Many of the following issues are sources of anxiety for feminists. Not just because of their distressing affect on people, but because they are consistently ignored and declared irrelevant or nonexistent in politics.

This dismissal is one of the most common tools used to silence those who push for gender equity issues to be addressed.

It feels like a hand on the forehead, like a big taunting bully, and I don’t like it.

I spoke with Prof. Debra Graham at Carleton University, who states, “Backlash is evidence that there is a shift in power. The typical reaction for groups that lose power or stability is that they lash out. As we see more equality legally, for example men and women can now access childcare leave, there will be hesitations to take change too far.”

These persistent inequities are maintained to privilege those in positions of power, but that is not a good enough reason (nor is there ever a good enough reason), to perpetuate the issues outlined below.

Acting Out Gender Roles

First, we need to understand why gender is an issue in the first place.

Gender plays a role in every facet of society: immigration, poverty, the environment, social policy, politics, religion, education. It is so ingrained within the foundations of a society that the issues stemming from constructing and enforcing social identities often becomes overwhelming. We don’t know where to start, so we opt not to start at all.

But gender equity needs to be on the political agenda because the personal is political. This saying began during the second wave of feminism, and it is still relevant today.

Gender is one of the biggest ways in which our society is divided and controlled: it affects everything from what bathrooms we use, access to social services, and the clothing we wear, to assumptions on the capabilities (or inabilities) of an individual, which affects which jobs they have access to or how legitimate their concerns are considered.

For men, gender affects their behaviour and maintains immense social pressures in the workplace and at home. Men are expected to display hegemonic masculinity in which they’re only validated as real men if they are aggressive, in a position of power or dominance, muscular, objective, and unemotional. These characteristics are thus valued in a male-dominated government.

For women, it is socially expected that they will possess typically feminine characteristics: they are expected to be passive, weak, emotional, nurturing, and submissive. This limits women largely to the private sphere, which poses many risks.

First, keeping women in the private sphere allows policy-makers to assume that the issues they face are out of their jurisdiction and therefore not a matter of concern to the state, when in reality it is the lack of attention from the government that maintains issues like violence against women and sexual abuse.

Second, it creates barriers in accessing the public sphere, including making women work harder for jobs, the creation of the “double-day” in which women are expected to still do housework if they choose to work outside of the home, and maintains social assumptions on the capabilities, wants, and needs of women.

Combating these normative expectations provides more freedom for individuals to behave as they choose, to seek the jobs that they want, and live lives they find personally fulfilling.  For other gender identified people, the incredibly limited access to resources like medical care, neutral bathrooms, housing, and jobs continues to keep transgendered, two-spirited, or gender queer people in poverty and greatly affects their physical and mental wellbeing.

The Government’s Role

The government controls our personal lives both directly and indirectly.

Directly, it has control over how women operate within the public sphere through its delegation of services like childcare, affordable housing, and equal pay for work of equal value.

Indirectly, the government as it stands today maintains patriarchal values and perpetuates social assumptions as to what women should be doing with their lives in the way that they provide the direct services, or not.

For example, the Harper government and Conservative party possess traditional patriarchal values about gender roles in Canadian society. This is obvious through their lack of interest in women’s issues and lack of support for gender-focused organizations and activities.

The Harper government has closed down or withdrawn funding from numerous women’s organizations, which suggests that women’s issues no longer exist, or that they are not important. The lack of interest in creating policies on affordable childcare, equal pay for work of equal value, or access to maternal health services for all Canadians, shows a low value on women’s participation in the public and even on their very physical wellbeing.

Gender equity is still a political issue because inequalities remain amongst the sexes at both a social and political level.

Socially, the government has the ability to provide the resources necessary to ensure people of all gender identities have the same opportunities. These resources are still inadequate or non-existent.

Politically, a properly representative government should be composed equally of men and women (although, if we’re going to get technical, women makes up 51 per cent of the Canadian population), or at least of feminist voices, and should make efforts to represent those of other gender expressions.

If women make up more than half of the population, then they should no longer be considered a “special interest group.”

