What is feminism? Why does it still matter? What exactly does intersectionality mean? In order to answer these (and many other) questions, I Am a Feminist first examines the history of feminism and then addresses the issues girls and women continue to face today. The book also looks at the ways in which people, especially young people, are working together to create a world where gender equality is a reality, not a dream. The author shares stories about the courageous individuals who have made a difference in the lives of women and girls worldwide. From suffragists to the #MeToo movement, I Am a Feminist encourages readers to stand up and speak out for equality and justice.
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Text copyright © 2019 Monique Polak
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Polak, Monique, authorI am a feminist: claiming the f-word in turbulent times / Monique Polak.
(Orca issues)Includes bibliographical references and index.Issued in print and electronic formats.isbn 978-1-4598-1892-7 (softcover).—isbn 978-1-4598-1893-4 (pdf).—isbn 978-1-4598-1894-1 (epub)
1. Feminism—Juvenile literature. I. Title.hq1155.p64 2018 j305.42 c2018-904767-4c2018-904768-2
Issued in print and electronic formats.isbn 978-1-4598-1892-7 (softcover).—isbn 978-1-4598-1893-4 (pdf).— isbn 978-1-4598-1894-1 (epub)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2018954084Simultaneously published in Canada and the United States in 2019
Summary: This nonfiction book encourages teens to stand up for equality and speak out against injustice.
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
The author and publisher have made every effort to ensure that the information in this book was correct at the time of publication. The author and publisher do not assume any liability for any loss, damage or disruption caused by errors or omissions. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyrighted material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.
Interior illustrations by Meags Fitzgerald
Edited by Sarah N. HarveyDesign by Teresa BubelaCover photo by Rebecca WellmanCover illustrations by Meags FitzgeraldEbook by Bright Wing Books (brightwing.ca)
orca book publishersorcabook.com
For Viva Singer, Debra Arbec and Michele Luchs—hoop sisters. With love and gratitude.
What Is Feminism, and Why Do You Need to Read This Book?
Ride the Wave: The History of Feminism
We’re All in This Together: Girls Around the World
Access to Education
Access to Health Care
Female Genital Mutilation
War and Its Effects on Girls and Women
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: The Female Focus on Appearance
Media and Advertising
Feminists in Love: Navigating the World of Sex and Romance
The Sexual Double Standard
Intimate Partner Violence
The Institution of Marriage
Nine to Five and Then Some: The Fight for Equality in the Workplace
STEM (and Sometimes STEaM) in the Schools
The Glass Ceiling
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Intersectionality: Diverse and Inclusive Feminism
Gender and Sexuality
Raising Feminist Boys: Allies in the Fight Against Sexism
NonTraditional Careers for Men
Say Yes to Household Chores
Foster Genuine Friendships
Resist Rape Culture
A Final Word from the Author
Staying Up to Date: Resources
Table of Contents
“Do you consider yourself a feminist?”
I put that question to thirteen-year-old Samantha. We were having tea with Samantha’s grandma, who lives down the street from me in Montreal, Quebec. Samantha, who was going into ninth grade in Vancouver, British Columbia, was at the tail end of a two-week visit to Montreal.
“I’m not sure,” Samantha said. “But I do believe women should have equal rights.”
“In that case,” I pointed out, “you are a feminist.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”Who can argue with that?
And yet when Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau declared, “I am a feminist” during his address to the United Nations women’s conference in March 2016, it made front-page news around the world. “I am going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist. Until it is met with a shrug,” Trudeau explained.
In 2016 Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau made international news when he declared, “I am a feminist.”
Not all young—or, for that matter, older—women and men are as comfortable as Trudeau is when it comes to identifying themselves as feminists. Some think that even saying the word feminism out loud makes them man haters!
In their book ManifestA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards suggest that some people feel threatened by the word feminism because it is “a word of great power.”
The term f-word is sometimes used to refer to feminism, a “humorous” way of saying that using the word feminism, or declaring oneself a feminist, is somehow rude or wrong.
But thank goodness that’s changing! Here’s proof: in 2017, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary declared feminism its word of the year—because it was the most looked-up word on its online dictionary.
As part of my research for this book, I spoke to girls, women, boys and men about feminism. Because I live in Montreal, most of the people I interviewed live here too—but I believe that their experiences reflect those of many people worldwide. Every single adult woman I spoke with reported having experienced some form of sexism in her life.
