18.3.12

False Feminists in Politics

I still remember when Kim Campbell became the first female Prime Minister of Canada. As a young teenager looking for female role models and tiring of Thatcher and Mother Theresa as my sole sources (okay, perhaps I exaggerate), I was excited to see a feminist representative leading our country. Sure she got the job by default, but hey, we'll take it however we can get it. It was easy to get swept up in the fanfare of her victory.

Yet, despite Campbell's assertions otherwise, she was not really a feminist. Sure, she said she was, claimed she was raised to be one. However she made the distinction that "all feminists do not necessarily walk in ideological lockstep." (The Politics of Kim Campbell).

Really? Because feminism is a concept, an ideal, a philosophy and a way of life. Merely believing that women should have equal opportunity or equal rights does not make you a feminist. I know it's confusing because every woman out there who has a bit of brain in her will declare herself a feminist and put her own spin on it, but feminism is not about individual freedoms, nor is it about equality - not solely. How can it be? All people are not equal, so creating equality for women, well what does that look like? Will we be equal to the white, upper class, post-doc educated men? Or to the black, immigrant, non-English speaking men?

So what is feminism, you might ask? It's too complicated to explain, right? Not really. Feminism is the fight to end sexist oppression. As a fight, it involves action. It's not something you can give mouth space to only. And in ending sexist oppression, it seeks to end ALL sexist oppression. Not just one or two areas that are easy to deal with - like rape laws - as Campbell did.

If we look at feminism according to bell hooks' definition and understand the true interconnectedness of feminism with all struggles  against supremacist capitalism than it's damn near impossible for someone such as Campbell to be a feminist. Campbell would argue that one can be a feminist without being left-leaning. But I'm not sure it's even possible to be a politician and a feminist, by rights. And it is certainly impossible to be a Conservative politician, engaged in creating wealth gaps and slashing social programming and still consider oneself a feminist.

And yet, in general, we swallow it hook, line and sinker when a woman rises to a position of power and declares herself a feminist. It's taken as both proof of the validity of the feminist promise and a victory of sorts when they do. But herein lies one of the largest dangers of false feminism, especially with regards to politics. For if some white, upper middle class women make their way into politics, or the heads of boardrooms, or CEOs of major companies, than we find ourselves facing the argument that the fight for equality is over. Wente is one of the white, upper-middle class elites who would have us believe this. I responded to her arguments before.

Not only does this false promise lead to backlash against feminists for promoting a "movement" that is no longer necessary, but often those women in the positions of power simultaneously undermine feminist principles by declaring their more left-leaning female colleagues "radical" or "liberal" feminists. I don't believe there's such a thing as a conservative feminist, but that's an argument for another day. They also tend to misrepresent feminism in order to further their own political goals.

Campbell was the first female Prime Minister of Canada, just as Kathy Dunderdale is the first female Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Their rise to the penultimate position was similar - a sort of default. Dunderdale was given the nod by outgoing premier Danny Williams. There was no chance the PC party would lose the following election, so she was pretty much guaranteed her spot. Not that I don't believe Campbell nor Dunderdale put in the work to get their positions - but it's unfortunate that it came about the way it did, because it does allow the patriarchy to question the validity of their advancement, thus questioning the validity of any woman's advancement. By painting themselves as feminists and claiming their victory as a female victory, they paint us all like them.

There's risk in that. For individual achievements are not truly achievements for your gender. Feminism is not about an Oprah Winfrey style life. It's about making life better for all - even your political opponent, believe it or not. And this is where Dunderdale, in particular, completely fails. She started out claiming that she was bring a different perspective to politics, as a woman. Well, others have shown how false a concept that is. Merely being a woman doesn't make her approach any different than those of the men in her party. If she truly were a feminist, yes, there would be a difference.

Under Dunderdale's leadership, we saw the promise of a huge investment in childcare. And yet, what did it amount to? Pouring more money into a system that has been acknowledged worldwide not to work. Meanwhile, one of her cabinet members made it clear that parents using childcare outside the province's licensing were responsible for any abuses in care. Two women, leading our province, who would rather protect their party's status quo than protect women and children. Does that sound like any kind of feminism to you?

She promised action on employment insurance for women and parents, but she hasn't done a thing about it since.

