In a Toronto Star column this week, Heather Mallick wrote about British feminist and “comic genius” Caitlin Moran doling out jokes like “pieces of candy” to a Toronto crowd, and wonders aloud why Canadians can’t “build a famous feminist” just like Moran. “Building” is an odd word in this context, eh? Lo and behold! A Stepford feminist! She slices, she dices and, above all, she entertains!
Let’s assume Mallick’s question, “Where are Canada’s prominent young feminists, if it has any active, prominent feminists at all?” isn’t rhetorical. I’ll hazard a response: Heather, we’re everywhere. Feminists might not be jutting out of the national landscape like those gloriously phallic Lawren Harris icebergs. We’re more like stars in the northern skies: if you don’t see us, you might not be looking long or hard enough, or maybe there’s something else getting in the way.
Being a feminist in Canada, where a prevailing (and questionable) myth of national identity is that we are nice, shy, polite folks, has never really been about being “prominent” anyway. Note that our celebrities usually head south if they want to be Big Celebrities and we are often secretly relieved to see them go. We are not wholly yet a nation of screechy celebrity worshippers (thank goodness). Look at our “Famous Five” – the women who fought and won the Person’s Case in 1929. They are statues tucked away discreetly on the side of Parliament Hill.
Not you. You should come back. Now.
There are real risks to making feminists celebrities (as opposed to celebrating feminists). Look what happened to prominent feminist Gloria Steinem during and after the Second Wave. Larry Flynt used to cut out her face and slap it on naked bodies in his porno rag Hustler (Emma Watson, you are not alone). The media’s anointing of a photogenic blonde as “the face of the movement” contributed to the lingering misperception that 70s feminism was only ever about white, middle-class women. Perhaps that is why Steinem recently rejected the label of leader on The View: “I think a democratic movement teaches us that we can all be our own leaders, and that’s what the movement is trying to do.”
Canadian feminists are far from glamorous but, to paraphrase Nellie McClung, they get the job done and let their opponents howl. In the tradition of the Famous Five, they have challenged unjust laws (think Viola Desmond or Sharon MacIvor or Henry Morgentaler). Politicians like Florence Bird and Libby Davies have pushed the status quo and sat lonely for years in the House of Commons. Feminists have lobbied, rallied, formed coalitions and groups, set up shelters and clinics, argued and advocated, doing tedious, thankless and chronically underfunded work for many years in order to achieve and safeguard the rights that Canadian women enjoy today. Feminists are still doing that, day in, day out. Yes, young women too.
So we may not be doing a lot of stand-up comedy. We don’t draw eyes on our bras and squish our belly fat into funny faces, as Moran apparently did. That sounds like a lot of fun, mind you, and I plan to try it at home for an audience of two small children who, I am sure, will immensely appreciate it. BUT is that really how we’re supposed to get Canadians to champion a national childcare program in spite of a majority Conservative government in power that is resolutely opposed? Treat Canadians like children and act like we’re there to amuse them?
If only it were that easy, I would be falling in line with the Belly Fat Brigade. But being a feminist clown, even one as fun as Marg Delahunty Warrior Princess, can only accomplish so much. The tedious job of social change, the “shitwork” as those much-maligned 70s feminists called it, still needs to be picked up by women and men who retain enough grace, style, wisdom and humour to get the job done and not completely burn out in the process. Maybe if we weren’t so obsessed with celebrities and “prominent” people, we would notice the fine work these folks do.
I guess the women of international movements like SlutWalk, which started in Toronto, aren’t “brave” enough for Heather Mallick.
In fact, what really burns my bra – if you’ll pardon the metaphor – about your column, Heather, is that there are an awful lot of amazing young feminists in this country who really deserve to be more prominent, not in the celebrity sense, but in the sense that they should be talked about by journalists like you in the pages of the Toronto Star and elsewhere. Did you miss the Miss G. Project for Equity in Education that campaigned successfully for 8 years to get gender studies into the Ontario curriculum? Did the fact that the Idle No More movement was founded by four young women – Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon – completely escape you? What about the Radical Handmaids, including Julie Lalonde, who last year won a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Person’s Case as a youth recipient?
These are just the young women who immediately come to mind and I know there are many more. We tend to work in groups rather than promoting ourselves as individuals. We might not be celebrities but we’ve got our sisters’ backs. We might not be prominent enough to hang an identity, a label, a movement on, but we are everywhere. And that is probably our greatest strength.
Acknowledgements and thanks are due to Aalya’s awesome First year Seminar
Women’s and Gender Studies class (FYSM 1402) at Carleton University,
who contributed their ideas and suggestions to the formulation of this
Let us know your own thoughts in the comments – we’d love to be introduced to even more incredible, young, Canadian feminists!
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