Alberta Report

Monday, January 18, 1999

Dead In Name Only

The Term 'Feminism' May Be Out Of Fashion, But Its Attitudes Are Still Alive And Kicking

by Carla Yu

The scene outside Liberal MP Hedy Fry's constituency office in Vancouver looked like a flashback to the campus protests of the 1970s. But the date was December 17, 1998, and the protesters were middle-aged members of the National Action Committee for the Status of Women (NAC). The women had staged a sit-in to demand that Ms. Fry, secretary of state responsible for the status of women, sign a $600,000 promissory note to restore the group's lost funding. Ms. Fry, herself a feminist who in past times has manned the barricades for the sisterhood, refused.

Sylvia Hawkins, Alberta representative for NAC, says the funding cuts indicate that feminism's impact on Canada is dying. "We had a significant impact on social policy, and now we're seeing the reverse of that," she says. "There is a backlash, and the gains are being taken away."

When hardline feminists like Ms. Hawkins watch governments cut healthcare and social services, two important supports for single mothers, they conclude that feminism no longer has a future. And they are not comforted by growing demands for family-friendly changes to Canada's tax code and divorce laws, or the Liberal government's apparent willingness to listen..

In fact, the backlash against traditional feminism has become so widespread that last June a Time magazine cover story proclaimed feminism dead. Time described the women's movement as formerly "a pop culture that was intellectually provocative." But it degenerated to "a whole lot of stylish fluff" that has "devolved into the silly." Even feminists seemed to agree. In a poll run with the story Time found that even among self-identified feminists only 64% thought feminism relevant to today's women; only 58% considered it relevant to their personal lives.

But it may be too soon to dance or mourn for the movement's demise. For one thing, its vital signs have been misread before. In 1976 Harper's magazine ran a premature "Requiem for the Women's Movement." And in 1982, in an article entitled "Voices from the Post-Feminist Generation," New York Times Magazine lamented the rejection of feminism by the coming (now past) generation of young women.

Evidence suggests that people who discern the death of feminism may be searching for signs of life in the wrong places. Today's hip young women may eschew the feminist label. And the traditional sisterhood has definitely lost its near-total dominance over government and academia. But feminism's fundamental principles so permeate society that most women are feminists whether they recognize it or not.

In fact, if one considers the growing number of female representatives at all levels of government, the public support for government-funded childcare and the courts' zeal to strengthen legal protections against sexual harassment, it could be said that feminism is ingrained in Canadian society. Its principles are enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and proof of feminism's continued advance comes in recent court rulings that move forward the concept of pay equity.

A November 17 Federal Court of Appeals ruling against Bell Canada declared that telephone operators, mostly women, should earn the same wage as male telephone technicians. Moreover, "work of equal value" judgments will likely be further entrenched in the legal system. The federal government, Canada Post and Air Canada are all facing pay equity lawsuits.

Even feminism's so-called funding crisis may be overstated. True enough, NAC's project proposals bombed this year, but many other women's groups received grants. It is also true that the federal budget for family violence and women's programs has gradually decreased by $3 million over the last 10 years. But the government still doles out over $8 million annually, enough to support nearly 200 women's groups.

But beyond government policy changes and funding shortages, feminists are concerned over what they interpret as a rejection of feminist values by young women. And on the surface, their perception seems accurate. A few of the 20-somethings interviewed for this article agreed that NAC is an important lobby group, but other derided NAC membership with such terms as "hairy armpits," "lesbians" and "man-haters." Some women objected to NAC's "whining" and "complaining" (stronger expletives were used), characteristics they perceived as peculiarly feminist. None easily declared, "I am a feminist!" even when their values obviously coincided with the goals of the women's movement.

"Feminism has served its purpose and could die," says Robyn Gray, a 23-year-old education student at the University of Alberta. "We don't need the movement anymore." She reports that she strongly disagreed with her women's studies professor who continued to assert that women need to fight for equal rights and learn to get along without men."I think we are equal now," she explains. "I don't understand why they [complain]. Women are only limited by physical strength in some jobs."

Mrs. Gray extends her views of equality into her marriage of six months. She and her husband, also a student, keep separate bank accounts, trying to balance costs between them. Moreover, he does most of the household chores and cooking.

The couple have already discussed their employment strategy when children come. "I would like to stay home," says Mrs. Gray. "But we agreed that whoever is making the most money would keep working." That strategy is not unique to the Grays. Andrea Padovani, 20, who works in retail while upgrading her marks to enter the dental assistant program at NAIT, also thinks that, if she marries-as she hopes to do someday-wage level would likely determine who stays home with the kids.

Furthermore, Ms. Padovani believes there is no guarantee that her husband will make the most money. "There is only inequality in the workplace in specific instances," says Ms Padovani. "Six years ago women were passed by [for promotions] in my own job, but now they are in the highest positions."

Some young women are less sure than Ms. Padovani that feminism has triumphed. "I will have equal opportunities in the sense that they will look at my qualifications and not my gender in hiring," says Susan Charara, a second-year marketing student at the University of Alberta. "But on the higher rungs, men earn more. I'm okay with that, as long as I have enough to be satisfied." Unwilling to take up arms for the feminist cause, she believes that further advances for women will come more slowly, perhaps benefitting her children more than herself.

Even though her Islamic Lebanese family has retained the custom of arranged marriages, feminism has so permeated Miss Charara's outlook that she plans to insist on equality in her marriage. "I'm not going to sit at home and cook and clean," she asserts. And when children come, "my husband shouldn't expect me to quit my job." Miss Charara hedges when asked to declare herself a feminist. "Feminists are closed-minded, they lose sight of seeing things in other ways," she says. "So I wouldn't say I'm a feminist, but I do believe in equality."

