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Some of you might remember the controversy that arose over last year’s release of Discover Canada, the citizenship study guide produced by the federal government. There was an outcry when it was revealed that the Harper Conservatives had omitted all mention of gay rights in the study guide, despite senior department officials’ pleas to keep the information in.
Internal documents released to the media showed Immigration Minister Jason Kenney had ordered the omission of gay rights information, which included milestones in gay rights, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the fact that discrimination against people based on sexual orientation is illegal under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Well there really must be an election in the air because Kenney was in Vancouver this week showing off the new guide, which now includes one whole sentence, whereas all the old version had was a captioned photo of Olympic athlete Mark Tewksbury.
The guide now includes the line: “Canada’s diversity includes gay and lesbian Canadians, who enjoy the full protection of and equal treatment under the law, including access to civil marriage.”
Egale Canada is right that it’s better than no mention at all, but they point out trans rights weren’t included, despite the NDP passing its recent bill to guarantee those rights (the bill is waiting for Senate approval). I think it’s unfortunate that this government’s abysmal gay rights record has lowered our expectations so much that they can do the bare minimum on the issue and we’re still forced to congratulate them on it.
I was excited yesterday morning to come across this column by Paula Arab in the Calgary Herald, entitled “How did Feminism Become a Dirty Word?” An article supporting feminism in a mainstream paper in Canada’s conservative heartland? Awesome, I thought. Then I actually read it.
The article started out ok, with an anecdote about her first year university class’ reluctance to call themselves feminists.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about a belief in gender equality that says people, neither men nor women, should be discriminated against on the sole basis of their sex. So why the reluctance to stand up and be counted as a feminist?” she asks, reasonably.
But it’s pretty much downhill from there, as Arab spends the rest of the column suggesting “the fight has been won” and reassuring readers that feminism is nice and safe and doesn’t need to make anyone change how they would normally behave.
On the “fight has been won” argument, she seems to contradict herself, acknowledging instances of perpetuated rape culture such as the Manitoba judge who gave a rapist a lesser sentence because the victim had been wearing revealing clothing, and talking about our celebrity-obsessed culture that sexualizes young girls. She also recognizes women’s global inequality, citing honour killings and female genital mutilation, but still inexplicably insists “the fight has been won”.
And it’s on this assumption she tries to show that feminists aren’t like the stereotype people seem to have: “the butch look… -no makeup, short hair, overweight and manly”. Because we’re in a “post-feminist era” where women have pretty much achieved equality, Arab argues, feminism can be nice and comfortable and unintrusive. Women can be top managers “and lead like a woman, even if you had to act like a man to get there”! “Men can open doors for their ladies, now that chivalry is no longer a loaded symbol of women’s oppression”! And, thank God, “women can be strong and still be feminine”!
While it’s true women can be top managers, few actually are, and women still face sexism in the workplace in a number of fields such as technology. Women are drastically underrepresented in politics across the Western world, and many feminists would argue that women shouldn’t have to “act like a man” to get to the top, that defining corporate success as masculine has become an inherent part of women’s corporate inequality.
It’s also true that mainstream feminism, which centres on the principle of gender equality, generally accepts that feminine appearance and behaviour has little bearing on strength. That said, neither does androgynous or masculine appearance, though it seems like Arab thinks people would be more comfortable if women would just look like they’re told to look. No, feminists aren’t all manly-looking, but why should anyone care if we were? Masculine appearance doesn’t make anyone less friendly, less competent, or less valuable of a person.
And that whole chivalry thing? I have no problem with a guy holding a door for me, but I’d have a problem with a guy thinking he’s required to because I somehow can’t handle opening doors on my own, or because he thinks of me as his property. Arab still seems to think heterosexual relationships have a bit of an ownership factor, as evidenced by her discussion of men “open[ing] doors for their ladies“.
Arab is right that feminism doesn’t have to be big and scary, but she’s on the wrong track if she thinks gender equality can be achieved without ruffling any feathers. Feminism isn’t about deliberately trying to make people uncomfortable, but gender equality can’t be achieved without questioning gender relations and gendered behaviour. We also need to push for equality regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation, which means tackling homophobia, transphobia, poverty, and racism, in order to make sure we aren’t just focused on the concerns of straight, white, middle-class women.