Women and men are still treated very differently in Canadian society (not to mention around the world), and until they are treated with the same respect, have access to social services and other facets of society on the same level, and can exercise their rights to the same degree, women’s issues and gender equity will continue to be of a concern to all of us.

Policy Background

I spoke with Monica Cullum of the National Council on the Status of Women. When asked what policies the Canadian government currently has, she replied, “Quite frankly, I’m not sure. This government has scrapped childcare, court challenges, eliminated funding for advocacy, down-sized Status of Women Canada. There is no evidence that there’s any kind of gender-based impact or examination on policy. The only words I can speak are in the negative as there are no positive policies.”

The Status of Women still exists, but it has had to reduce the number of offices across the country to only 5. This happened as soon as the Conservative Party formed a minority government. Organizations like FAFIA lost their funding as well.

This government also eliminated the court challenges program in which women could challenge legislation. Women’s organizations do not have the funds to challenge the Supreme Court themselves, which limits their ability to fight against oppressive legislation.  These actions created yet another barrier for feminist work.

The Conservative government also revoked funding for advocacy, and only funds applied projects. How is society supposed to change and how are women supposed to be justified in their growing participation if there is only support for reactionary services?

The government needs to be more proactive in producing change.

The Canadian government does a good job at hypocritically criticizing gender inequities in other countries. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada states that “Canada is a world leader in the promotion and protection of women’s rights and gender equality. These issues are central to Canada’s foreign and domestic policies. Canada is committed to the view that gender equality is not only a human rights issue, but is also an essential component of sustainable development, social justice, peace, and security.”

It goes on to state that women must be treated equally in order to foster social development. CIDA lists eight international projects for women’s issues, including a presence in Bolivia, Haiti, Pakistan and Vietnam, and yet we cannot achieve gender equity on our own soil.

The federal government has published reports about Inuit and Aboriginal societies, in which they analyze gender issues including domestic violence, healthcare, housing, and politics, yet there is very little material on dominant groups in society. This contributes to the marginalization and stigmatization of already oppressed groups of women.

So Why Does All Of This Matter?

A Breakdown of Current Gender Equity Issues in Canada

These are only some of the issues that need to be addressed by our government.

Violence against women

Sexual Assault is an extremely important issue. This has been prominent in the feminist activist community at Carleton University, with numerous sexual assaults occurring on campus and little adequate response from the university itself.

There are over 500 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.

Likening the punishments for drug offences to the punishments for domestic violence or sexual assault shows how little we value women’s bodies and lives.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women is still ignored by the Canadian government.

Family violence is a huge issue in Canada that has significant gender issues. The rate of family related sexual violence is four times higher for girls than for boys. The spousal homicide rate is three times higher for women than men. Men are typically the perpetrators of violence, stemming largely from the socialization they receive in Canadian society. Part of the solution is de-feminizing rehabilitative efforts.


Childcare was presented late in the Liberal government under Paul Martin, but scrapped immediately when Harper came into power. Childcare needs to be of quality, affordable, and accessible.


There is currently no national housing strategy in Canada. This impacts women with disabilities, Aboriginal women and women of other racial minorities, and poor women.

The Feminization of Poverty

Simply put, when women are poor, children are poor. Child poverty has not improved in Canada. We need to recognize that women need to work and that Canadian families require two incomes. Once we recognize this, we need to make this possible.

Pay Equity

There is a persistent gender gap in the amount someone is paid for work of equal value, solely based on whether they identify as male or female.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada heard a case that brought forward by the Public Service Alliance of Canada against Canada Post claiming wage discrimination against women.

Legislation on pay equity is not consistent across the country. It varies according to province, but nationally, this is not deemed to be an issue.

Even women who are employed full-time, year-round, do not earn the same salary, even if they are university graduates. For example, women who graduate from the same engineering program in university receive only about 75% of the pay that men receive.

Job opportunities are limited for women, even though 52% of university graduates are women.

Women in Parliament

Canada is 47th in the world for female participation in national parliaments, including some of the poorest developing nations in the world like Rwanda, Uganda, Iraq and Afghanistan (may I remind you that we have been trying to “liberate the women” of Iraq and Afghanistan in many “peace-keeping” missions).

