Commentary  The end of herstory

A recent National Post editorial (“Women’s studies is still with us,” January 26) indicates a troubling and widespread attitude about feminism: the false perception that women have achieved equality and women’s rights are a non-issue, and that advocating for women’s rights now poses a threat to men. It’s also one of many recent signs that the level of gender equality we have achieved in the past few decades is more vulnerable than we might like to believe.

Why we need a women’s movement in Canada
It’s important that we appreciate the material gains that the women’s movement has made thus far in Canada: childcare services, a woman’s right to control over her own body and sexuality, maternity leave, and measures to protect equal pay. But the idea that the women’s movement has fulfilled its goals is short-sighted, and discounts pervasive inequality in everything from professional opportunities to children’s socialization.

In Canada, women still make 72 cents for every dollar made by men, and inequality extends up the corporate ladder. In 2008, female CEOs made 58 per cent of a male CEO’s salary, with considerably fewer benefits. Just last year, a bill passed in Ottawa that took us further away from the goal of equal work for equal pay, by fining unions if they represent their members in pay equity disputes.

Here at McGill, professors in the Faculty of Religious Studies promote the idea that women’s empowerment harms men. In multiple books, Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young blame “ideological feminism” for dehumanizing and demonizing men, as well as degrading the ideal of the nuclear family. Their latest book, Sanctifying Misandry, is on display at the McGill Bookstore right now.

In greater North American society, womanhood is still linked to domesticity. Mass media equate the essence of femininity with make-up and shopping, and promote unrealistic and prejudiced expectations for female beauty – reinforcing whiteness as superior, as illustrated in this year’s cover of Vanity Fair’s “Hollywood Issue,” which featured only white actresses. Sexual freedom and desire are consistently reinforced as less acceptable for women than for men. From pseudo-science to Cosmo, it’s often repeated that young men have sex because they’re self-confident and young women, because they’re insecure. Even with all the rhetoric about today’s young women being empowered, women are often still socialized from an early age to feel that their value hinges on male attention.

Wanted: a big-picture feminism
The idea that modern feminism has become irrelevant also totally ignores the differences between women along the lines of race, sexuality, class, ability, place of origin, et cetera. For example, women of colour in particular still disproportionately bear the burden of a number of large-scale problems, from globalization to domestic violence.

According to Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s book Feminism without Borders, “women do two-thirds of the world’s work and earn less than one-tenth of its income.” She also notes that “women and girls are 70 per cent of the world’s poor and the majority of the world’s refugees.” The gains of mainstream feminism have largely benefited white, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual women in North America and Europe.

Feelings of satisfaction with these gains are partially responsible for the movement’s splintering and lost momentum. Women who have achieved positions of power often feel that they’ve made it, that they’re living proof that women’s liberation is a done deal and no longer requires advocacy.

At the same time, women who haven’t benefitted from the gains of mainstream feminism have a hard time relating to the movement because it hasn’t represented them. When white middle class women wanted to liberate themselves from housework and child care, who stepped in to take over those jobs? Underpaid working class women, often women of colour, or immigrants without fundamental labour rights. Mainstream feminism hasn’t adequately challenged the economic structures around women’s oppression beyond the social forces that drive it – even though, since the early stages of capitalism, industry thrived on the subservience of women.

The new women’s studies
Women’s studies is only beginning to address these significant problems, but the discipline is moving in the right direction. These departments remain vital as a space where all of these issues can be discussed and researched. It’s ironic that the National Post, hoping women’s studies departments were disappearing, expressed concern that these “man-hating” departments were deviously disguising themselves behind other names.

We agree with the National Post: women’s studies isn’t going anywhere – it’s broadening its focus, reorganizing in ways that recalibrate feminism to better recognize overlapping forms of inequality. The discipline of women’s studies is no longer about the polarization of men and women, in which the latter gains as the former loses. These changes in nomenclature show that feminism is becoming more inclusive, engaging with fields beyond the gender binary: queer theory, transsexuality, postcolonialism, and women in the developing world, for instance.

While it’s commendable that women’s studies departments are branching out, it’s vital that professors and students involved in them practice a more engaged scholarship that doesn’t just circulate theory, but contributes to its application through work with specific communities.

The feminist movement needs to be relevant to all women – those fighting for the right to have an abortion or to wear a hijab, to feed their families or get basic health care, to have an ID card that reflects their true gender or receive necessary accommodations for a disability. What we need is more action and activism. It’s crucial that we see the successes of the women’s movement, as shani jamila puts it, as “weapons to be used strategically in the struggle, rather than as spoils of war. Because this shit is far from finished.”