IWD Talk on Intergenerational Feminism

by | March 13, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

photoby Jarrah Hodge

Last Friday I had the honour of speaking at the Vancouver and District Labour Council’s International Women’s Day celebration, at a packed house at the Fraserview Hall, on the topic of intergenerational feminism. I was the second speaker following retired CUPW activist Marion Pollack, who shared her experiences fighting sexism in the labour movement in the 1970s and working with the labour movement to fight for equality and women’s rights in the broader community.

I followed up with a talk about building intergenerational bridges in the feminist movement and looking at the issues we are still battling, like pay equity, violence against women, and a range of insidious messages that tell girls and women how they need to look and behave in order to be considered valuable and legitimate.

If you’re interested in seeing part of my talk I’ve put a video online – note my camera had a glitch at the beginning so the actual video starts at about 0:50 and the intro section of my speech is partly cut off. I think it’ll still make sense though.

I’m also including the transcript here, after the jump because it’s quite long. You can’t see my Powerpoint in the video so if you want any clarification on what slides I was using to illustrate my points, just comment below. It was really exciting for me to get to speak at this event that I usually attend every year, and I was really pleased with the positive feedback I got from several people in the audience. Overall, it was a pretty great International Women’s Day.


Hi… this is an event I attend every year so I was really excited to be asked to come and speak to you tonight. And thanks so much to Marion for providing that history and perspective.

It’s so important to have that perspective because when it comes to patriarchy and the issues we’re fighting against, the more things change, the more things stay the same, right? Marion talked about some of those key fights, some where we’ve made significant gains, and some not so much.

Another thing that’s pretty much stayed the same are the sexist messages women and girls deal with, and I think moving forward it can help to build intergenerational bridges by starting with those messages.

(begin Powerpoint presentation with examples of ads from “then” and “now”)

I’ll give a quick trigger warning because some of these ads are pretty offensive but I think they illustrate an important point. (“Then”)In 1958 women and girls were encouraged to stay slim with Grape Nuts.  (“Now”) Now women still get the message that fat is disgusting, skinny is sexy, and sexy is what makes you valuable.

(“Then”) In 1975 doing the laundry wasn’t just something wives did – it was something that made them happy. (“Now”) Now it’s practically an aphrodisiac!

(“Now”) Objectification?

(“Then”) Nothing new.

(“Then”) And one of the worst things is that violence against women is still treated as something that’s not just a joke…

(“Now”) But something that’s actually considered glamorous.

So it’s not just the same material campaigns we’re fighting, like pay equity and childcare and defending our right to choose, but also the same insidious messages about how women and girls are supposed to look and behave in order to be considered valuable and legitimate. Sure the technology has changed and the messages might be more pervasive, but the content is essentially the same. That’s one of the key reasons we need to build a more intergenerational feminist movement.

I think a good way to understand the way that women experience the world is through an analogy that I’m borrowing and adapting from Melissa Harris-Perry’s book Sister Citizen. It’s what she calls the crooked room.

Harris-Perry talks about post-World War II psychological studies in which subjects were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room and then asked to align themselves vertically. They found that only some of the participants were able to get themselves upright regardless of the crooked surroundings. Others could be tilted by as much as 35 degrees but feel themselves perfectly straight because they were straight in relation to the crooked images.

The images and mixed messages that women are bombarded with in pop culture and advertising, the celebrities we’re supposed to emulate: dealing with all those messages is like living full-time in a crooked room. It makes sense that many women have trouble figuring out how to stand up straight.

Harris-Perry is talking about black American women specifically – and certainly racial stereotypes present additional challenges – but I think the analogy works in a broader context.

Now I’m going to extend it – hopefully not too painfully. Basically I see there being two areas we have to work on as feminists: the issues around representation and recognition, as well as basic material inequality.

The first area includes anything that calls out the fact that women are in a crooked room or tries to help give them the tools to stand up straight in that environment. That’s the aim of feminist campaigns around – say – talking to girls about media and helping them to resist unrealistic and unhealthy body ideals. That’s where we’re working when we stand up against the blaming and shaming of rape victims.

Although this is a generalization, I would say some of the most visible young feminist activists are focused here: on opposing all the double-standards, the unattainable ideals, and the outdated values applied to women.

Now the main criticism I’ve heard about young feminists today  – other than the mistaken belief that there are no young feminists (more on that later) is an argument that we’re building a movement that is too individualistic and based on personal choice rather than collective action.

For example, one small offshoot of modern feminism is cupcake feminism or girly feminism. I made a video about this for my Feminism F.A.Q.s YouTube series. Girly feminism is a term that refers to a group of mostly younger women who embrace feminist politics at the same time as traditionally feminine or girlie pastimes. This is by no means the majority of younger feminists but it’s a highly visible group.

