Tag Archives: politics! I dunno

Why Feminism Is Still Important (or, why I hate the word “equalist”)

1 Nov

Last night I was flipping through Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips (which, by the way, is probably her best book of short stories). In the middle of Uncles, I came across a brief exchange between two characters, one of whom is trying to convince the other to write a guest piece on feminism for his newspaper:

“This would be a different angle.” There was a pause; she imagined him polishing his glasses. “It would be – now that the women’s movement has accomplished its goals, isn’t it time to talk about men, and the ways they’ve been hurt by it?”

“Percy,” she said carefully, “where do you get the idea that the women’s movement has accomplished its goals?”

I feel like this is a conversation that I’ve been having for most of my adult life. For someone who came of age in the 90s and early 2000s, it can be hard to explain to other people why feminism is still necessary. Many of our bigger, more obvious goals – voting rights for women, the ability to own land, equal education for girls, and more control over our own reproductive systems – have, in the western world, largely been achieved. The landscape of third-wave feminism, which began in the early 90s and continues today, is often confusing and tricky to navigate. Some third-wavers question whether “feminism”, a term that might be limiting and can seem as if it’s promoting oppressive gender roles, should even be used. On top of that, it often feels like the current incarnation of the feminist movement has devolved into petty bickering about whether or not mothers should stay at home, or how a “real” woman is supposed to give birth.

So why even call yourself a feminist anymore?

I know a lot of women – smart, strong, progressive women, women that previously self-identified as feminists – who no longer use that label. People want to distance themselves from the negative connotations that surround the term “feminism”, or else they don’t want to seem as if they’re only interested in women’s rights. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that they’d prefer to be called a “humanist” instead; in fact, this past weekend, a good friend said wistfully to me, “I wish society was at a place where I could call myself an equalist instead of a feminist, but I guess we’re not there yet, huh?”

On the surface, these arguments seem to make sense. I mean, you catch more flies with honey, etc. If using different terminology means that more people are willing to work towards equality, then that must be a good thing, right? I mean, let’s be honest – the term feminist conjures up images of angry women burning their bras, or intimidating women stomping around in army boots telling men what’s what. Feminism is often equated with hating men, or with the idea that women are the superiorsex. In contemporary mythology, stereotypical feminists only make up for their lack of a sense of humour with their surfeit of untamed body hair.

Here’s the thing, though: calling yourself an “equalist” slides you right back into all those traditional gender roles that society wants you to be in. Being an “equalist” ensures that you won’t intimidate anybody, that people won’t see you as someone who goes against the grain. It turns you into a smiling, apologetic woman who says things like, “but I just want everyone to have equality – men and women.” It makes you totally non-offensive, and as such, takes away a lot of your power. Women who describe themselves as equalists strike me as people who are afraid of conflict and who, above all, want to be liked; men who call themselves that strike me as people who want to deny all the challenges that women still face.

When we talk about equality, in a lot of cases men are already hold the standard that women are trying to achieve. It was only last year that women working for Canada Post won the right to equal pay – and this, by the way, stemmed from a case that was filed in 1983. The New York Times recently reported that a a heavy and persistent bias against women still exists in the scientific community; most troublingly, this bias is upheld and perpetuated by just as many women as men, which goes to show you how deeply misogyny is ingrained in our culture. Women still have to be afraid when walking alone at night; hell, we have to be afraid when out at a bar with a friend, or out on a date, or in almost any situation when we encounter a man alone. We live in a culture where women have to fear for our safety in ways that I don’t think men will ever understand.

And, of course, our reproductive rights are always, always in jeopardy.

All of that is only the stuff that’s happening here at home – what about the challenges facing women in other parts of the world? Countries where women have to fight for the right to drive, or work outside the home, or walk around in public with their hair uncovered? Countries where terrorist organizations shoot little girls in the head just because they want to go to school? There are places where just being a woman is treated as if it’s a crime.

This isn’t to say that there are no issues facing men – to the contrary, gender stereotyping certainly affects men as well as women. But when we start talking about equality for men, it often comes to dominate the conversation, derailing any attempts to discuss the ongoing inequalities faced by women. We need our own space to talk about what’s happening to women today; we need our own conversation about issues that are unique to us. We need feminism.

