The F Word

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In 2010, FHS co-founder Constance Backhouse wrote this piece marking the 50th birthday of second wave feminism. The events of the fall of 2012 make it equally relevant today.

“I’m not a feminist, but….”   How many times have you heard that ingenuous line before?  A badge of pride, proclaimed by folks who sincerely believe in equal pay and reproductive choice for women.  They likely cheered for the women’s hockey team at the Olympics too.

But they put the “but” in the wrong sentence.  Because “but for” feminism and its intrepid, innovative campaign for equality, birth control might still be illegal.  Women might still be barred from hockey rinks.  And Canadian women might still be earning 58 cents for every $1 paid to men.

The reason the 58 cents remains so memorable is that feminist satirists designed head scarves, in pink and blue, with slogans reading:  “58 cents is too much” and “Born to Clean.”  Another favourite was a button with a cartoon sperm swimming along above the caption: “End monthly murder.  Ban periods.”  Those who imagine that feminists have no sense of humour missed out on a lot.

To be sure, full gender equality remains an unrealized ideal.  But feminism has helped immeasurably to improve the status of women.

The year 2010 marks a milestone.  Canadian feminism turns fifty this year.  The decade of the 1960s set the starting line for what historians label the “second wave” of Canadian feminism, following the “first wave” of 19th-century activism that won for (most) women the vote and the right to be called “persons.”

The early years of second wave feminism were tumultuous.  In 1960, the popular “Voice of Women” sprang into existence to campaign against nuclear war and for international peace.  Soon after, Laura Sabia vowed to march two million women protesters on Parliament Hill, and the extraordinary Royal Commission on the Status of Women was born.  Radical feminist “consciousness-raising” groups sprouted fromVictoriatoSaint John’s.

Over the next four decades feminist activism transformed the landscape.  Battered women’s shelters, rape crisis centres, and paid parental leave appeared.  Separate “male” and “female” job ads, maternal deaths attributable to self-induced abortion, and all-male newsrooms disappeared.  A problem without a name came crashing into public consciousness when the phrase “sexual harassment” was coined.

BerthaWilsonwas appointed the first woman on the Supreme Court.  Canadian banks grudgingly stopped demanding that loans to women be co-signed by men.  The public service stopped firing all female employees who got married.  Feminists struggled to combat child sexual abuse, to integrate women into the blue-collar trades and the professions, to champion female artists, to reconceptualize women’s health.

Much gender discrimination remains.  Women politicians in Parliament register a paltry 22%, ranking Canada49th in the world and behindRwanda in political gender parity.  Wife beating statistics show no diminishment.  Fewer than one in ten women who are sexually assaulted report the crime, continuing to believe – as they have done for centuries – that the shameful stigma of rape attaches to them, rather than to the real culprits.

Access to abortion depends upon where you live, and whether the hospitals nearby deign to provide full-service care to women.  More than forty percent of the Financial Post 500 companies are directed by all-male boardrooms recruited through “old boys’ clubs.”  The “leaky pipeline” drains female candidates from partnerships inBay Streetlaw firms and parity in science and engineering.  The intersections between gender and race, disability, and sexual identity require urgent attention.  And women still earn just 71 cents for every $1 paid to men.

The battles have not all been won, but this is not for lack of feminist effort or vision.  Critics who opposed every plank of feminist demands from the outset now ridicule the movement as over-the-hill.  Yet Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a 19th-century American feminist, urged older women never to think that their “life work was done,” and wrote in her inimitable turn of phrase that “the hey-day of women’s life” was “on the shady side of fifty.”

Prematurely rumoured to be dead, those who claim the “F” word as a badge of pride are gathering to celebrate their 50th.  They plan to take stock of the past and to stragegize for the future.  If you missed the movement’s first round, why not join us for the next?

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