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Karl Lagerfeld, the Chanel designer best known for producing shoes that cost a month's rent and pronouncing that "jogging pants are a sign of defeat," is once again tapping polite society on the nose with his jewelled fan. He's also known for believing that the only critics of underweight models are "fat mothers sitting down with their bags of chips in front of the television."

What he's not known for is his support of the sisterhood, unless he puts on jeans and a T-shirt at night and slips out, incognito, to volunteer at a women's shelter. Stranger things have happened, though not many.

What, then, to make of the recent Chanel show in Paris that ended with a pro-feminist rally? Models clomped down the runway carrying signs that read, "Herstory, Not History," and "Boys Should Get Pregnant Too." Truly pro-female placards would probably have read, "I can no longer feel my toes" and "For God's sake, send sandwiches," but I'm in no position to judge, since I'm not a be-ringed style icon, merely a chip-eating feminist who has, once or twice, worn sweat pants.

Soon, the air was filled with indignation. How did that fat-shunning snob dare co-opt feminism? The controversy followed hard on the heels of a debate about whether Beyoncé deserved to stand like a warrior queen from the planet Ferocious in front of a giant sign that said "feminism," as she did at the MTV Video Music Awards. Fellow singer Annie Lennox pronounced Beyoncé's brand of skimpy-pantsed feminism "tokenistic." Dismissing other celebrity congregants in the newly cool church of women's rights, Ms. Lennox said, "I think for many, it's very convenient and it looks great and it looks radical, but I have some issues with it." That is, simply putting up a sign ain't putting in the work.

I've been writing about this stuff for 25 years, ever since I was the "women's issues" reporter at my student newspaper (laugh if you want), and it never fails to amaze me the different ways the movement can turn on itself. Symbols overshadow deeds, factionalism becomes the story. We spend more time arguing over who is the correct kind of feminist than in performing the actual feminism. I think of these latest attention-grabbing stunts as clown feminism – amusing and distracting, but deeply unserious.

The real work gets done far away from the big top.

The thing is, the real work of feminism is going on, every day, boringly, out of the public eye, by people who know what they're doing but don't have backup dancers. They fill out grant forms, attend hearings, volunteer at rape crisis centres and offer free legal advice, and no one ever puts them on the cover of a magazine.

I'm thinking about people like the ones who are currently fighting for reproductive rights in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, two provinces where abortion services are shamefully and dangerously limited. Or the volunteers at Women in Toronto Politics, who have put together an excellent policy primer outlining the platforms of candidates in Toronto's municipal election. Or what about the activists demanding justice for aboriginal women? You hear about them when the Prime Minister brushes off their concerns, but they're there the rest of the time, too, out of the spotlight, where the marches are organized and the e-mail lists are compiled, all for the glamorous reward of cold coffee and stale sandwiches.

I think about women like Merna Forster, who's been fighting a lonely battle to have Canada acknowledge that maybe one woman in the history of this country deserves to be on our money (and you would know how many Canadian women do deserve that honour, if you read her excellent book 100 Canadian Heroines).

Of course, we could put the face of a female Canadian prime minister on our money – that one we had that time, if only briefly. Kim Campbell was doing the feminism last week when she suggested, as a way to achieve gender parity in politics, that a male and female candidate should be on every ballot. I'm not sure her proposal is the way to go, but I do appreciate that someone is talking about the gross inadequacy of women's representation in politics. Let's put it this way: In the recent New Brunswick election, just eight women were elected to the provincial legislature – that's 16 per cent. And it's not even the worst province: Just seven women were elected to the current Newfoundland and Labrador legislature, 14 per cent of the total.

A colleague told me this week that he'd been in a room where portraits of six of the past seven prime ministers were hung. If you can guess whose picture was missing, congratulations! You are probably a woman with eyes and ears who lives in this country.

And perhaps you're one of those who volunteers or donates money to a shelter, or tutors a girl in science, or merely points out to your kids how odd it is that on television, all the laundry gets done by women and all the driving gets done by men. You're doing the feminism, a little bit, day by day, even if no one notices.