My mother was born a non-person. It was two years before little Barbara Alice Starr, unbeknownst to her, was allowed into that category of human person. Although the majority of Canadian women had the federal vote by 1919 and a female MP (Agnes Macphail) had been elected to the House of Commons in 1922, the British North America Act (BNA) – our constitution – refused women’s entry into the Senate because they were not considered ‘qualified persons’ – specifically, over the age of 30, holding land valued at least $4,000 and resident in the province of their appointment. The BNA did not contemplate that that description would ever include anything other than men and therefore felt no need to specify. (I note that I turned to the Canadian Encyclopaedia for this information, one of the contributors of which is named Barbara Alice Starr McKenna, PhD(c). Cool. A Canadian history scholar, granddaughter of an illiterate Irish peasant-woman, she taught for many years at the University of Western Ontario.)
The theme for our local International Women’s Day event was hope. The Executive Director of our local women’s shelter spoke of her struggle to come up with content for her address. It seems as if we are in retreat, she said, going backward – slipping back, I would say, into that place of not just non-persons, but, as my friend added, as targets. Norah Kennedy lamented the seeming impossibility this far down the road of our ‘liberation’ that US voters would elect a man whose misogyny, sexist behavior and language, his xenophobia and racism, were well known, rather than, well, a woman.
Since then, it has felt like open-season. Not that we had reached some kind of feminist utopia – these words and insults and inequities have never gone away; it’s the mainstreaming of it all that makes it so disturbing. Having reached a point that we can say ‘It’s 2015’ – our new PM’s response when questioned about his appointment of equal numbers of women and men in his cabinet – it’s now 2017 and the air feels different.
The slide presentation at our event included a comparative list of those attributes celebrated in women and those celebrated in men. Rather discouraging. Under ‘women’, we find co-operative, supportive, cautious reserved, nurturing, domestic, beautiful, small. Under ‘men’, we find competitive, leader, tough, self-reliant, handsome, tall… Wow. Back into our boxes. Or have the boxes never changed? One young woman at our retreat centre once insisted that she was not a feminist. It seemed not the right moment to ask questions. Where are we going?
As I find in my work in zones of conflict around the world – and all sorts of workplace environments, these lists remain all too true. The speaker yesterday talked about the number of times her daughter was called ‘pretty’ at a birthday party. And that’s right next to, she noted, ‘perfectionism’ – body-, looks-discontentments that take women and girls down all sorts of dark holes of self-loathing. And social media have raised it to a new level. It means that we remain colonised into patriarchy and our role as objects – of desire, lust, admiration, of envy. What are we teaching our daughters when we dress them in clothing and make-up designed for objectified desire and admiration? Early sexualisation has our daughters and granddaughters preening by kindergarten before they are even quite clear what for. We are like fish swimming in waters of subversion, washing over us, around us, everywhere, hardly distinguishable from anything else – telling us who we are and who we need to be. For what? For whom? And how does one break out, refuse, drain the fishbowl when our dissent might kill us?