Evelyn Sacks, a retired schoolteacher who died in 2018, just two months short of her 100th birthday, remembered being paid considerably less than her male colleagues, despite the fact that they worked the same number of hours and taught the same number of students.
Elisabeth Telford-Klerks recalled that when she was studying nursing in Toronto, Ontario, in 1959, she and the other nurses in training (all female) had to stand aside and let the doctors (all male) onto the elevator first.
Today, at the college where I teach in Montreal, male and female teachers are paid equal salaries. And most of us know as many female doctors as male ones. Though feminists have made huge, important strides (you’ll learn more about their work in chapter 1), inequality between the sexes persists. Misogyny, which means prejudice against girls or women, remains far too common.
Consider the following examples of inequality between the sexes: On average, most women still do not earn equal pay for equal work. In Canada in 2015, women earned eighty-seven cents for every dollar a man earned. In the same year, American women fared even worse, earning only eighty cents for every dollar earned by American men. Women are four times more likely than men to be victims of intimate partner violence (sometimes called domestic violence). And in at least ten countries, including Cambodia, Ethiopia, Haiti and Nepal, it is difficult and often impossible for girls to attend school.
During a visit to Montreal, QC, 13-year-old Samantha learned that her grandmother, Joanne Morgan, co-founded the women’s studies program at Vanier College.
When I asked Samantha if she had ever experienced sexism, it didn’t take her long to come up with an answer. “The girls in my class are more athletic than the boys. I had this teacher who selected the boys to do the heavy lifting. It kind of bothered me—even if I didn’t really want to help lift furniture!” she told me.
In 2016, Samantha, a competitive swimmer since the age of eight, came in fourth in her age group in British Columbia in butterfly. “You have to be strong and confident to do the butterfly,” she explained. Because it requires tremendous muscular strength, the butterfly stroke tends to be associated with male rather than female swimmers. “I’ve noticed lately,” Samantha said, “that fewer girls my age are doing the butterfly. They seem to be less motivated.” Some girls give up the butterfly because they worry it will give them “man shoulders.” Of course, for boys, “man shoulders” are a good thing. Some coaches, too, may contribute to the problem by failing to encourage girls to continue doing a stroke that is considered masculine. All this serves as another indication that sexism exists—even in the lap lane.
“Did you know,” I asked Samantha, “that your grandma was one of the founders of the women’s studies program at Vanier College here in Montreal?”
Samantha’s head spun around to look at her grandma, as if she was seeing her for the first time.
Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique is often credited for ushering in the second wave of feminism.
Then Samantha’s grandma told us how she became a feminist: “I married at the age of twenty-two, and I was home with four small children when I read Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique. It blew me away. I tried to tell my best friend about the book, but she didn’t want to hear about it.”
Friedan’s book is often credited with ushering in what is known as the second wave of feminism (you’ll learn more about that in chapter 1 too). In her book, Friedan used the phrase “the problem that has no name” to refer to the plight of women in society. Friedan argued there was more to a woman’s life than looking after her husband and kids.
More recently, feminists such as bell hooks have criticized Friedan for focusing only on white women. hooks was one of the first feminist scholars to study intersectionality (the overlap between sexism, racism and classism—more about that in chapter 6). She observed that many black women in Friedan’s time were in the workforce, most of them employed in low-prestige jobs that paid poorly. Friedan’s views did not help these women or other women of color. Not only were they already working, but many were trapped in jobs white women did not want.
Intersectionality looks at the overlap of identities such as race, gender, class and sexuality. All women, including the most marginalized, must be included in the struggle for equality.
If you are living in relative comfort in North America—meaning you have food, clothing, a safe place to live and access to health care and education—you may also grow up thinking there’s no need for feminism.
But there is.
Feminism is not a done deal.
In North America, women have the right to vote, and most women have access to legal abortion. Girls can go on to study and work in the fields of their choice. But there is still plenty of inequality between the sexes.
When I started to do the research for this book, I quickly realized there was a lot I did not know about issues related to feminism. Keep reading—and I promise you will learn a lot too.
But maybe you’re wondering why you should read my book about feminism. After all, I’m a middle-aged white woman. What could you and I possibly have in common?
