And They Said It Would Never Happen

Not long ago, there were two “F” words people would never say in polite or professional company. Has this changed? Is feminism today a “thing”?

We have come a long way in a short time from Stephen Harper’s regressive “War on Women” days.

In the span of just over two years, Canada now has a prime minister who comfortably calls himself a feminist on the world stage, a 50-50 gender ratio cabinet in its federal government, and our new Status of Women Minister, Maryam Monsef, reminded the audience of over 300 at the UN Global Compact Network Canada Gender Equality Conference in Toronto on April 4 that the federal government’s 2017 budget is the “most feminist budget this country has ever known.”

At this time last year, Kate McInturff, a senior researcher and gender equity and public policy analyst at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives wrote a feminist critique of the Liberal 2016 budget, saying it did “not offer enough real change for women.” But this year, with more than 60 budget measures targeting gender issues including the introduction of the GBA+ program, McInturff wrote that “the 2017 federal budget gives me more cause for optimism.”

That said, critics’ arguments of this year’s budget are valid. The money allocated is not nearly enough given the magnitude of the task, plus Canada still lags behind European countries when it comes to gender equality policies. Headlines like the one published in the Toronto Sun on March 21, “Trudeau gets an ‘F’ for his armchair feminism,” remind us that not everyone is pleased with the pace of change.

But with grassroots feminist activism as fuel, and feminist media as its storytellers, the door that has been opened by recent world events and the resulting re-uptake of feminist values means there are grounds for hope.

Enter a New Feminist-Led Era

Over the past 100 years, feminist theory, ideology and the feminist movement itself have evolved. Mainstream feminism has embraced the concept of intersectionality (the idea that we have multiple identities, and that oppressions related to each are interconnected). Today, feminism is a mature, pluralistic movement with as many dimensions and interpretations as any centuries-old social movement.

Some elements of the feminist movement are radical, while others are conservative or liberal, resulting in some disagreement on how to best go about achieving gender equality. Neo-liberal feminists believe the best way to advance gender equality is by empowering the individual, i.e. “change the woman, change the world,” while others believe that for gender equality and equity to be both achieved and sustainable, we need to fundamentally change the system (versus fight for ways to join it), namely the patriarchy, the legal system and/or capitalism.  

To newcomers, the sheer number of interpretations of feminist philosophy can be confusing and overwhelming. However, there is general agreement about one thing: feminism aims to realize gender equity so that all may have the opportunity to thrive and flourish individually and in family, community, political and economic life as their authentic selves. Most would agree that being a feminist means also actively working towards systems change to achieve this outcome versus simply and passively standing by and “believing in equality” or buying a “Feminist as Fuck” t-shirt from H&M. 

Sign of the Times

A dipstick way of gauging the popularity of a subject is to consider how many hits a topic generates on Google in any given year. Based on this approach, we see that a search for feminist content in the year 2015 produced 78M hits. In 2016, the same search yielded 111M hits. Granted it was the US election year, but nevertheless, it is a 70% increase. Conversely, Google hits on the topic “entrepreneurship” during the same years show no material change between 2015 and 2016. So far in 2017, the word feminist is still trending high; and actually, beats the “in” word entrepreneurship by 16%. 

We can also look at book signings and publishing trends. Amazon listings show that 387 books on feminism were published in 2016. There were also 448 books published on entrepreneurship and 2,384 books published on sex. What this tells us is that feminism as a topic is almost as hot as the entrepreneurship topic for publishers placing bets on what will sell. And sex, well, that is an evergreen subject if there ever was one, but still a useful benchmark of how many books a universally hot topic nets in this kind of analysis.  

The number of Google hits and books published does not qualify as scientific research, and neither does the incredible anticipative interest so far in the feminist horror, ten-episode, drama series “A Handmaids Tale” (Series Premiere April 30), but it does indicate that the feminist conversation is persistently growing and that the plot is thickening.

Looking at electoral politics, it appears that feminist philosophy is trending around the world. In February, Sweden in many ways one-upped us all when it declared itself to be the first feminist government in the world. Not long after, Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Minister Margot Wallström delivered the first “feminist foreign policy” in the world.

