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Until All Women: The Contemporary Relevance of Feminism in Canadian Society
Academic Discipline: Women’s Studies
Course Name: Intro to Women and Gender Studies
Assignment Subject: The Contemporary Relevance of Feminism
Academic Level: Undergraduate
Referencing Style: APA
Word Count: 2,177
There is no doubt that change is present in the world. Our neighbours to the South appear to be ever increasingly ideologically polarized, while Canada is also undergoing shifts of its own. Yesterday was Women’s Equality Day in the U.S., a day to commemorate the first-time women were granted the right to vote. While it is now hard to conceive of a time when women did not have that right, at this time in the world, it seems that we cannot take anything for granted. In these times of transition, we cling to what is familiar. As human beings, we are creatures of habit that are hesitant to step into and embrace variation. It is in these times when we reflect on the institutions and structures we have built through which we understand the complexity of social life. There are suggestions that we live in a post-racial, colonial and feminist period with a belief that we no longer need anti-racist, anti-colonial or feminist analysis to guide our actions or policies. It is true that we have made great strides in women’s equality; women can apply for jobs traditionally held by men, they have the right to vote and the right to free speech; we are more aware that women are an equal and valued part of society. So, if we have done so much work to change things for women, is feminism still a needed theoretical perspective? While there has been significant work done in equalizing the playing field for women, patriarchy still largely influences society’s perspectives on women’s rights in many ways. There are those who advocate for a “humanist” or “equalist” perspective, arguing that creating space for feminism minimizes the fight for equal rights. The issue with this perspective is that it assumes that feminism simply maintains a focus on women’s issues. Feminism seeks to carve out space for problems, which are both caused and glazed over in society due to white supremacy and patriarchy. There are many instances in which women specifically remain in positions of little power when compared to men, and in instances when the patriarchal perspectives in society maintain women’s oppression. In a society where women continue to struggle for basic human rights, intersectional feminism remains relevant.
Let’s Talk About Intersectional Feminism
One of the primary assumptions about feminism has been that individuals who engage in a feminist analysis are against men. This is simply not true. A feminist perspective challenges the systemic oppression of women, men, trans individuals, people of colour, individuals with a disability, low-income people and all other marginalized community members. Through an intersectional lens, it is possible to understand that people who hold these identities are impacted by social structures, which privilege a patriarchal, white perspective. So it is not the intent of feminists to walk around man hating; feminists are engaged in a process of dismantling the structures, which uphold oppression for marginalized groups. Intersectionality was a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, a feminist woman of colour, to emphasize the importance of considering how oppression intersects at various sites and points of identity. The development of an intersectional analysis was in some ways a response to white feminists’ exclusion of stories, which existed outside the white female experience. Intersectionality refers to the understanding of those identities ie: women and black women intersect to create specific experiences. It also incorporates the understanding that oppressive structures are supported by one another. For example, we cannot dismantle racism without also challenging patriarchy and vice versa. Feminism in contemporary society must be interpreted through an intersectional lens.
Abortion Rights and Reproductive Justice
Quite possibly one of the more controversial feminist projects is access to abortion. Canadian women fought for the right for women to have access to medically sanctioned abortions without bureaucratic restrictions (Sethna and Stettner, 2015), however the issue remains raw. There tend to be two polarized views when it comes to abortion: pro-choice which comes from a feminist tradition and operates under the belief that women should be able to make decisions about their bodies, and that they should have appropriate access to health care when needed. The second perspective is the pro-life movement; a religious approach which questions the morality of abortion, under the belief that life is sacred and should be maintained at all costs regardless of contextual factors. A pro-choice belief presents the notion that sometimes women experience rape resulting in unwanted pregnancies; often they get pregnant and are in financial distress or unstable relationships, unprepared to bear a child. Regardless of the reasons behind accessing an abortion, pro-choice advocates believe that women should have control over their own bodies.
Feminism embraces a pro-choice perspective advocating that women have jurisdiction over their wombs. While the Morgantaler Decision was passed in 1988 (Reid, 1988), permitting lawful abortions across Canada, feminists remain in an advocacy role when it comes to reproductive rights. Women continue to be shamed for having abortions, as many in society believe that it is immoral for pregnancies to be terminated. The pro-life movement exacerbates these perspectives. Feminists argue that it places women at risk when they do not have appropriate access to termination as they are left to execute the act themselves using unsafe means or asking an unlicensed to perform the procedure (Cho, 2012).
Attending an abortion clinic results in trauma for women who have already had to make a difficult decision. Women describe being shamed and called murders as they enter into abortion clinics. Often pro-life bystanders spewing judgment and claiming immorality greet women at the door. Dedicated to their cause, a group of pro-life advocates in Fredericton, New Brunswick, purchased the home beside the now defunct Morgantaler Clinic, to be in close proximity to the women accessing the service (Cho, 2012).
What is lacking in the pro-life analysis is consideration for the woman as a whole being, and not someone who is charged with bearing a child. The perspective unjustly fails to account for the reality that unwanted pregnancies occur, and that some women are not in the position to or do not want to bear a child. A feminist perspective is important to understand that for women to feel that they have control over their bodies, it is essential that they have access to abortion as a matter of basic human rights. In this way, society must stop viewing women as vessels for the creation of babies, and must start seeing women as whole human beings with their own rights and needs. Women’s bodies continue to be governed by policy and societal beliefs, limiting women’s full control over what to do with their own body.
