For a new generation of feminists, the battles are strangely familiar
Coming out as a feminist isn’t easy. The word is loaded with baggage and politics—people often look away nervously when I drop the “F-word.” Feminism is misunderstood and feared, but in spite of that, feminists are not an extinct or even an endangered species. Canada still boasts a strong feminist movement, and it is as relevant and necessary as ever.
Feminists of my generation—or “third wave feminists”—are in their 20’s and 30’s and have grown up in a world where women and men are equal on paper, but not always in practice. The first two waves had clearly defined objectives and goals, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the collective aim of the third wave.
First wave feminists emerged at the turn of the last century. These determined suffragettes fought for women’s right to vote, to run for political office, and to be legally defined as persons.
Second wave feminists of the 1960’s and 70’s battled for reproductive rights and paid maternity leave. They established women’s shelters and reformed laws regarding rape, equal pay and more. Feminists of the second wave accomplished many legal victories, and by the 1980’s, women seemed – in theory - to have it all.
So what causes do third wave feminists espouse? The movement began in the 1990’s and has invited criticism for lacking a common goal, and for being disjointed and disorganized. At the same time, the newest generation of feminists have expended significant efforts defending the rights won by second wave feminists. The battles our mothers fought are not over, and the victories they won are under constant threat. We’ve been so busy trying to keep up with the unfinished business of second wave feminism that we’ve hardly had the chance to set a third wave agenda.
Access to abortion and reproductive health services remain under attack, even though abortion has been legal for 24 years, and enjoys the support of the majority of Canadians. Since the Supreme Court struck down the law banning abortion in 1988, at least 35 pro-life private members’ bills and one government bill have attempted to curb access to the procedure. It can still be difficult and expensive to obtain an abortion, especially for women who don’t live in or near a major urban centre.
Canadian laws requiring equal pay for equal work have existed since the 1950’s, yet in 2011 are still a major preoccupation for feminists. In 2007, Canada became the first modern economy with more women working than men. Women today comprise more than half of our university students. However, studies show that a Canadian woman doing the same job as a man will still earn only 63-83% of his wage.
Second wave feminists lobbied to change laws about rape and were once again successful - on paper. Since 1983, rape victims no longer have to defend their reputations in court: their sexual history or their attire cannot be used against them. Yet in February 2011, a Winnipeg judge let a convicted rapist off with no jail time because the victim was wearing skimpy clothes and “wanted to party.”
It’s discouraging that third wave feminists must still defend rights our mothers thought were settled. Although many of our politics and battles have remained unchanged since the second wave, much has changed about feminists themselves.
Young feminists are less aggressive because we know that despite the remaining inequalities, Canadian women’s situation and status is among the best in the world. We have a better sense of humour about feminism than our mothers did, but we’re completely, sometimes ridiculously, obsessed with political correctness. We’re open-minded about contentious feminist issues of the past like prostitution, pornography and gender queerness. And one of the most significant shifts has been embracing the involvement of men in the movement.
The feminist movement is not in crisis—it is just being pulled in two directions at once. The unresolved issues of the second wave keep drawing the third wave into old battles, while issues such as the career-motherhood balance continue to arise and demand our efforts and attention. As Generation F looks to the future, we still have to keep one eye on the past.