Toronto Star

Saturday, March 6, 1999

Feminism lives!

DRIVING FORCE: ``I always felt strongly that whether or not I got married, I needed to look after myself and be financially secure,'' says union official Peggy Nash.

The movement recovers from the backlash of '80s to continue `the struggle'

By Trish Crawford
Toronto Star Life Writer

Question: When did the following events occur?

  • A woman working in an Ajax paint factory loses her job when she becomes pregnant.

  • A firefighter from British Columbia goes to the Supreme Court of Canada to get her job back after being fired for failing, by a few seconds, a 2 1/2-kilometre running test.

  • In a bestselling book by a woman writer, women are advised to marry young, have babies right away and stay at home, just like June Cleaver.

    Answer: 1999.

    It's enough to make a feminist weep. Or get really angry.

    ``Anyone with eyes in the front of their head can see that the feminist struggle has not ended,'' says 16-year-old Emma Ruby-Sachs, a student at The Linden School in Toronto. The private all-girls school has a women-centred approach to learning.

    ``I have read four articles in recent months that say feminism is dead. And it is not dead,'' says the daughter of Toronto lawyers Clayton Ruby and Harriet Sachs. ``I have no problem calling myself a feminist, although I know some people shy away from the word.''

    Fellow student Alison McQueen, 18, says: ``I believe in total equality. People back away when I say I'm a feminist, like I'm some unreasonable person. There's a lot of rage associated with the movement.

    ``But I have never given anyone reason to fear me,'' she laughs.

    After more than a decade of quiet, feminism has roared back into the public debate, led by women who don't take the spoils of previous gender wars for granted.

    They're not just corporate honchos, lawyers and advocates for women's services but housewives and mothers, students, women of conservative dress, culture or religion. They are feminists because they want women to have the right to choose their own paths in life.

    `There's a lot of rage associated with it'

    Because, as recent events show us, the battles have not all been won.

    Germaine Greer, who rocked women 30 years ago with her feminist manifesto, The Female Eunuch, has become so enraged by modern complacency, she has fired off a sequel titled The Whole Woman (Bantam Books of Canada).

    Housework, mothering, plastic surgery and power politics are all scrutinized in the book she had vowed never to write - until she heard women her age (60) saying that feminism has gone too far.

    Her book will share shelf space with the anti-feminist tome What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us (Simon & Schuster, Trade) by Washington-based Canadian journalist Danielle Crittenden.

    She criticizes modern women trying to have it all. She advises women to marry early, have children while young and stay home with them.

    During a telephone interview, the mother who kept her maiden name and hires a babysitter when she's writing denies she is, in fact, living the feminist dream.

    ``I am not a feminist, although I am a product of feminism,'' says Crittenden, 35. ``Feminism reflects a certain set of ideas, like saying you are a socialist or something, that is outdated.''

    She adds: ``There's been a desire to see me as a hypocrite, that I work but say you should stay at home. That's unfair. Most women want marriage, family and work. I'm just saying each in its own time.''

    Just hope you can afford it, says Doris Anderson, now in her 70s and chairperson of the Ontario Press Council. She was president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women from 1982 to 1984 and is a former editor of Chatelaine.

    ``I've lived long enough to see the pendulum swing back and forth. We've been in a state of siege since the early 1980s, with right-wing political theory dominating the Western world,'' Anderson says.

    Groups such as the right-wing R.E.A.L. (Realistic Equal Active for Life) Women and authors such as Crittenden make her angry. ``They are parasites on the women's movement. They are handing out a myth.''

    Anderson, however, is heartened by young women stepping out in the world expecting to make their own choices about work and family, and freely expressing their equality.

    ``We've been accused of being anti-family or that we hated men. We were always about choice,'' she says.

    She became a feminist when she was working at Chatelaine and was asked by other women why she worked if she had a husband who could support her. ``These women were raging mad. I was off doing something interesting and they were staying at home climbing the walls in the suburbs.''

    There are many paths to the statement: ``I am a feminist.''

    Cindy Cowan, 34, executive director of Nellie's Emergency Shelter, has a younger sister who is developmentally delayed and visually impaired. It made Cowan sensitive at an early age to the disadvantages of others.

    As a teenager, she saw the differences in ``treatment of boys and girls, how boys were taught maths and sciences and we had to take typing and home ec.''

    Cowan didn't encounter much feminist angst among her schoolmates when she was a student in the '80s. ``I don't remember others being interested in women's issues, sexual assault, date rape. There didn't seem to be a gender angle.''

    Cowan worked with the disabled and then at Sistering, a Toronto drop-in centre for women, before moving to women's emergency shelters.

    ``I don't believe that if a woman just works hard, she'll achieve,'' she says. ``I am where I am on the backs of women before me and I am thankful to them.''

    Law professor Constance Backhouse, 47, has spent most of her career writing and teaching about human rights and issues affecting women. In 1979, she co-wrote a ground-breaking book about sexual harassment in the workplace and 20 years later is putting the finishing touches on a book about the Canadian and American women's movements.

