If you publish a book of essays on feminism, as I recently did, the unintended consequence is that some people will turn to you for decision-making, like you’re some kind of woman-shaped Magic 8 Ball. On my book tour, I was asked, “Can I still be a feminist if I want to get married? How about if I wear high heels? What if my main goal is to make lots of money?”
To which my answer was always, “Well, what do you think?” I’m not feminist Solomon. None of us is. All of us contain multitudes, and sometimes those multitudes bicker. As Roxane Gay wrote in her landmark 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist, “like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like [expletive deleted] for being a woman.” Feminism is multirooted and multibranched; my tree might not look like yours. Together, though, we make a forest.
Frankly, I’m just thrilled that people still care. If you’d told me 25 years ago, when I started writing about this stuff, that one day the leading politicians in this country would be fighting over who’s a better feminist, I would have told you to check the expiry date on your magic mushrooms. Yet, here we are in 2018, and it’s like feminist mixed martial arts out there. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
The most recent match – which I will cynically suggest has as much to do with partisan point-scoring as it does with seeking justice and progress – pits Liberal and Conservative politicians against each other. The contention, recently outlined in stories by Chatelaine’s Sarah Boesveld and The Globe and Mail’s Laura Stone, is that Conservative women feel their particular form of feminism is being overshadowed by the Liberal government’s bell-ringing around the F-word.
“There is no ‘Liberal version of feminism,’” Maryam Monsef, the Status of Women Minister, wrote on Twitter. “There is just feminism: The belief that all Canadians deserve an equal chance at success, regardless of gender.” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel retorted that the Liberals were being hypocrites, given the 18-year-old groping allegations against their leader. Ms. Monsef, she suggested, should “grow a pair.”
It all kicked off from there, with feminist credentials lobbed smack-bang from both sides. Reader, I had to take smelling salts, so excited was I to witness this public display of oneup-womanship.
Simplified, what we’re seeing is a little government versus big government argument wrapped in pink cloth and packaged for voter’s approval. Should the government have a role in equalizing opportunity via encouraging women in STEM professions, for example? Conservatives argue – with some merit – that the Liberals exhibit a grating smugness on this topic, as if they invented feminism in 2015. Liberals argue, also with merit, that they are actually implementing structural change to improve women’s lives, as with the gender-focused budget introduced earlier this year. (It must be said that the Liberals’ credentials are not helped by Justin Trudeau’s reluctance to be fully forthcoming on the subject of allegations made against him in British Columbia 18 years ago.)
Can you be a Conservative and be a feminist? Of course you can. It’s worth noting, at this point, that the only female prime minister this country has ever had was Progressive Conservative (even though Kim Campbell was handed the wheel of a brakeless junker careening toward a ditch.) So was the first federal female cabinet minister, Ellen Fairclough, in the government of John Diefenbaker.
Any person is free to say she’s a feminist. The proof lies not in what she says, or posts on Twitter, but what she does – what actions she takes to support other women, especially the most marginalized. This is where the situation becomes tricky. One of the most important issues facing women everywhere is reproductive freedom. This is no small matter: Abortion rights are at the heart of women’s economic freedom and bodily autonomy, and they’re currently under threat at the state and possibly federal level in the United States. We must be ultravigilant that there are no such encroachments on our rights in Canada.
So critics have legitimate cause to examine the federal Conservatives’ position on this issue. In the interview with Laura Stone that kicked off this controversy, the Conservative critic for the Status of Women, Rachael Harder, was coy (as she has been in the past) on the subject of reproductive rights. Ms. Stone writes, “When asked if she’s ‘pro-life,’ [Harder] answers: “I’ll always advocate for the preborn.’ ”
In a follow-up email, Ms. Stone writes, “Ms. Harder refused to clarify but said, ‘Andrew Scheer has made it clear that a future Conservative government will not re-open the abortion debate.’”
Well, let’s hope so, although we cannot know what would happen in a hypothetical government down the road. We do know that Ms. Harder has co-sponsored a fetal-rights bill that would have made it a separate crime to injure a fetus while injuring a pregnant woman, and that the anti-choice group Campaign Life Coalition has given her high marks. Her position on reproductive rights – which is not adequately publicly explained – led her to be blocked as chair of the status of women committee by Liberal and NDP MPs.
At the very least, a feminist must be able to argue for other women’s rights to determine what is best for their lives and bodies, even if she holds a different set of beliefs regarding her own body. How can you call yourself an advocate of equality if you don’t accept that men and women have equal rights to choose when, if and how they reproduce?
We can argue about many of the trappings of feminism, and how best to support other women’s success and progress. I have a feeling we’ll be doing it for years to come, on whatever brain-implanted social-media platform replaces Twitter. What can’t be up for debate is our right – and the rights of the women who come after us – to decide what happens to our bodies.