The Making of a Feminist Revolution

March 8 is International Women’s Day (IWD). In most of the world, it is an important holiday recognizing the struggles of women for equality. In Eastern Europe, it is celebrated like our Mother’s Day. Here in North America, where the women’s movement is probably more powerful than anywhere else, IWD barely rates a mention.

But IWD has always been an important moment of taking stock for the women’s movement. So it is that my new book Ten Thousand Roses: the Making of a Feminist Revolution (Penguin) is being launched today.

The book is an oral history of second wave feminism, starting in the 1960’s. Rather than my version of that history, I have put together a collection of interviews with the women who organized, fought and often triumphed in the battle to achieve equality.

The Canadian women’s movement is the most interesting, broadest and successful in the world. No doubt such a claim will drive most National Post writers to the barricades but it is easy to prove.

Women in Canada along side of Dr. Henry Morgentaler fought for twenty years for legal abortion and won a deep long standing victory. Canada is one of the few countries where abortion is completely legal. Despite some problems with access, the days of the horror of an unwanted pregnancy leading to a backstreet abortion or months of shame are long over.

Legal equality in the Charter is another hard fought triumph of the Canadian women’s movement. When Pierre Elliott Trudeau brought home the constitution, he and his Justice Minister Jean Chretien thought they could sideline the women’s movement from influence over the language of the Charter. Again women mobilized. This time in an extraordinary few weeks, women from across Canada came to Ottawa to make their voices heard in a women’s constitutional conference. The result was the strongest possible equality language.

In Ontario, women organized in alliance with the labour movement to win broad pay equity legislation. The alliance between the women’s movement and the labour movement in Canada is one of the unique qualities of Canadian feminism and contributed to many of the victories of feminism. In addition, the Canadian labour movement has held its ground when the U.S. labour movement declined in no small measure because of its appeal to women workers.

When the Royal Commission on the Status of Women reported in 1970, violence against women was so hidden that there was barely a word about it in an otherwise visionary report calling for national daycare program, legal abortion, more women in politics,the bureaucracy and the professions. Yet every time a women’s centre opened their doors, they got calls from women seeking protection from violent men. From a shameful secret behind closed doors, the women’s movement succeeded in making violence against women and children a major public policy issue. The job of putting an end to it remains.

But the greatest achievement of Canadian feminism is its reach into every community, whether ethnic or geographic. To this day there are women’s centres, shelters and rape crisis centres in hundreds of communities across the country. Women’s organizations continue to work to promote women’s rights in every corner of our country. Women’s service organizations have turned their attention to assisting women around the globe.

In our multicultural, multiracial country, Canadian feminists were pioneers in learning how to work across difference and create a movement that truly reflected the women of this country. Last Saturday I marched in the International Women’s Day march that has been held every year in Toronto since 1978. It wasn’t as big as it once was but it was just as diverse. Women from every community in the city marched together to call for a world of peace, justice and equality.

None of these gains were made without cost. There was tremendous resistance from men, from government, the courts and the media to every change that women fought for. Young women who have read Ten Thousand Roses tell me that they are “shocked” by how bad things were a generation ago.

Some have read Ten Thousand Roses as a lament for second wave feminism. On the contrary, it is a tribute to the generations of women who created a revolution in this country and around the world. Most of what my generation of feminists fought for has been won. Yet women labour longer under the double day, still face the fear of violence, and are subject to even worse pressures to fit into an impossible model of beauty.

And men still hold a lock on power. While some women have reached the highest echelons of power in government and the corporate world, they are still a handful. Patriarchy is still alive and well even if some women have been accepted into the boys’ club.

Feminism needs to reinvent itself to deal with these new realities. Third wave feminists have begun to redefine feminism but their work remains mostly in the cultural domain. A global women’s movement is redefining feminism on a world scale to meet the challenges of corporate globalization. This spring a World Charter of Women will travel around the world seeking to reflect the needs of women from Afghanistan to Alberta. As these new developments begin to emerge into the mainstream, Ten Thousand Roses takes a moment to document and reflect on the changes that have been made and what we learned by making them.

Judy Rebick is the Sam Gindin Chair in social justice and democracy at Ryerson University and publisher of rabble.ca. Check out her blog at www.penguinblogs.ca/rebick.

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