Let me share a little more of my own story. I was born in 1960. Though my parents met at law school in the Netherlands, my mom never practised as a lawyer. Instead, she stayed home to raise her three children. I still remember how, on Friday nights, my dad would call my mom upstairs to give her what he called her “allowance”—enough cash to pay for groceries and other expenses for the week ahead.
As a girl growing up, I loved writing, and I often played “school” in our basement, but I never really imagined that I would have a career. Instead, I thought I would fall madly in love and live happily ever after. I have been married—and divorced—twice.
As a young woman I experienced intimate partner violence. To a large extent I blamed myself for tolerating (and perhaps even inciting) the violence for several years before I was able to leave the relationship.
In my work as a journalist, I have developed a specialty in writing about intimate partner violence. When I tell the women I interview that I was once where they are, it often becomes easier for them to open up and share their stories with me.
In the late 1960s, feminists began to use the phrase “The personal is political.” I had heard that phrase many times. But it was not until I was writing this book that I realized how much that statement applied to my experience too.
In March 2017 participants in the International Women’s Day March in Los Angeles, CA, demanded equal rights for women and objected to the Trump administration’s stand on women’s rights.
Despite my personal struggles, I recognize my own privilege as a white, heterosexual, educated, financially secure, cisgender woman. (Cisgender means that a person’s sense of identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.) In this book we’ll return to the question of privilege, and to the importance of taking an intersectional approach to feminism, which aims to improve the lives of all women.
Many of my friends who attended college and university took women’s-studies courses. I never did. Life made me a feminist.
Working on this book has also made me understand the urgent need for activism. It isn’t enough to talk about feminism. We need to take action by standing up not only for ourselves, but also, and especially, for women who are part of marginalized communities, meaning they are socially disadvantaged and often discriminated against.
This book is for Samantha and all the young people like her who are not sure if they are feminists and who, like me, have many questions but who hope for a better world for all of us, regardless of our gender, sexual preference, race, religion, class or where we happen to live.
I am a feminist.
What about you?
I chose Ride the Wave as the title for this chapter because I liked the sound of it, but when I looked up what it really means I decided I was on the right track. “Riding the wave” means to enjoy a period of success and good fortune.
The feminist movement is often described as happening in waves. Every one of us benefits from the progress made by the women (and their allies) who came before us in the fight for equality between the sexes. In this way, we are still riding the wave.
Most people describe three waves, but recently there has been talk of a fourth—and sometimes even a fifth—wave.
It’s human nature to take the good things in our lives for granted. For example, when I go to the polling station at the school near my house, I do not give much thought to the days when women were not allowed to cast votes. I don’t think about the women who fought for suffrage (the right to vote in political elections).
That’s why I’m about to remind you of all that has been achieved—so far—by the feminists who came before us.
Pictured here at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall, members of Canada’s National Council of Women supported women’s right to vote.
First-wave feminism took place between the 1830s and early 1900s. Women realized they would need political power to bring about societal change. That’s why early feminists fought for suffrage, and it explains why these women were known as suffragists and later suffragettes.
Around the world the suffrage movement was connected to the temperance campaign, a movement advocating moderation in the consumption of alcohol or total abstinence from it. People—men as well as women—recognized that alcohol contributed to societal problems. If a woman’s husband got drunk and spent the family’s grocery money on liquor, or if he beat her, there was little she could do about it. At the time, women were seldom granted divorces, and few could support themselves and their children financially. In those days women could not even own property.
Nellie McClung was an important Canadian suffragist. She came up with a creative way to demonstrate that women deserve an equal voice in government.
Canada’s first suffrage association was formed in Toronto, Ontario, in 1877. In order to avoid causing a stir, the group called itself a women’s literary society! By 1914 the Canadian suffrage movement had 10,000 members—some of them men. Ten thousand may seem like a big number, but it was only two-tenths of a percent of the country’s adult population at the time. For the most part, the suffrage movement was a peaceful campaign. Suffragists petitioned government officials and organized lectures. In 1914, activist Nellie McClung rented Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre, where she and her fellow suffragists enacted a mock parliament run by women. This was a creative way to show society that women wanted an equal voice in government.
World War I (1914–1918) also helped the suffrage movement. With so many men fighting overseas, women not only took charge of their families, but many also took over men’s jobs, another indication of how capable women were—and how deserving of the right to vote.
