A Slow-Burning Fire

Canadian feminism’s personal turn, after generations of collective struggle

Lorna Marsden has written an important book, sweeping in its scope, about how women have achieved gender equality in many aspects of life in Canada, but have fallen short on certain of those matters that count most.

To make her point that we have come a long way baby over the last 150 years but still have many miles to go, in Canadian Women and the Struggle for Equality: The Road to Gender Equality Since 1867 Marsden uses the device of comparing life for a young woman living in 1867, when Canada achieved Confederation, and a young woman of today:

A woman in Canada today reading the accounts of the agitation for women’s rights at the end of the nineteenth century must wonder why in 1867 women had so few rights … But the woman of 1867, should she return to life now, might wonder not only why women have not achieved equality, but also how their rights could be so entangled. In other words, the tale’s final chapter has yet to be written.

Marsden does not really deal with the contemporary chapter of Canadian women’s development in her book. Nor does she speculate about what will happen next between the sexes in this country. She stops short with the very recent past, and in general keeps her tone calm, even dispassionate.

And perhaps she is right to do so. After trying to make sense of the patterns of today’s gender struggles, which I will consider later in this review, I finally concluded that despite my wish for more future thinking from her, Marsden was probably wise in confining herself to her chosen topic, to her country and mainly, to her own generation.

A much-honoured public figure who has spoken up for other women as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, member of the Canadian Senate, and president of York University and Wilfrid Laurier University, Marsden returns here to her scholarly roots as a sociologist. She finds that progress for women in Canada has always depended on fearless and determined women “organizing and publicly representing the need for change.”

Collective action, not personal militancy, won women the right to vote, to a split of marital assets, custody of their children, equal pay and equal opportunity in their workplaces.

You sense that some of the greatest moments in Marsden’s own life may have been during the 1970s, when her stint as president of NAC coincided with a public interest in creating a more just, less unequal, more inclusive society. She writes nostalgically about second-wave feminism, backed by labour unions and women’s organizations that were at their peak in membership and able to bring pressure on governments at all levels for action.

The strength of Marsden’s account is her broad approach. She weaves the growth of women’s organizations and their fights over particular issues into a broader tapestry—particularly the opening of educational opportunities for women, improvements in health care, entry into developing job markets as the demand for factory products grew—all of which helped put women on a more equal footing with men. And she often sets the stage by reminding us of prevailing thinking about gender roles.

Starting with 1867 Marsden reminds us that the colonial debates did not take place in benighted times but in the midst of a strong movement in Europe and the United States for more rights for women—not so much because women were regarded the equals of men, but because of their supposed moral superiority as the guardians of their children against the world’s temptations, and the main force behind temperance.

She is not the first to tell us that Sir John A. Macdonald and George Brown, major players in Confederation, were admirers of the women in their own lives and supporters of property rights and suffrage for women. But she is unsparing of the founding fathers as she flays them for too quickly dropping principle when they lacked majority support and expediently shoving women’s emancipation off the agenda.

“Given the opportunity to be progressive for women,” she writes, “these men did not even officially discuss such matters before this first constitution was promulgated by Great Britain. Thus they embedded in the founding document of primary importance the inequalities that the women of Canada have been correcting ever since.”

Her focus in this sweeping 150-year account is seldom on the individuals involved, but on women’s relationships with the country’s major institutions and the partner groupings that helped, including, in particular, labour unions and female and some male journalists who wrote supportively about women’s issues.

Marsden herself writes clearly, avoiding women’s studies lingo. Nowhere could I find her casting blanket blame on the usual shadowy suspects, the capitalist patriarchy of middle-aged white men. Indeed, she praises Canadian men for behaving more reasonably than their counterparts in other countries, “more willing to hear the case, and sometimes more willing to act on women’s behalf.” She goes on: “While some men have been serious opponents to some equality issues, [Canadian] men as a category have not been united against equality.” She credits such men for the relative peacefulness of the feminist struggle in Canada. True, Canadian suffragettes faced a tough battle, but they were less likely to be manhandled or jailed.

On the other hand, her broad-brush approach to social movements leaves out some of the heroines of this story. A former senator herself, Marsden singles out the Famous Five—a talented group of western women who fought all the way to Britain’s Privy Council to win recognition of women as “persons” entitled to appointment to the Senate.

But there is no index pointer to Agnes Macphail, the first woman elected to Canada’s Parliament, and long its sole woman member. And there is only glancing recognition of Doris Anderson, the magazine editor who was long a force behind second-wave feminism in Canada and in particular was the catalyst for the women’s demonstrations that persuaded Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to include women’s equality clauses in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Marsden may have felt such heroines got full treatment elsewhere, while she as a social historian chose to concentrate on the social effects of key events: women’s roles in the First World War both in the field and working in the factories as the true catalysts for winning the vote; women’s entry into the workforce during both world wars and after, when it became clear that men’s wages alone could no longer support a household; the education of women, as barriers to university study gradually crumbled, creating cadres of women lawyers to fight the weaknesses in laws governing women’s lives, particularly their lack of protection in the original constitution of the country.

