Lee Lakeman on gender identity and women’s rights at the Vancouver Public Library

Lee Lakeman speaking at the Vancouver Public Library on January 10, 2019

The following is an edited transcript of a speech given by Lee Lakeman on January 10, 2019, at the Vancouver Public Library. The event was called, “Gender Identity and Women’s Rights,” and can be watched in full on YouTube.

The first thing I want to say is that I thought from the beginning that the main achievement of this evening would be to fill this room — to get past the barricades, get past the bureaucrats, to get past the bullshit, get in the room, get in the seats and be ready for the talk. So thank you. No matter what else happens here, we’ve now demonstrated, clearly, that those who’ve taken control of our library and our public discussion need to know we will not be shut out or shut up.

The second victory is less important in my mind, but still important, and that is to have the discussion we came for. But I think it’s also important to put this achievement and this discussion in its proper perspective.

The murder of women — mostly the murder of wives and prostitutes — by men continues as we speak. The violence done to women — and even more often to impoverished or racialized women — continues without social consequences to those men. As does the harassment done by men — up to murder — of women, especially Aboriginal women who are forced to live in the public realm by poverty and lack of social supports, like public transit and even public schools. As does men’s harassment of women who try to use their legal rights and privileges to take their position in public institutions and public life, like the library — what Hannah Arendt speaks of as the very nature of public life.

The recent campaigns led by women victims and their feminist advocates to hold men like Ghomeshi accountable are still at their very earliest stages and so far have been stunted rather than assisted by legal procedures, by the police and the courts, as well as by the commercial media and the damned social media.

The fight for equal pay has not been achieved, much less the fight for equal distribution of wealth or resources. The right to welfare and social services, healthcare and education services, have been so undermined that they barely exist for the poor woman, for the immigrant woman, for the Aboriginal woman. To be among such women is to be criminalized for trying to get by.

Women do not have proper access to legal aid, much less to the adequate protection of the law and security of our persons. Childcare, the care of the sick and the old, are still loaded on women, even if more and more it is the loading onto immigrant women at low rates of pay with insecure citizenship.

Women’s sexuality is under constant assault. Young women have even less sense of the entitlement to autonomy, to sexual pleasure, and to body integrity that my generation had already won. They are fed a constant diet of pornography in every media form.

The international talk of women’s rights is just that: talk.

Unless women measure, protest, demand, on our own, nothing happens to ensure women’s rights as written on the pages. No political party, no public institutions, have distinguished themselves as fighters for the liberation of women. Nor have they defended those who do fight for that liberation.

I am old enough to remember the Montreal Massacre and what governments did at that point. And in this year of #MeToo and various campaigns, they have done the same: nothing — nothing pro-women.

International studies now confirm that it is only in the presence of an autonomous women’s movement that policies and practices of the state start to reform — start to reform — toward the advancement of women. And women-only is a key practice of the independent women’s movement.

To me, this discussion of “inclusion” is really the conduct of the backlash against feminism. When Meghan asked me to speak, months ago, she was imagining that I would tell you about the case in which Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter was forced to defend itself as an organization devoted to the liberation of women.

We took a defensive position at that point. We didn’t try to take on this argument. All we said was we have a right to control our own membership, we have a right to group as women subject to the sexism that was enforced on us.

According to the law, the human rights coalition was meant to promote a settlement between Kimberly Nixon, who wanted to be in our group, and us, who didn’t want Nixon in our group because Nixon did not meet our criteria. That is, Nixon had no experience of growing up as a girl child into a woman. Those in power wanted to harm Rape Relief for their own reasons and made no effort to assist the groups of the dispossessed to come to any accommodation with each other. And so in this case I wonder: Who is gaining?

About that case, it’s important to remember that it was 1995. Nixon initiated the case, we did not. We won the case. Nixon still owes us 15 grand. We did not decide to define women, but rather to say that we were talking about women who’ve been subjected to sexism all our lives. We won. The higher court agreed with us. They agreed that our purpose was the liberation of women, and that we could act on that purpose.

Our purpose as a movement and as an organization within that movement is not to give everyone the choice of which sex they would like to be, or to promote notions that each woman should challenge herself to find or create freedom for herself, a home for herself. These are silly ideas that have come along with neoliberalism. That’s not at all what we want.

Our primary work is to focus on and take down the structures that prevent women from escaping gendered roles, and gendered poverty, and gendered racism. Those structures that enforce gender laws, norms, and institutions, including male violence against women. We cannot be talking about the example of transition houses as the one place where we should be allowed to say “women-only.” It’s for strategizing. It’s for being able to gather as a group of women. It’s not for hiding. It’s for having a beachhead from which to fight. It’s women’s centers that we already lost — we have to hang on to the centers we still have, which are the rape crisis centers and the transition houses.