Pew surveys show that even in Trump’s neo-liberal, Republican America, the vast majority of voters across the political spectrum are in favour of gender equality and equity.

In the private sector, we find that corporations, where performance depends on unleashing human potential, are increasingly working toward gender balance. And those that are not are increasingly being compelled to step it up by securities regulators and government-imposed quota programs. As the business case argument goes, gender equality just makes good business sense.

We also find that many companies these days are marketing products as “feminist” products, also known as marketplace feminism. While it’s something I personally disdain, the fact that feminism is today something that sells versus repels is also an indicator of how perception has changed. 

This Is Great But…

Clearly, people today are re-embracing feminist philosophy. And ergo, so are politicians and companies, especially the corporate sector. However, when we look at how feminism is being adopted in these realms, there is growing concern that feminism is being seen as a simple numerical representation by gender or as a good business case for increasing profits and growing economies.

Is this what feminism is really all about? Making more money and getting more votes?

Embracing the Bigger Opportunity

“Their Game, Your Goal” by LiisBeth feature artist, Anne-Marie Hood

This month’s newsletter illustration (above) by LiisBeth artist Anne-Marie Hood is entitled “Their Game, Your Goal.” She explains: “A game of darts requires focus and skill. The point is to win, just like in traditional patriarchal practice. But what would happen if we approached the board with a different goal in mind? What doors would open? Which ones would close? What skills would we need to develop to change systems? What kind of darts might have the greatest effect?”

Hood points out that feminism is about more than labour force participation rates or the number of skirts (or pantsuits) at the boardroom table. Feminism actually represents a much larger opportunity; it creates conversations that shift our collective consciousness, changing the way we think about the world, organize work, design new ventures, orient our economy, and view each other. Feminisms of all kinds (and there are many) help us envision a whole new set of possibilities, which results in stronger communities, resilient economies, healthy environments, and futures that articulate different forms of being and belonging—placing the well-being of people and the planet at the centre. Mainstream feminism envisions a true balance between feminine and masculine forces within each one of us, within society, and within nature.

In other words, a feminist utopian future looks a lot different than our current reality.

For game designer and writer Naomi Alderman, a feminist-informed future is “a world where neither gender nor sex are destiny. It’s not a world where anything is ‘taken’ from anyone—it’s one where everyone’s possibilities are enlarged.”

Lois Wilson, a feminist scholar and author, characterizes one feminist utopian vision¹ as a just and equitable world where “those on the edge and those at the centre walk together and indeed join hands to create a new reality.” In this utopia, there is no growing gap between the rich and the poor. They are understood as two sides of the same coin, as connectional rather two unconnected realities. To separate them is to put the affluent in a lifeboat and all others into the sea. This ideal imagines a more just and equitable economic order globally that does not impact women negatively; imagine a community—a world—in which the world’s spending priorities are changed, where other feminist visions for a better future include one where we “embrace nurturing and integrative power,” one where everyone is safe and secure, and one where the environment is fully restored.

Based on these ideas about what a feminist-informed future looks like, it seems today’s emphasis on fixing the representation gap is a sort of first-responder feminism—totally necessary, but not the final destination. Yes, it’s a good thing. But it does not challenge the status quo regarding how we live and work on this planet.  

How to Create a Whole New World?

It is also unlikely that any politician or government can lead this type of challenge to the existing systems and still remain in office. In the end, deep cultural and systems change is up to each one of us. Revolutionary thinking and social change comes from the edges of society, not its contented centre.

I, for one, am grateful that Justin Trudeau is bringing the feminist conversation back into the mainstream light, that this has encouraged many to rediscover its ideological value and relevance today, and that he has put at least some money behind his words. But I don’t expect him or his government to do all the work.  

It’s really up to us.


Footnotes and additional reading:

¹ Margrit Eichler et al., 2002, Feminist Utopias: Re-Visioning Our Futures, Inanna Publications, Toronto, ON

Entrepreneurs by Choice; Activists By Necessity: LiisBeth Newsletter, May 2, 2016

The Visceral, Woman-Centric Horror of The Handmaid’s Tale: The Atlantic, April 25, 2017

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