Recently, a good friend told me of a mentoring experience her daughter had at work. She’s a young lawyer in her first year at a big-city firm. When she returned from her post-articling break, she and some female colleagues were sat down for an informal meeting with some senior female lawyers. The first item on the agenda was a question: “so, what’s your debt?” As I was told this, I thought “now that’s direct.” But also important and thoughtful. The mentors were attempting to make a bridge and value the real-life situation of their newer colleagues who had come through eight years of schooling—many of them with debts ranging from the price of a new car to the price of a new condo. They listened to them narrate their tales of navigation—some had families to support, others had families that supported them—and then offered suggestions, advice, and resources based on their own experience and knowledge of handling the first years out of law school.
Uncritical and Critical Mentoring
I was impressed by this story of women who, with knowledge of how it was for them—what supports were there, and what was missing—had stepped up to help their sisters with their experience. I was also a little covetous of the guidance. I have no idea if this is a common thing amongst women lawyers, but if it is I’d say it’s a good model. I wished that I had that sort of aid and nourishment when I started my career—or even throughout it. I don’t think I even understood what mentoring was when I was new to the regular work world. I had supportive co-workers, and even occasionally some who went the extra mile or gave (mostly unsolicited) advice. In one job, one of my older colleagues was selected to pull me aside and advise me on how best to deal with the boss’s drinking problem. I don’t think you could call it a mentorship, but it was helpful. When I mentioned advice here, I said “mostly unsolicited” because for most of my life, I didn’t even know I could ask for career or work life guidance. And I still feel that way, despite my age (don’t ask), and having navigated through different aspects of my career. I mean, I think for most of my life I saw mentoring as an exercise of the privileged over their younger (or less privileged) selves. To be honest, I still think that is what uncritical mentoring is: a one-way street where people who possess knowledge and the means set themselves up as pseudo TED talkers with clever words and deeds that gratify themselves, instead of the listeners.
Learning From the Mentored
Over the past decade, I’ve taken to following the teachings and suggestions of the younger women in my life (and yeah, most are millennials). I don’t know if they could be called mentors outright, but they use the tools of critical mentoring. They are inventive, smart, and enthusiastic. They listen and provide a platform when possible. And they don’t assume that a query or a question means I am a complete dullard who needs to be schooled. They encourage intergenerational dialogue but don’t idol worship what an older person says just because they are older. Maybe it’s because many millennials see how tenuous work is, and how we all need to share resources, Or, perhaps it is because they understand power but are not interested in wielding it like a weapon. I get such constructive dialogue from younger people who have an interest in mutual benefit—even if that benefit isn’t readily quantifiable.
I’ve had a thing for dystopian fiction ever since I read 1984, back when that date was, well… in the future. Dystopian books have always had a market and they’ve been especially popular in young adult (YA) publishing for some years now. Then there are the television and movie adaptations (everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to The Children of Men, Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner) that visualize dreary survival in a repressive time to come. It’s frightening and compelling to see imagined futures mapping out the world that might be if the present just shifted slightly to the more authoritarian side. Of course, dystopian novels have special resonance in eras of political or social anxiety, like say, today.
“Please Sir, I Want Some More…”
Lately, I’ve been indulging in a bit of my own dystopian imaginings. What would happen if, say, we allowed democracy to be eroded so much that we surrendered our (liberal) human rights and citizenship for the faint hope of economic security (or, you know, a crust of bread)? I have been thinking a lot about this since the Ontario government raised the minimum wage to $14 an hour, and since the Amazon HQ2 shortlist was announced (stay with me…I’ll try to come full circle on these two).
Way to Go on the Solidarity Front…
I was not surprised to hear yelps and complaints about the minimum raise hike from small businesses that are precarious or operate on tight margins. Clearly, wages are where these businesses squeeze their profits from and the few extra dollars per hour will reduce or, in some cases, eliminate them. Or so they say. We’ll have to see. I expect this type of response from business owners. Profit is within their interests. I am however, continually knocked back when I hear people who make a few dollars more than the legal minimum grumbling about others being raised up. Their chief complaint goes something like this: “but I make $17 an hour and it took me years to get here. Now somebody who just starts is going to make $15.” It kind of shows how low the bar is set and how the majority of us really don’t have a say in our worth when selling our labour. Worker can’t bargain (at least not individually) for more if an employer sees them as not worthy. You’d think that fact alone would make some people more receptive to government guidelines such as the lowest possible amount of money you can pay a person to work. You’d also think it would make us all more generous of spirit when it comes to our fellow human beings almost earning a living wage. Of course, there are ways around paying the lowest possible amount. Ask your pizza delivery person about that. That—the work for hire and gig economy—is also part of my dystopian imaginings. It is, in reality, happening right now, and I reckon it will expand in the future. This is why we need to tackle precarious work on our fairness and equality agenda as well. And this leads me to the other part of my dystopian imagining, which is that the world where we trade our rights for a crust of bread is already here.
Fighting Over a Crust of Bread
Just the other day, OXFAM released a report on inequality that stated 82 percent of the wealth created in the world last year went into the pockets of the richest one percent. The report, released for the suits who gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, called on governments to “ensure our economies work for everyone” by “ensuring all workers receive a minimum ‘living’ wage that would enable them to have a decent quality of life.” The report also asked governments to make sure wealthy pay their “fair share of tax through higher taxes and a crackdown on tax avoidance” while increasing spending on public services such as healthcare and education. You can see Oxfam’s report here: https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2018-01-22/richest-1-percent-bagged-82-percent-wealth-created-last-year
Paying Tribute to Our Corporate Masters
The thing that frightens me is that while $17 an hour workers are sourly squabbling about their fellow underlings getting a raise, the richest man in the world is unashamedly asking our governments to give his company land and tax breaks and outright graft in order for him to set up shop in their communities and make more money. That’s right, cities across North America brought tributes to the feet of multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos’ empire, begging his corporation to bring jobs their way and shortlist them for a new royal city, erm, corporate headquarters. Amazon had prepared a ransom demand of “what we want from you in return for jobs” and governments all over North American bent over in servile compliance. Atlanta’s incentive bid included over $1 billion in free land, developments, tax breaks and bobbles. Boston waved $100 million in transit infrastructure and tracts of land. Chicago has apparently offered $2 billion in tax breaks. Also a contender, Toronto didn’t offer up any tax or public treasure box subsidies, but is is already forking out to help build a “smart city” in a deal with Google’s parent company. Yes, of course having Amazon H2Q will bring a (hopefully enduring) economic boost and 50,000 jobs. But bribes and gifts for a monopolistic corporation whose founder has a net worth of $113.5 billion is truly science fiction worthy. While we whinge over whether people who work full time should (should?!) make a living wage, we have lost the plot and lost control. By all accounts, billionaire Bezos is a kind and giving philanthropist, meaning that when he chooses to spend his own money, he plunks it generously into charities and causes he believes in. Causes that he deems worthy. That’s lovely. That’s what emperors do. What’s nicer though, is that he and other uber wealthy citizens like him pay their fair share like the rest of us into the communal pot, so that Oxfam doesn’t have to run a campaign to remind world leaders that inequality is harmful and that living wages (like the $15 one Ontario will soon have) and taxes (not just taken from the $15 or $50-an-hour earners) are necessary for running a healthy, functioning democracy. A healthy, functioning democracy with things like infrastructure, health care, and education. You know…those state-provided things that make running a high-tech corporation possible.