She threw her support behind a Prime Minister who is perhaps the very antithesis of feminist principles.


But most the most disgusting, the most revolting undermining of feminist power and principle that she has engaged in happened just recently, during the House, when the topic of a "threatening" phonecall to one of her cabinet members came up. Kathy Dunderdale, former social worker and self-declared feminist, sat by while members of her party used International Women's Day and the very real issue of gendered violence to attack an opposing member.

I've read the Hansard transcripts of that day, but the whole event is best summarised in Geoff Meeker's blog. Jerome Kennedy, Minister of Natural Resources, rose to "defend" Joan Burke, Minister of Advanced Education and skills, from a phonecall, that was indeed harsh and perhaps even threatening, though I doubt it was truly intimidating, that came from Jim Bennett, Member for St. Barbe (and a Liberal).

As if it weren't bad enough that Kennedy painted himself as a defender of poor, weak, female Burke, he then goes on to compare the phonecall Burke received to sexual and spousal abuse. He completely degrades real victims of gendered violence by using the social construct of it to defend his own actions in delaying the report of this phonecall. According to Kennedy,
One of the myths that were debunked many years ago, Mr. Speaker, in terms of violence against women and reporting of everything from sexual abuse to spousal abuse was that people act immediately. There are situations, Mr. Speaker, in which people do not know what to do.
Yeah, you read that right. Not only does he minimise the true extent of such violence by using it in comparison to a single, slightly threatening phonecall, he also shows an utter lack of awareness behind the real reasons for delayed reporting or not reporting sexual and domestic violence. Perhaps someone ought to direct Kennedy to the #ididnotreport hashtag on Twitter. Fear, shame, accommodation, these are some real reasons for not reporting violence. It not being a convenient time to upset the opposing party's plans for debate is, unremarkably, not.

I can't believe that Dunderdale, who has been a member of women's status groups and worked as a social worker, would've not seen the significance of Kennedy's statements. The moment I read the transcript it was like a punch in the gut. But Dunderdale, leader of the party, Premier of the province, and supposed women's rights supporter, did nothing to halt Kennedy's ongoing attack against victims of violence.

He raises the comparison again, later in the transcripts. And again, nothing is said nor done, except by opposing members.

I'm not naive enough to think that Dunderdale would've stood up in the house and told Kennedy to shut his big gob. But I do know that she could've stopped him, at the very least stopped the comparisons he was trying to draw, quietly. And I suspect she knew exactly what he was going to say before the House opened that day.

False feminism is one thing; declaring your personal victories as feminist victories is one thing; but exploiting the real suffering of women in order to draw false conclusions for political gain? That's sexist oppression. The very thing feminism stands against.

16 comments:

  1. I think the real tragedy is that while people - men and women - continue to misinterpret what feminism is about the prospect of achieving an end to sexist oppression gets further and further away. People using it to score political points just undermines the whole thing for everybody.

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  2. Brilliant article Dara, and absolutely spot on.

    LCM x

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  3. Now that was one wicked blog you wrote there...loved it.

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  4. You said:
    "And it is certainly impossible to be a Conservative politician, engaged in creating wealth gaps and slashing social programming and still consider oneself a feminist."

    Reading the blurb you cite, I have to ask a couple of things. 1) Why is increased social spending by the government a good thing, and thus slashed social spending a bad thing? and 2) What's wrong with a wealth gap (given, as you point out, that all people are not equal, why should income be equal)?

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  5. Anonymous,
    First off, let me say that I am an adult, as I assume are you, and there's no need to post anonymously. I can engage in discussion, even politically divided discussion, without taking it personally.
    But if that's what you're comfortable with, then fine.
    As for your first question, I stated that slashing social spending was a bad thing - it does not neccessarily hold true that increasing it is always a good thing. However, the drastic cuts and slashes to social spending that we typically see with Conservative governments has a large and mostly negative effect on those who depend on that funding. Generally, these are women and children. Can we still be fiscally conservative but promote the care of women and children, especially those at the lowest strata of society. Yes, I think it's possible. But we are far, far away from it. Rather than slashing spending or spending more, we need to re-evaluate how we spend. We need a bigger investment of resources - other than money - in the grassroots and non-profit sectors. Gov't could lead in this.
    As for your second question - equality is not solely about wealth, it's about the social constructs around identity. There will always be people with more money and people with less. I acknowledge that. However, when we promote the growth of wealth in one subset of society while simultaneously limiting opportunity for another subset, we are throwing our money and support behind an inherently capitalist system which suppresses and oppresses the lower socioeconomic tiers. Equality is not always possible, however equal opportunity and access to resources is what we should aim for.

