Riding the Waves
Where should women march next?
As I write these words, it seems yet another wave of the pandemic is upon us. My three children are working in adjoining rooms, peering at screens, as we all navigate the strange world of online schooling. Every now and then, someone will holler for help, and I’ll put the task of composing aside to rummage through drawers for art supplies or to field another question about long division. These mundane interruptions have made up the fabric of everyday life for the better part of a year now. And while parents on the whole have suffered some major career disruptions, mothers are bearing the brunt of the burden.
The data tells the story of the price we’re paying. A report from RBC Economics, for example, describes the blow to women’s employment in Canada as “unprecedented.” In just the first two months of the pandemic, 1.5 million women lost their jobs. In April 2020, women’s participation in the Canadian workforce fell to 55 percent, a level not seen since 1986. Suddenly we went back three decades. Those of us retreating from our careers may never regain what we have given up; studies show that what are intended as short reprieves from the labour force often translate into prolonged or permanent departures.
Many immigrant women have been hit with a double whammy: overwhelmingly represented in front-line, low-wage care work, people of colour have been among the most likely to lose their lives. The first personal support workers to die of COVID‑19 in this country were Christine Mandegarian and Victoria Salvan — both Filipina, from a community that’s overrepresented in the exploitative care economy.
When this pandemic finally ends, we will need to reckon with the systems that have inevitably hurt women. Feminists will have a fight with the far right on their hands, anticipates Nora Loreto, as we grapple with the gendered fallout of the past year and more. We will need to organize, and it won’t be easy, given that organized feminism in Canada is in a bad way right now.
In Take Back the Fight: Organizing Feminism for the Digital Age, Loreto offers a searing critique: Feminism today is trendy, not trenchant. It has style but no substance. “It’s cool. It’s sexy,” she writes. “But there’s always a limit to how mainstream society talks about feminism: it’s edgy but not too radical; it’s political but doesn’t challenge Canada’s status quo. It’s a self-identity, even when the self-identifier’s politics are incongruent with feminist liberation.” Loreto — an activist from Quebec City and the editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media communications cooperative — laments the loss of a policy-driven, movement-oriented feminism, which dissipated with the rise of neo-liberalism and the emergence of the digital era. New generations of feminists have instant access to information, but with that has come the demise of in‑person organizing in real time, plus a failure of collective memory (no one remembers what life was like before, say, the legalization of abortion) and the perception that the worst excesses of patriarchy have been remedied.
For Loreto, a crucial question when it comes to the state of feminism is, For whom? “For racialized people, Indigenous people, disabled people, queer people, trans and gender-non-conforming people,” she writes, “things are still bad. . . . What remains of the mainstream feminist movement has barely taken up their concerns.”
It’s indisputable that racism, along with other exclusionary systems, has been a malevolent presence at the heart of the feminist movement. It played a clear part in the collapse of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, which formed in 1971 as a lobby group to campaign for the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. After NAC crumbled in the 1990s — the outcome of backlash against the installation of Sunera Thobani as president, as well as of deep government funding cuts — members dispersed and joined other progressive causes: anti-globalization movements, climate justice, and the struggles against discrimination, homophobia, and ableism.
For too long, there has been a vacuum where an umbrella advocacy organization once stood. Feminists are fragmented, scattered among disparate action groups and service organizations. No entity has an explicit focus on women’s rights, per se. Activists are working in silos, addressing issues ad hoc, without the accountability and support structures that once existed. What’s needed, Loreto argues, is an anchor, a place where we can discuss goals, debate strategy, lobby the different levels of government, create policy papers, and make demands that will help improve lives.
Two fundamental questions drive Loreto’s accessible book: How do we effectively work toward dynamic, radical, intersectional feminism in a neo-liberal era? And how do we leverage social media in a way that enables in‑person organizing, rather than further isolating individuals and atomizing communities?
While some feminists are using social media to call out sexism and to elevate voices, on-the-ground action and engagement is eroding. A wealth of perspectives are at our fingertips, yet it’s possible for a young, self-identified feminist to go through life without ever encountering a feminist community. Although social media has given the struggling movement a virtual platform, we’ve yet to see sustained offline momentum and advocacy work. The blogosphere was initially envisioned as an alternative community to a male-dominated mainstream media, but now hashtag feminism has given rise to one‑off protests that lack the staying power that’s necessary to truly threaten the status quo. Instead, Instagram, Twitter, and the like have aided the neo-liberal assault, giving rise to self-declared feminists with no larger circle to hold them accountable and allowing corporate feminism to flourish.
As powerful as Loreto’s call to action is, one wonders if the feminist history of digital media is somewhat more complex than she acknowledges. With Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies, Cait McKinney takes a more archaeological approach to print and digital media — categories that they present as fluid, messy, and complicated. McKinney, who teaches communications at Simon Fraser University, takes up the topic of lesbian information activists, who, like frustrated Indigenous and Black feminists, have forged bonds beyond exclusionary mainstream groups.