Parliament prides itself in having 25 per cent women, up from 22 per cent. This is the highest it’s been in the last decade, prior it was just above 30 per cent. The Conservative party has 17 per cent women; compared to the NDP which has 39% women. The NDP has been working on this since 1975 and has had policies that encourage women to participate. Therefore, the 25 per cent of women in Parliament is more thanks to the NDP than the Conservative majority.

And yet, women make up 51 per cent of the population, yet control only 25 per cent of the decision-making.

This past year, the appointment of Supreme Court judges revealed a gender gap: “The appointment of female judges has diminished to a trickle under the Harper government, dashing any hopes that equal gender representation is on the doorstep” – Globe and Mail

Only 8 women were appointed this year compared to 41 men. There are currently 356 female judges out of 1,117 federally appointed judges.

As the Toronto Star writes, “Although there have been great strides in equality among men and women in Canada since Agnes MacPhail became the first woman elected in the House of Commons in 1921, we have a long way to go before we achieve equality in political expression… how can Canada claim to be an equal-opportunity society when the demographics of our decision-makers are so out of proportion with the gender demographics of Canadian society?”

How Do We Fix This? 

We need to embrace feminism.

We need to use an equality rights framework within the current government.

We need to recognize that women’s rights and human rights are synonymous.

We need to recognize the gender-based impact of policies and programs as there is no good reason to ignore this part of the policy.

For example, finance has not analyzed their impact in a gender-based way, yet this has profound consequences. The federal government report states that “Budgets, however, are not gender neutral, they are “gender blind.”

Gender-blind budgets ignore the differing effects on women and men and on different groups of women and men. Gender-blind budgets do not consider that women and men have different roles, responsibilities and capabilities. They ignore the economic and social differences that exist between women and men.

For example, an income tax reduction may affect men and women differently given that income distribution among male and female-headed households differs with female-headed households being in the lower income bracket. It later states that Canada “has not yet carried out a gender-budget initiative at any level of government.”

We need to recognize that women have not yet “made it” and fight against backlash.

We need to support feminist organizations, such as: Equal Voice for women in parliament; social services like rape crisis centers, women’s shelters; Bring back the Miss G Project and introduce feminist ideology into the educational system at a younger age.

We need to write about not only women’s stories and their own experiences, but about organizations and efforts to support women’s issues, like the Women Speak Out group. This group is in Toronto and focuses on all sorts of women’s issues, and then discusses everything from the history of feminism to conflict resolution.

We need to bring feminist perspectives into education.

We need to stop victim-blaming and shame surrounding these issues.

We need to recognize that feminism is not “unified in public, there are lots of movements, some of which even contradict each other.” Most important, we need to recognize that this is not the “death of feminism,” or evidence of “post-feminism,” but rather very characteristic of post-modernism as these smaller groups are all working towards creating a more equal society, and the gains made in the movement are largely due to activism on behalf of the various forms of feminism.

We need to support feminist media!

If you’re going to read nothing further, perhaps because you think feminism is for angry man-haters so it’s better off dead anyways, or perhaps because you think gender equity is no longer an issue, then this question has a one-word answer:


Feminism is not dead, thankyouverymuch.

The backlash against feminism certainly isn’t dead either. In fact, it seems to be growing. Feminist activism appears to be pushed more and more online or into the shadowy small rooms found in the corners of university and college campuses where a small group comes together to talk about big ideas, ideals, goals, followed by the overwhelming response of ‘but how?’ I attended a meeting similar to this, an event called ‘Feminism101’ held by the Ottawa RebELLEs back in September, which inspired this post.

Perhaps this complexity has evolved because feminism has also grown to become more than simple, identifiable and concrete goals. Feminism is more complex, there are more perspectives to be considered, more language to re-evaluate, more intersections between one issue and the other.

While this makes feminist goals slightly farther away in terms of time, it makes them greater in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. There is more care to ensure feminism and its objectives are for everybody.

The more complex intersectionality of issues within the third wave doesn’t discredit previous feminist work, but shows the stepping-stones needed to be where we are now. The first wave of feminism dealt largely with civil rights, the right to vote being the peak of the wave. There were other issues, like the temperance movement to combat domestic violence, which also came into play. Women got the right to vote, as they should, but patriarchal influence didn’t stop there so neither did feminists.

