This commentary is part of The Globe and Mail series A Work in Progress: The global struggle for gender parity. The Globe invited Maureen McTeer – pioneer of Canadian feminism and advocate of reproductive rights – and her daughter, Catherine Clark – a broadcaster and mother herself – to discuss the evolution of feminism and its changing ideals.
Catherine Clark: Happy International Women's Day, Mom. What are you planning to do this week to mark it?
Maureen McTeer: I'm planning to celebrate!
CC: Are you celebrating "because it's 2016"? Or more than that?
MM: More than that, really. Where do you want me to start?
CC: Well, how about Hillary?
MM: You mean the next President of the United States?
CC: I'm not so sure about that. She's clearly the most qualified, but that doesn't always amount to much these days.
MM: Being the best candidate, as she is, is no guarantee of success. But she is there every day, battling for the job against all comers. She is showing us that women count. No matter what people may think of her personally, she is breaking new ground, moving women forward, maybe even breaking, at last, the glass ceiling that has kept women from these important positions until now.
CC: You know a lot about breaking ground. Yours was the generation that stepped up to the plate and fought for some of the radical changes that impacted how my generation lives and thinks – altered our expectations of our lives, frankly. But I sometimes sense that you feel disappointment that my generation isn't doing more.
MM: You're right, there are days when I feel a little disappointed. But then I remind myself that the women of your generation have their own plans and lives to lead. In some ways, many in my generation were more active in different types of social causes. We had to lay the groundwork of human rights and equality rights, and not just for women. Inequality was the norm for many Canadians – First Nations, French Canadians, those with disabilities, the poor, new Canadians. We were all fighting for the same thing. We wanted to be treated fairly. All we wanted was a chance. When I started law school in 1973, 21 of 120 students were women. That was considered a revolution. Now more women than men in classes is the norm.
CC: I think that's the key point. You fought for substantive and procedural equality. You fought for choice and for the right to make the decisions you felt were best for your own life and your own body. It was a sea change in how society functioned. You created that revolution which paved the path for women like me to simply accept that we are equal. That's how your generation raised us to think.
MM: That's true. But many of your age group refuse to call themselves feminists. Does that bother you?
CC: It bothers me a bit, mainly because I had a front-row seat to your own struggles as a young feminist wife and mom. So I know the courage that went into standing up as a feminist in a society that was pretty resistant to change. And yes, many younger women might refuse to call themselves feminists, but there is a growing movement to reclaim the title – or even just rehabilitate it. The more important message is that for many of my generation we have simply benefited so significantly from the work of our mothers and grandmothers – and sometimes fathers and grandfathers – that we don't feel the need to label ourselves with any kind of name.
MM: Yes, times have certainly changed. Today, young women have the chance to do all the things women of my generation could only hope for, and which we worked so hard to achieve over the years. Yours is a very lucky generation. My friends were just as bright as the young women of today – so were my mother's friends. Still, it was only when human-rights laws were passed and policies changed that those women could be educated and be treated fairly at work and at home. It came too late for so many of those women, but the chain of our shared history is strong and growing. And it needs to continue to grow, because there is so much work to do yet to ensure changes like equal pay, childcare options, and to address all forms of violence against women. These are your generation's issues, too.
CC: There's no question that there's still a lot of work to be done. But your own generation laid so much of the groundwork that when my generation runs into an issue that we view as unfair or unjust, we simply stand up, rally our friends and communities, and try to change it. Technology is the great ally of my generation when it comes to making our opinions heard. The women you were just describing couldn't just pick up an iPad and tweet their opinions out to thousands of people, or ask for help mobilizing their community to change through Facebook, or take an online degree course at a university to improve their professional prospects. Technology, for all of its faults, is also now the great equalizer.
MM: Yes and technology hasn't just changed the speed and style of communication. Reproductive and genetic technologies give your generation once unheard-of options to have children in any number of new and different ways, and at a time of their own choosing. It's presenting women with new options, but also new challenges. I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Canadian women.
CC: Well I know what the future holds for me right now – I have to go make dinner for my family.
MM: Some things never change.
CC: Yes they do, Mom! It's my husband's job to do the dishes.
MM: You see – something else to celebrate.