The result is an elucidating window into what McKinney calls “the unspectacular labor that sustains social movements.” (The story of this behind-the-scenes work is largely missing from Loreto’s polemic, despite her insistence that it is such knowledge that feminists need now more than ever.) From the Women in Print Movement of the 1970s and ’80s to the feminist digitization practices at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, in Brooklyn, McKinney uncovers the complex technologies that have made organizing possible. “Online communication does not present a turning point for feminist social movements,” they argue. “Rather, it extends existing media infrastructures of networked communication.” Print newsletters and digital platforms like Instagram actually are interconnected — not separate information infrastructures at all.
Although I’m sympathetic to that reading, there can be no denying that social media has fundamentally transformed the practice of “doing” feminism. Consider #MeToo: The signature campaign of the past decade, it exposed a few men in high places. But, as Loreto argues, it didn’t actually do much in the way of creating long-term change. If anything, the hashtag duped people into thinking tweets can operate as resistance politics. It constituted the “perfect neoliberal campaign,” she observes, because it put the onus on survivors to share publicly without putting any pressure on the system to make sexual harassment easier to charge, try, and convict. “The only real winners are politicians who capitalize on the campaign, promise a little bit of money and hope to reap political rewards.”
Consider, too, the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, which responded to Donald Trump’s inauguration. While critical conversations were had about feminism, the energy of the day was not channelled into long-haul organizing. The inconvenient truth, Loreto maintains, is that the march and the pussyhats fizzled out. Without infrastructure to house quotidian work — the “messy, grinding, generally invisible labor” of activism that McKinney describes — political flashpoints aren’t the catalysts they could be for meaningful change.
Feminism, then, has become popular as an identity to perform rather than a platform through which to challenge oppressive systems. Think here of Justin Trudeau, who has fashioned himself as the feminist prime minister while spearheading a government that has yet to create any significant social programs — a national child care program, for instance, or national home care and eldercare — that would change women’s real lives. As Loreto points out, Trudeau has built his feminist brand in a way that recalls Lean In Canada, with its assumption that (white, middle-class, able-bodied) women can gain access to the nodes of power without changing the conditions that create their disempowerment in the first place.
From where I’m sitting, as a mother caring for kids in a pandemic, I can fully get behind Loreto’s rallying cry. Writing amid domestic chaos — on International Women’s Day, no less, as banks and retailers bombard me with emails that boast about all the cool things they are ostensibly doing for consumers like me — I find myself furious at a system that makes no connection between our struggles to advance in our careers, the devaluation of care work, and the lack of a national child care program.
Loreto is right about the need to revive the fight: we will need a strong, nationally orchestrated movement to make meaningful change in a post-pandemic world, especially given the emergence of a violent anti-feminism. But I’m left wanting more proposed solutions from Take Back the Fight — even tentative ones that have nothing to do with the pandemic.
How do we chart a way forward in the midst of all the challenges thrown up by neo-liberalism? After all, activist organizing is another form of invisible, unpaid service to be taken on by those already overburdened and stretched to the limit. As McKinney’s archival history makes abundantly clear, effective activism, while a labour of love, is also a “kind of ‘second shift,’ often done on the fly or in the margins of one’s ‘spare time.’ ” Is it reasonable to expect us to take on even more unremunerated responsibilities?
Another challenge, of course, is to make social media a meaningful tool for movement making. If, as McKinney suggests, communications media is what births feminist community, then feminists will need to use digital tools differently, perhaps taking their cue from Black Lives Matter. And given that the feminist organizations that have weathered the neo-liberal system have done so by staying small and decentralized, any new umbrella-like organization will need to nimbly navigate the pressures and precarity related to the absence of sustainable funding, while creating genuinely inclusive formal movement structures. Then if a national feminist movement actually emerges, it will need to see fighting with and for the most marginalized of women as its key objective.
As Loreto reminds us, we must find our way to a feminism that stops lauding the appointment of women CEOs, vice-presidents, and police officers while corporations, governments, and police departments continue to systematically harm those who are trans, Black, disabled, and poor. We need a feminism that confronts the many crises facing Indigenous women — from unclean drinking water and crowded, unsanitary housing to systemic violence — as part of its core work. It must be a feminism that can begin anew, in a place that privileges the relational work that patriarchy has long taught us to devalue, along with those who perform it.
I must run to feed my famished kids. But before I do, let me suggest, after the activist Harsha Walia (from whom Loreto also takes inspiration), that “feminism’s most transformative potential” for women lies not in bending over backwards to conform to a system of competition, isolation, and objectification but in affirming the value of “relational work”— things like child care, eldercare, emotional labour, and land stewardship grounded in traditional knowledge. The potential lies in “nurturing our communities and families through interdependency and resiliency.”
As we build a post-pandemic world — and as we embark, conceivably, on a fifth wave of feminism — we will need to begin from a place of interconnection, community, care, and relationship. Perhaps we can unlearn what does not serve feminism and imagine a new way forward. These two books are a start.