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In defence of the 'F' word: Why we need feminism now more than ever

I started blogging a few months ago because I'd had enough of the smear campaign against feminism that has been underway for many years. The #WomenAgainstFeminism phenomenon on Tumblr, wherein women post photographs of themselves holding signs that state why they do not need feminism, like, "I don't need feminism because my self-worth is not directly tied to the size of my victim complex," is one example. Or the recent Time magazine article which included "feminist" in a list of annoying words that readers could vote to ban from public discourse. Or the public distancing from feminism exemplified by celebrities like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, who, for better or worse are role models for young girls.

These anti-feminism sentiments have led smart, progressive people to distance themselves from a movement whose aim is equality. I know because I'm married to one. My partner is a strong woman. She grew up playing hockey and baseball with boys because our small town didn't have girls teams. She has always known what she wanted and isn't particularly concerned with conforming to societal expectations. She is tough. She is egalitarian. But she is not a feminist.

And she's not the only one. Most polls say that fewer than half of younger women identify with feminism.

From my conversations with my wife, I've learned a thing or two about anti-feminism sentiments. In many ways, anti-feminism campaigns are grounded in misunderstandings -- misunderstandings about what it means to be a feminist.

"I'm not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture -- beer, bars and muscle cars." – Lady Gaga

Misunderstandings about what feminism stands for.

"No, I wouldn't say feminist -- that's too strong. I think when people hear feminist, it's like, 'Get out of my way, I don't need anyone.'" - Kelly Clarkson

And misunderstandings about where women are at in terms of equality.

"I don't need feminism because men are now the true victims of discrimination."

It's this last misunderstanding that I’m most concerned about. It's true that women have made a lot of progress in the last forty or fifty years. But it would be a mistake to believe feminism is no longer necessary. The way I see it, sexism still abounds. Both in the ways it always has and in completely new ways.

How far we've come

 Let me start by acknowledging that women’s equality has come a long way since the 1970s, especially in terms of women’s education and participation in the workforce.

Young women in Canada are pursuing post-secondary education at impressive rates and are now more likely than male youth to hold a university degree. In the United States, women earn almost 60 per cent of undergraduate degrees and 60 per cent of all master’s degrees. They also hold almost 52 per cent of all professional jobs.

In terms of labour force participation, women have gone from 37.97 per cent of the workforce in 1970 to 47.21 per cent of the workforce during 2006-2010. Women have also made significant gains in certain occupations. In 1970, very few women were accountants, police officers, lawyers, pharmacists and doctors. Between 2006 and 2010, 60 per cent of accountants were women, 52.6 per cent of pharmacists, 32.4 per cent of physicians and 33.4 per cent of lawyers.

Rates of domestic violence have also declined significantly since 1999. This decline is partly due to increased social equality and financial freedom for women, which makes it easier for them to leave abusive relationships at earlier stages. However, after falling for a decade, rates of domestic violence have now flat-lined. In 2009, the rate of self-reported spousal violence was the same as in 2004. Unfortunately, reporting rates have not improved over the years. Victims of domestic violence are now less likely to report an incident to police.

How far we have to go

 Despite these significant gains, women still lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions. For example, only four per cent of CEOs in Canada's top 500 companies are women. Ninety-six per cent are men.

Women are also seriously outnumbered among Canada’s elected representatives. Although there are more women in politics now than in 1974, when only four per cent of MPs were women, men still outnumber women four to one among Canada’s elected representatives. And the Conservative caucus is a mere 17 per cent female compared to more than 40 per cent for the NDP.

Women also have a long way to go in terms of pay equity. Even with a university degree, women on average earned almost $30,000 less than men in 2008.

In some areas, women are actually losing ground. For instance, the percentage of women appointed to Canada’s more than 200 federal tribunals, boards, agencies and Crown corporations has dropped from 37 per cent before Harper's Conservatives took power in 2006, to 32.5 per cent. The numbers for judge appointments are even worse. Fewer than a third of federally appointed judges by the Conservatives were women. By comparison, nearly 40 per cent of the judges appointed in 2005 by the then-Liberal government were women. The Supreme Court of Canada's high-water mark for women judges was four out of nine. Under Harper, we have slipped to three. As we saw with the attempted appointment of Marc Nadon, the Conservatives have no intention of remedying the imbalance.

Despite these stark comparisons, Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay has tried to defend his government's low rate of female appointments by blaming women. Earlier this year he stated that women don’t apply to be judges because they fear the job will take them away from their children and because children need their mothers more than their fathers.

In B.C., the numbers for judicial appointments are no better. Last fall, retired B.C. Supreme Court judge Donna Martinson wrote that only five women and one non-Caucasian were included among 31 judicial appointments since January 2009.

Violence against women is another area where progress has stalled or started to backslide. Rates of self-reported violent victimization against women have not decreased between 1999 and 2009. In 2010, the rate of intimate partner homicide committed against females increased by 19 per cent, the third increase in four years.

In Canada, the backsliding of women’s progress may be partially attributable to our government’s lack of commitment to women’s equality. In 2006, the Conservatives cut Status of Women Canada’s budget by 37 per cent and closed 12 of its 16 regional offices. They also eliminated funding to women's groups doing research, advocacy and lobbying.

This may be one reason the UN Annual Human Development Index for 2012 revealed that inequality in Canada is actually growing.

New forms of misogyny

Beyond the traditional indicators of women’s progress, we see girls facing new forms of sexism in their daily lives. In many ways, these new forms are even more pervasive and difficult to escape. Like cyberbullying, the sexualization of women and girls in the media and the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation.

The effects of these new forms of misogyny are devastating. Eighty per cent of ten-year-old girls in America say they have been on a diet. The number one magic wish for young girls age 11 to 17 is to be thinner. With these numbers it should come as no surprise that we are seeing record declines in mental health among adolescent girls.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual violence. In 2008, over 11,000 sexual assaults of girls under the age of 18 were reported to police in Canada. Since only about ten per cent of assaults are reported, the actual number is much higher. Rates of sexual assault are much higher for certain populations of girls. Tragically, about 75 per cent of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual exploitation on a global scale. The U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty per cent of them are women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation.

The way I see it, feminism is not irrelevant. Girls today need feminism now more than ever. In the next several posts, I will be exploring the new ways sexism is impacting girls today, and how feminism can be utilized to help them.

Picture: "feminism" by Jay Morrison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

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