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Tuesday, June 08, 1999

Feminism is not a dirty word
Women's rights may not be in vogue, but the fight for them isn't over yet

Anne Giardini
National Post

No one admits to being a feminist any more. The problem may be partly due to the word itself.

"Feminist" careens along your tongue and comes to a plosive, stuttering stop in the same way as "racist" and "sexist." Just as the word racist brings to your mind's eye the picture of a lardy old boy, white and freckled, with the proverbial red neck and a ponderous beer belly, the word feminist summons up a strident, hirsute woman with a wagonload of axes to grind. Some women I know dodge the word and its associations by avoiding the issue of feminism entirely.

Then there are the people -- including many women -- who take the view that the battle has been won, sister, so let's stop rocking the boat. You don't have to look far for evidence that such complacency is ill-considered and that the world is still a man's world. Examples range from the ridiculous to the depressing.

A short four years ago, my father, the dean of engineering at a Canadian university, announced that in order to remedy the gender imbalance in his faculty (77 men and two women) he would strive to ensure that women would fill the next few positions that came open. The uproar! You would think that he had proposed that half of the faculty be subjected to sex-change operations to be conducted by undergraduate biology students using rusty protractors for scalpels. One local paper ran the story on its front page under a headline guaranteed to cause more lamentation and gnashing of teeth: "No Men Allowed."

Academia is fertile ground for this kind of backlash. This paper ran a report a few weeks ago about the sad plight of one Martin Loney, a social policy consultant who had managed to crank out "10 scholarly books," but who, despite this prodigious output, lost out on an academic position at Carleton University to "a woman with no books to her name." By my count, based on a visit to the Carleton University Web site, both the departments of political science and sociology have faculties overwhelmingly dominated by men. Clearly men are being hired and even promoted -- the chairs of both departments are male. Could it be, could it just possibly be, that the woman who was hired in Loney's stead was better qualified than he was?

Then there was the groundswell of support (most memorably from the ninnies who make up the Alberta klatch of "Real Women") for Steve Ewanchuk, the pressing and persistent would-be Lothario whom the Supreme Court of Canada recently found guilty of sexual assault for having forced his attentions on a young female job applicant. Ewanchuk coyly declined to testify at his trial, presumably on the basis that his testimony would tend to incriminate rather than exonerate him. After the Supreme Court decision, Ewanchuck launched a petition for a new hearing. His argument? If I had known, he complained, that I was going to be found guilty, I would have told you my side of the story.

Well, at least his argument -- that when he said no, he didn't want to testify, what he really meant was yes -- is consistent. This is, after all, a man for whom the question: "Which part of 'no' did you not understand?" is a brainteaser of Mensa proportions.

The list goes on. Women make up only about 8% of the membership on boards of Canadian companies and hold only one in five seats in Parliament. Even in the books that I read to my children females are under-represented -- one friend has told me that when he reads to his young daughters he makes a point of changing some of the male pronouns to female.

Convinced that we need to keep the objectives of feminism around for a while longer, and looking for candidates for some new terminology, I checked in my computer's thesaurus for substitutes for the word feminist. Here is the list it came up with: Like a woman. Womanly. Feminine. Female. Ladylike. Effeminate. Womanish. Nurturing. Gentle.

I guess I will have to keep looking for a word to describe a woman like me, who wants to raise her daughter in a world that is as much hers as her brothers'.

- Anne Giardini's column appears every Tuesday.

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