Are we there yet?

women unite

This year, Vancouver Rape Relief commemorated International Women’s Day by screening Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, a 2015 historical drama that follows a group of white Suffragettes in early 20th century Britain as they work to win voting rights for women. The film, which has been rightly criticized for its distinctly whitewashed depiction of the British Suffragette movement, is a bleak yet inspiring look at the tactics and personal sacrifice needed to bring about substantive change for women.

After overcoming some initial hesitation, the film’s main character Maud Watts becomes increasingly involved with the Suffragette movement during a moment when the movement’s tactics shifted from more palatable forms of protest to direct action including throwing bricks through windows, igniting bombs in mailboxes, and cutting power lines. As her involvement in suffrage increases, so do the costs Watts incurs, as she loses her job, her son, her home, and is arrested several times.

With each loss she becomes more resolute, as do others, including the character of Emily Wilding Davison, a real life Suffragette who died at the 1913 Epsom Derby after stepping in front of King George’s horse to bring attention to women’s suffrage. Inaction becomes impossible as these women lose more and more, leaving them with less and less to lose.

The struggle for women’s liberation has had other moments of determined, resolute action besides the Suffragette movement. During feminism’s second wave, from the 1960s to 1980s, feminist tactics ranged from protesting the 1968 Miss America pageant, organizing Take Back the Night rallies, picketing and vandalizing sex shops and strip clubs, to the Dworkin-MacKinnon Civil Rights Ordinance that proposed treating pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights and enabling them to seek damages in civil courts. Feminists realized significant gains, including increased legal protections against some forms of gender discrimination, legalized abortion and birth control, and the establishment of rape crisis centers before pushback from right-wing and religious groups quashed their progress.

In 1975, 90 per cent of Icelandic women participated in a one day general strike, refusing to work, cook, or look after children, closing or crippling newspapers, factories, schools, banks, and air travel to demonstrate the overlooked importance of women’s labour.

Since then, the individualistic, master’s-tool-using type of feminism that has become mainstream has pursued incremental, non-threatening gains that are unevenly distributed, disproportionately benefiting mostly Western, middle class, heterosexual women. And while life for some women has improved (somewhat), mainstream feminist discourse continues to ignore the struggles of our most vulnerable, and their relentless, collective work towards women’s liberation too.

Have moderate means replaced direct, radical action because life has gotten better enough, for enough women? Or, is that belief — a belief that doesn’t hold up when measured against global reality — part of what holds women back from large scale social change? If we look closely at how bad women around the world actually have it, we must ask why it isn’t considered bad enough to warrant decisive action. What else has to happen before we’re ready to do more?

There are quite a few well-established theories exploring the conditions that tend to be present in societies before moments of widespread and definitive social change — conditions that precede revolutions. Most of these theories agree that societies reach revolutionary moments when the interests of enough marginalized people are ignored so severely that the trust holding society together breaks down, leading to shifting allegiances, and, after a crisis, resolute action becomes the only option.

Unsurprisingly for theories constructed in patriarchy, where women aren’t considered a political group with distinct political aims, they don’t apply all that well to our struggle for liberation. Focused mostly on overthrowing governments, established theory ignores that women are oppressed by an interlocking system of economic, political, legal, and social institutions like gender, the family, and heterosexual relationships, all of which need to be dismantled and reconstructed in order for all women to be free. Recognizing that blind spot, a closer look at these theories shows they have some valuable things to say about where we are, and where we may need to go.

Let us eat cake

Societies work when the powers that be respond to the needs of marginalized people. It’s difficult to reconcile continued rates of male violence against women, and the way societies, legal systems, and governments around the world respond when women come forward looking for accountability, with the belief that our interests, safety, and freedom are given much importance at all.