Feminism doesn’t just bother some people because of the unfortunate negative stereotypes associated with it; it bothers some people because it forces them to admit their privilege and the ways they might be benefiting from or unconsciously perpetuating inequality.
Arab ends the article by inexplicably perpetuating the myth that feminists in the 1960s and 1970s burned their bras, which they never did, and concludes with: “Time to reclaim the F-word.”
I agree with the goal, but believe that being a feminist, while fun and rewarding, is about more than a theoretical commitment to equality: it does require changes in how we think and what we say and do.
I’m excited to welcome new guest blogger Starleigh. Starleigh Grass is a teacher, blogger, and mother from the Tsilhqot’in Nation who currently works in St’at’imc territory. Her blog, Twinkle’s Happy Place, supports educators who wish to integrate Indigenous content and pedagogy into their classrooms.
The other day the St’at’imc Runner put out a call for nominations for the 100 most influential St’at’imc individuals in the past 100 years. The call for nominations coincides with the upcoming centennial of the St’at’imc Declaration.
I was having lunch at a table full of people who were discussing who they would nominate and I was surprised that they list they came up with was mostly men. I have lived in St’at’imc territory for a year and a half now, and the top five people on my list were women. In no particular order, here are my nominations:
Nora Greenway – A retired educator, Nora teaches an Aboriginal literature course through Thompson Rivers University. She was on the curriculum development team of the BC course English First Peoples 12 and wrote the BCTF manual Beyond Words: Creating Racism Free Schools for Aboriginal Learners.
Lemya7 – Lemya7 is the St’at’imc Language Coordinator for School District #74. In addition to creating curriculum and teaching language to high school students she helps other teachers integrate Indigenous knowledge into their classrooms. In the community Lemya7 shares her knowledge of St’at’imc traditions generously through stories and songs.
Laura John – Currently wrapping up her Masters Degree, Laura teaches a number of courses, including language and culture, in Lillooet through the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology. She is a talented writer and as an academic advocates for decolonization in schools and communities. As leader of St’at’imc Sisters, a drum group, she builds capacity in the community to retain existing songs and create new songs which reflect St’at’imc values in contemporary society.
Lorna Williams – Lorna Williams, PhD, has been a leader in creating policies that support rather than oppress Aboriginal students in BC for decades and is currently the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning. As a speaker she helps her audience see things through Indigenous eyes but also challenges them to change negative assumptions that they hold about Indigenous communities and learners and transform their practice accordingly.
Jackie Andrew – Soon to enter a Masters program, Jackie currently is a volunteer who is preparing for the 3rd Annual International Indigenous Leadership Gathering, a week long event which brings together Indigenous leaders from around the world to discuss strategies to safeguard Indigenous Knowledge and ways of being. Jackie also creates beautiful buckskin clothing. She carries a hand drum with her everywhere that she goes so that she is always ready to share a song or learn the songs of the nation which she is visiting.
So there you have it: five amazing females from the St’at’imc Nation.
I am inspired by their work to create a world which honours Indigenous knowledge and culture, and their ability to organize in the struggle towards a decolonized future. Their leadership is defined by their strength, perseverance, and generosity.
First Nations, Metis, and Inuit women as a population are rapidly increasing their educational attainment and creating change in the world, however, their achievements and contributions to society are often overlooked and taken for granted.
Patriarchy has been imposed on Indigenous communities and done terrible damage to Indigenous women through sexualized and racialized violence, the attack on motherhood through residential schools and the child welfare system, and the systematic dismantling of social structures which once protected women such as collectivism and extended families. A key element in decolonization is restoring balance in communities, so let’s acknowledge and celebrate women who are working towards the a more fair and just society by obtaining an education and indigenizing institutions or through grassroots activities which nurture Indigenous culture, language, and leadership.
If you were to name five influential women from the Indigenous territory upon which you reside, who would they be?
