SECTION 28 OF the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms reads, “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.” Section 15 of the Charter asserts Canadians are to be free from discrimination based on their sex. More women are holding high-level positions in the workforce than ever before and the number of women enrolled in post-secondary education is greater than that of men.
Now that Canadians are afforded equal rights regardless of their gender, and women seem to be outperforming men in certain domains, some citizens are left wondering what purpose the feminist movement and women’s studies programs serve in contemporary society. The Fulcrum sat down with students and professors to discuss the legitimacy of feminism in a country that legally protects against discrimination.
What’s in a name?
The definitions are endless and the word itself is loaded: What is a feminist? The movement has survived many reinventions—called “waves”—and its supporters are diverse.
The first wave of feminism, occurring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was primarily concerned with women’s suffrage and gaining property rights for women. It is generally accepted that the second wave of feminism began in the ’60s, when feminists turned their attention toward achieving accessibility to work outside the home and reproductive rights.
Where third-wave feminism begins and ends—if it has ended at all—is highly debatable, but most will agree the aim of the movement is to fight against the idea there is something “essentialist” about femininity and to recognize the struggles faced by women of colour, under-represented sexual orientations, and religious beliefs.
Although the goals of each wave of feminism are clear, defining in specific terms what it is to be a feminist is difficult.
“The trouble with [defining what it is to be a feminist] is that I want to be as inclusive as possible. There are so many different definitions,” said Sheena Gourlay, professor of women’s studies at the University of Ottawa. “I think all of [the definitions] would include some notion of social justice—some notion that things could be different and better. There is a large overlap between feminism and lots of social movements.”
For U of O women’s studies professor Shoshana Magnet, feminism is about fighting against oppression of any kind.
“I think a feminist is anyone who is concerned with fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, class inequalities, and discrimination against people with disabilities,” she said. “It’s somebody who is interested in a more socially just world.”
Magnet stated studying the feminist theory has changed her life for the better.
“Feminism is one of the richest possible ways I’ve given meaning to my life,” she said. “It gives you an incredibly beautiful way of understanding the problems of the world in order to make a better and more just, socialized democracy.”
Let’s talk stigmas
Although feminism has been an enriching part of Magnet’s life, not everyone views the movement in such a positive light. Many women choose not to identify as feminists, not because they disagree with the fight against oppression, but because of the stigma associated with the word.
In What’s in a Label? The Relationship between Feminist Self-Identification and “Feminist” Attitudes among U.S. Women and Men, Janice McCabe writes, “The backlash against feminism in the media and the relatively extreme positions taken by the more outspoken representatives of the feminist movement may have resulted in feminism’s being equated with ‘radical’ or ‘militant’ for much of the U.S. public.”
Gourlay recently conducted a survey of how many people in her feminist theory class identified with the movement they were studying.
“I said, ‘How many of you use the word ‘feminist’ for yourself?’,” she recalled. “Between a third and a half [raised their hands].”
Although being a feminist isn’t a prerequisite for taking a women’s studies course, the low number of self-identified feminists in the class begs the question: What’s so bad about being a feminist?
Magnet believes the stereotypes stem from what she calls a “real, clever, and sustained attack on feminists by the right.
“The women’s liberation movement has been incredibly successful. It has made significant gains,” she said. “That frightens people who want to continue to hold power. As a result, folks figured out there was going to need to be an attack on the feminist movement.”
Quinn Blue, volunteer at the U of O’s Women’s Resource Centre, said the negative stereotyping of feminists comes from the urge to cling to relics of the past.
“Some areas of second-wave feminism were very much about a rejection of men as a whole and of any sort of beauty,” said Blue. “The stereotype of the lesbian, hairy-legged feminist is something that actually existed, but people associate all feminism with this. They assume that feminism has to come with a rejection of femininity.”
Blue is baffled by the belief that feminism and femininity cannot coexist.
“To me, that makes no sense. A rejection of femininity—it seems almost counter-feminist to me,” he said.
For Magnet, a person’s clothing and entertainment choices are not indicative of whether he or she is a feminist.
“I don’t think there’s any conflict between women who are invested in femininity and feminism as a movement,” she said. “For example, you can be a feminist and still like Disney movies, even if you think they’re really complicated. Individual practices are not feminist concerns.”
Women have the vote. What else do they want?
So what are feminists concerned with? For some, the feminist movement was tied up in achieving the right to vote and the fight for equality in general. Given that Canadian women have been voting for the past 95 years and are protected against discrimination under the law, many people are left scratching their heads as to what feminists have been up to in recent decades.
“Legal equalities are an absolute necessary base without which one cannot go further, and yet they’re never sufficient,” said Gourlay. “They’re never sufficient because they don’t ensure equality in practice.”
Even people who would be considered law-abiding citizens do not toe the line 100 per cent of the time.
