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Marsha Lederman

Women still face a kitchen sink full of challenges but must not be silenced Add to ...

It’s probably naive, but I feel like we should be past the whole “first female fill-in-the-blank” era. I would like to believe that we no longer have to keep score; that women are everywhere, leaning in, leading, and it is no longer worthy of a headline when a woman lands a big job. I would like to believe that women are judged on their abilities and not their gender, judged with the same amount of scrutiny as the men they are up against – whether it’s on the ballot or in the courtroom. Or, for that matter, an awards show.

As I say, probably naive.

This week, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win the Iowa caucuses. Even if it was a squeaker of a win over fellow Democrat Bernie Sanders, she might this time – after her 2008 disappointment – become the first female U.S. president.

There are a lot of us who would like that very much. For women of a certain age, Ms. Clinton was an important feminist role model: not simply an ornamental first lady, but involved – smart, serious and, yes, progressive.

She remains so. Last week, The New York Times endorsed her “with confidence and enthusiasm,” calling her “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.”

And yet, time and again she is written off, sneered at, even despised. Too tied in with the establishment! Unlikeable! Loud! The screaming! And – shudder – shrill.

Bernie Sanders – you may have heard him shouting too – has caught a wave with his appeal-to-the-heart approach, his revolutionary talk, his pie-in-the-sky promises, his offbeat demeanour. Heaven help the woman running for president who presents that way.

Let me be clear: I like Ms. Clinton because of her qualifications, her intelligence and tenacity, her commitment to health care and criminal justice reform, her advocacy for women’s rights, her deep knowledge of foreign affairs.

I do not like her because she’s a woman. But do I like that she’s a woman? Yes, I do.

Do I like that her Twitter bio has to begin “wife, mom, grandma” before she gets to the senator and secretary of state stuff? No. Do I like the “hair icon” and “pantsuit aficionado” jokes? Yes, I do.

Even in these enlightened times, women can face a kitchen-sink full of challenges. From this single week, there are too many examples illustrating what we’re up against.

Top of mind is the Jian Ghomeshi trial in Toronto. The allegations against him have not been proven, but if you’ve been paying attention, you may have new insight into why the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported.

To come forward and tell your story can be terrifying. Details might be fuzzy, there may be a community wave of support for the accused, victim-blaming is somehow still a thing.

Thinking back to when I was a teenager in the 1980s, I believe women didn’t come forward because we didn’t really know we could – sexual assault wasn’t part of the conversation; nobody gave us the language or permission to speak up.

Today, I think women don’t come forward because they fear it’s not worth the ordeal: the statements to police, the grilling in the witness box, the worst details from your life fodder for dramatic courtroom revelations and a stream of tweets.

At Mr. Ghomeshi’s trial, the complainants have sustained aggressive challenges to their credibility. After what sounded like a courtroom evisceration, the first witness released a statement. “I want to encourage other victims of abuse to come forward, and not be afraid,” she said.

That’s some optimistic thinking.

Other notes of feminist distress from this past week:

That jerk “neo-masculinist” fringe anti-female blogger (whose first name rhymes with the best possible description of him) got all kinds of attention for planned meet-ups across Canada and beyond – since cancelled because of the backlash.

Susan Sarandon was called out for baring her cleavage at the SAG Awards.

Even the Juno Awards feel like a betrayal, with not a single woman nominated for artist or album of the year – this when Grimes’s Art Angels was named best album of 2015 by NME and No. 3 by Pitchfork, Billboard and The New York Times. Grimes, darling of the music world, was shut out.

Rant about this – or anything to do with sexism – online at your peril.

U.S. comedian Alison Leiby published an essay this week about the response she received after tweeting this joke: “As a woman, I just hope that one day I have as many rights as a gun does.” She was trolled, harassed, threatened.

“Women are taught from an early age to … try not to cause a scene,” she wrote. “We’re not supposed to garner attention or make waves or do anything that might upset anyone. You know what happens when women don’t want to make a scene? They stop talking. And writing. And performing. And creating.”

How true: Women who speak up risk being called whiners or much worse – whether online or in court or on the path (maybe) to the White House. And so we ask ourselves: Is it worth the hassle?

Hillary Clinton held an event in Vancouver two years ago. She didn’t light the room on fire, but came across as highly intelligent, informed, reasonable – and human, especially when she talked about being a woman in politics. She offered some advice I conjure frequently: Take criticism seriously, but not personally.

When you are a woman, it can be tough to remember that. We endure all kinds of attacks that feel very personal. But seriously – remaining silent is not the answer.

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Follow on Twitter: @marshalederman

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