In the 1960s, the second wave started to form, slowly rising until it broke out of the private sphere of women’s homes and secrecy, and fought for more basic human rights. The rights of racial minorities and the LGBTQ movement gained momentum, women began to demand a presence outside of the home and in the workplace, and reproductive rights (including birth control, access to safe abortions, and access to childcare), were key to helping women gain control of their lives and participate in the public life.

The third wave started in the 1980s, and this is where things have gotten a little more complicated. “Post-feminism backlash” grew as women now had more civil rights, so what were these “femi-nazi’s” still complaining about?

Not only have third wave feminists had to deal with women’s issues, like access to subsidized childcare, access to abortion for women living in Northern Canada, the U.S., or the developing world, and still working towards equal pay (as women still make 75 cents for every man’s dollar), but now they have to work in a world where these facts are denied and refusal to acknowledge we are not yet in a utopia. The Council on the Status of Women was closed in 2006 by Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government, suggesting that the Status of Women is not still a concern for Canadians, implying equality in a very much unequal world.

Third wave feminists must justify their existence while also working to provide services and support for women who continue to face domestic abuse, sexual assault, hypersexualization of women and girls in the media, and harassment in the workplace. With a government that thinks these issues aren’t concerning, third wave feminists often have to operate with little to no funding or allocation of space and time for their work. For example, Carleton University continued to deny the allocation of campus space for a sexual assault support center, even with the ongoing construction of 3 new buildings. There is no reason behind their refusal other than the denial that sexual assault happens, and the notion that this issue isn’t worth rectifying. Or, consider the fact that female offenders do not have access to rehabilitative services, yet male offenders do.  Why are women still not worthy?

Some people ask if we are now in a fourth wave, but I disagree. I think we’re in the wave of 3.5 – the issues are the same, but the plan of attack needs to change.

While the movement continues to expand to perhaps be more anti-oppression of all people versus anti-sexism, I don’t think that this discredits the feminist movement. After all, a feminist doesn’t have to be someone who is born with a vagina. If equality is the mantra of feminists, then it is for all and not for some. Embracing many issues may take more work, but if there is care to ensure women’s issues don’t fall through the cracks, the pay-off is greater.

I read an article today by Hugo Schwyzer on titled The Right Way to Talk to Young Girls About Beauty. This article delves into the way we speak to young girls about themselves: either about their bodies or their minds, but not both.

Some argue that we must only comment on young girls’ attributes outside of the physical so that they do not develop some type of complex that will scar them for life and create instability in their self-esteem regarding their appearance.

Others, like Schwyzer, argue that ignoring a child’s interest in fashion or beauty, or ignoring such things altogether, perpetuates the notion that intelligence and beauty cannot be synonymous.

When I was younger, a good retort to bullying was that my intelligence would stay with me long after their good looks had faded. This made me feel slightly better, until I realized I was arguing in my defence that I was unattractive. As an adult, and as an avid consumer of fashion and art, I now side with Schwyzer, for indeed, why should it have to be one or the other? Why is feeling good about one’s physique or features bad? Why do girls have to be ugly to be literate?

For a long time, I have been extremely interested in studying female or feminist politicians, and women in the media. The intersection of beauty and the policing of women’s bodies, and the social paradoxes and values revealed in these intersections, is depressing, frustrating, and highly motivating for a young woman attempting to build a career  in media and change things up a bit.

I pre-ordered this documentary, titled Miss Representation, a few days ago. This film highlights the portrayal of women in the media, and the media’s power in dictating how women will feel about themselves. It is amazing to me that we are still discussing these issues today.

In 2008, I was beginning my university career at the same time as the American election. As a Journalism student, I was fascinated by the Obama campaign and its ability to generate such a level of support in a society that was still struggling with intense racism. While this campaign certainly revealed these social tensions (and ignorance), the end result clearly shows that it was successful in uniting many. And that Obama looked damn good while doing it, but who really cared about that when his words were so inspiring.