Societies that were serious about addressing male violence against women wouldn’t blind ourselves to its gendered reality, where men commit 95 per cent of all violent crime, and 98 per cent of all sexually violent crime, instead churning out victim-blaming campaigns that encourage women to keep ourselves safe by restricting our behaviour. If women’s interests mattered, women reporting sexual assaults wouldn’t encounter suspicion, hanging under the spectre of vengeful false accusations and treated like entrapping, attention-seeking manipulators.

If societies truly served the interests of the female half of its population, a situation like we have in some parts of the world today, wherein male violence against women is increasing so rapidly it boosts overall crime rates, would be met with a determined and sustained response. Instead, with nearly twice as many women killed by domestic partners since 2001 than Americans killed in the 911 attacks and ensuing Iraq and Afghan wars, a proportionate response is seen as unrealistic, extreme, unfathomable. And while I’m not advocating for military intervention, it’s worth wondering: in the absence of some kind of a War on The War on Women, what evidence should women look to in order to convince ourselves that our interests matter at all?

Trust breaks down

Societies are less likely to reach revolutionary moments when they operate on mutual trust and a shared vision of the common good. These societies are usually tightly cohesive, traditional ones where most people have a sense that things are running more or less the way they’re supposed to. Large-scale social change becomes possible when that trust breaks down.

For women, the personal truly is political. We couldn’t be more cohesively integrated with men: they are our fathers, brothers, sons, friends, colleagues, bosses and, for some of us, our significant others. Many women are financially dependent on men because of the lower value assigned to women’s labour, others are trapped in abusive and exploitative relationships, many aware that women are 70 times more likely to be murdered in the two weeks after they leave.

Our gendered socialization only amplifies the power of these close bonds. Conditioned from birth to be gentle, small, and modest, women are taught that our worth lies in our relationships — relationships we must maintain through an unwavering, unquestioning propensity to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Encouraged to please and accept, we’re taught to doubt our instincts and to blame ourselves instead of demanding accountability.

Societies certainly try to convince women that the way things are is inevitable and unchangeable. With religious narratives losing ground to justifications rooted in biological essentialism, we’re told behaviour is rooted in biological sex differences — that the arrangements and institutions that oppress us exist because of hormones and hardwiring. And while these explanations certainly stifle hope that things could be different and allow for the status quo to continue, they don’t hold up to what we continue to discover about the learned nature of behaviour and the differences between men’s and women’s brains.

Does all of this add up to trust? If we are to believe that men who are violent or exploitative are that way because they cannot physically control themselves, how can we be expected to trust them? And why should we expect them to work with us in good faith for our liberation?

Considering the many ways women are literally tied to men and the intricate set of justifications our society uses to tell us why things won’t change, it’s no surprise that many women are unwilling or unable to stand up. That’s why it’s even more important that those of who can stand up do.

Allegiances shift

When the trust needed to keep society operating breaks down, revolutionary change becomes more likely when people with greater financial, social, and political power shift their allegiance away from protecting their own narrow interests, and instead recognize the common interests they share with marginalized people. These privileged people redirect access to power and resources away from maintaining the status quo to replacing it, joining with those marginalized people who have always been ready to make the greatest sacrifices.

Given today’s mainstream feminist movement’s support for ideas and policies that ignore — or actively harm — the most disadvantaged among us, it’s clear that what’s missing is the realization that the true measure of how women are doing is how our most vulnerable are doing, and not how much more comfortable the mostly comfortable can become.

There is willful ignorance involved in “reclaiming” sexual objectification as empowering without considering how this reinforces the idea that women’s bodies exist for male approval and appraisal, and the many ways that belief impacts women and girls around the world. There is dangerous myopia at play when Western feminists criticize female genital mutilation Over There while smearing those who recognize rising rates of cosmetic surgery closer to home as part of the same dynamic where women’s bodies are mutilated into shapes defined by men. There is narrow-minded indifference required to support sexual exploitation industries like pornography and prostitution, favouring misguided harm reduction policies that maintain a class of mostly impoverished, mostly brown-skinned women who are coerced with money into sexually servicing men.