Look, I’ll be honest: I wish we lived in a world where just talking about concepts like equality meant promoting the rights of women everywhere. I wish that we didn’t have to use labels like feminist or pro-choice; I wish that we could just trust people to be sensible human beings and look out for each other. We don’t live in that world, though. Not even close. In spite of the progress we’ve seen over the last few generations, the feminist movement still has a long way to go before it achieves its goals.

Maybe someday we will live in a world where half the world’s the population doesn’t have to suffer simply because they’re women – I mean, I guess anything’s possible, right? That’s what we’re fighting for, right? Until that time, though, I plan on being an intimidating, humourless (though admittedly body-hair-free) feminist.

The Racist Roots of the Pro-Life Movement

2 Oct

Most people probably think of abortion as being a fairly modern convenience, and imagine that the pro-life movement has probably been around for quite some time. For one thing, people who are pro-life often cloak their message in the Biblical idea of thou shalt not kill, and, you know, the Bible has been around for like forever. With that in mind, it would totally make sense for anti-abortion sentiment to have been rampant and widespread for the last couple of hundred or even thousand years.

Except that it hasn’t been.

The roots of the modern pro-life movement can actually be found in late 19th century America. Laws criminalizing abortion in the United States didn’t begin appearing until the 1820s, and even then they were still fairly rare. In the 1860s (so, during and after the civil war), these laws became more common, and by 1900 abortion was illegal in every state.

Before that, abortion was totally legal up until the “quickening”, i.e. when the mother first feels the fetus move. This was partially because at the time, there was no definite way of knowing that a woman was pregnant until she felt fetal movement; of course there were other signs, such as lack of menstruation or things like morning sickness or breast tenderness, but any of those could be symptoms of conditions other than pregnancy. Because of that, the moment when a woman felt her baby “quicken” (which typically happens in the 4th, 5th or even 6th month pregnancy) was really the moment when society considered her to be pregnant. Before that, she was just a woman with an irregular or disrupted menstrual cycle.

Which is why most advertisements for 19th century abortifacients looked like this:

Most patent medicines promised to do things like “correct irregularities”, or, even more abstractly, offering “relief for ladies”.

Abortion was actually one of the most common forms of birth control in 19th century America. Doctors estimated that there was one abortion for every five or six live births. In fact, the 1867 Richmond Medical Journal reported that,

“Among married persons so extensive has this practice become that people of high repute not only commit this crime, but do not even shun to speak boastingly among their intimates of the deed and the means of accomplishing it.” 

Abortion was so common that classy ladies were chatting up their friends about the best ways to do it.

Probably not what you would expect to hear at a Victorian tea party, right? Kind of amazing to picture, though:

Won’t you please pass the cucumber sandwiches, Priscilla? Oh and did I tell you about this absolutely smashing new way I’ve discovered of aborting unwanted fetuses?

Someone please invite me to that tea party.

So what the hell happened?

Well, people started worrying that if women were allowed to control their own fertility, bad things might happen. Like the end of society as we know it!

Let’s take a look at the historical context: the 1860s were obviously a very turbulent time, especially with regards to racial issues. The fact that there was such an increase in abortion legislation during and immediately after the civil war is quite telling. The aftermath of the war inspired a growing panic among white people that people of colour, who they were sadly no longer able to enslave, might try to take over “their” country. Maybe as payback for all those years of slavery? This panic paved the way for the idea of “race suicide”.

What, exactly, is race suicide, you might ask? I’ll just let my old friend Teddy Roosevelt explain it to you:

” …if the average family in which there are children contained but two children the nation as a whole would decrease in population so rapidly that in two or three generations it would very deservedly be on the point of extinction, so that the people who had acted on this base and selfish doctrine would be giving place to others with braver and more robust ideals. Nor would such a result be in any way regrettable; for a race that practised such doctrine–that is, a race that practised race suicide–would thereby conclusively show that it was unfit to exist, and that it had better give place to people who had not forgotten the primary laws of their being.”