Patriarchal values seep insidiously into daily interactions. Women tell stories of being asked whether their male partner provided consent for their abortion. They cite unfair treatment by doctors, having to go through hoops and make up stories to justify their need for the procedure (Cho, 2012). The film Status Quo, portrays the experience of a young woman being asked if she wanted to see the baby during an ultrasound. The woman expressed that she experienced undue pressure from the technician to reconsider her decision (Cho, 2012). It is these nuanced micro-aggressions, which justify a continued feminist analysis. Barriers to access to abortion put women’s lives at risk. At the same time, if women are forced to have a child it may place them at risk of violence, oppression, poverty or in need of engaging in illegal activity to support a baby. Women remain at the intersection of liberty and oppression when it comes to abortion. While the procedure is available, there remains much work to do to make it an accessible choice. Until women have full control over their bodies, feminism remains relevant.
Violence against Women
Women have long endured violence at the hands of their male partners and other men in their communities. During the 1980’s feminists began piecing the puzzle together recognising that it was not just a “few bad men” perpetrating this violence but a systemic pattern of dominance (Cho, 2012). Feminists began to create spaces in which women could share their similar stories, calling the process consciousness raising. They began to recognize that many instances of violence occurred within relationships and that men were the perpetrators. As a response, a rash of transition houses, shelters and support groups sprung up in Canada (Cho, 2012).
Despite the adequate response, systemic violence against women continues to happen in Canada. Transition homes and shelters are consistently at capacity and resources are limited for women who must leave their homes with their children (Cho, 2012). According to Statistics Canada (2015) 173,600 women aged 15 years and older were victims of violence in 2011. The same data, indicates that the five most common violent offences committed against women are common assault (49%), uttering threats (13%), serious assault (10%), sexual assault level I (7%), and criminal harassment (7%) (Statistics Canada, 2015). Intimate partners remain the regular perpetrators of violence by physical force.
Why is this a feminist issue? While some would argue that violence in any form perpetrated against any gender is alarming and in need of a response, a feminist analysis recognizes that gender is a specific component at play within these patterns of violence. Patriarchy, white supremacy and other forms of oppression culminate in the perpetuation of gender-based violence. Feminism remains relevant because women still fear walking on the streets alone; they still experience a high level of intimate partner violence; their credibility is questioned when they make claims of sexual and physical violence; men continue to be pardoned when they commit these crimes; transition homes remain at capacity. Until we understand that gender based violence is a systemic issue perpetuated by patriarchy and that it is not just violence caused by a few bad men, feminism remains necessary.
Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women
Feminism remains relevant until all women are free of the constraints of patriarchy. In Canada there have been 500 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women (Cho, 2012). In a country, which purports to have the best advance on the status of women, this is just not acceptable. While Aboriginal men commit some of the violence, white men are also chief offenders of violence against Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women are unsafe wherever they go. Due to systemic poverty, the need to use sex work as a means of income, addictions, and their systemic erasure from society, Aboriginal women are more vulnerable to violence than any other women in Canadian society (Cho, 2012). This should be making us angry. Adopting an intersectional lens we can witness the way colonial systems culminates with patriarchy fuel systemic oppression of Aboriginal women (Crenshaw, 1989).
Last year the Liberal government launched a National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women in Canada (Mochama, 2017). The inquiry has experience some set backs and the delay is being critiqued (Mochama, 2017). Families of the missing women wait to tell their stories to those responsible for administering the inquiry, a potentially traumatizing process. The lack of urgency with which the commission is responding speaks to the way in which systems function to stall a response to an important matter (Mochama, 2017). Chief Commissioner of the inquiry, Marion Buller, an Aboriginal woman herself, admits that the interruptions have been due in part to lack of staff retention and to navigating bureaucratic issues. The inquiry is long overdue and these women have been erased for long enough. While there continue to be missing women on a regular basis and while race, class and gender culminate in one horrible weapon against Aboriginal women, there is still more feminist work to be done.
While some would argue for a humanist perspective, advocating for the rights of all individuals, women continue to be at the receiving end of challenging circumstances, which are reinforced by patriarchal perspectives. There has been much work done to increase women’s access to equality but there are still some women who continue to live at the margins, leaving them susceptible to violence, shame and erasure. Additionally, women’s bodies continue to be patrolled and monitored by society, taking away their right to choose how to exist in the world. Lack of access to abortion due to shame, monetary limitations, and inadequate resources causes women to engage in dangerous, life threatening procedures. It also leaves them without a choice, whereas men have the option to leave a partnership in the case of an unplanned pregnancy. Violence against women remains an ongoing issue with transition homes and shelters acting only as a Band-Aid solution. Aboriginal women are still taking the brunt of violence and abuse by both men in their communities as well as by white men. These are all feminist issues and if we take the work that has been done for granted we risk moving backwards. Feminism is for everybody, and an intersectional lens is key in creating a world, which is free from oppression and where everyone is given equal value. Until all women can live without fear, shame or abuse, feminism will remain relevant.
Cho, K. (Director). (2012). Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada[Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.nfb.ca/film/status_quo_the_unfinished_business_of_feminism/
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum,8(1).
Mochama, V. (2017, July 06). Feminists should work to secure justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women: Mochama. Retrieved August 27, 2017, from https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2017/07/06/feminists-should-work-to-secure-justice-for-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-mochama.html
Reid, S. 1988 Decision. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2017, from http://www.morgentaler25years.ca/the-struggle-for-abortion-rights/1988-decision/
Sethna, C. and Stettner, S. (2015). The Women Are Coming; The Abortion Caravan of 1970. (2015, May 11). Retrieved August 27, 2017, from http://activehistory.ca/2015/05/the-women-are-coming-the-abortion-caravan-of-1970/
Statistics Canada. (2013). Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends. Canadian Centre for Justice StatisticsShare: