t cleave to the party line — or who merely have questions about the party line.
To quote a friend who has strong feminist ideals but is afraid to engage with the issues in a bigger way online, namely because her thinking on gender wage gap differs from the status quo: “I would be shunned. I would probably be labelled anti-feminist. And some would probably attempt to cyberbully me into submission.”
This is a person who asked to remain anonymous not because she fears ramifications from her employer, the police or some criminal entity, but from other feminists. That’s a problem.
Is it a bigger problem than abortion access, childcare or sexual assault? Of course not. (And no, she doesn’t realistically believe other feminists pose a threat to her physical safety).
But if we want to expand our ranks and thus the likelihood of our success, perhaps it’s time we issued a moratorium on the knee-jerk condemnation of women whose ideas and language aren’t ideologically pure — but whose hearts are in the right place. Perhaps then, our reach will be as wide as our voice is loud.
Happy International Women’s Day.
Male Feminists à la Justin Trudeau:
Prince Harry: The royal is involved with a number of women’s causes, including CHIME for Change, a charity concert seeking to empower girls and women.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: The actor is a proud feminist. In his own words: “What feminism means to me is that you don’t let your gender define who you are.”
Mark Ruffalo: The Spotlight actor is a vocal advocate for women’s reproductive rights.
Barack Obama: The president’s 2014 State of the Union address was famously feminist. In his own words: “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.”
Aziz Ansari: The comedian came out as a feminist on the David Letterman show last year.
Emma Teitel is a national columnist for the Toronto Star.