So, who do I think is the “most influential” feminist? I can’t give just one answer or perhaps an answer to that question at all. I can say that any list I came up with would reflect my particular feminist politics and my knowledge as well as my ignorance. I can also say the thousands of women who pushed boundaries, risked their lives, and braved (and still brave, as the struggle continues) ridicule and persecution while pressing for political and social equality, are the “influential feminists”. I know many who have influenced me, but perhaps just as important are the many who are largely unsung, who by their words and actions—the way they have lived and are living their lives—have changed the culture and made my life with its rights and freedoms possible. Some of them are women I know or have known and who have helped raise me up and shape me: my familial forebears and contemporaries, and my friends, co-workers and bosses. All that said, I’m partial to the writing of bell hooks, and authors Marguerite Duras, Margaret Atwood, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others.
I owe a debt to many protofeminists who had the courage to live their lives the way they wanted to, as well as the leaders and worker bees of various feminist movements. I’m impressed by the the new feminist thought leaders such as Pussy Riot, the women who organized Idle No More, and all the women who took part in the Women’s March on Jan 21. Who do I think is the most influential feminist? How about all of them?
As a Women’s and Gender Studies student, I have come to realize that feminism is a very broad movement and to define an influential feminist as being more influential than others is by no means an easy task. As we are in the third, going into the fourth wave – i.e. the various stages of feminism – we are starting to look at intersectionality, where an individual’s various identities affect their experiences.
When we think of an influential feminist, we look at woman like Betty Friedan, bell hooks (her name is purposely not capitalized), or Kim Anderson. However, each one focuses on something different in their activism and literature because their lived experiences are all different. The experiences of a white, black, or indigenous women can’t be generalized as being the same regardless of the fact that they’re all woman because race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, etc. all play a role in their individual lives and how they look and experience the world.
However, to understand where feminists first appeared, who in my opinion have always existed, just feminism itself became a more mainstream movement, would be when women wanted the right to vote. In Canada, white women were allowed to vote in 1918, but this was only those whose husbands served in the war and it wasn’t until 1960 that Indigenous women were allowed to vote. THAT’S 42 YEARS LATER! Now it’s been 57 years since all women in Canada have been allowed to vote. That isn’t a long time when you look at the grand scheme of things.
The start to this RIGHT as we know it now as a Canadian citizen, started with only upper-middle class white women, who had a lot of time on their hands. They were known as the suffragettes and they were the “First Wavers” but to say they were the most influential feminists would be wrong. To identify a singular individual as being more influential in the movement in my opinion is a bad way to look at feminism because it assumes that one person is the face of all that is feminism but they are not.
To look at feminism is not to look at one individual or one particular group, because there isn’t one type of woman or one type of feminism. The suffragettes or the women in the Women’s Liberation Group, were all influential because without them fighting tooth and nail, women would not have the rights that they do today. I, in all honesty, can’t really give you an influential feminist because feminism itself is a growing process and no one person helped to make the movement what it is.
Feeling anxious? Down? Overwhelmed or even angry? I get it. We’re a few weeks into the New Year and the weather and light seem to be in perpetual November gloom. There’s no snow to brighten things here in Niagara, and spring is by no means just around the corner. Maybe you have bills piling up and no way to take care of them. Or you’re scared and raging that your neighbour next door is installing an angry billionaire as president, because, you know, he says he cares about the little guy. Or perhaps you are grieving or hurting from a loss. You might just be bone tired of slogging through life. I just want to say it won’t always feel this way.
I just want to say it won’t always feel this way.
It might feel worse, yet. But however wretched you feel, you feel. And it’s okay to feel miserable. It’s even okay to retreat a bit and rest away from the world.
But not forever. You don’t deserve interminable torment. If you feel like you can’t go on, give yourself permission to reach out and ask for help. Try a helpline, a doctor, a trained counsellor, or a friend. Join a group. Talk to someone. Getting help for your hurt is a radical act of self love.
If your pain is mild and just the temporary or situational bruises of life, resolve to look after yourself in little ways that give you joy: Go for a walk and look for ragged beauty (let’s face it, it’s dreary now and that may be the only beauty we can find); eat some ice cream; have a nap; write a letter; paint your nails; crank a tune and sing; volunteer; say “I love you” (doesn’t have to be in words and it doesn’t have to be to a human).
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy was known, among other things, for her biting wit, intelligence, and ability to incite and organize protest in the 1960s and 1970s civil rights and feminist movements. Among her famous quotes is the above, and this:
“I’m just a loud-mouthed middle-aged colored lady with a fused spine and three feet of intestines missing and a lot of people think I’m crazy. Maybe you do too, but I never stop to wonder why I’m not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren’t like me.”
The story is that this is what she said after she organized a mass public pissing (erm, urination) at Harvard university in 1973, to protest the lack of female bathrooms.
died in 2000, but her words live on, and so should her methods. I kind of like her idea of “making noise” and “rattling your cage door”. This past year has battered a lot of people emotionally. In the grander scheme, it has been another year of war and political turbulence, where we’ve seen the relentless pummelling of parts of Syria and the most disheartening return to fear and loathing in politics with the U.S. presidential election. In Niagara, it has been another year of economic stagnation that presents challenges for individuals living on the edge and the organizations (such as the YWCA) that work on their behalf.
Many moons ago, when I was in university, I recall a political philosophy professor telling my class he wasn’t so sure about human “progress”. He was sure about scientific progress, and ever so grateful for advances in medical technology, but progress in human nature? That is what he wanted us to read on about, ponder, and determine for ourselves. It is, for me, a nagging doubt that surfaces in times of strife or crisis. Are we better humans than our ancestors? Despite our supposed sophistication, have we learned anything?
The hind-end of 2016 left a lot of people anxious about the future and fearing a resurgence of racist and sexist ideals from the past. In North America, Trump’s ascendency seemed to embolden a lot of haters. In the U.K. and Europe, far-right ideas seemed to drown-out good-will and love. A lot of people were and are demoralized. Have we really forgotten our history and the brutal, blood-soaked lessons of the past? Are we moving into a new age of dystopian futility where people believe hate is right and good? Is this our era of De-Enlightenment?
I hope not. I don’t want to go there. And I’ve got work to do (with others) to help ensure we don’t. Flo Kennedy advocated grand acts of rebellion, but just as importantly, small acts of resistance, to bring about change. She clearly had faith in human progress and believed in moving forward. As she said:
I’ve struggled writing this piece. In fact, I started it about five times. Each time, my intro sounded lame. Then I would try a different approach. And then that would feel disingenuous or half-cocked, or again, lame. Realizing I wasn’t going to whip this off, I decided to examine why the subject of youth leadership was difficult for me to write about. The only thing I could come up with was that I wasn’t as in tune with youth as I thought I was. It’s like I suddenly realized I was kind of, well, old-er-ish. Or if not that, I realized that I’d turned the corner from “everyone is my contemporary or older”, to “my god, the young folk have taken over…and it is a good thing indeed.”
