Bringing feminism back to its roots: Diane Matte on organizing against women’s poverty & male violence against women

Diane Matte speaking about prostitution and Bill C-36. (Photo: Sarah Mah/Twitter)
Diane Matte speaking about prostitution and Bill C-36. (Photo: Sarah Mah/Twitter)

Diane Matte is a feminist community organizer, a front-line anti-violence worker, and a member of Concertation des Luttes Contre l’Exploitation Sexuelle (CLES) in Montréal.

Jess: Can you start by telling us how you first got involved in the women’s movement?

Diane: I first got involved in the women’s movement in 1980. I was living in Hull at that time, and I saw an ad in the paper about training for the rape crisis center in Hull. So I decided to go and it changed my life.

Jess: Do do you think that your work in the rape crisis centre influenced your trajectory in the work that you do now?

Diane: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I had, of course, read some feminist theory and I had friends telling me what they knew about feminism, but this was the first time I’d decided to get involved. I think working directly on the question of sexual violence against women gave me, right away, an understanding of what feminism is about. It changed my life, actually, because when you talk about sexual violence and hear about sexual violence (from men, towards women) you’re at the heart of patriarchy. In that sense, it’s hard not to see feminism as a comprehensive tool for social change. It goes much deeper than what we see in certain feminist circles.

I think that the second wave (as we call it) — by targeting the question of men’s violence against women — allowed us to recognize the source and the roots of patriarchy. This put the feminist movement in a totally different space.

Jess: To put this in context, could you tell us about the work that you’re currently doing?

Diane: Currently I’m working with an organization called La Concertation des Luttes Contre l’Exploitation Sexuelle (CLES). We’re a group of feminist abolitionists that has been around for 10 years now.

We work at three levels: We do a lot of prevention work — with schools, youth, women — to talk about the realities of the sex industry and sexual exploitation. We also work directly with women who have been or are in prostitution. We have programs and support groups for women, as well as individual supports for women exiting prostitution. We do a lot of alliance work and lobbying for law changes and asking more for women — more for women in prostitution, particularly, but for us, working to end prostitution is working for all women.

Jess: How did you become the organizer of the Bread and Roses March in Québec?

Diane: The Bread and Roses March was a march for women in poverty. It was initiated by the former president of the Québec Women’s Federation (FFQ), Françoise David. That was in 1995.

Neoliberalism began to have the biggest impact in the early ‘90s — the employment insurance changes, etc. It was very clear that women’s right to live without poverty — women’s rights in general — were being attacked. So, Françoise decided that it would be a good moment to show the strength of the feminist movement and to get in the streets and ask for an end for women’s poverty.

About 800 women walked for 10 days from three different points, converging at the National Assembly of Québec. We had 10 demands addressed to the Québec government. The Feminist movement in Québec, at that point, was working in silos. There were a lot of actions, of course, a lot of work being done on the front-lines at the grassroots level by women in different parts of Québec on different subjects. The Feminist movement had come together over the years around specific crises — for example, the Chantal Daigle case, the Montréal Massacre — where feminists came out and worked in large groups and large coalitions to end men’s violence against women, but in 1995, that had quieted down.

The Bread and Roses March brought back the importance of reaching out to women, to see feminism as a movement in action, to involve new women, and to show the strength of the women’s movement.

Talking about poverty being gendered was one of our strongest points. A lot of people — a lot of groups, a lot of community organizations, and unions — were denouncing poverty, but they weren’t saying, “Who is the poorest?” The march brought us to another place as the feminist movement here in Québec.

I arrived in Montréal in 1989, after working for a year in Vancouver. I was working with different feminist groups and then I was hired by Françoise David to be the coordinator of the Bread and Roses March. While we were organizing we realized, very rapidly, that it was not possible to just organize an event — that we had to tap into something different, tap into something that would show feminism as a movement that was about action, not just theories or women’s individual choices. Since I was coming from the men’s-violence-against-women sector of the feminist movement, I was also interested in making the connection between poverty and men’s violence against women.

So, that’s why I proposed that we do a World March for Women in 2000 — in order to continue this idea. The Québec government was still pushing a neoliberalist agenda: “We can’t do more. We have to think of the future. The state cannot be the only place where people turn.”

The Bread and Roses March demonstrated the simplicity of the idea that the world has to change, that women’s lives have to change, and in order for women’s lives to change, we have to change the world. In that sense, it was not sufficient to only work at the local level, just like it was not sufficient to work in individual organizations or to work individually. We had to work as a movement.

Organizing the Bread and Roses March revealed, for me, how many women there were, not in feminist groups — organized groups, who wanted to march. It was clear that we were reaching out to women who knew what poverty was because it was their reality, or the reality of their mothers, sisters, or daughters. They wanted to march to join the feminist movement and say that this has to change.

