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W(h)ither feminism?

by Susan Altschul

19_book_cover_1Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
New York: Knopf, 2013. 228 pages.

Monique Jérôme-Forget, Les femmes au secours de l’économie: Pour en finir avec le plafond de verre. Montreal: Stanké, 2012. 187 pages.

It  has been 50 years since Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and described “the problem with no name.” It has been 50 years since my generation graduated from North American universities determined to “have it all” – and to raise a generation of children who would be free of gender stereotypes.

It is important to keep in mind that my generation of feminists stands on the shoulders of previous generations, with progress being made incrementally over the decades. A hundred years ago, women were fighting to get the vote, own property after marriage and get custody of their children upon divorce. Fifty years ago, the women of my generation made enormous strides in terms of access to work, pay equity, status and recognition, and we take pride in that. Today’s issues appear to be centred on making the workplace more accommodating so that women – and men too – can achieve “work-life balance” and make a real contribution to the economy.

19_book_cover_2By the Oxford English Dictionary definition of feminism as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes,” everyone who believes in gender equality is a feminist. Nevertheless, back in the 1960s, feminism was a bad word in North America, its proponents perceived as unfeminine, unkempt, humourless harridans (which is exactly why beautiful and soft-spoken Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, was propelled into the leadership of the American feminist movement). Today, feminism seems to have become a bad word once again. Younger women do not want to use that word in relation to themselves, observes Stanford English professor Michele Elam, because gender, along with race, has become delegitimized as a serious field of study, and is regarded as “harboring an activism at odds with disinterested intellectual inquiry.”1 And some women are pulling out of extremely high-powered positions and opting for what they see as a less stressful balance between “work” and “life.”

Call it what you will, but the battles have not all been won and there are still women’s issues worth fighting for in today’s ugly and terror-stricken world. But perhaps it is an opportune time to redefine the battleground.

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About the Author

Susan Altschul
Susan Altschul is a lawyer and former journalist living in Montreal.


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