(On American Motherhood, by Theodore Roosevelt, 1905)

That’s right – race suicide is the idea that white people will become “extinct” if they don’t have enough babies.

This fear, that people of colour would out-baby us, is where we find the actual origins of the pro-life movement. It didn’t come out of the idea that abortion was a sin, or the dogma of be fruitful and multiply, but rather the panicked notion that white people might not run the world anymore.

This racism still exists in the pro-life movement, although usually in more subtle ways. I’ve heard of white women requesting abortions and being asked, pleadingly, by medical professionals, if they know how wanted white babies are. And, of course, the pro-life movement is stunningly racist in other ways, for example when they posted this what-is-this-I-can’t-even billboard:

Look, I’m not saying that if you’re pro-life, you must be racist, or that everyone who hates abortion also hates people of colour. But what I am asking you to do is take a look at the history of the movement, educate yourself, and re-examine why you hold the beliefs you do.

I’m also asking you to admit that when it comes to anti-abortion sentiment, it’s not always about God or saving babies or whatever; it’s also about white people, and our xenophobia, and our desire to maintain our death grip on a society that we perceive as being only for us.

ETA: Sadly, the pro-choice movement has a pretty racist history as well. Stay tuned for the next in this series, The Racist History of the Pro-Choice Movement. Racism. It is why we can’t have nice things.

The Myth of the 39th Week Abortion

29 Sep

If you are a Canadian living in Canada (or even a Canadian living abroad, or maybe even a non-Canadian), you’ve probably been hearing a lot about Motion 312. I know I have!

In case you’ve been living under a rock and/or you’re not up on Canadian politics, here’s a section of the motion that should give you a good idea of what it’s about:

That a special committee of the House be appointed and directed to review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth and to answer the questions hereinafter set forth;

 (i)            what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth?,
 
   (ii)            is the preponderance of medical evidence consistent with the declaration in Subsection 223(1) that a child is only a human being at the moment of complete birth?,
 
 (iii)            what are the legal impact and consequences of Subsection 223(1) on the fundamental human rights of a child before the moment of complete birth?,
 
 (iv)            what are the options available to Parliament in the exercise of its legislative authority in accordance with the Constitution and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada to affirm, amend, or replace Subsection 223(1)?

You can read the full text of the motion here, on Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth’s website.

The Conservative government has been quick to point out that this is not a motion put forth to criminalize abortion, or even reopen the abortion debate. They want you to believe that they simply want to update the 400 year old definition of what a human being is.

The issue is that this motion could pave the way to giving personhood to fetuses, which would certainly cause legislation to be passed on when and how abortions can be performed.

Currently, abortion is not limited by law in Canada. This means that you can have an abortion at any point in your pregnancy, right up to the moment when you give birth. By ascribing personhood to a fetus, the Canadian government would begin moving towards criminalizing abortion. Because, of course, having status as a “person” would mean that the fetus would be protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And on the surface, that seems pretty reasonable. I mean, a typical pregnancy can go to 40+ weeks, but we all know that a baby born earlier can often survive with little or no medical intervention. My son was born at 36 weeks and, other than a little time on the C-PAP machine (which was more likely needed because of my c-section than because of his premature birth), he was totally fine. I even have a friend whose daughter was born at 25 weeks gestation and, while she obviously needed a lot of medical aid in the beginning, she is now two years old and thriving.

So how, in good conscience, could we allow women the legal right to abort a fetus that could survive outside of the womb?

I’m here to tell you that we can, and we should.

When I was pregnant with Theo, I had my first ultrasound at 11 weeks gestation. I’d had some bleeding early on in my pregnancy, and, going into the ultrasound, I was terrified that they would find something wrong with him.

The minute the probe hit my belly, though, itty bitty Theo appeared on the screen. He was perfect; all blobby torso-head and stubby little limbs. When I saw him, I laughed with relief, and when I laughed, he jumped, waving his arms and legs in protest. We watched, mesmerized, as he wriggled around, his heart a flickering beat in the middle of his chest.

