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.
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.
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?