Meghan sometimes frames her fight as the fight for free speech. I am not for free speech — I am not fighting for free speech. I don’t plan to put up with the hate speech of pornography or the hate speech of racism, and I’m not willing to tolerate the hate speech against the poor either.

I am fighting for freedom for women, and most of all for that freedom that Simone de Beauvoir describes as freedom which enriches the freedom of others. This is the kind of day when one can imagine Rosa Luxemburg rolling over in her grave. What kind of socialism — even social democracy — is it that excuses the library’s senior staff who claim to be upholding the fine principles of access to all? Or that excuses the new NDP mayor who trashed Meghan as one of his first acts in office? Or that excuses the premier, John Horgan, for the sexist misbehaviour of his party members against feminists? This is not the practice of liberty-making.

I am not a big fan of talk of rights. If we are to talk of rights, then, according to charter law, women are to be recognized by all extensions of the state as being a historically disadvantaged people — 52 per cent of the people. I am here to fight for speech that is freedom-making speech, not free speech. I am here to call for the library to uphold feminist speech — no neutral ground — pro-women speech, feminist speech.

Feminism is the politics that calls for and has always called for an egalitarian future, for non-violent methods to get there, for open dialogue and transparent processes, for an end to the hierarchies of race and class as well as sex, for an end to the violence that supports those hierarchies, for egalitarian sex practices and sex education, for intersectionality — but not the garbage version that’s being peddled.

If you don’t know what the word means, get on YouTube and watch Kimberle Crenshaw tell you again, for the 57th time. Or you might use standpoint theory, written right here in town by Dorothy Smith. And you can talk about collectivity too as the final part of feminism, including the means conditions the ends; the necessity of small group organization for affinity groups, for interlocking collectives, and most of all for some integrity. And you can get it anywhere. Consciousness raising was vital to the whole second wave development of the women’s movement, and it’s an essential reason why we could not and would not admit a man into our consciousness raising processes.

It’s a contradiction in terms. We were using consciousness raising to describe our lives to each other in order to be able to find common ground from which we could find the institutions, the processes, and the laws that were holding us back, and go about the business of strategizing against them.

Our politics is based on our body. It’s based on our bodies. It’s not limited to our bodies, but it’s based in our bodies, and in women’s relational relationship from our bodies, to our children, to our communities, to our neighbourhoods, and on down.

To those of you who can imagine bullying us into submission, you’re clearly unfamiliar with us.

Each one of us have had our exposures to the great women that are part of this movement.

For myself, I can brag of Mary Two-Axe Early, who defied both the white racists and the Aboriginal sexists to stand with other feminists against the government who denied her heritage, and therefore her rights.

Up to this week, I am still learning from Fay Blaney, who carries the Indigenous feminists forward, and who once rode the mighty Fraser River in a river raft, just to stand with small groups of women on each of the reserves, as they told on the men in their bands and the leaders in their communities. You can see her work on the [Missing and Murder Women’s] Inquiry’s webpage, which I urge you to do.

But if you think that I can be trained by women like that and be afraid of being scared at the door of a library, think again.

Laura Sabia was one of my first teachers. She’s the daughter of the rich — her father owned lots of stocks and taught her about controlling her autonomy through economics. I was 20. She explained to me standing in St. Peter’s Square, traveling with her daughter (she was by then a middle-aged woman), and in St. Peter’s Square if you’re raised as a good Catholic girl as I was and she was, you know that you’re to get down on your knees when the Pope comes out on the balcony. And Laura Sabia described that she was never going down on her knees again to a man.

Madeleine Parent, who used her position as a daughter of the privileged in Quebec to stand for women’s sexual autonomy against the Catholic Church, when she decided to live with her male lover, another organizer, and she was publicly shamed for it across her whole community. She stood too with the garment workers, unionizing the textile industries against the owners and the corrupt government, for which she was jailed. She stood too against the international reunions before the church — after which she was blacklisted, publicly shamed, and jailed — and then against the international unions in favour of our own Canadian union movement. She knew my name. She knew my name. I met that woman. You think I can bow down after that?

Rosemary Brown, who I met in my first year of work opening a shelter, told social workers about me — about my work. She said, “This revolt of transition houses and anti-rape centers is happening. The only question is about if you’ll be with them, or in their way.” I don’t back down after that.

My friends in the abortion fight — activists like Judy Rebick who stepped in front of a man with a knife to protect Henry Morgentaler. Jackie Larkin, who used to live a few blocks from here, tied herself to the house of Parliament to fight for that right, and both stood with Indigenous women demanding accountability during the Meech Lake reform, and the restructuring of Canada. How do you get scared after that?

The women of the status of women committees. The radical teachers — including Gail Tyler — who fight still for the single mothers waiting, wanting an education, who must be ashamed of their leadership and the cowardly ditching of women’s freedom and their disrespect for the feminists of those committees. I can go on and on and on, there’s a long list of great, dignified, brave feminists.

That’s our movement.