Instead of recognizing that no women are free until all women are free, mainstream feminists leave our most disadvantaged to their own devices while shunning the radical and collective action of the grassroots women’s movement as outdated and irrelevant, remnants of a bygone era as opposed to the driving force needed to spur more fortunate women to action.

Crisis

The established theories agree that revolutions tend to happen in response to acute triggers — crushing disappointments after periods of steadily rising hopes. How does this apply to women, who have lived under patriarchy for thousands of years, and, besides a handful of revolutionary moments, worked within the prevailing power structures to try to change them? Does that mean it just hasn’t gotten bad enough for us yet?

That depends on your definition of “us.”

Domestic violence, overwhelmingly violence committed by men against their female partners or family members, is the greatest cause of injury for women. Studies show that between 35 and 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Women are 70 per cent of all people in poverty. Women and girls are 70 per cent of human trafficking victims, and 98 per cent of victims of sex trafficking. At least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. By conservative estimates, one in four North American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Chances are much higher for our most vulnerable: In North America 83 per cent of disabled women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and in Canada 57 per cent of Aboriginal women have been sexually abused.

How can we know these facts and not consider the conditions women live under a crisis? This is a crisis — a crisis we have been conditioned to justify and accept. A crisis that has persisted for so long that we’ve constructed all sorts of stories to explain why this is how it has always been, stories telling us why this is how it will always be.

So sisters, are we there yet? Are enough women impoverished? Abused? Killed? Are we ready to look outside our narrow experiences and recognize that our best chance to liberate all women is by working together for all of our interests? Are we ready to respond to this crisis for the crisis that it is, to begin forcing the institutions claiming to serve our interests to do the same?

Are we there yet? If we’re not, how much worse does it have to get — for how many of us — before we are?

Jindi Mehat is an East Vancouver-based second wave feminist who is reconnecting with feminism after several tours of duty in male-dominated corporate land. Follow her @jindi and read more of her work at Feminist Progression.

Jindi Mehat
Jindi Mehat

Contributor

Jindi Mehat is a Vancouver feminist activist and general rabble rouser.

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  • therealcie

    A concise, well written post. Thank you.

  • I think if we could solve our current problems with the tools we already have, we would have, and that we need to develop new tools. (That probably isn’t saying anything in itself.)

    I am disabled (on welfare for 18.5 years of my adult life) and do feel marginalized by feminism, but I expect that, because I know that even when the rest of you get old and feeble, you still aren’t likely to “get” a lot of my issues.

    The first part of this essay made me very uncomfortable because I have always felt that radical action makes vulnerable people even more vulnerable – not only do we have fewer resources to fall back on, we also don’t adapt to change as easily, so we often need to take it slow and steady even when we need things to get better fast. I hope that feminists will not become violent, but remind myself that the suffragettes’ brothers all went off to war to kill each other and thought that was a good thing, too, and things have changed since then. There may be a shift back in the US, but that’s because they didn’t absorb the lessons learned the way other wealthy countries did. (A shift away from authoritarian parenting led to a sea change and contributed a lot to the civil rights movement/second wave of feminism/disability rights movement etc.)

    I think we are gaining momentum on poverty, with the push to a guaranteed annual income/basic income guarantee. It would not only save taxpayers money, but solve a lot of women’s issues. Please check out this site here: http://www.basicincomecanada.org/ Imagine how it would affect issues like prostitution and domestic violence. And make it easier for women to get access to legal support. Etc.

    I think we are also gaining momentum on porn, with the problems teenage girls are having. But I get frustrated, not only when liberal feminists say “but I like porn” but also when radical feminists say “but I like sexualized content when it’s not porn”. My experiences as someone who took acting lessons and went on auditions is that it is all bad, it’s all sexual harassment at best, and it teaches people that you can get people to do whatever you want if you pay them for it, which is not a good lesson to teach. I don’t feel listened to on that.