As a Human Rights and Women’s Studies student, however, I found the whole election enraging.

First, there was the way Hillary Clinton was treated (or rather, chewed up and spit out on repeat). The media described her physical traits but not her politics. The media and society questioned her ability to make “tough” (read: manly) decisions simply because she was a woman. They questioned her strength when she called for more social services and better education (such “nurturing” [read: womanly] things), and then questioned her womanhood when she took a stand in topics like the military.* They commented on her clothing, her hair, her mannerisms, to defend their arguments. In my grade 12 media project about the questionable death of feminism, I found a picture of an unflattering “Hillary Clinton Holiday Nutcracker,” because obviously all strong women with half a brain were not only ugly, but also created to destroy mankind, kill their husbands and eat them alive.

Then there was Sarah Palin. Oh, Sarah Palin. When I first started following her campaign, I could not believe that the most “developed” nation in the world had this to show for one of its two parties. I believed she was doing a disservice to women everywhere by opening her mouth. Is this because she was ‘pretty’ for an older woman? No, I didn’t correlate the two, but a lot of people did. We’re doing the exact same thing now to people like Michele Bachmann.

Recently, I read an article in the October 2011 edition of Curve magazine, titled The Other Side of Power, by Victoria A. Brownworth, that made me realize an important point: Republicans have had more visible women in their party (even if they have all been identical), and these women have contributed greatly to their party’s goals (even if, in my mind, their politics suck). From the very left side of the political spectrum, I can still acknowledge the contributions they have made.

Yet still, these politicians have to try to embody certain beauty ideals to fill their positions, something professional yet feminine, pretty yet subdued, attention-worthy, but only to generate the right kind of press. What men do you see being criticized for their clothing, or shoes, or watches, to the same extent as women? Why do we care what the leader of a country looks like? Why does it matter?

This point is exactly why the issue of beauty politics is so important. Not only is it an example of the blatant sexism that remains in our so-called “equal” societies, but also because the amount of time and effort that is devoted to the scrutiny and enforcement of female beauty ideals is an unjust burden. Having to devote more of their time to such issues is a detriment to a woman’s political race, it is another strike against female athletes or other professionals, and it can even be used as a reason to scrap a woman’s sketch or part on a television show. Unfortunately, it takes even more time to defend oneself as to why one did not live up to these unrealistic expectations, and usually generates a lot of eye-rolling without a whole lot of understanding.

I finished reading Bossypants by Tina Fey on the bus ride back to Ottawa this afternoon. Every sentence is absolutely hysterical, and Fey threads with a feminist voice throughout each distinct chapter a critique of American society and its views on women. Much of this, due to her life in the public, focuses on the pressure on women to embody consumeristic beauty standards, but also about how this expectation silences women’s voices in other facets of public life, whether it be on the stages at Saturday Night Live or a presidential candidates debate (or a mixture of both, as Fey so eloquently portrayed Sarah Palin back in 2008. I owe that sketch many thanks for inspiring my Halloween costume that year, as  my glasses also make me look quite similar to the Alaskan politician. And I proudly own a horrendous pant suit).

Fey concludes with an important yet simple message on body politics: it doesn’t really matter so long as you feel good.

We all need to recognize that one’s physical being and one’s mental being are often two very different things. Sure, the two can cross over from time to time, but that does not render women incapable of providing a rational and valuable opinion on child care or nuclear weapons. And that doesn’t mean she can’t feel good and confident about her appearance at the same time.

Schwyzer writes: “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t tell my daughter how beautiful she is. But I also praise her for the other things she does, and as she has grown more vocal, I engage her in conversation in a host of other topics.”

So too should we raise our children, encourage our peers, and relax our chokehold on our public figures, in regards to the dichotomy of beauty and mind. We need to expand not only our beauty ideals, but also our conversations with women to topics beyond cosmetics; to blur the lines of what it means to be beautiful to becoming all-encompassing, with both a physical and intellectual definition.

*For a fabulous article on Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the media, check out:

Carroll, S. (2009). Reflections on Gender and Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign:the Good, the Bad, and the Misogynic. Politics and Gender. 5: 1-20.