In recent years, the word feminist has become less taboo to share openly. We have a Prime Minister who claims to hold the title feminist and gender parity in both our Provincial and Federal cabinets. Great, right? Yes, it’s a step forward but gender parity is hypocritical unless we approach feminism with intersectional diversity in mind.
I have a lot of friends who consider themselves progressive and talk about feminism in relation to what is going on in current events. In this time of political polarization, those same friends consider themselves to be on “the good and correct side” of the feminist debate while everyone else is “bad and wrong”. But what if those good folks are still only good to themselves?
Late last month, I was invited to speak to a group of students in the Nellie McClung program at Edmonton Public Schools as part of their celebrations for International Women’s Day. I was invited there by a Grade 8 student who had heard me speak at the Edmonton International Women’s Film Festival last year about the experience of women in politics. In the days leading up to this year’s event, I was thinking about McClung and the women suffragettes and wondering what young women today are taught about this movement, especially those in the program named in her honour.
At the event, I asked the students what they knew about Nellie – making note that most of the students were girls of colour. They told me the generic story of the Famous Five and shared that women have now had the right to vote for over 100 years. I was happy to clarify that only some women earned the right through that movement, which would have left most in the room excluded from voting. This was a shock to the students and to me that they are not being taught the whole truth. I also mentioned the eugenics movement that McClung advocated for. Not only would some of the students not have earned the right to vote, they would have been subject to legislation that may have denied them healthcare or worse, forced them to have surgical procedures they did not consent to.
I’ve heard the excuse that the work of the Famous Five was the stepping stone to getting other women to be seen as persons. For First Nations women, we got the right to vote at the same time as First Nations men – more than a generation after white women. Imagine if the original suffragettes would have fought for the rights of all women at the same time.
In present day, I am seeing history repeat itself. Many privileged white women are waving the feminist flag and fighting for parity in workplaces, on boards, and in politics but very few are considering diversity in that fight. Most are only considering the rights of those who are like them and those that they interact with daily in their comfortable social circles. Even worse are those who recognize diversity as an issue but are not using their power and privilege to change the conversation and invite marginalized women in.
After the election, I was a topic of conversation on a local podcast about women in politics – hosted by two privileged white women. They chatted about the harassment and bullying they had seen towards me on social media throughout the election by a prominent white male. In fact, many people reached out to me after the election telling me how appalling his behaviour was. They had all noticed it happening but none of them stepped up as it was taking place to say anything. And every time someone mentions to me how sorry they are that it happened, I get more and more frustrated. I had the opportunity recently to talk to one of those hosts face to face and tell her how angry that comment made me feel. If I had been a white affluent women, would there have been as many silent bystanders to the harassment? On second thought, would the online bullying have even happened at all? As far as I’m aware, none of the white women I was running against fielded the same targeted harassment.
Last week I attended another event for International Women’s Day that brought together hundreds of women from across the public service. It was great to see the diversity of women represented in the audience but the speakers did not mirror this diversity. My guess is that intersectionality was not even a consideration for the event organizers – five white women. The keynote speaker talked about the challenges of working in a male dominated career but never mentioned her privilege as a white women in that field and how much more challenging it would have been had she come from a marginalized background. As the event carried on and participants broke out into smaller sessions with other panels and speakers, I noticed the trend of privilege continue. Of the 30 or so speakers that afternoon, from my count about two-thirds were white women and the other third a mix of white males and women of colour. For me, this lack of consideration for intersectionality underlines the expectation that women like me are expected to beg to be included, instead of being invited.
While more women are achieving positions of power, the voices of white, privileged women who are now being welcomed to the table do not speak for me. Their understanding of the world and the barriers that exist in it are very different from mine. I make an effort every day to recognize the ways that I am privileged. Most of the time, I don’t have to dedicate a lot of time and energy to making sure my basic needs are taken care of. I have a roof over my head at night, food to eat, and job security. I have mental health resources when I need them, access to healthcare, and people who support and care for me. With the privilege I have, I try to make space for those who don’t have a forum to express themselves, amplify the voices of others who are marginalized, and bring perspectives to the table that are otherwise not represented. As a feminist and as a compassionate human being, I feel like that is my responsibility.
To my friends, acquaintances, and anyone reading this:
- Are you are a Nellie McClung-type feminist or a present day, intersectional-type feminist?
- Do you acknowledge not only the gender parity in the room but also the whiteness – and do you work to change it?
- Do you listen to voices that are different from your own lived experience and use your power and influence to include them?
The next International Women’s Day is 12 months away. In that time, I hope we are challenging ourselves to think and work differently for women’s rights. I also hope that I see more diversity around the table whenever there is a discussion about leadership, social justice, or inclusion – issues that impact all women.
Right now, the colonizers – male and female – need to exercise their power and shift this conversation, giving the rest of us a chance to pull up a chair.