Following Breadcrumbs of the Young
I think I first realized this when I began following Instagram profiles of young people (I feel at times that I should be using the term “youngins” to point to my ignorance, and I also feel that I should put a disclaimer in here: I’m not quite sure if “profiles” is the right term…Instagram sites? Feeds? See how I am just reinforcing my old-er-ish status here?) What I mean to say is, I followed quite a few young people before realizing that they were young people. I followed because I was interested in what they had to say, the way I follow my contemporaries, or older writers, performers, and politicians because I was and am interested in what they have to say. I was following these feminist profiles/feeds, that had lovely, thoughtful, and brilliant posts. As is the way with social media, these profiles lead me to follow others. Before I knew it, I was reading, and feeling a wee bit like a creeper, the feed of a 15-year-old who is, quite frankly, my new role model. And the thing is, she is exceptional, but seemingly not so much beyond her contemporaries. Believe me, my natural suspicion made me try to find some fault (beyond her obvious class and race privilege, but crikey, she’s even aware and acknowledges those!) She’s part of a clever cohort of young leaders who are bringing their brands of feminist leadership to the fore. I feel this way about pretty much every young woman I know and meet nowadays.
A New, New Wave
By the way, the 15-year-old that I follow is actress Rowan Blanchard. But, I didn’t know she was an actress until I Googled her name for this piece (or 15 for that matter, although I knew she was young). I’d been reading her posts for a few years before learning she was a Disney star. Seriously. A Disney kid. A few weeks ago, she posted this on her definition of feminism (it isn’t her writing, but she borrowed it): “These days, I feel as though feminism must interrogate gender itself with an awareness of its myriad social intersections. What does it mean to be a woman, and why? Who gets to decide what a woman is? If one woman is different from another woman, then what unites them as women? White, cis gender women have an institutional history as so-called feminists—but their liberation has proven tenuous, irrelevant, or violent to millions of other women. When experience can vary so radically from woman to woman, is there any point in pursuing a single definition of feminism?”
When I was 15, I’m pretty sure I had what could be described as a somewhat protofeminist consciousness, to coin a term for my own semi-conscious mind and circumstances. I had an insular Catholic upbringing, in a parish community with the most infamous sexual predator priest in 20th Century southwestern Ontario. I think those circumstances and others helped me follow the breadcrumbs to full-on feminism. But it took me years of epiphanies and banging my head against the wall to learn what Rowan Blanchard knows already. Earlier this month, she posted a photo of her holding a #girlpossible campaign poster that said: “Equality is possible when…we recognize our privileges and use them to help other people.”
Okay, minor aside here, the #girlpossible campaign is a Barneys NY, department store nod to the United Nations International Day of the Girl. And yes, Barneys is a place where those dripping with privilege do their conspicuous consumption (confession: I may have purchased a Le Labo body cream at Barneys at some point in my life) but hey, the campaign is a lot more of something than nothing. And Rowan’s post was a world more self-aware than some of the other posts ( the “Anything is possible when you…map a plan to achieve your goals” post, or billionaire daughter and entrepreneur Hannah Bronfman’s contribution: “Anything is possible when…you work hard enough.” Sigh, she means well.) I think awareness is one of the most impressive things about many young feminist leaders today. Most have a firm understanding of intersectionality and an equally firm commitment to using their positions and privilege to change the world and level the playing field.
Using Power to Change
I don’t remember this being a big thing when I was young. It’s likely that I was just oblivious and unaware. There were probably more of the smaller gestures of solidarity and leadership that made it possible to live life and not be suffocated. I thought about this recently while working on a children’s book on Jazz Jennings, the young transgender activist and reality television star. Holy crikey, here is a young person who has their head on straight (and loving, decent family supports). Her main focus for coming out in public was to help other trans kids who don’t have her supports and privilege. But she and Rowan are high profile examples. I’m also impressed by the young feminists who surround me who make the quieter gestures. They too are leaders, and they are in every community. They act as Big Sisters (or Little Sisters who teach far more than they learn), they join community groups with an intent to do something for someone else, they start school fundraisers, and they read books and spread ideas about feminist activism through small everyday gestures. They wow me, educate me, and make me proud.
In between the click bait of things “you won’t believe,” recipes for the “best brownies ever,” articles speculating on how Donald Trump isn’t even human (hmm, perhaps not just conjecture), and the usual shots of friend’s children and vacations, my Facebook feed (and Instagram) seems to offer a lot of advice on how I should live my life. I mean, a lot.
On any given day, I can scroll through 20 different memes of motivation that, quite frankly, don’t do much beyond exercise my eyeballs. I mean, I wish they would do more. I wish it was that easy. I also wish it was easy to ignore most of them. I know some people say they can, but I call bullshit. Unless you ignore social media altogether (and yes, there are people who can and do), you will be inundated with motivational memes. And some will catch your eye. But so what, right? They’re harmless, right? Well, yes and no. I think we know words can hurt, no matter the intention.
Take this one I recently spied on Instagram:
“If you want to be happy, you have to be happy on purpose. When you wake up, you can’t just wait to see what kind of day you’ll have. You have to be the one to decide what kind of day you’ll have.”
“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.”
“Just do it. No more excuses. Just do.”
Fair enough. I’d like to have a great day, thank you. In fact, I’m a naturally happy person, I’ll just come out and assume I will have a great day. And if I’m sent challenges to my happiness, I’ll just put on my impenetrable cloak of joy, and I will repel the sad-making stuff. There. Done.
Not So Fair Enough
Get hit by a car on the way to work? Choose positivity! Loved one diagnosed with brain cancer? Think on the bright side! Lose your job? Your home? Your hope? Just go out and change your life! If this take sounds harsh to you, it’s because it is meant to be critical. I am skeptical about most inspirational memes. I want to question their premise. I want some critical thinking used on their validity. And the reason I want to do this is because I feel that often they are empty words. I know words can work as a placebo, and that is something, but I think many memes are a misdirection. And misdirection is a technique used by snake oil salesmen, sneaky politicians (not all mind you, not all), skilled statesmen, and dodgy preachers. Worse than that though, inspiration memes can be sticks and stones that do harm.
Sometimes Choices Aren’t Choices
I say this because sometimes choices aren’t choices. Sometimes they are illnesses that have nothing to do with free will. And sometimes those illnesses lead to other illnesses: addictions. Fighting occasional blue funks with memes that amount to inspirational porn is one thing. Believing that a person with a mental health issue, a clinical disorder, can be prodded into health with positive messages is another. It’s like saying good thoughts cure cancer or lung disease. (And if you believe they can, then I’ve got some swampland in Florida just waiting for you.) Good thoughts are important, but they aren’t the cure or an enduring or effective treatment, even when they are meant to encourage good practices. This is particularly true for addictions. One thing we know about addiction is that it anesthetizes pain. For people in pain—those suffering from undiagnosed and diagnosed mental health issues, addiction is a double burden. A judgey meme isn’t going to galvanize change. The “just do it” mentality serves mostly to remind people that they aren’t worthy. This opens wounds and personalizes blame. It makes things seem simple when they aren’t. It prefers to assign blame to irrational things; to ascribe great power to people who are in many ways powerless to their illnesses. All you need to do is get your act together, one minute or second at a time and all will end well… Simple words for a Sisyphean task.