This was a clear expression of the importance of reaching out to women. I think that choosing to march against poverty was a very good opportunity to bring feminism back to its roots — which is about changing women’s lives.

Jess: How did you build those coalitions then when you were reaching out to other women?

Diane: The organized feminist movement in Québec is very extensive: women’s centres, women’s health centres, rape crisis centres, groups working on the question of access to work for women. We have a strong network of organized groups and so we used all of these connections to reach out to women in different parts of the world. We also had contacts in unions and anti-poverty groups so we started by sending letters to as many women’s groups as possible.

We wanted to reach out to grassroots organizations, which was the most difficult part because, very often, especially when you work at the international level, what you have access to is the elite type of feminism, not necessarily grassroots or popular feminism.

At first, the women I was working with here in Québec just wanted to do a walk against poverty. But for me, it was clear that this was not enough so I convinced the committee that we had to ask women what they wanted to march for. Not surprisingly, the response was that we have to do something against poverty and violence against women since these are realities in women’s lives – the most universal impacts of patriarchy.

We started in 1997 to organize and the World March for Women is still active today.

Jess: What does the World March for Women look like?

Diane: It’s not an international organization. It’s country-based and then the countries come together as the World March for Women. We didn’t want to do another hierarchical, top-down organization. We wanted to reflect that women are active at all levels: local, regional, national, and international and that we needed to work within all of these levels in order to change women’s lives.

Jess: Do you see any way to rebuild pan-Canadian alliances? What have these looked like in the past and what do you see in the future?

Diane: That’s a hard question because I think that we have to decide what is most urgent for women in Canada and organize around that. I don’t think we should want a structure to want a structure. Alliances cannot be forced. They have to make sense.

Right now, A lot of groups don’t know that other feminist groups exist in other provinces due to attacks by our neoliberal government. Also, feminism has been used and misused here. We have to go back to what feminism is. For me, feminism is about transforming society at the deepest level. So I would like to build alliances with women who believe that. I’m not interested in a feminist alliance without political unity because, it’s sad to say, feminism is being stolen from its content. Sometimes people hate the word “feminism” and don’t want to use it and sometimes women and men are using it and it doesn’t mean anything.

I’m looking forward to a meaningful feminism, and I think that the issue of men’s violence against women is a good place to start. That’s the most radical analysis that you can have. When you connect men’s violence against women with women’s poverty, it’s even more powerful.

Jess: Has your fight against prostitution been part of that? I know that there’s a strong alliance across Canada to fight against prostitution both as a violence against women issue and a women in poverty issue.

Diane: Yes, in a sense. Although starting a front-line organization means that you have to put in more energy locally, especially in terms of prostitution. When we started 10 years ago, the subject of prostitution was not something that feminists wanted to talk about. I think that our main and most urgent work was to make sure feminists understood prostitution as a form of violence against women.

While we’d always had connections with other feminist groups in Canada, what brought us together was the Bedford case, which is ironic because I don’t think that was the sex-industry lobby’s objective.

Jess: Just the opposite.

Diane: Of course. They were so sure that they would not have any opposition because the feminist movement stopped talking about pornography and prostitution quite a long time ago. The Bedford case forced us to actually say, “No, wait a minute, what is our vision of prostitution and what we should do about it? What type of laws and policies should we have?”

So the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution strengthened alliances between the groups that are the most affected. It brought us together with women from the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, Action Ontarienne Contre la Violence Faite aux Femmes, Regroupement Québécois des Centres d’Aide et de Lutte Contre les Agressions à Caractère Sexuel, Vancouver Rape Relief, and of course we’ve been in alliance with IWASI, the Asian Women’s Coalition Ending Prostitution, etc.

I think that if we lose the fight on prostitution we will never get to women’s equality, especially a women’s equality that is for all women.

Ending women’s poverty and ending violence against women is still the central fight, and within violence against women, the question of prostitution has to be the top priority — and pornography because there are so many things that we, as feminists, have lost on that front — to be able to claim our bodies and our sexualities.

Jess: Why is it important to you to work in women-only groups?

Diane: One of the tools of patriarchy is to divide women. For me, women-only space is about bringing women together to be more conscious about how our lives are molded, influenced, and being directed by patriarchy, racism, and classism. Women’s solidarity is the answer, understanding where women are coming from and where we need to go together – not just individually, but together.

I think the most powerful tool is the autonomous women’s movement and grouping with other women. It’s important for women to get together. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work in certain settings with men as allies, but I think we have to be very protective of this tool that we have to end patriarchy: making women love other women.

Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.