“If you simply go by the law, that assumes the law defines all aspects of our lives, or that [the law] can actually enforce or ensure some real equality—it can’t,” said Gourlay. “There are many areas in which the law has only minimal impact, if any at all. There is also the question of how the law gets interpreted in any particular instance.”
There is concrete evidence of the law’s failure to ensure equality, particularly in terms of equal wages for equal work and access to reproductive health options.
“It used to be that when I would teach women’s studies, women made 75 cents to every dollar a man made and the gap was narrowing,” said Magnet. “Now [the gap is] widening. Women—undergraduate-aged women—are making less and less.”
After stating women are currently making about 73 cents to a man’s dollar, Magnet said, “If we want to have pay equity, it’s looking like that isn’t going to occur.”
Blue noted some women in Canada have little or no access to abortion services, despite the fact that the procedure is legal in this country.
“In [Prince Edward Island]—as much as abortion is legal—there are no abortion services available at all,” he said.
Blue’s involvement with the Women’s Resource Centre means he has witnessed firsthand the many different struggles faced by women on campus.
“At the Women’s Resource Centre, we do see students who are facing issues of non-equity. We’re still living in a culture that normalizes sexual violence,” he said. “Professors don’t give trigger warnings when they’re showing very triggering content. Huge numbers of students have experienced and are still experiencing sexual violence and that’s a feminist issue.”
The importance of women’s studies
In 2009, the senate at the University of Guelph voted to cut women’s studies from its programs of study. Although many universities in the country still offer the program, one cannot help but wonder two things: Will other schools follow suit? And why was women’s studies the program to be cut?
The value of women’s studies courses may not be evident to everyone, but for those immersed in the discipline, the worth of the program is immeasurable.
“Women’s studies as a field helps to give us language,” said Magnet. “To have the language to understand the problems that we’re facing in Canadian society is an incredibly important tool.”
Magnet noted the importance of language is made evident through the words of famous legal feminist Catharine MacKinnon.
“[MacKinnon] says, ‘Before we had the legal term ‘sexual harassment,’ we used to just call it ‘life,’” she said. “Without that language, there was no form of legal redress, there were no sexual harassment policies, and there was no protection for people who were sexually harassed.”
According to Magnet, women’s studies programs are also important for shedding light on topics that would otherwise go unnoticed.
“Without women’s studies programs to help us explain the broader issues, we’re not thinking about them,” she said. “We need disciplines to help explain, for example, what the meaning of Islamaphobia is and what that means for Muslim men and women. We need women’s studies to help us understand why, under capitalism, having legal access for women to paid work doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re free—free to leave abusive relationships or free to make enough money to be secure.”
For Blue, a women’s studies major himself, the program is important because it gives students the opportunity to learn about aspects of history and concepts they might never have been exposed to otherwise.
“Women’s studies is really great in terms of bringing up histories and stories that are often left out of other courses,” he said. “I think a lot of people take at least some sort of women’s studies course throughout their degree, because they think it sounds somewhat interesting, so women’s studies is a great way to expose people to feminist ideas.”
Where do men fit in?
Despite the ongoing fight for equality, the undeniable advancement of women’s rights in recent history has left some people wondering how the feminist movement is still relevant in Canada. These people may be surprised to learn feminists are not only focused on fighting oppression against women, but are invested in the advancement of human rights in general, including the rights of men.
“Feminists are concerned with equality for men, women, and transpeople,” said Magnet. “They’re not concerned with women getting unfair privileges.”
Magnet noted women do not have the monopoly on facing sexism—men can suffer from gender-based oppression too.
“Sexism hurts men,” she said. “Not learning how to be nurturing, being told they shouldn’t be allowed to cry, being told that masculinity is tied to violence—this is so damaging to men who want meaningful and authentic relationships in their lives.”
While most feminists would welcome men to the movement with open arms, not all are as receptive. U of O history and political science student Giancarlo Cerquozzi has taken women’s studies courses in the past and reported he was met with some resistance.
“In certain cases, I was made to feel like an unwelcome guest,” he said. “Because of my gender, I was told that I could never understand the feminist movement, nor could I be part of it because I am a man.”
Cerquozzi questions why he was made to feel excluded, given the nature of the goals of feminism.
“It is extremely hurtful when, as a young male, [I] am told I cannot and should not be present in women’s studies courses because of my gender,” he said. “Isn’t that detrimental to the feminist movement? Are we not looking for equality?”
Although his experience in women’s studies courses wasn’t entirely positive, Cerquozzi still sees the importance of men’s involvement in the fight against gender oppression.
“I think men—whether they be heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or trans—definitely have a part in the feminist movement,” he said. “I believe that any movement that calls for social change and improvement is amazing, and should not be limited to a select few.”
Although the relevancy of feminism has consistently been questioned, the need for the movement has never disappeared. Battles have been won, but the war against gender-based oppression is far from over—and it’s a war that won’t be won until we eliminate exclusion and achieve universal recognition of the legitimacy of the feminist movement.