Much like inspiration porn, where people with disabilities are called inspirational just because they live with a disability, this mental health and addiction motivational porn serves to make people who don’t have a mental health or addiction issue feel like they don’t have a responsibility, or part to play in turning things around (beyond posting encouragements). It largely forgets that mental illness is in some measure, structural and the treatment of it requires more than a few encouraging words. It requires money. Money for treatment and continuing care. Money for housing. Money for teams of professionals doing research into the medical, psychological, and social conditions that create and perpetuate mental illness and addictions. People don’t fail to “conquer” their mental health and addiction issues because they aren’t courageous, or clever, or fighting hard. Getting healthy does require great, and often repeated effort. But it isn’t just a personal thing. It has more to do with decent support systems and societal advantages than shaming people with “change your thoughts, change your life” memes.
The Gender Wage Gap: Whatever the Rationalization, It’s Still Discrimination.
A few months ago I was flipping through an old family photo album when I came across a newspaper clipping marking my nana’s retirement in 1975. She had been a nurse for over 50 years, retiring finally at age 75. Yep, 75. She worked at her local hospital until she was 65, then feeling idle, took a job at a nursing home for another 10 years. Questions of stamina (or perhaps financial ability to retire) aside, what most interested me about the article was Nana’s response to the reporter’s query on whether she felt “today’s nurses” deserved a pay raise. “Yes, they work very hard and I think they deserve a raise,” she responded. The candid answer made me smile, particularly as it seemed a cheeky question (would the reporter ask a retiring male accountant the same thing?) Also, I had clearly mistaken my Nana’s quiet manner for acquiescence. Here was a woman who had entered her profession roughly five years after the end of the First World War. Her own mother had not worked outside the home, and took in boarders for ready household cash. Nana was part of a newly emerging middle class cohort of “women’s professions”. Her two sisters trained as school teachers. These were among the few options open to women. And her two brothers? Well, after military service in WWI, they picked up living wage jobs with the railroad—without the need for additional education or training.
My Nana spent her early, unmarried years in her chosen field honing her skills in housekeeping, furnace-stoking, laundry, and instrument sterilization, in addition to hands-on nursing care. In a time of rapid change and undefined work parameters, her job required an ever-expanding skill set. And when compared to some other jobs available to women, nursing paid a steady wage. But you can bet that the hospital janitor, if there was one, took more coin home in his pay packet. Nurses pay in 1921 ranged roughly from $75 to $90 a month. That’s $2.50 to $3 a week (I pulled that from 1920-21 copies of The Canadian Nurse, in case you are wondering).
Finding this bit of family history in a binder of snapshots made the issue of the gender wage gap more three dimensional—and multi-generational. Canadian women comprise roughly half of the workforce today. Women are often better educated than men, with according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development stats, 55 per cent of Canadian women aged 25-64 having a degree, compared to 46 per cent of men the same age. Yet women in this country still earn 20 percent less than men (OECD figures). For women of colour, indigenous women, and disabled women, the gap is even larger. Also, the gap can vary according to province, with say, women in Alberta, where my Nana lived and worked, earning even less. It’s infuriating. And the rationalizations of why this is still our lot, even more so, especially since these rationalizations seem to change to suit the discrepancy. Take the argument that women earn less because they chose to study and work in lower-paying fields. Apart from the obvious fact that traditional “men’s work” has occupied a privileged wage space (why should daycare workers, payroll clerks, or social workers earn less than concrete finishers, truck drivers, or tool and die makers?) Studies have shown that wages consistently go up when men enter in numbers a traditionally female dominated profession (the reverse is true as well). Yes, more women work in lower-paid occupations, and more women work part-time (both voluntarily and through no other choice). But stats also show that 10- 15 per cent of the wage gap can only be explained as wage discrimination.
I thought that if I worked harder, became more educated, and proved myself a good and willing wage slave, my salary would rise.
Let me shine a light on that—to some employers, ethics and the law don’t matter (and let’s face it, the law is a fairly recent thing when it comes to pay equity). I know a little something of this type of discrimination. As a young woman in my 20s, I clearly wasn’t much of a critical thinker. If I was, I would have been more frustrated when I was struggling to pay for winter boots while my male colleagues in the same job and with the same education and work experience, were supporting partners or families, or, if single, taking vacations and living in somewhat nicer accommodations. Granted, none of us were rolling in the dough, but I was clearly making less than they were. I somehow assumed that my low pay was a personal failing. I thought that if I worked harder, became more educated, and proved myself a good and willing wage slave, my salary would rise. Once, years after leaving one position, I ran into a former colleague at a party. We joked about the onerous working conditions at our old place of employment. “Oh my God, and the pay was so bad,” he laughed. “I couldn’t afford my own apartment and had to live with my parents.” It may have been the alcohol that made him so free with his words. Perhaps he honestly thought we were “comrades” and therefore on equal terms with equal pay. He blurted out his wage. Turns out he made $5,000 more than me. We did the same job and had the same education. I had two years more experience and had moved to this city, with its high rent-to-income ratio, in order to take that job because it offered benefits. I wonder what went on in the heads of my former employers. What made them decide to pay the men I worked with more money than they paid me? It could not have gone unnoticed when doing the bi-weekly payroll or handing out the yearly T-4s. Yet at appraisal time, no one said “gosh Ellen, you are doing such a great job and it has come to our attention that we made an accounting mistake and paid you the wrong salary. Let us bring you retroactively up to the ‘male scale’.” It was such a measly wage to begin with, and yet they managed to chisel it down even further. To what end? To earn more profit off the back of the lowest paid? It appears the answer is yes. That wasn’t the last job where I earned less than my male colleagues for equal, or even greater work. Indeed, as time went on I gained more education and specialized training, and even more experience. But you want to know something about earning less for being just as good or better? It is demoralizing. Because no matter what you do, you can’t measure up in the eyes of the paymaster. And over time, you internalize that and begin to believe, at least on some level, that you aren’t worth it. That’s what discrimination does. It crushes the spirit and makes it that much harder to keep on keeping on—to keep on telling yourself that you are equal and you are worthy of being treated that way.
I’ve heard the gender wage gap described as a complex economic formula used to describe the discrepancy in wages between full time, year round working women and full time, year round working men, and not specifically the wages of women and men doing the exact same work in the exact same job (my personal anecdotal findings above.) It necessarily takes in women and men who work in different industries and occupations and is “influenced” by occupational segregation (or jobs held mostly by women or mostly by men) as well as wage differences between men and women doing the same types of jobs. So, there are many factors that add up to a wage gap, but even the federal government’s own Pay Equity Commission website reaffirms that 10 to 15 percent of the 20 percent gender wage gap is due to discrimination.
The gender wage gap has an odious impact on women and those they help support.
I want to be clear here, whether overt, or subtle and unconscious, discrimination hurts and it is unequivocally wrong. We can’t as a society continue to say we care about equality or poverty when we make weak rationalizations about strength, suitability, or “personal choice” for paying one half of the population less than the other half. We can’t smugly point to other countries and cultures and say “look at how they treat women” as an indictment of their lack of modernity when we say “nah ah, this higher wage, this carrot that makes life less precarious, this goes to the man because we value his work more” here at home. The gender wage gap has an odious impact on women and those they help support. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, “women’s lower earning power means they are at a high risk of falling into poverty if they have children and then become separated, divorced, or widowed.” Simple as that. The wage gap means more economic dependence on a higher wage earner (i.e. a man). And based on the gender wage gap in Ontario today, women on average will have to work an additional 14 years to earn the same pay a man earns by retirement age of 65. My Nana was lucky that she had nursing to fall back on when her husband died and she was left with three children to raise. She was lucky that it was a stable career that offered a living (if less than a man’s) wage. But still, she did work hard, very hard, until she was 75.