To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day I’m participating in the Gender Across Borders Blog for IWD. Follow their live-blogging of the event here. You can also follow the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #blogforiwd. This year’s theme for IWD is “Our History is Our Strength” and GAB is asking specifically:
The way I see it, there are two reasons women are still underrepresented in science and technology: the first is underrepresentation of women in these fields, including in popular culture representation, and the second is women’s continuing material inequality.
Let’s look at issues around representation. Although research by the Canadian Youth Science Monitor showed an equal number of youth of both genders interested in pursuing careers in science, recent UNESCO data shows a lack of women scientists worldwide, and US and Canadian organizations recognize the underrepresentation as a continuing challenge. In the male-dominated field of Engineering, the peak of women’s enrollment in Canada was in 2001, when they made up 20.5% of undergraduates. Women make up only 30% of the doctoral degrees awarded in Engineering and Natural Sciences.
When some science facilities create a hostile climate for women and our schools and universities fail to actively recruit women into science we create a vicious cycle, with young women unable to see themselves reflected in the cultural ideal of what it means to be a “scientist” or an “engineer” or to pursue other technology-focused professions. When I was in high school I got the message loud and clear: it isn’t sexy for girls to be smart. This message is compounded by representations in popular culture, with shows like The Big Bang Theory and even sci-fi shows like Star Trek, to some extent, reinforcing the view that science is men’s terrain.
But even if we had more woman scientist characters on TV, it wouldn’t change the material factors that deter women from scientific careers. In Canada, the lack of a universal child care program might make women think twice before taking on a career in science or technology, where some institutions might not help employees balance work and family responsibilities. And 21 years after the Montreal Massacre, when female engineering students were gunned down for being female engineering students, the threat of violence against women who take on “male” roles hasn’t completely abated. While we haven’t experienced another shooting of female science students, many report experiencing hostility from male classmates and professors, as well as from coworkers later in their professional lives.
It’s an understatement to say both of these problems are exacerbated for women of colour.
In a great article on Racialicious today, Latoya Peterson recalls an experience speaking up at a feminist event: “You said things are so much better for women- but you are only talking about white women. Outside of Oprah, where’s our progress, on or off screen?” While women overall have made some gains in science and some women have been recognized for outstanding achievements, by and large it is white women who are increasing their representation, and they are also the ones most recognized for their achievements.
In her book, When Everything Changed, Gail Collins interviews a woman of Latina descent who started a job at IBM in the 1990s. She recalls a male colleague who told her she had to spend more of the time during her presentations explaining how she was like the white men in the room, how she had gone to the same schools as them and earned the same degrees, because, her colleague said, “Right now they’re spending the first 10 minutes wondering, who is this Latina woman?” If young white women find it hard to find role models in science, young women of colour – especially Aboriginal women - have an even harder time, and this is a serious problem.
And educational and income inequality also disproportionately affects women of colour, making it more difficult for young women of colour to pursue post-secondary education, much less ones in science and technology. We can’t talk about encouraging women and girls in science and technology without talking about addressing these issues.
So how do we address these issues? On the representation front, it’d be great to see more women scientist characters in pop culture, particularly women of colour. It’s also going to be up to women who have succeeded in science to put themselves out there as visible role models, to take on mentorship roles, and to help institutions change their cultures and actively recruit more women.
Innovation Canada came out with a great video in honour of International Women’s Day called “Women’s Work”, which features the stories of five Canadian women scientists: Dr. Indira Samarasekera, President of the University of Alberta; granting council President Suzanne Fortier; Ethnomusicologist Charity Marsh; Evolutionary Biologist Maydianne Andrade; and Biomedical Engineer Molly Shoichet. It would be great to see more videos like this more widely disseminated.
The material changes needed are more difficult. We need government to work to increase women’s access to child care, to support women pursuing post-secondary education in the sciences, and to make sure our school system is encouraging girls in the sciences. We need particular effort to address racial income inequality and racist attitudes that make it harder for people of colour to continue their education. These are difficult needs to address, but not impossible, and entirely worth fighting for.
So Happy International Women’s Day, with a particular shout-out to all the women who have taken on the male-dominated field of science and technology. Let’s celebrate our achievements while recognizing the challenges ahead.