Women persuaded or joined with the men in their lives to be allies in the search for a better life for women. They joined organizations of activists. They appealed to authorities in person or through their family connections. They marched in protests. They went on strike. They contributed money, time, and talent. They sat in legislative galleries and town halls to bear witness to the debates. They challenged institutions such as churches and universities to listen to women and admit them to their ranks. And they drew on their expert knowledge to insist on change. All this occurred within the dynamics of population and economic changes and of established laws and international connections. We see the struggle for equality rights as a long process that fuelled ideas that changed the status of women.

I mentioned Marsden’s dispassionate tone above, and readers can hear it in the excerpts I have quoted. I noticed only one revealing slip where a sense of hurt—common to many older feminists who hoped to see the torch passed—slips through in this reflection on her contemporary young woman.

“A young woman at the beginning of the twenty-first century is unlikely to either know or care much about her predecessors in Canada,” Marsden writes. “This may not be a bad thing at all. If she realized how many decades of struggle and pain women before her had undergone, she might become too dismayed.”

Is this fair?

Younger women of today may not be so much ungrateful as confused and overwhelmed.

So many of them have prepared for future success with supreme qualifications. They outnumber men in university graduating classes and in post-graduate studies. In many fields women top their classes. But as they step out of the classroom young women find the world has not really changed all that dramatically. In the workforce as a whole, women still make only 70 percent of the money men do, and even among university graduates with the same qualifications men enjoy a wage premium.

Women are still scarce in upper management, and at the very top, where real economic power resides, women hold fewer than 15 percent of board seats. In the political world, those governing the country are still overwhelmingly male. Kim Campbell, our one and only female prime minister, was a brief pink flash in the pan, or so it seems now, and even our five female premiers preside over legislatures that are mostly male.

In a country so deprived of the talents of half the population, it is dispiriting that young women’s recent achievements, rather than being cited with pride are already the subject of societal concern, as attention swings to the unanticipated slippage of young men, who increasingly are dropping out, or dropping down—into the work women used to do. The New York Times noted this reversal of fortune in May in an article on “The Changing Workplace”: “over the last decade, American men of all backgrounds have begun flocking to fields such as teaching, nursing and waiting tables that have long been the province of women,” said the newspaper. Should we be surprised to learn the Times reporters discovered these same men soon were earning more than women in so-called female jobs, and moving up the “glass escalator” into supervisory positions?

Following a trend noted in nearly all developed countries, Canadian young women are increasingly shunning marriage and often choosing single motherhood. “Singletons” who are female are thus shouldering the load common to other working mothers at what author Arlie Russell Hochschild has dubbed “the second shift”—working women who still do most of the childcare and housework.

“This is how we live now, running on the spot, low on sleep, guilty, frantic,” Heather Mallick wrote in a recent Toronto Star column.

When they lift their heads to what is going on around them, today’s women see an assault on their hard-won rights from the rise of “family values” politicians at home and in the United States, and further abroad the ghastly punishments—rape, torture, murder, burning alive, acid throwing, stoning to death—being meted out to courageous women who dared stand up this spring against religious fanaticism and social repression.

Caught in this stew of guilt and fear, I am not surprised to hear so many young women today say “I am not a feminist but…” They have been taught that feminists turned off men.

So rejecting feminism, but not willing either to surrender the joys of well-paying jobs and financial independence, young women are displaying an attitude I’d like to call “personal feminism.”

To understand the personal feminism phenomenon better, I turned to comedy star Tina Fey’s new book, Bossypants, because I felt her very choice of title signalled an unease with being a woman with power. Fey’s own “unsolicited advice” to women in the workplace sounds simple enough: do your own thing and don’t care if they like it.

As a strategy for sorting out attendant males, whether they be bosses or life partners, Fey’s defensive posture probably cannot be beat. But doing her own thing will not change most other women’s second-class status.

Need I say, Fey’s insouciance is not what Marsden would advise.

Marsden avoids the usual soporifics about how in time women’s upward march will inevitably reach the goal of equality. She knows the cause is threatened. She warns that an ideological shift in government means that gains won over many decades are fragile and open to political reversal. The sense of slippage in this country, the more immediate threat to cherished rights in the United States and the dark cloud of religious fanaticism crushing liberation in foreign parts must be troublesome enough to disturb the sleep of a woman who should be resting on her laurels.

Fortunately, Marsden sees some bright spots. She finds successors to the suffragettes in the ranks of Equal Voice, the organization a few of us founded more than a decade ago to promote the cause of electing more women. And—in the social networks surrounding female members of Parliament, the media and women’s groups that specialize in particular issues—she sees a force that could be roused to action should the word go out.

She recognizes that we are still far from the one necessary reform—universal day care—that would make it possible for women to achieve economic equality in their jobs, and open more doors to political careers. With their children in child care, women could participate as equal partners in running the country in which, at 52 percent, they are the majority.

But Marsden is buoyed by a view she shares with colleagues of Canada as a country of “slow and secure change.” So she ends on this—not entirely convincing—upbeat note:

Women still want high-quality care for their children and are still petitioning, organizing, educating, writing and continuing that quest. The same is true for all the perennial issues of domestic violence, workplace discrimination, pay equity, health care, and the myriad of concerns and problems that never disappear … Again and again, women tried and were defeated in attempts to get laws changed and social benefits won. Their great–granddaughters are edging closer to it. Persistence has paid off before and will again.