I’m not a country music aficionado, but I like that old Merle Haggard Christmas song “If We Make It Through December.” It’s a nice metaphor for the season, with the desperate hope of someone just holding on for a better tomorrow. “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be alright. I know it’s the coldest time of winter, and I shiver when I see the falling snow.” Lovely song. No matter that December is just the beginning of winter (and also not the coldest time of winter) and that the need will be just as great throughout the rest of the year.
I watched the 1951 sci-fi movie classic The Day the Earth Stood Still recently. I’ve seen it at least twice before, but this time it resonated deeply. In the movie, a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C., and alien visitor Klaatu announces he has an important message he must deliver simultaneously to all the world’s leaders. This being post WWII, cold war Earth, Klaatu is told his request can’t possibly be met. He is held under armed guard, but escapes, and is hunted down, while being helped by a human boy and his mother. Long story short, Klaatu’s message was that having become aware of Earthlings’ atomic capabilities, the folks from other more advanced planets had decided they had better warn Earth to settle down—or else. The idea being that Earth could choose peace or be destroyed. Pretty heavy handed but hey, I’m starting to think we Earthlings do need a little slap down. Klaatu’s explanation was that humans had “replaced reason with fear”. That line has become my mantra of late. It helps me get my head around the garbage I’ve been reading and seeing on social media.
Last week I encountered three in one day—three Facebook meme messages of hate couched as “opinions” and calls to “preserve our way of life”. Now, I don’t have a problem with people having opinions or speaking out on things they feel strongly about. My problem is with what constitutes both an opinion and “our way of life”. Is a meme designed and written by some nameless person and shared by another, considered an “opinion”? Or is it just a blank statement? I like to consider opinions something that I can engage with and something that the opinion giver has spent time mulling over before expressing—and not just a study in semiotics. Is it that we are so used to clever images with trite reductionist statements that we have lost our ability to say things in our own words? Or is it that we are just too lazy to say them? Here’s a description of one of the memes that showed up on my Facebook feed: it was an image of three Muslim women in hijab (not burqas) at a protest (faces contorted while yelling) with the caption: “France and the Netherlands BAN the burqa on security grounds, SHARE if you think Canada should do the same!”
Now, what was I supposed to take from that? That the poster is an Islamaphobe who believes in their right to an opinion, but doesn’t believe in freedom of religion or freedom of expression for others, and has an unreasonable fear of burquas to boot? Because that’s what I got from it. Why didn’t the poster, who I had only known to be a caring and thoughtful person, write: “I think Muslim women shouldn’t be allowed to wear what they want to wear because they might be terrorists”? It seems the poster isn’t afraid to hold those opinions, since they publicly share them on the internet. So why don’t they write them on a banner in front of their house as well? Do they fear outing themselves to their neighbours and having to engage or explain themselves?
Usually, when I see such memes and posts, I query them. I feel it is important that these messages of fear be countered by something else—preferably reason. The other day, I came upon a meme that said something about “our rights being taken away.” I asked “who is taking
your rights away?” Of course, I received no response. I’m not as ease with poking the bear. I’m not naturally confrontational but after one or two of these things I think, do I quietly de-friend (as many people I know do), block certain posters messages, or do I say what I want to say, which is, seriously people, put your thinking cap on! Read something. Or more importantly, critically read critically written material. An “opinion” that is racist is a racist opinion. It is not right or good. An opinion that is Islamaphobic is dangerous and harmful to society.
One meme that was “shared” carried a mixed message of fear and indignation:
“Why is our government so willing to help illegal minors
When so many of our own children are homeless and need help?”
Again, seriously, as if we can’t do both? If we know anything about homelessness, it’s that it can be ameliorated through public policy. If there is a will there is a way (and to swerve off topic a bit here, that is a plea for everyone to vote their interests. If you believe we should eradicate homelessness, vote for a party that says it will work towards that goal.)
So what about this “preserving our way of life” thing? That’s a statement that frustrates me. Basically, it says we have only one way of life and that’s the dominant one. But we are a nation of many cultures. Even those whose ancestors arrived here hundreds of years ago were, in many, many cases, escaping some form of tyranny. The irony is, we set up shop and inflicted a new brand of tyranny on the original inhabitants of this land. Is this our hazing ritual? Everyone gets hazed at sometime, but some more than others? If we truly are a multicultural nation, and I haven’t met anyone yet who wasn’t in some way proud or cognizant of their ancestry, do we not have to back that up? But I’ll get point, how is Zunera Ishaq, the Muslim woman who desired to say her public citizenship oath in the niqab she customarily wears, a threat to “our way of life”? I’ve named her here, since most who point to her beliefs as an oppression imposed upon her, seem do not seem to give her that courtesy or respect as a fully actualized adult. She has to identify herself in private prior to the ceremony. If anything, Zunera is embracing the ideology represented by the Charter of Rights by asserting her individual right (and the rule of law). This means she is embracing a fundamental belief that we all accept. We lose nothing by being inclusive.
I cannot adequately convey how these memes and messages on social media and in the media sadden and anger me. They tear us apart but implanting seeds of contempt.
I have often wondered how ordinary people in 1920s Germany could have been induced to support and vote for the Nazi Party. I mean, how do you get an entire nation to support a hateful, racist ideology? Clearly, it didn’t happen overnight. In 1928, the year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, the Nazi party had 12 seats in Germany’s Reichstag. By 1932, the party had 230 seats, and shortly after, Nazi leader Adolph Hitler became chancellor. The rest is a brutal and bloody history of repressing and eliminating opponents, creating racial villains who must be exterminated, and waging war. It took time, a skilled propaganda machine, an economy decimated by the Great Depression, and ineffective opposition, but the Nazis managed to harness and enflame the post World War I and depression-era anger, bitterness, and fear of the German public. I know most of us like to think we are morally superior to the German masses that supported the Nazi party’s brutal rule. The thing is, we aren’t. In fact, we don’t even need an all-controlling fascist political party to help us get our hate on. Today we have Facebook and its endless trite memes, and online newspaper comments sections that allow people to spew venom with anonymity, and hate factories that masquerade as right wing “opinion” blogs. Fear does seem to be replacing reason. And if we allow it to consume us, we risk destroying what makes us good.
So, this April marked the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping of roughly 270 girls from their school in northeastern Nigeria (Chibok) by militant group Boko Haram. One year on and 219 are still missing. At the time, the kidnapping elicited a wave of indignation, with famous folk, celebrities, and ordinary people lending their support to the cause — namely, finding and bringing these girls back home. And the anger and frustration engendered by the kidnappings brought about a huge social media call-to-action. It nabbed spokesfaces as diverse as a solemn Michelle Obama holding up the homemade #BringBackOurGirls campaign poster, and a provocative Irina Shayk shielding her exposed breasts with the same sign. As an aside, I happen to think both approaches—the sober indignation, and the feisty “this is my body, I’ll do what I want” are symbolic and defiant F-Us to the woman-hating likes of Boko Haram.