To me, in that moment, he went from being two-lines-on-a-pregnancy-test-morning-sickness-and-achy-breasts to being an actual little person. Seeing him on the screen made me fall in love with him.

And this is the problem: if my feelings could make me believe that a baby the size of a fig is a person, then someone can likely argue that any fetus, at any gestational age, is a person. If I, a staunchly pro-choice feminist can, under the right circumstances, believe that a fetus of 11 weeks gestation is a person, then it’s not impossible for our government to come to the same conclusion.

Yes, I understand that in M-312 they promise to examine “medical evidence” in order to decide whether or not a fetus is a “person” before birth, but really, you could find “medical evidence” to back up just about any claim.

Would they say that a fetus is a person once it can survive on its own, outside of the womb, without any medical aid? Because there is honestly no foolproof way to test this.

Would they say that a fetus is a person once it reaches viability  at 24 weeks? Because the truth is that only 50% of babies born at 24 weeks gestation will survive, and those that do live are likely to have a lifetime’s worth of medical complications. As well, dating ultrasounds are not very accurate, especially once a woman enters her second trimester. Without knowing the exact date of conception, no ultrasound tech could say for certain whether a fetus is 23 weeks or 24 weeks.

Would a fetus become a person at 20 weeks, the age at which some studies have said that they can feel pain?

Would a fetus be declared to be a person at 19 weeks, which is the gestational age at which, if a Canadian woman miscarries, she becomes eligible for maternity leave?

Would a fetus become a person when their heart starts to beat, when they start to grow limbs, or even from the very moment of conception?

You could find medical evidence for all of these claims, but there’s no way of empirically proving when a fetus turns into child, except for the moment of birth, when they begin to live independently of their mother’s body. So, ultimately, the decision would, at least in part, have to be based on the emotions of the committee appointed to decide when personhood begins.

Pro-life advocates would like you to believe that abortion is too common in this country, that people use abortion as a form of birth control, or that it’s wrong to abort a fetus because it could grow up to be the person who cures cancer. Most of all, they want you to believe that women in Canada are actually aborting fetuses at 39 weeks gestation via intact dilation and extraction (more often, and incorrectly, called partial birth abortion).

First of all, let’s look at the prevalence. In 2005, the last year for which this data is available, the abortion rate was 14.1 abortions for every 1,000 women – so, 1.41% of Canadian women had an abortion that year. You guys, that is not a very big number.

Of that number, only a tiny percentage – in 2010, it was something like 0.2 percent of the TOTAL NUMBER OF ABORTIONS – were performed after 21 weeks gestation. I am having a hard time finding actual government statistics for this, but I got that number from a pro-life site, so I doubt that they are underreporting.

Regarding the use of abortion as the only form of birth control – I have honestly never known anyone who has done this. Abortion is still a painful medical procedure, and it’s not something anyone wants to go through. My other issue with this line of thinking is that it’s a way of saying that some abortions are okay, but some are wrong. Like, if it’s your first abortion and it’s because the condom broke and you took the morning after pill and for some reason that didn’t work, then it’s fine to have an abortion. But if you’re not careful with your birth control and you’ve have multiple pregnancies terminated, then it’s wrong to abort. As this brilliant article says, there should be no hierarchy of abortions. On demand, without apology.

The any-fetus-could-grow-up-to-cure-cancer argument is one of my favourites, only because it totally ignores the fact that, if the woman does terminate her pregnancy, maybe she will be the one to go on to cure cancer. Maybe the financial burdens of having a child would have made university impossible for her, or maybe the mental distress of carrying an unwanted pregnancy would have meant that she wasn’t up to the task of higher education. Maybe raising a kid would mean that she couldn’t spend hours and hours in a lab looking at test tubes or whatever the fuck it is researchers do. We so often hear about the fetus could-have-beens, but no one ever talks about what greatness the mother could have gone on to achieve.

And, finally, the 39th week abortion. The great myth of the 39th week abortion. This myth exists because technically, legally even, it could happen. Yes, it could happen – but it doesn’t.