Part of girly feminism is reclaiming traditional elements of women’s lives that have been devalued, such as cooking, crafting, and knitting. Many young feminists see this as exercising their power – they know they don’t have to do these things but they are making a free choice to take up these hobbies because they enjoy them. For some that in itself is a feminist act.

For others like me, I like cooking and crafting but I don’t see it as particularly related to my feminist activism. I’m just happy I have the privilege to do those things when I choose to. For me – baking cupcakes doesn’t make you less of a feminist, but nor is it sufficient to qualify as activism in and of itself.

But say you’re someone who cut their teeth in the second wave feminist movement in the 60s and 70s. If you see some young feminists visibly embracing these traditionally feminine pastimes, maybe it seems frivolous? I can see how some might even see it as an abandonment of the principle that the personal is political. It could feel like younger women can’t see how hard their foremothers fought to not be forced into those domestic roles.

It’s an unstated question: why are you holding a feminist knitting circle and analyzing the messages in TV shows when women still don’t make the same wages as men? When they hold less than 30% of seats in Parliament? When there are more than 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in this country?

Basically: so what if you’re standing up straight? The room is still crooked! The playing field isn’t level.

This is the second area and it’s where the labour movement really comes in. Fighting for material advancements is a role labour has always played in the women’s movement, from the textile workers strikes in the 1910s to today. That’s a crucial role and it needs to continue. We have to keep fighting for fair pay, for universal childcare, and for an end to violence against women.

We also support women in their struggles in the workplace. Even among organized workers we know there are gender inequalities around work. A friend of mine works at a mill and I can’t tell you the struggle she had to get them to build another women’s washroom so the women workers didn’t have to travel across the compound to use the facilities. We haven’t done away with sexual harassment for our members, and fields dominated by women like social work are significantly undervalued compared to fields that require the same level of education but are dominated by men.

Unorganized women, especially migrant workers, live-in caregivers, and new immigrants, share these challenges but are even more vulnerable.

At an even more basic level, YWCA Canada recently found that 53% of Canadians are unaware of the extent of women’s homelessness. 3 of every 10 homeless people in Canada are women and they sometimes have unique needs when accessing shelter. Unfortunately, in spite of the need, last week the Conservatives voted down the latest NDP bill calling for a national housing strategy.

Anyway, I’m sure I don’t need to get much more into the material inequalities women face. Most of us here know the big problems. For some of you they’re the same problems you’ve been working on for decades and we have you to thank for the advances we’ve made.

As we all know, we can’t totally correct those material inequalities without addressing that other side – the representational issues. Becausewe need to build support for those campaigns and that means making sure people see the room is crooked.

A classic and well-researched example of that link between media representations and women’s material wellbeing is around body image. For example recent studies that high school girls who consumed more mainstream media attributed greater importance to sexiness and beauty than did students who consumed less media.

Connecting the dots other research has shown girls who place this kind of value on appearance are more likely to experience mental health issues including depression and eating disorders. A Girls Action Foundation report that came out last week found 1 in 7 Ontario teen girls believe “she does not have much to be proud of” and that she “can’t do anything right.” In BC one in five teen girls reported attempting to self-harm in the previous year.

Mental and physical health issues make it harder to participate fully in school and work and to reach your full potential. So even just by living in this media landscape, without experiencing poverty or racism or other types of discrimination, it’s going to be harder for you to get to a place that’s really equal – and that goes back to media and those basic insidious sexist messages I talked about earlier.

Another one is the unequal representation of women in politics. Ultimately it’s going to be harder to convince women to take the step to run if they look in the media and see the way women politicians are regularly treated. The less women who run, the less women get elected, the less young women and girls see role models in those areas, the less they consider politics a viable path for themselves.

On my blog I’ve started a series of personal reflections from contributors called My Reality. There are posts there by young women who have suffered rape or domestic abuse, and women sharing stories of taking charge and standing up for themselves against the restrictive roles prescribed to them. I see it as a continuation of the 60s and 70s consciousness-raising feminist groups. Even now it’s just as important to hear these stories and get strength from them.

So dealing with material and representational issues can be complementary.

So we face these big challenges. How do we work together across generations to tackle them?

First, I think mentorship is crucial. I was incredibly lucky to get to work for three amazing feminist elected officials – Penny Priddy, Jenn McGinn, and Dawn Black and that really deepened my appreciation of past feminist work and the context we live in today. I was four years old when the Montreal Massacre happened. It’s a totally different perspective to learn from someone who was there working with the families of the victims to establish gun control legislation and get December 6 named a National Day of Remembrance and Action. Any younger feminists out there – seize those opportunities to connect and get first-hand perspective.