Does Action Equal Action?
But sadly, this clarion call hasn’t brought about much productive political action in terms of finding the missing girls. At the time of the kidnapping, the Boko Haram leader boasted that “just because I took some little girls from their Western education, everybody is making noise. I repeat, I took the girls, and I will sell them off. There is a market for selling girls.”
“just because I took some little girls from their Western education, everybody is making noise. I repeat, I took the girls, and I will sell them off. There is a market for selling girls.”
How do you deal with this kind of jaw-dropping callousness? You fight back when and where you can. In Nigeria, as in many other areas of the world, including Canada, that means fighting your government’s inertia, ignorance, and seeming disinterest as well. So far, it seems the ones keeping the flame lit in Nigeria are those still most at risk—the mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters of the captured girls who still rally everyday in that country. But they are supported by some kickass women (and men) around the world. The social media protest group #BringBackOurGirls was founded by four accomplished and respected Nigerian women who could not and would not sit back and do nothing: Hadiza Bala Usman, Maryam Uwais, Obiageli Ezekwesili, and Saudatu Mahdi. All four are educated and it can be argued, privileged, but they are also fearless and relentless. They rallied when they realized their government was doing absolutely nothing to find the girls. They have the backing of other people of good conscience throughout the world who rally and march to support them and to pressure their own governments to take action and do something.
How Much Are We Worth?
I wonder if Boko Haram stole (or occupied) a commodity of far less value, say 300 oil pipelines, or 300 corporate executives or world leaders, whether they’d still be missing one year later. Kidnapping and selling or forcibly marrying off girls and women is a vital hobby and business for Boko Haram, which has, according to Amnesty International, abducted about 2,000 women in the last year. Imagine, 2,000 women missing, gone, without a trace, with their loved ones left wondering where they went. Of course, for some here in Canada, that isn’t something just to be imagined. It’s something that is lived. The agony felt by the loved ones of the missing Chibok schoolgirls isn’t any different than that felt by the loved ones of missing and murdered Aboriginal women here. And the government inaction is just as unconscionable.
I wonder if Boko Haram stole (or occupied) a commodity of far less value, say 300 oil pipelines, or 300 corporate executives or world leaders, whether they’d still be missing one year later.
Stolen Schoolgirls, Stolen Sisters
The YWCA Canada supported the 2009 No More Stolen Sisters report produced by Amnesty
International. It called for a government response to the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. The report is seven years old folks, and still nothing has been done that could change the status quo. Our government hasn’t even acknowledged that misogyny and racism plays a role or that Indigenous women enjoy fewer economic and social rights in our society. Of course, the evil overlords of Boko Haram are an easier target for indignation. They represent one relatively cohesive group bent on preserving their patriarchal privilege through a perverted religious ideology. They swoop in commando-style and kidnap, terrorize, and kill dozens or hundreds at a time. They don’t seek to hide their actions and in fact are open about what they hate seek to destroy: the education of women, women’s rights, potential for equality etc etc. In contrast, the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada weren’t taken en mass from one location. They were picked off one by one by different people—some perhaps known to them, some not. But picked off nonetheless, and picked off because they were indigenous women.
Support Your Sisters
Boko Haram is a pox on Nigeria and a problem that needs to be addressed through government intervention. The murderers of Indigenous women in Canada, although individuals, have their own ideology of hate. This hate points to a social problem we need to address. We can’t fix it without government acknowledgment and help. Like the kidnapped girls of Chibok, the lives of indigenous women are worth something.
What To Do?
So, all that said, you ask “okay, what can I do that matters?” It may sound too simple, but you can start by really noticing. That’s exactly what the founders of #BringBackOurGirls believe and they’re not giving up. You can get active and support organizations that are pushing for government intervention on the missing schoolgirls in Chibok and the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) Sisters in Spirit projects, and Families of Sisters in Spirit. NWAC has even produced a community resource guide on how to be an ally. You can apply pressure on governments by writing letters, joining rallies, and supporting the families of the missing (again, in Canada, see NWAC’s guide on how to help in a culturally appropriate and sensitive manner). You can also vote for a government that believes the lives of vulnerable girls and women matter, and ask candidates if they would support inquiries and action plans. Nigeria recently had an election and the president who promised to retrieve the schoolgirls but instead did nothing was ousted. The new president, Muhammadu Buhari has promised to go after Boko Haram, but could not promise to bring the girls back. Canada will have a federal election in the fall. Let’s see if we can act in solidarity with Aboriginal families and groups who have been fighting this fight for years and get missing Indigenous women on the election agenda.
I was well into my teenage years before it really dawned on me that my family was a bit odd. I mean, hey, a fish doesn’t question its ocean. It just swims. Growing up, I tended to hang around with friends who seemed to have equally odd families. By odd I mean families that didn’t really want to hide their…um, eccentricities. It didn’t faze me a bit when in high school, the first time I called upon my friend Britta (name changed to protect her true identity) her father answered the door in his boxer shorts and a comely woman’s wig. Britta’s parents were German immigrants whose card parties had a pre-war “Cabaret” feel to them (they happened to be in the midst of one on my first visit). The garage at their home was at various times, a headcheese factory and a home-distillery—alternately smelling of carnage and precise cleaning. My own father had a habit of lounging shirtless and occasionally answering the door in his briefs, and I learned how to fashion a boilermaker before I graduated grade school. I’m not making the case here that Britta and I shared well-soused sires, but that I was more familiar with the less upright and the slightly kooky. And really, aren’t all families slightly kooky or odd in their own ways? I’m not focusing on the malicious or truly messed-up here. There are sadly, quite a few of those and they are so often the subject of novels and films. Google “family and books” and the first thing you will likely come up with is “dysfunctional families in literature”. Brutality often makes for compelling storytelling. After the fact at least. Britta and I can count ourselves lucky that we were (and are) well loved, cared-for, and by-and-large undamaged by our quite ordinary, if slightly odd families.
Wacky Family, Wacky Photos
This year, with Valentine’s day (Feb. 14) and family day (Feb 16) sharing the same weekend, I spent some time reflecting upon wacky family love. And yeah, everybody’s got a story. One of my favourite places to look for family stories isn’t in ancestry websites (although those are cool), but at awkwardfamilyphotos.com. The submitted images to this site make me positively giddy. Okay, so they aren’t exactly “stories” in the sense that you get a clear beginning and end, but the pictures shared there are priceless artifacts of our shared allegiances (consanguineal and otherwise). I’m partial to the “Matchy Matchy” families category, where families are shown posed in matching outfits. Take a gander at those and ask yourself whether there really is such a thing as a “normal family”. I mean, the site shows photo studio family cosplay portraits, with mom, dad, and three kids all dressed as dairy cows or clowns! There’s a hall of fame pull down on the site with some incredible head scratchers, and if you really want things explained, there’s a “behind the awkwardness” section where submitters tell the story of the image. It’s fun and all the more so because people submit images and mock themselves as opposed to the mean-spirited derision of some sites that post surreptitiously-taken photos of people on the street or in stores in order to make fun of them. Making fun of your family kookiness? That’s a necessary part of keeping sane!
