Monday, March 7, 2011

The F-word

Tomorrow, March 8, is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.

CBC TV's Doc Zone recently showed the documentary The F-word: Who Wants to be a Feminist?, about the current state of feminism and the status of women in Canada. Apparently both are going nowhere fast, except maybe south (metaphorically).

The title of the film is a reflection of the fact that many women do not like to identify as feminists because the word has taken on a negative connotation. The epithet implies women who still loudly fight against a now-vanquished enemy, making fools of themselves raging against long gone inequities. Women who do not like to call themselves feminists still believe in equality and rights for women, but they believe that these are already a done deal and that we should all just move on in life.

One of the things I learned is that the status of women in Canada used to be among the best in the world, we occupied seventh place in an international ranking in 2005 (the USA ranked 17th), and before that we were in fifth place. But in the past few years the situation has deteriorated so that now we rank lower (horrors!) than the USA, somewhere around twentieth place in 2010. Latvia and Sri Lanka rank higher. I applaud Latvia and Sri Lanka, but still, you'd think a long established western industrialized democracy could do better.

The film discusses possible causes of that deterioration. One major and obvious cause is our current Harper government, which has systematically undermined legal protections and financial support for women and women's advocacy organizations.

The Harper government professes strong support for "family values", meaning the withdrawal of supports for working women and reduced access to childcare among other things. Newly arrived immigrant women isolated by language and old country attitudes are left to fend for themselves, the poverty of women and children is ignored, legal protections for women in the workplace are quietly withdrawn.

Certainly the general movement toward right wing politics in North America has been detrimental to gender equality, but the film also offers another potential cause for the lack of feminist action on this issue.

In the film the history of feminism is sketched in broad terms as a movement in three waves: the suffragettes of the early twentieth century, the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s, and a more recent wave of feminist action in the late '90s and early twenty-first century. Each wave seems separated by a period of self-satisfaction, wherein many women assume that the major battles have been fought and won, we can rest on our laurels and get on with reaping the rewards. This film suggests that it is as if feminism has to skip a generation or two before it can reawaken. Feminists do a lousy job of raising the next generation of feminists.

I am not sure if I entirely agree with that last sentence, I don't think feminists are particularly at fault there. I think it is true that such movements do tend to skip generations but I don't think this is a problem specific to feminists. Maintaining a steady state of outrage over many decades for steadily (albeit microscopic) decreasing levels of injustice is just hard to do. For any cause. And it is easy to quietly eat away at recently won justice when public attention has moved on to another issue.

If you live in Canada you can watch the film online by going to the CBC Doc Zone website. There are a lot of other interesting documentaries there as well.

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