    I think feminists need to look at media violence in general, especially when it’s been sugar-coated to look empowering for women, or even just fun. Someone was seriously injured on a film set the other day during a stunt and I asked myself why it’s taking me this long to get fed up with violence as entertainment.

    I get frustrated when feminists use ableist language, even though Feminists with Disabilities blogged about the issue years ago (http://disabledfeminists.com/category/ableist-word-profile/). Or use the F word when it denotes both sex and bad things at the same time. (Could we please separate the two already? Words have power.)

    I see feminists taking theoretical points of view (something typical of well-educated people in general) and it seems to be ineffective compared to actually making real piecemeal changes for the better. And I’ve said this before, but I don’t think we will solve some of these problems with an “equality = sameness” stance. I don’t think we can. Just because people don’t know how to do anything else doesn’t mean it will work.

    As far as the question “Are we there yet?” goes, I think things are actually improving in a lot of ways. It’s slow, but it is progress. There are all sorts of issues people understand way better than they did when I was young. But maybe I should take the question as “Are YOU there yet?” since maybe it was directed at women who aren’t as marginalized rather than someone like me (who seems to have missed the point again). Are you?

    • Melissa Cutler

      Thank you for the link to disabledfeminists.com. Just like it happened with my transition from a libfem to a radical feminist, I find that my awareness of abelist language is a slow unpacking of my privilege, socialization, and ignorance. The more I learn, the more I realize I did not know. So, I will be reading the Abelist Word Profiles on that website quite carefully and taking lots of notes. Thank you for helping me expand my understanding of the world.

  • radwonka

    Jindi you’re an awesome writer!

    “Societies are less likely to reach revolutionary moments when they
    operate on mutual trust and a shared vision of the common good. These
    societies are usually tightly cohesive, traditional ones where most
    people have a sense that things are running more or less the way they’re
    supposed to. Large-scale social change becomes possible when that trust
    breaks down.”

    ^^^^^ this explains why libfeminism is just patriarchal backlash and not a pro women movement.

  • Grace Chidinma Amagwula

    This article adresses why i’ve never understood the so -called liberal feminism. Its like how are supposed to ignore our marginalization just because we are not supposed to based our whole movement based on our gender but as “individuals of society” thats the most b.s i’ve ever heard

    On the “reclaiming of self-objectification”, it is more complicated than how you mentioned it. The truth is that the woman’s body as it exist today does not belong to her. If its not being catered to the male’s gaze, it is being debated if it’s catering to the male gaze. Essentially the existence of the woman’s body is now exclusive with the male gaze and can hardly exist outside of that spectrum and the fact that many so called feminist do not recognize that pisses me off more than anything.

    There is some level of ignorance in women’ trying to reclaim their sexuality, some are still largely objectifying in nature, but many are empowering. My question to you is are you able to recognize a woman owning her body and her sexuality without automatically relating it to the “male gaze”?

  • Neal Katz

    Well written and provocative post. I am a self declared Guy Feminist. I support Emma Watson and HeForShe. Sadly Suffragette as produced did not incite a public debate other than the obvious lack of any color. This makes it harder for other cinema and TV treatments of women rights. I believe you will be interested in a more honest portrayal of two historical woman feminists should know as she broke more barriers and had a more far reaching impact than almost anyone else. In fact, they advised Emmeline Pankhurst on the Suffragette movement and Pankhurst used quotes from the sisters newspaper. First U.S. women to own and operate a brokerage firm, first women to own and publish a newspaper, first woman to address congress, and first woman to run for President of the United Sates. Through Women’s History Month only $0.99 on Kindle, Outrageous The Victoria Woodhull Saga, Volume 1, Rise to Riches learn more at thevictoriawoodhullsaga.com or purchase at OUTRAGEOUSthebook.com

  • Meghan Murphy

    But isn’t ‘Suffragette’ the term they used to describe themselves?

  • Lucia Lola

    Wonderfully written and expressed. Thank you .