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Feminism died and I missed the funeral. I would have gone. I would have liked to remember and celebrate her, because she gave so much to me when I was a young girl and woman, in the 1970s and ’80s.
I knew Feminism pretty well back then. I felt her influence everywhere I turned. She helped me get into law school in the eighties, when many Canadian law and medical schools began enrolling equal numbers of women and men for the first time.
She opened doors for women like me to play on university sports teams, in such previously male-dominated sports as soccer and rugby, rather than cheering for the boys from the sidelines.
Here in Nova Scotia, universities launched their first women’s soccer teams. I was glad my team wasn’t required to wear skirts like the field hockey players, or short shorts and hair ribbons like the volleyball team. Our uniforms were proud hand-me-downs from the men’s team, clothes for playing hard and getting dirty. I am sure Feminism approved.
Fifteen-year-old Justine Blainey also made Feminism proud when she began her fight with the Ontario Hockey Association, and finally in 1987 won her Supreme Court battle to play hockey with the boys. (Unfortunately, it took so long that her victory was more for the girls that came after her than herself. Thanks, Justine!)
After many years of tireless work, sexual harassment was recognized as a legitimate educational and workplace complaint, rather than an acceptable and commonplace behaviour that women were required to tolerate. Women and men could finally bring complaints against employers, co-workers, teachers and coaches who behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner.
You can’t imagine what a relief this was for women like me. When I was 19, feeling empowered but slightly confused by this new policy, I found myself tentatively asking a trusted adviser: “Is it okay for a person in a position of authority to pressure me into having dinner, send me romantic poetry and buy me expensive gifts?”
Work in this area continued throughout the nineties, legislation ensued, and eventually it was recognized that sexual harassment is a violation of human rights.
In those days, Feminism never slept. She also found time to bring issues like child care, violence against women and reproductive rights to the forefront, forcing politicians and courts to take them seriously.
The women I grew up with had opportunities that weren’t available to our mothers or grandmothers. By the time my mother was 24 she was married with three children. Birth-control advances meant marriage and child-rearing were no longer our primary destiny – and that, combined with Feminism encouraging us to have intellectual confidence and pursue professional opportunity, meant I was able to do things my mother could never have done.
At the age when she had a husband, home and family, I was heading off to pursue my passions. I studied in Paris, worked in Tokyo, paddled the Amazon and climbed a mountain in Nepal. This kind of freedom was a new experience for women. It was like being handed the keys to a brand new car. The road was wide open ahead of us.
And yet, in spite of her tireless efforts and amazing gifts, Feminism slipped away.
I don’t know how it happened. I wonder how many women understand the difference she made. Her sweat paved the road for us, but she’s been forgotten or distorted.
I am consciously raising my own children to be feminists. They confidently equate feminism with equality, and not with hating men, but my influence is countered by youth culture and unlimited access to information. I can’t protect them from that. They have likely seen pornographic images.
My daughters are surrounded by peers dressed in sexually provocative clothing. They hang out with boys raised on violently misogynistic rap lyrics. My son is subjected to locker-room chatter that demeans and objectifies girls.
Their generation is so wrapped up in Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter that many seem to have lost the ability to communicate in person when sober. I fear for their ability to have successful relationships, and I suspect my daughters will have to fight even harder for respect than I did.
The media and entertainment industries bombard them with hyper-sexualized messages, conveniently redefining girl-power as the money and attention that comes from making oneself into a sexual object. It was sad to see Miley Cyrus trying to be a grown-up by behaving like a stripper (though Feminism, bless her heart and boundless energy, fought equally for the rights of strippers and prostitutes).
It was devastating to see the videos of Canadian university students on both coasts participating in a rape chant as part of the fun bonding events of frosh week.
I can only speak for myself, and the women I knew back then, but I can tell you we wouldn’t have done it in the eighties because we had respect for ourselves, and respect for other women.
We had finally earned a place in the classroom, on the sports field, under the law and in the workplace, and we were just so damn happy and grateful to be there!
Maybe it is better that Feminism did pass away. If she were alive today, her heart would be broken.
Wendy MacGregor lives in Halifax.
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