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  6. I resent the implication that every single decision and action I take has to be, in some way coloured by the fact that I am a woman. I am many things and a woman is just one of them. I am a multidimensional being with a huge array of experiences and history that determines what I believe in and what is important to me.

    How would you like it if someone accused you of being a "false feminist" because you are a stay /work at home mother? In doing that, you've set "the cause" back 30 years! Would that be fair? Should I only vote for someone who is a woman because they are the only person who can possibly represent my beliefs? What about my son's beliefs? Or my husband's? They might be different than mine but are equally as important to me.

    I gave my son my last name instead of my husband's because it was important to me and my husband supported that. I am successful in my career and am presenting a positive image of women to my son - as is his father who comes home from a full day of work and does bathtime. Or who is perfectly happy to put on 3 or 4 loads of laundry at night when I've gone to bed early or am working late. That is what is important - not whether or not some random blogger can point her finger at me and say "well she's not a real feminist because....." And you know what, I'm pretty sure Kathy Dunderdale feels the same way I do.

    And I'm posting as Anon because that is the only option I have....

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  7. Criticism without Merit
    I must object to the author's suggestion regarding the Premier's commitment to addressing gender inequality in this Province. The record of Premier Dunderdale and her government in Newfoundland and Labrador on advancing the status of women and preventing violence against women and other vulnerable populations has been outstanding.
    Since 2003, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has made significant investments to advance women’s equality, which include:

    Annual support to each of the eight Women Center’s which is now at $120,000 each (up from $50,000);
    Funding for the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women;
    Annual support to the10 regional violence prevention coordinating committees;
    Inclusion of gender diversity requirements and plans in major projects. Most notably, Premier Dunderdale was the Minister of Natural Resources when the first ever Women's Employment and Diversity Plan was negotiated for the Hebron Project, the first of its kind for the offshore industry in the world;
    $2.1 million annual investment in violence prevention against women and other vulnerable populations up from $500,000;
    Introduction of a Respect Women, Outrage and Older persons social media campaigns;
    Launch of a Purple Ribbon Campaign, the first province in Canada to launch and endorse such a program;
    Establishment of an Aboriginal women’s program with $1.0 million in funding to prevent violence and operate programs;
    Annual operating funding to the Multi Cultural Women’s Organization; and
    Increased funding to the Transition House Association of NL and the NL Sexual Assault and Crisis Prevention Center, as well as funding for new shelters in Carbonear, Hopedale and Rigolet.

    In addition to the above noted investments, under Premier's Dunderdale's leadership, we now have a 10% participation of women in trades in this Province, up from 3%. Such achievements are critical in advancing women's economic and social equality. Likewise, since 2003 approximately 50 percent of all new recruits to the RNC are now women and more women are appointed to Provincial boards, agencies and commissions. Premier Dunderdale was also the first Premier to establish a Deputy Ministerial position for the Women's Policy Office. Perhaps most notably, the Premier has lead in the establishment of one of the best, if not the best violence prevention programs, Take Action Against Violence, in Canada. This anti-violence program recognizes 9 types of violence experienced by women, which include emotional, psychological, spiritual and cultural violence as well as verbal and financial abuse and neglect.

    As the Chair of the Coalition of Provincial and Territorial Advisory Councils, I hear from my counterparts across the country how unique this type of Government support for women truly is and I firmly believe it is critical in our fight for equality that we must always take the time to recognize our successes as they come.

    Linda Ross, President/CEO PACSW

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  8. (Criticism without Merit continued)

    As House Leader, Minister Kennedy addressed the issue of violence experienced by Minister Burke. Minister Kennedy's response indicates a true understanding of the nature, spectrum, incidence and severity of violence, experienced by women in Newfoundland and Labrador. His statements in the House of Assembly were not only in support of Minister Burke, but rather all women in the province for he truly exhibited an understanding and compassion for all women who have experienced violence, regardless of what type of violence or abuse they may have experienced. Minister Kennedy's statement acknowledges that women in Newfoundland and Labrador experience violence beyond the physical and sexual, which unfortunately is an understanding vacant of the author of this column.