I’m a big fan of non-coherence. Not the drunken rambling kind of incoherence, but the non-ordered, non-patterned gifts of happy accidents or surprises. These “aha” moments, like uplifting flickers of light, often come to us when we need them, even if they are not exactly what we were looking for. Some might call it serendipity.
Perhaps that’s why that Rolling Stone’s song You Can’t Always Get What You Want appeals to me. Mick Jagger must have come to the “let me combine these seemingly matter-of-fact lyrics with the awe-inspiring voices of a trained choir” idea in a moment of brilliant serendipity. Or maybe just a moment of brilliance. He’s lucky that way; he’s had many in his career. But I can’t help myself from cranking the volume at the chorus. After the “you can’t always get what you want…” I love hearing the exalted choir voices chime in with “you get what you need”. Yes! The perfect combo of resigned practicality in lyrics with moving melody in music. Uplifting!
Sometimes it’s true. If you try sometimes, you just might find you do get what you need. My emphasis here is on the sometimesand the trying. When things seem miserable and unrelenting, it is awfully difficult to be resilient. And I wouldn’t suggest resilience here is just a song away. But perhaps our framing helps.
We all know people who seem to be able to weather any storm, almost without being rattled. They may have excellent coping skills, or better support systems, or an unshakeable sense of self. They are almost always skilled at framing things in a positive manner. I don’t mean they are all sunshine and joy, or alternatively, that they give up agency and a critical eye for piffle, and resort to the “it was meant to be” mantra that seems to be so ubiquitous nowadays. As an aside, I shouldn’t get started on how much I loathe that particular statement, especially when it comes from the mouths of people who do NOT believe in predestination. But there, I said it. I loathe the “it was meant to be” tommyrot because it is insensitive and apathetic. Now, back to how I think this serendipity thing can aid resilience.
First, let me say that some theorists (yeah, there are serendipity theorists) believe serendipity isn’t just a happy accident, but something that can help those who are seeking to find what they need. Am I making any sense here? Let me relate a tale from my own life. Two years ago my partner was diagnosed with cancer. He had an aggressively growing tumour that blocked part of his bowel and impaired his liver function. We found ourselves in the emergency ward one day after his diagnosis, before he had begun chemotherapy. In truth he was terribly constipated. After moving through to a treatment bed, a bright, young, and confident nurse came in, read his chart, and looked him dead in the eye, saying his name and the words “cancer is just a word.” Twice. This angel of mercy with the magic mantra — herself a cancer survivor who had a personal understanding of the brutal road he was embarking on—proceeded to tell him that she was going to help him understand bowel care. And she did. But she did more than that. She gave him his first real glimmer of hope in weeks. On subsequent visits, she continued to give him what he needed to keep going—a bit of herself. Now, nurses are trained to give care and expert attention. This Florence Nightingale was more than that. She was a serendipitous gift. She helped us find what we needed to make a breakthrough in thought and actions—a breakthrough in framing, if you will. We couldn’t get exactly what we wanted. I had wanted to wake up and find out that the actual diagnosis was a dream, but I guess that’s a bit like hoping I would win $50 million in the lottery. She didn’t give a cure. She gave hope. I believe we found what we needed serendipitously because we were open to framing it that way. She might have done the same thing for dozens of patients, but perhaps not all were able to take her care and her words and build a house on it. It wasn’t their serendipitous moment.
I think we all have these serendipitous experiences throughout life. If we choose to view them as helpful “aha” moments, they can assist us in following a new direction, but also in building resilience and keeping a hopeful outlook. Some people like to say these moments are acts of God, or signs from “the universe”. Whatever gets you through. I’m more inclined to think they are wonderful coincidences that if we want them to be, can be revealed as gifts or roadmaps to a different discovery.
It seems hard to believe, but when my grandmother was born, she wasn’t considered a person.
She was 32 years old before that distinction was legally acknowledged for her. Thirty-two years old. And it wasn’t just handed out, like a forgotten birthday card. It required a fight.
This year’s Person’s Day (October 18) marks the 85th anniversary of the 1929 court decision that declared women “qualified persons” under the law. The Person’s Case, as the ruling came to be known, was launched by five Alberta women: Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. It was an eight year battle that began after Murphy, the country’s first female magistrate and judge, ruled on a case and had her judgment questioned by a male lawyer who said that as she was not legally a person, she could not pass sentence. Wanting to clarify women’s status under the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act, 1867), and further her case for appointment to the Senate (in which only a legal person could serve) McClung and her compatriots asked the federal government to declare women as persons who could be considered for all areas of public office.
When the government wouldn’t decide, the “Famous Five” as the women were later called, petitioned the Supreme Court to make a ruling. The court took the view that the drafters of the BNA Act didn’t consider women persons who could be appointed to the Senate. Not willing to accept that ruling, the Famous Five pushed the issue further and asked the prime minister to appeal the court ruling to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain (the Supreme Court’s appeals court at that time). That court ruled that not only were women persons who could be appointed to the senate, but that the country’s constitution was not a rigid document but something that could change and reflect the times and culture of the country.
The details of the Person’s Case are important. We shouldn’t forget that fact that personhood was a judgment made by a court and not something that the government of the day agreed upon. In that respect it was a victory not just for women’s rights, but also for the law. Emily Murphy was, it should be noted, a product of her time, and a woman of privilege. She was white, middle class, and well-educated. Still, she ultimately never got that Senate appointment. But she didn’t worry much about how her advocacy might harm her reputation or limit her prospects. As with many early feminists, she understood that just working hard and waiting for recognition was futile. Those who hold power don’t willingly give up, or even share, their power and privilege. If you want a piece of that pie, you have to fight for it, or reach out and take it. “ The world loves a peaceful man,” Murphy was reputed to have said. “But it gives way to a strenuous kicker.”
That was true for Murphy and it is also true for feminists today at a time when equality has not yet been achieved. I’m not just making this up. The stats and facts bear this out. Canadian women still earn an average of 70 percent of what their male counterparts earn, And that’s a StatsCan figure. Canada ranks 20th in the World Economic Forum’s measure of gender equality — apparently below South Africa and Latvia. We were ranked #35 for wage equality and #41 for women in parliament. The Forum notes that human talent is the most important determinant for a country’s competitiveness and that reducing gender inequality enhances a country’s productivity and growth. You know what that means? It means that as a society we need to recognize that policies and programs that support women and children benefit us all. This includes good, affordable day care, poverty reduction programs, and a broader conception of what equality means. We can’t combat inequality from a gender-neutral standpoint. Women aren’t a special interest group. We make up more than 50 percent of the country’s population. Equality—be it economic, political, or social, it a right and not a gift. The Famous Five understood this. They did not let the government or the Supreme Court’s no-can-do attitude prevent them from asserting women’s rights to equality. They pushed for a clear definition of personhood within the constitution. They were strenuous kickers.
So yay for Person’s Day! Let’s celebrate it as a day of historical importance, but use it as another reminder to keep kicking. The struggle continues.
So, it appears the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has decided to use the idea of a zombie apocalypse to “engage new audiences” and encourage disaster preparedness. The CDC’s, ahem, “zombie blog” details how to put together an emergency plan and what to include in a household emergency kit. Number two on the kit list? Food. And specifically non-perishable food items that you eat regularly.