    ``It's a reaction to the backlash,'' she says, adding, ``I don't think women would be nervous to be associated with the term feminist if it wasn't for the fear you would be viewed as someone who is disruptive. Actually, being disruptive is good.''

    Women feared being identified as feminists, Backhouse says, ``because they took the repercussions seriously, especially if they were anxious to meet a suitable partner, go on dates, marry . . . It could narrow options. Women were afraid it would foreclose careers.''

    Backhouse, who describes herself as a ``late bloomer,'' wasn't aware of feminist issues as a student. It was when she went out to work in the legal world that her eyes were opened.

    ``I was staggered at the level of sexism, the harassment, the discrimination in pay and promotions. I said, `Where do I sign up (as a feminist)?'

    ``There were many fabulous people involved and I got into the thick of it,'' says the mother of two children, 12 and 14.

    She rejects the line that women can't have happy marriages, well-adjusted children and good jobs.

    ``We are all doing it all - we are just wretchedly exhausted,'' Backhouse says.

    Peggy Nash, 47, assistant to president Buzz Hargrove, is the most senior woman in the Canadian Auto Workers union.

    Nash, a university student during the '70s, came of age at a great flowering of feminism. She was the first in her family to attend university.

    ``When I was young, we rebelled against stereotypes and limited choices,'' says the mother of three.

    ``I always felt strongly that whether or not I got married, I needed to look after myself and be financially secure.''

    She worked as an airline reservations officer until the birth of her first child, now 20. Then she moved into union work for the airlines and was involved in education, health and safety. She was hired by the Canadian Auto Workers while on maternity leave with her second son and spent the first day at work flying (with the baby beside her) to a picket line in Calgary.

    She has worked on many issues affecting union women, including child care and sexual harassment.

    ``It's meant that I've not always been there, like June Cleaver. But I think you are better off being true to your heart and you are then a better role model for your children,'' Nash says.

    ``I wouldn't want my sons to settle for what other people told them to do.''

    Sabrina Ataullah-Jan, 26, works in the family import- export business in Mississauga and lives with her parents. A Muslim from Pakistan, she came to Canada in 1981 and says that, although she calls herself a feminist, she defines it in her own terms.

    ``I believe men and women should be equal. We should be side by side.''

    There was a time when she was an active member of the women's movement, joining many feminist organizations while at university.

    However, Ataullah-Jan became uncomfortable with what she felt was an anti-man bias in the school of social work where she was a student. ``I don't believe you have to hate men or blame them for everything.''

    She switched her major to business and joined the Progressive Conservative Youth Group.

    ``If we don't want to be stereotyped, we shouldn't do it to others,'' says Ataullah-Jan.

    Uzma Shakir, 40, is also a Muslim from Pakistan. She is at home raising two children and firmly states she's a feminist. But feminism isn't only about Western cultural beliefs, she says.

    For instance, she has noticed more women wearing the hijab (traditional head covering) in Markham than in some areas back in Pakistan.

    Shakir says Muslim women may be donning the hijab in Canada because they don't want Western culture to dictate how they will dress.

    Conversely, back home where it shows compliance to authority, they won't wear it, she adds.

    ``When they feel stereotyped and devalued, they develop that in-your-face mentality.''

    For modern feminists, motherhood is a high priority.

    Jennifer Campbell, 28, became a single parent when her son Jake Campbell-Scott, now 6, was 1 year old.

    Campbell postponed career development and further education, and supported herself as a child care provider in her own home because she wanted to make sure her son was cared for well.

    Jake, now in Grade 1, has never had a babysitter. His mother has always included him, when she's working or with friends. She volunteers at his school and organizes its breakfast program.

    ``My idea of feminism is learning to feel powerful and secure in yourself as a woman and then using that power to help other people,'' she says.

    Sociologist Sandy Welsh, 34, moved to Canada in 1994 to teach at the University of Toronto. The American felt Canada was a ``breath of fresh air'' for a feminist because the U.S. has been heavily affected by the conservative religious movement.

    ``I grew up feeling there was nothing I couldn't do,'' she says, remembering that she first identified herself as a feminist when she entered university in Ohio.

    ``I came back home and said: `I'm a woman, not a girl.' That's something my parents still laugh about.''

    Today, says Welsh, ``At some levels I feel more radical. But I think I'm smarter - I pick my battles.''

    She has studied sexual harassment in the federal government and is now studying the issue in the Ontario workplace.

    Sheelagh Whittaker, 51, is a feminist success story. The mother of six children ages 5 to 31 is also CEO of information processing giant EDS Canada.

    As one of Canada's highest ranking executives, she supports choice for women, whether it is to raise a family at home or go out to work. But she fiercely objects to the ``you can't have it all'' theory.

    ``When you are building a career and have two children in diapers, it can be exhausting. But I didn't want to stay at home and become obsessed about fingerprints on the oven door.''

    To Whittaker, being a feminist means, ``freedom to live out your ideas and ideals. I don't have to live any thwarted or unfulfilled aspirations through my children.''

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