"Young women are always reluctant to call themselves feminists," notes Kathleen O'Grady, a 30-year-old lecturer in religious studies at the University of Calgary. "It wasn't until I was 25 or 26 that I realized I was a feminist in everything but name." She believes her aversion to the term is partially due to media representations of feminists as heavy and unattractive.

In reality, says Ms. O'Grady, the feminist movement is richly diverse. In the 1960s, she says, feminism was identified with radical left-wing politics. But, she enthuses, in the '70s and '80s its appeal broadened and now the entire political spectrum is represented. Today, "a proliferation of methods and techniques define liberation." And that, she says, makes defining feminism difficult.

"Feminism is the dialogue about women's issues," Ms. O'Grady continues. "You can't define it in terms of a certain dogma." She sees feminism as anything but dead. "It has never been healthier," she says, "only the label has changed."

"I'm not dead, and neither are my friends," jokes NAC's Hawkins, when asked about feminism's demise. "We're still looking at women's equality." After 30 years in the women's movement, Ms. Hawkins says feminism's new phase is the inevitable product of past triumphs. "It started as a product of its time," she says. "Now there is a diversity of women at the table, confronting racism, classism and homophobia. We work to bring ourselves together."

Ms. Hawkins is confident the women's movement will endure. Nevertheless, she says, feminists are under tremendous pressure. "There is a mean-spiritedness about changes in policy now," she says. "The attitude is, 'You wanted equality, you got it, now get on with it.'"

There may be other reasons for the pressure sensed by NAC and other women's groups. "There appears to be an evolution in the concept of feminism," says Mark Genuis, executive director of the National Foundation for Family Research and Education (NFFRE) in Calgary. "The basic tenets of early feminism have become engrained in our lives, and now a 'third wave' of feminism is beginning."

According to Mr. Genuis, "second-wave" feminism began in the United States with the 1963 publication of Betty Frieden's The Feminine Mystique, the book that gave women the legacy of making their own choices, respecting themselves and demanding respect from others. "When this was achieved," Mr. Genuis says, "women looked around and sought the most important function for themselves in society. To the surprise of second-wave feminists, many are saying, 'Raising a family is number one.'"

The new trend clashes with old-order feminism. "Many mistakes of that revolution are haunting the progress that has occurred," remarks Mr. Genuis. "Women are penalized for investing in raising their families." He is not alone in thinking so. While feminists insist that they support women in making any choices that lead to self-fulfilment, Time's poll showed that only half of non-feminists believe them.

Still, at least two-thirds of modern mothers have apparently embraced the feminist dogma that work outside the home is a necessary part of the complete woman. Based on NFFRE-Compass polls, along with data from Statistics Canada, Mr. Genuis has concluded that Canadian families with children under six divide into three roughly equally-sized groups: families where both parents have full-time careers; families with one parent working full-time and one working part-time; and families with one parent, usually the mother, serving as a full-time caregiver.

As for daycare, which was once advanced as a positive good, it is now widely seen as a necessary evil. Financial pressure seems to be the main reason why families use it. "The polls showed that over 75% of two-income families, if they felt they had the choice, would have stayed home to raise their children," Mr. Genuis says.

That said, financial pressure may be an excuse used to justify a lifestyle choice more than a response to economic need. True, Statscan data shows that the average annual income for two income families, both full-time and part-time, was $66,241 in 1966, considerably more than the $45,322 earned by single income families. But couples like Claudia and Sean Krakiwsky say that a few lifestyle sacrifices are preferable to sacrificing their children. "There are definitely things we have to cut out, like vacations," says Mrs. Krakiwsky, 30. "But it just doesn't faze me. I'd rather cut things out than leave my kids."

Mrs. Krakiewsky studied social work at university, but she was always convinced that full-time motherhood is crucial for younger children. "Society is starting to change," she says. "I'm hearing more about how important it is for mothers to raise kids-like that's a big revelation. Maybe people are realizing that a mom who can spend time one-on-one is better than a daycare situation with many kids."

If Mr. Genuis and Mrs. Krakiwsky are correct, feminism-in the popular sense of a group claiming to represent Canadian women on issues of abortion, subsidized daycare, minority rights and the rest-is at a crossroads and will have to change direction to survive. "Overall, feminism is not well supported," says Jeannine Lebel, national president of REAL Women, a conservative political action organization. "If people support it the money will be there for the groups. If they don't, the government shouldn't fund them."

Marlene Bedford of Calgary says that despite feminism's excesses, women should be grateful for the advantages it has brought them. "I remember when a woman couldn't get her own VISA card," says the 62-year-old. "When I started out I could only be a clerk."

Nevertheless, Ms. Bedford refuses to call herself a feminist because to her the word denotes female segregation and carries an attitude that says women must fight for what they get. She prefers to believe that women can succeed with "hard work, dignity, manners and a sense of humour." She presents herself as a prime example of her philosophy. Over a 40-year career, begun with a Grade 10 education, Ms. Bedford worked her way up the corporate ladder in the oilpatch, and retired as personnel manager for National-Oilwell Canada Ltd., third in line below the president.

"The oilpatch is a 'masculine bastion,'" she says. "They wouldn't put up with feminist demands." But by maintaining her personal dignity and work ethic she found she was treated equally by her male peers. If feminists "would get off their self-appointed pedestals and roll up their sleeves and work for what they are now demanding that others provide for them," she says, then women could raise families, earn workplace promotions and look back on their contributions to society with satisfaction.

Yet, even as she is convinced that women need to "work quietly to build their own lives and make things better for themselves," Ms. Bedford also recognizes the impact that the women's movement has had. She says, "Maybe feminism is so assimilated in our lives we don't notice it anymore."

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