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Why we still need booster shots of feminism

True or false: Young women today don't need a booster shot of feminism because so many women are achieving more than their mothers (or fathers) ever dreamed they could.

In Canada we now – suddenly! – have four female premiers. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin heads our Supreme Court, and there are three other women on the country's top bench plus another nominated this month.

Female students outnumber males in universities. In international activist circles, it's recognized that women's rights are human rights, and no country can truly progress without educating its female citizens and giving them opportunities to achieve.

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In fact, there has never been a better period to be a woman. For the first time in its history, The New York Times just appointed a woman, Jill Abramson, as its executive editor. The three Nobel laureates for this year's peace prize are all women.

So why would any young woman need to worry about equal rights or – groan, cue the retrospeak – the confining demands of "the patriarchy"?

She would need a feminist booster shot because women, however much in the ascendancy, have new problems (the hypersexualization of young girls, economic viability in a global recession, creeping conservatism) and many of the same old problems (domestic violence, poverty and unequal pay). If they don't know their own recent history, they won't know how to solve these problems.

Consider a minor but intriguing example, the latest cover story in The Atlantic, All The Single Ladies, in which 39-year-old author Kate Bolick argues that as women like her have educated themselves and grabbed good jobs, men have sunk into underachievement and underemployment, creating a new "dating gap" in which eligible women are not finding suitable mates. Panic in singledom. You can almost see the jokey Hallmark card: "I can't believe I got a graduate degree instead of a husband!"

It could be, with marriage rates dropping like a stone, that educated women will miss out on marriage, but this also sounds suspiciously like a variant on that famous 1986 Newsweek magazine scare story. It warned that a 40-year-old college educated woman had more chance of being killed by a terrorist than finding a husband.

It wasn't true then, and it isn't now. In fact, New York Times health reporter Tara Parker-Pope wrote in 2010 that studies confirmed that "women who drop out of high school are the least likely to marry, and college educated women are the least likely to divorce."

So young women, be proud of your educational achievements.

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And know thy history. If you don't know that abortion was once illegal in Canada and that, eventually, after a public battle, the Supreme Court struck down the law, then you can't be ready for the next assault on that right. It's already here – Conservative MPs such as Saskatchewan's Brad Trost, who despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper's assurance that this issue will not be reopened, are vowing to put an end to reproductive freedom.

I got my own booster shot this past week at a rollicking and inspiring book launch for feminist activist Michele Landsberg's latest book Writing the Revolution. The book is an eye-opening collection of some of the 3,000 columns she wrote for the Toronto Star from 1978 to the early 2000s in which she took women's issues and turned them into human issues so fearlessly, doggedly and articulately that it still makes my head spin.

From equal pay to sexual harassment at work, child care to false memory syndrome at home, from a tax on tampons to a pox on lap dancing, Ms. Landsberg passionately pulled apart each issue and then denounced politicians, judges and even the media if she thought they were holding women down.

In a packed Toronto church, there were almost 500 people – more than half made up of women like me who consider ourselves "second wave" feminists, but also a significant portion of younger women, one of whom declared of feminism, and I'm paraphrasing here, "screw the waves, we're the ocean!" There were young and older men there too.

They had come to honour Ms. Landsberg, now 72 and surrounded by her remarkable family: her daughters Ilana and Jenny; her husband, former NDP politician and current humanitarian Stephen Lewis; her son, Avi Lewis, a broadcaster and documentarian; and her famous daughter-in-law, global activist Naomi Klein.

I listened, extremely moved, as younger women thanked Ms. Landsberg for tackling so many issues pertinent to the quality of their lives, but for also getting them to understand their mothers' lives. Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam told the crowd she had viewed her immigrant mother, who worked in a factory to support her kids, as "a victim." "Michele's writing taught young women to respect their mothers," she said.

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What impressed me most was this intergenerational reach of Ms. Landsberg's work. It's up to younger women to define feminism now, but if they care to avail themselves of it, they have a generation of older feminists with experiences and strategies to share.

And of course there was her usual joyful and raucous take on the world. She had just returned from the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, and, as she told the crowd, when she walked through Zuccotti Park, one sign, held by a middle-aged man, delighted her: "We're here, we're unclear, get used to it."

Come to think of it, that kind of sums up the very early days of modern feminism, and "the problem that has no name" as American feminist Betty Friedan labelled housewives' discontent. This begat a movement, which of course turned into one of the great revolutions of our time. Know thy history.

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