By 1918 most Canadian women over the age of twenty-one had the right to vote in federal elections. These included women of color but, sadly, not Indigenous men and women, who were excluded from voting in federal elections until 1960. Also by 1918, most Canadian women had provincial franchise(franchise is another term that refers to the right to vote) as well. Quebec was the last Canadian province to give women the right to vote.
American suffragists ride in a hay wagon during a 1913 suffrage parade.
Quebec politician and journalist Henri Bourassa was a vocal opponent of women’s suffrage. He warned that allowing women to vote would turn them into “veritable women-men.”
Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth fought for the rights of women and black people.
In the United States, Sojourner Truth, whose birth name was Isabella Baumfree, was an early advocate of rights for women and blacks. In 1826, at the age of twenty-nine, she escaped a life of slavery. Sojourner Truth is best known for her impassioned “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, which she delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Most American women were granted the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As in Canada, American suffragists had been lobbying for many years. Women’s suffrage was an important part of the discussion at the Seneca Falls Convention, held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. This convention is considered the first women’s rights conference.
Like Indigenous men and women in Canada, Native Americans also had to wait to get the right to vote. That finally happened in 1924 when the United States passed the Indian Citizenship Act. Even then, some states, such as Arizona and New Mexico, resisted and did not allow their Indigenous population to vote until 1948.
Emily Stowe is considered the founder of Canada’s suffrage movement. Emily’s mother was a Quaker, a Christian religious group that believes in the equality of women and men. At the age of 20, Emily became Canada’s first woman school principal. After her husband fell ill with tuberculosis, and Emily had to do more to help support her family, she decided to become a doctor. Her application to study medicine at the University of Toronto was rejected. So she enrolled at the New York Medical College for Women. Emily’s daughter, Augusta Stowe Gullen, became a doctor too. Augusta graduated from Victoria University, Toronto, in 1883, the first woman to receive medical training in Canada.
Rosa Parks is fingerprinted after being arrested for boycotting public transportation in Montgomery, AL, February 1956.
Second-wave feminism began in the early 1960s and lasted until the late 1980s. The movement started in the United States but quickly traveled throughout the developed world (countries where there is a high level of industrial activity and where citizens can earn good wages). It was sparked, in part, by the Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968), which fought to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans. Although women played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement, many of them felt they had been overshadowed by men. These women complained of gender discrimination as well as sexual harassment. So black women started their own feminist groups, in which they focused on issues including access to health care and reproductive rights. Unfortunately, these women were criticized by some members of the Black Liberation movement, who called them “race traitors.” Early black feminists were also discriminated against by white feminists. During these years, black women were seldom invited to sit on panels at events promoting feminism.
Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique also played a major role in ushering in the second wave of feminism. The book quickly became a bestseller. Inspired by Friedan’s views and findings that many women were dissatisfied with their role as full-time homemakers, second-wave feminists focused initially on workplace inequality.
Students in a home economics class in 1959 learn skills meant to prepare them to be wives and mothers.
In 1960 only 38 percent of American women worked outside the home. Most were limited to jobs perceived as traditionally female: teaching, nursing or doing secretarial work. Others worked as domestics, cleaning other people’s homes and offices. In the United States in 1960 only 6 percent of doctors were women, 3 percent of lawyers were women, and less than 1 percent of engineers were women. Things have changed a lot since those days. By 2017, in the United States, 40 percent of doctors were women, 37.4 percent of lawyers were women and 16.2 percent of those employed in the architectural and engineering sectors were women. Unfortunately, women still lag behind in what are known as the stem (science, technology, engineering and math) professions.
Buttons like this one have been used since 1969 by the Redstockings, a feminist group founded in New York City.
Consciousness-raising groups became popular during feminism’s second wave. Women met, often in each other’s homes, to discuss issues such as work, family life, education and sex. For many of them, these meetings marked the first time they had spoken openly about such subjects with other women.
Women also began campaigning for the legalization of abortion. They organized speak-outs, in which women spoke publicly about rape (an experience many had been reluctant to share) and the experience of having had illegal abortions. Although abortion became legal in many countries because women fought for this right, legal, safe abortions and reproductive rights are currently under attack worldwide.
In 1960 the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill for contraceptive use, freeing many women from unwanted pregnancies. By 1965, 6.5 million American women were using the birth control pill.
A lot of controversy surrounded the introduction of the birth control pill, which freed women from unwanted pregnancy.
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