There have been 600 documented cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women over the past two decades. Unaffordable and inaccessible childcare has many Canadians relying on the domestic work of migrant women. In New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, access to abortion remains a challenge. Yet many women today are hesitant to call themselves feminists and take up these causes.
Montreal’s Karen Cho started out as a skeptic. Five years ago, the documentary filmmaker began researching feminism in Canada for the National Film Board, planning to make a historical film.
Her previous docs about the Chinese head tax and refugees in Canada were unabashedly political, but Cho, 34, saw the feminist movement as a thing of the past. As she dug deeper, connecting with women across the country, the present-day inequalities astounded her. By presenting contemporary issues alongside footage from the 1960s and 70s in Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada, Cho makes her message clear: Women in Canada have come a long way, but the fight isn’t over.
Why didn’t you consider yourself a feminist before taking on this project?
I grew up in an era where I had a lot of rights as a woman and I took a lot of those rights for granted. Feminism felt like something of the past, something of my mother’s generation or older generations. There’s always that stereotype of the angry, man-hating woman and it wasn’t something I wanted to identify myself with. I was one of those “I’m not a feminist but …” type of people. But that viewpoint changed as soon as I walked into the research for the film and realized that a lot of those struggles and fights continue today.
Why is the stereotype of the man-hating feminist so pervasive?
It says that the backlash against the feminist movement was very effective. There’s not been the same kind of backlash against other rights movements – the civil-rights movement, the gay-rights movement.
Your film shows how a national child care program could improve conditions for women. That’s an expensive service. What’s the economic argument?
It eases access to the labour force, making it easier for women to become earners in the household. There’s income tax that is reaped from that and women would have more spending power. There are also jobs created – for women, for early-childhood educators, for all the spaces and infrastructure that would need to be set up. For single mothers who have more than one child, it doesn’t make sense for them to work right now. Child care is so expensive it actually makes more sense for them to stay on welfare. If the government can spend billions of dollars on fighter jets and roads in Northern Quebec for mining companies, we can easily invest in child care.
There’s a clip in Status Quo? from 1982 where an MP is laughed at in the House of Commons for saying that one in 10 husbands beat their wives. It’s incredibly unsettling.
That clip is shocking for a reason – because we have come far in our attitudes. Back in the late ’60s, women’s shelters didn’t even exist. But because they exist now, and there’s infrastructure to help women escape domestic violence, we tend to put the problem under the rug. We should be asking the question: Why is there even a shelter? How is it that in our society the need for those places can still exist?
How does feminism today differ from the past?
The discussion is a lot more diverse than it was before. Women are really aware of who gets to speak and whose voice is heard. Now we’re looking at it from a race perspective, a class perspective, at sexual identity and how all those things affect your experience as a woman. Women are still taking these issues into the streets, but I would say a lot of organizing and feminist activities have moved online.
Do these women call themselves feminists, and does that matter?
I think some of them do, for sure, and I think they’re maybe hyphenating the word feminist – I’m a feminist-environmentalist, an aboriginal-feminist, a reproductive-rights-advocate-feminist. But there’s a lot of baggage connected to that word. If you are a woman from a more marginalized group, maybe you don’t want to identify as a feminist because you don’t feel like the feminist movement took up your voice, in a way. I don’t think it’s necessarily important what words you use. You don’t have to call yourself a feminist to be a feminist and promote feminist values.
Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada will be available for free streaming on the National Film Board’s website for three days beginning on International Women’s Day, March 8.
This interview has been condensed and edited.