Second, for anyone who’s entering into that kind of mentoring relationship on the mentor side – or for any established feminists who are figuring out how to integrate young feminists into your cause – the approach you take is very important.

I think it can be tough because when you’ve put decades of work into these issues it can be scary facing the prospect that one day these younger feminists will be the ones charged with this legacy. But please as much as possible you have to treat those relationships as partnerships and make room for two-way learning. If you come into it feeling terrified that’s a lot of pressure for a relatively new activist to have on their shoulders, this feeling that you’re not confident about leaving the movement in their hands. It’s hard enough having to deal with your own insecurities without getting this sense that the people who are the leaders in this movement don’t trust you or don’t think your input is equally important because you don’t have enough skin in the game.

The same goes for the labour movements and progressive movements in general when working with young people. I don’t think this happens consciously but again it’s just about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

For example. In 2005 I ran in the provincial election against Colin Hansen, and later that year I became the Women’s Rights Committee Chair.

Four years later I was still getting people asking me if I was at an event because my parents were active in the party or my boyfriend brought me.

The other pet peeve I developed was when in group discussions, someone would say, “Where are all the young people? Why aren’t they here?” in this accusing tone like somehow I was supposed to be responsible for that or at least have some sort of key to the mysteries of my generation.

Now imagine you’re a feminist union activist and you’re in a meeting with a group of guys when one of them asks, “Where are all the other women?” and looks at you for answers. You’d be the first to say they need to look at the institution and whether there are systemic barriers preventing these underrepresented groups from participating. Same goes for young people.

And the solution is not to pander but to include. Having pizza at your meeting is great, but I don’t think food is inherently more appealing to youth than anyone else. It’s certainly no substitute for feeling valued and respected.

If you build areas where young women can take responsibility and leadership, they will take it. We’ve seen this work in a few unions and one feminist group that does a great job at this is the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. They have 3 or 4 young people who they trust to be out there in the media acting as spokespeople along with longer-term activists. A couple of those young women are the brains behind the Radical Handmaids protests that we saw leading up to the M-312 vote last year.

So quickly because it’s about time to wrap-up, I wanted to share a couple more examples of young women taking on some really cool and innovative projects, because I don’t want anyone to leave here thinking there are no young feminists.

First, Emily May. In 2005 Emily May started Hollaback!: an organization that allows people to use mobile phones to share their experience of street harassment online. She was inspired by the case of a woman named Thao Nguyen, who was riding the Subway to work in New York when she saw a man publicly masturbating.  She took a picture with her mobile phone and took it to police but they wouldn’t do anything. She posted it on Flickr and it went viral. Suddenly everyone was talking about how this was a problem and something had to be done. With Hollaback women and girls can quickly document and share their experiences with street harassment and see immediately that they’re not alone. It takes away the harassers’ ability to totally intimidate women. Now they have over 200 of what they call site leaders who are taking charge spreading the movement in their own communities. 75% of those are under 30.

Same issue but on the other side of the world 26-year-old Nihal Saad Zaghloul is taking on street harassment in Cairo. One day she was harassed and groped by a group of men in Tahrir Square. She blogged about it and formed an anti-harassment group on Facebook. The next week she, along with 60 supporters, peacefully protested near the square but were set upon by about 50 men who groped the women and beat up the men. She wasn’t deterred and set up a website chronicling experiences with street harassment. From that she formed a group called Bassma, which means imprint, that coordinates volunteer street patrols that peacefully intervene to protect women from harassment.

Some of you might have heard of Anita Sarkeesian, founder of the video blog Feminist Frequency. Sarkeesian, who’s originally from Toronto, was the target of extensive online harassment last year when she dared to start an online funding campaign to make a series of webvideos about women’s roles in video games, showing that even this kind of online activism is deeply threatening to the patriarchal status quo. Anita received death threats and her website, Wikipedia profile, and Facebook page were hacked and defaced. But she refused to back down and her project got $150,000 –25 times what she asked for – as people showed their support. She’s also really generous with her time giving advice to feminists like me who are getting into making web videos.

Closer to home, there’s no way I can name all the young women doing amazing things just in our movement, but I’m sure many of you here know Zaineb Glhayem. Zaineb started a job at YVR as a security screener and immediately got involved in the union. She became recording secretary of her local and has taken part in organizing drives across Canada for screeners and baggage handlers. She’s now the Co-Chair of the BC Fed Young Workers Committee and she gave an amazing speech about women’s right to choose at the M-312 rally in Vancouver last year.

There’s so many more examples, and overall I’m incredibly optimistic about what we can achieve, especially if we can really connect across generations. There’s a shared responsibility for the challenges facing our movement that will involve all of us listening and learning.

And for the record. My boyfriend is here tonight. And I brought him.


, , , , , ,