I challenge you to find me an incidence of a healthcare professional who provided an abortion at 30+ weeks, because I doubt you can. Even second trimester abortions are hard to obtain in Canada, and women often end up being sent to clinics in the States if they are over 20 weeks gestation. The vast majority of these women are choosing to terminate that late in their pregnancy because they’ve only just learned that the fetus is severely or fatally impaired, or that there’s a significant health risk to the mother, or both.

I promise you that no one gets to 39 weeks of pregnancy and is suddenly like, gee, I’ve been meaning to get this thing aborted, I guess I should stop putting it off!

Finally, criminalizing abortion won’t stop it from happening; history has proved this time and time again. What it will mean is that women will be forced to seek out unsafe abortions with possibly life-threatening consequences. Sadly, this is an indisputable fact.

I’ve never had an abortion, and I hope I never will. I would frankly be beyond horrified if a woman terminated her pregnancy at 39 weeks. I’m still glad, though, that it’s possible from a legal standpoint. I’m glad that there are no laws that say what a woman can or can’t do to her pregnant body, which, by the way, is still her body. Because once you start creating that legislation, no matter how well-meaning it is, it’s a slippery fucking slope. A slope that ends in the Handmaid’s Tale. Kidding. Well, mostly kidding.

Vive Le Quebec Libre! (or, Anglo Privilege)

7 Sep

Yesterday morning, I woke up to find several posts on my Facebook feed about the recent provincial election in Quebec. Almost every post was disappointed and scolding in tone, admonishing La Belle Province as if they were a wayward child. Oh Quebec, the subtext seemed to say, why can’t you stop talking about separating and start behaving like a normal province? Why can’t you just be happy with everything we’ve already given you?

Full disclosure: I was born in Quebec and lived there for the first few years of my life. My parents were both born in Quebec. My mother’s (anglophone) family has lived there for several generations. My father’s family (who are anglophone, but come from a francophone background) moved there from the Maritimes in the mid-50s.

Fuller disclosure: I love Quebec, especially Montreal. I love the little frivolous things, like the buildings with outdoor wrought-iron staircases leading to second and third story apartments, and the giant Farine Five Roses sign that greets you as you pull into the train station. I love the people, and their laid-back attitude. I love how much they appreciate art and culture. I love the food.

I love the bigger things, too. In fact what I love most about Quebec are its socialist ideals and the fact that its people are willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in.

I would say that Quebec is easily the most-hated province, with Ontario coming in a close second. When I talk to people about Quebec, I often get negative reactions. The complaint that I hear most often is that the Quebecois are rude and want to make anglophones feel bad by refusing to speak English to them.

I hear this story a lot, actually. Usually, it’s an anglophone from a province other than Quebec traveling through there for whatever reason. They’re upset because they’re certain that every Quebecois is perfectly proficient in English but simply chooses not to speak it just to prove some kind of political point.

The funny thing is, while working in retail, I’ve heard these exact same people complain about francophone Quebecois visiting Ontario and refusing to speak English when shopping in their store. When I’ve suggested that these people greet the francophones in French, I receive blank stares. But I don’t speak French, they tell me.

So let’s break this down: it’s fine for you to go to another province and refuse to speak their language, and you expect to get service in your own mother tongue. However, when the Quebecois come to your province, they have to speak English, and they should expect to receive service only in English. It’s fine for you to speak zero French, but the Quebecois need to suck it up and speak English, right?

Here’s the thing: most francophes feel just as shy about their English as you do about your French. Here’s the other thing: I am calling total bullshit on your story. Whenever I go to Quebec, I speak French, in which I am fairly fluent. A good chunk of the time the person I am talking to will hear my accent and switch to English, either because they want to make me feel more comfortable or because they want the chance to practice their English.

If someone in Quebec is not speaking English to you, chances are that they just flat-out do not speak English.

The second complaint that I most often hear is that Quebec just wants more and more from the federal government and is never satisfied. I’ve heard people say that now that Quebec has French as its only official language and their culture is protected, why don’t they just stop? I mean, their rights are protected now, yes? This is like saying that women are totally equal to men and so feminism can end now, which is to say: totally untrue.