    The author of this column refers to the emotional, psychological and verbal violence experienced by a female Cabinet member as “a single, slightly threatening phone call…” when in reality this event was indeed a very real act of gendered violence. Feminists acknowledge that all forms of violence and abuse against women are wrong. All acts of violence and abuse can be equally as damaging regardless of the type of violence and abuse and can have very serious long-term impacts on a woman’s life. Violence is violence, regardless of what form it takes. Minimizing a woman’s experience of violence because it does not fit into the old-school traditional definition of violence could, by many, be identified as a form of violence in and of itself. We as women and as feminists must never minimize or judge another woman’s lived reality.

    Violence and abuse are best understood as a pattern of behaviour intended to establish power and maintain control over colleagues, intimate partners, or groups. The roots of all forms of violence and abuse are founded in the many types of inequality which continue to exist and grow in our society.

    The Violence Prevention Initiative of this government supports and identifies nine types of violence and abuse, and Minister Kennedy’s response falls totally within the Provincial Policy on this matter.

    As President/CEO of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, I know first hand that one of our greatest challenges in advancing the status of women are the many myths and aversions surrounding “feminism.” We often hear from younger women who are afraid to identify as feminists for fear of also being categorized as “angry” or “man-hating”. Interestingly, these same women are often fully aware of systemic gender inequality and are committed to working to change that for all women in their communities. Still, other women don't identify as feminists, not because they don't believe in the existence of gender inequality or the need to change it, but because someone else told them their decisions, opinions or lifestyle is not “feminist.” Ironically, the judgment and exclusion of who is and who is not a worthy feminist only serves to divide us and take away from a powerful, joint effort to in fact improve the status of women.
    Linda Ross, President/CEO PACSW

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  9. Clearly the first item in the job description of Linda Ross, President/CEO PACSW, is to be the official apologist of government on women's issues. Funny, I thought the job was about being an advocate for change for women, not defending govt's gender status quo.

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  10. Linda Ross (in her comments above) has shown us exactly how far the PACSW has declined since the PCs have been in power. It used to be a strong ARMS LENGTH organization whose purpose was advocacy....it was NEVER a government mouthpiece! I for one can't give her opinion any weight, given that she so clearly speaks for the govt. that the author of this article is challenging.
    Sad indeed.

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  11. Or, you know, it's possible that she just disagrees with the blogger. That's also an option rather than a conspiracy.

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  12. Right. I am planning on responding to everyone's comments. After the kids are in bed....
    I don't want to see this get too disrespectful, though. Let's try and keep it at an even keel.

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  13. Interesting piece, Dara. I'm not familiar enough with Canadian politics to have much of an opinion but his post (and the comments) have been interesting. Thank you.

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  14. Just wondering why my comment has been deleted? Anyways, here we go again:

    I can certainly see the points made on both sides of this argument but what I don't understand is the personal bashing of Randy Snow. Opinions are something we all hold dearly and that is why there is so much backlash on this subject, however if you truly believe in your opinion, why should it matter what anyone in the world has to say about it? I breast fed my child for 9 months and then, he literally pushed me away. Am I a bad mother? We know what's right for our own children (or at least we can hope) but every individual child is different and what works for one doesn't necessarily work for the other. Also, Randy could have said something extremely distasteful and degrading to be getting this kind of feedback, but let's face it, he didn't. if you went to a comedy club and someone's act was based on something that personally offended you, you probably wouldn't go see them again. But are they entitled to speak on whatever it is that they have an opinion on. Certainly. Let's all remember that no child likes to be personally insulted, which is some of what is going on here with the twisting of Randy's words and allegations of his own upbringing, and, we're all someone's child aren't we? Play nice kids, we don't resolve issues by throwing around insults on the playground. How about using the old "Lead by example" tool to teach our children?

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  15. Dear anonymous:
    Your comment was not deleted. You are looking on the wrong post. If you look at the Randy Snow post you'll see the comment is still there.
    I don't delete comments. Ever.

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