Francophones in Quebec had a pretty shitty deal up until the Quiet Revolution. They were kept oppressed by various premiers (but especially Duplessis) and (unsurprisingly) the Catholic church. English was (and, really, still is) the de-facto language of the federal government, and the majority of the ruling class in Quebec were anglophones. In order to get a good job in Quebec, it helped greatly to be perfectly fluent in English. It helped even more to have an anglophone surname.

Before the Quiet Revolution, unemployment for able-bodied francophone men was high, reaching 50% in some areas, but for the anglos it remained low. Although 80 percent of the Quebecois were francophone, they owned only 28.3% of the businesses in the province. The majority of those businesses were involved in manufacturing, but they accounted for only 15.4% of Quebec’s production. The anglos controlled everything else.

And then there was the threat against the francophone language and culture. Seems ridiculous, right? Except that it’s not. Let’s look at another francophone culture in Canada: the Acadians (i.e. my people!).

The vast majority of people with Acadian surnames are anglophones (myself included). Up until recently, it was often economically and culturally advantageous for the Acadians to assimilate, and many of them did. When my great-grandmother moved from rural Cape Breton to Halifax, she stopped speaking French altogether, even though it was her mother tongue. She didn’t teach her children to speak French, and would flat-out refuse to speak to her brothers and sisters in any language except English. For her, there seemed to be little advantage in passing her culture along to her children, and every advantage in having them grow up speaking only English. Towards the end of her life she began to regret her decision, but by then, of course, it was too late.

Unfortunately, this is a very common story.

So it’s not a totally unfounded fear that the Quebec language and culture could slowly and methodically be eroded by the anglophone majority in Canada. And it’s not like we have a federal government that is super supportive of them; it often seems like the Harper administration does its best to thwart Quebec at every turn.

And then there’s separatism. That’s the biggest one that people freak out over. I feel like a lot of this (not ALL of it, but a lot) stems from this idea that, hey, we’re Canada. We’re super nice. Why won’t Quebec love us even though we’re clearly the nicest nation on earth? If Quebec doesn’t recognize how awesome we are, then it must be because there’s something wrong with Quebec, right?

Canada, I’ve got two things to say to you:

1) As my mother would say, not everyone is going to like you and you just need to deal with it.

2) Maybe you aren’t as awesome as you think you are.

My mother (who was, don’t forget, an anglophone who grew up in pre and post Quiet Revolution Quebec) has always said that it’s easier to be an anglophone in Quebec than a francophone anywhere in the rest of Canada. You are far, far more likely to be able to find English services in Quebec than French services anywhere else. But you probably don’t see it that way because you have what I’ve decided to call Anglo Privilege.

Anglo Privilege may lead you to say any or all of the following:

“We won at the Plains of Abraham! Quebec needs to accept that!”

“They’re ruining their children’s lives by having them grow up speaking French – English is the leading business language of the REST of the WORLD.”

“Imagine how upset people would be if we had ENGLISH language laws in the rest of Canada!”

“They’re just threatening to separate because they want MORE from us!”

Buddy, I got news for you: they’re threatening to separate because they’re unhappy. The Parti Québécois keeps getting elected because the francophones in Quebec are concerned that the federal government and the rest of Canada do not have the best interests of their province and its people at heart. And every time you bitch about Quebec and how high maintenance they are and how they should just get over it already, you are reinforcing that view.

You guys, Quebec is awesome. They have socialized daycare, free post-secondary education (CEGEP), and, in addition to a one-year parental leave, they offer five weeks of leave to the partner of the person taking the parental leave. Plus they like to have demonstrations and riots! So many riots. All kidding aside, if it were possible for our family, I would move there in a heartbeat.

And so I say, Vive Le Québec Libre! And if you’re afraid of the possibility of Québec separating, then I would urge you to help build a Canada that contains a Québec Libre, whatever that term means to the people of Quebec. Surely this is something we can figure out if we work on it together? You know, like an actual, unified country would?

Okay, but really, shouldn’t it be Farine Cinq Roses? Where are the language police when you need them…