Turns out that I am well ahead of the CDC. I too have thought about my zombie apocalypse-environmental catastrophe-proletariat revolution emergency plan. And I’m counting on the combined years of experience of three women (well, more actually but I won’t make this just a list of all the women I know and their valuable skill sets). On my flight from zombie doom, I’m sticking with my sister-in-law Susan, my friend Nancy, and Nancy’s mother-in-law Dorothea. All three have, among other things, the ability to keep me safe, warm, and well fed. All three are veteran canners (and as this is supposed to be the crux of this post, I’ll get to the details on that shortly).
My Apocalypse Survival Team…Who also Happen to Can
But first, their abbreviated zombie survivalist CV’s. I know for a fact that if necessary, Susan can kill, pluck, and cook a fantastic chicken. She’s calm in the face of a calamity and she can knit and sew really difficult things such as winter coats. She once, for some reason known only to her, made a vest and stuffed it with milkweed fibers. She can also whip up kickass jams, preserves, and pickles on almost a moment’s notice. Nancy is equally talented and resourceful. She too sews, knits, cooks, and pickles. She has an added bit of handy medical science and healthcare knowledge from an early career in a medical lab. If a zombie happened to bite my arm, I think Nancy would be the one to hack it off properly and ensure I didn’t bleed to death, or die of shock, or infection. I should mention that both Susan and Nancy are also respected and accomplished academics—quite handy for when society reorganizes after the apocalypse. Dorothea is first on my list for knowing how to make something out of almost nothing. She was a dairy farmer for over 40 years and became a dexterous sewer of flesh when a bit of a finger needed a quick mending on the farm. Dorothea also “put down” quite a few canned goods in her day and has a lifetime of knowledge on proper and safe canning methods.
Which brings me back to canning. I won’t really be able to carry many jars of pickles or jam on my run from the zombies. Knowing how to make pickles and jam would I suppose, be a useful skill after the apocalypse. If I can find clean water, a 21-quart canner, clean cans, lids, a rack, funnel, jar lifter, produce or fruit, and possibly vinegar, salt, and sugar, that is. So essentially, canning is a task that requires resources. As Nancy has reminded me, canning is not something that was romantically created. People did it because they had to. For some time (actually, a relatively short period) in history, canning was a necessary burden. And then they created the deep freeze. And canning factories for mass production.
On Canning as a Necessity
My nana was a canner. For a time, when my mother was a child in 1930s Alberta, she “put down” everything. And I mean everything. I once saw a picture of my grandfather posing near a Model T Ford strewn with the carcasses of ducks. Mortified by the carnage, I asked my mother “how come so many? How could one family eat all of those ducks?” “Nana canned them,” was her answer. Canned duck in mid-February. Ick.
She did many other things, but my mother didn’t can or preserve at all. As we lived in southwestern Ontario and fresh sweet corn and peas were readily available and we had farmer friends who offered them cheap, my parents par-boiled and froze vegetables. Later, a frozen bag of corn became cheaper and more readily available at the grocery store. Anybody who remembers canned peas and creamed corn at Sunday supper can testify that short of fresh, frozen bagged corn beats mushy tinned veg hands down.
My father was the “canner in the family”. I believe he made jam once or twice. His homemade tomato juice was too visually repulsive for me and my siblings to imbibe. It required a vigorous shake to re-integrate (I won’t say emulsify) the yellowish tomato water with the red tomato matter. But his pickles, made exactly once that I recall, were extra salty delicious.
On Canning as an Adventure
My own canning experiments have been, well… satisfactory, but fraught with planning glitches. My partner’s father had a fruit farm and having access to free fruit, I (once) canned peaches and pears with a friend. After a marathon outdoor peeling, de-pitting/coring session, we left to do the canning inside while her Labrador ate all of the peach pits outside. All of them. His distended belly was a frightening sight. But the dog lived and the peaches and pears were excellent. My next venture was canned salsa. It was a wet summer and my apartment-window cilantro crop was verdant. My one mistake (two actually): I decided I did not need rubber gloves for cutting the jalapeños, and I neglected to remove my contacts until after cutting the peppers. My eyes stung, stabbed with pain, and watered for hours, but the salsa was excellent. I also canned roasted red peppers with a friend one September. This time, things went like clockwork. I only underestimated how much I (or anyone I knew) would actually use the giant cans of roasted red peppers throughout the year.
So, when offered this topic to blog on I thought, “I should make pickles”. I love pickled cucumbers. And pickled vegetables. With good intent, I went off to the market and purchased my pickling cucumbers and dill. I purchased the jars at the hardware store. My earlier canning ventures had left me with the other necessary equipment. All I had to do was find a coherent recipe. I tried that source of all necessary and unnecessary knowledge: Internet. Gah. Too much and too little. Anxiety peaking, I called Susan. She was away for the weekend, but my calm and reassuring niece suggested I just bring the pickles and can with them the next weekend. No can do. I wanted to take this on all by my lonesome. After much internal Sturm und Drang, I talked to Nancy. “Pickling isn’t necessary,” she said. I knew she meant “not necessary” as in pickling isn’t something people (mostly women) do because it is cheaper than buying. Dorothea, my grandmother, and thousands of women before them, canned because they already had the equipment (often passed down to them), they needed the food, and the ingredients —excess produce, or dozens of dead ducks shot in an era before hunting regulations, didn’t cost them financially. Many people now pickle, can, and preserve mostly as a labour of love, or as a way of offering something different at the table, Nancy reminded me. Freed of the burden to prove my canning worth, I gave up and my anxiety subsided.
But I now had a whole bunch of little cucumbers to dispose of, and a bunch of nice jars to store my excess change in. My adventure ended in a lot of fresh salads. And here is a recipe for a salad that is also a bit of a pickle:
What about you? Are you a canner? Tell us of your canning experiences.
It’s a warm day and I’m walking down the street for an appointment with my trainer. I’ve got my sweats on and my iPod playing music with a motivational beat. Just walking down the street minding my own business.
And then it happens.
The guy in front of me stops, and after I pass him he mutters: “Nice —–.”
What the? I’m taken aback. Did he just say…yes, yes he did. It’s not my first encounter with my neighbourhood street harasser. It’s not even my first instance of street harassment, but as I’m getting “long in the tooth”, I had somehow mistakenly assumed vile comments and veiled threats from people on the street would not follow me into my dotage. It was an odious reminder that street harassment has no boundaries. It is sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist, sizeist, ableist, and classist. It is unwanted and unwarranted.
My neighbourhood street harasser has managed to creepily insert himself and his inappropriate comments into my walk before. But this time, he’d uttered a vulgar word that entered my ears and immediately brought me to a place I did not want to be. I was shocked, yet not shocked. I was both angry and fearful. Three steps later I stopped in my tracks and the words “oh God” tumbled from my mouth. That’s it. That’s all I could muster. I don’t even know if it was an invective or a plea. I walk on and immediately pondered…was it my faded, sweaty, Wonder Woman t-shirt? My baggy, paint-stained, androgynous, knee length sweats? Now, I know his behaviour had nothing to do with what I was wearing, what I was doing, my location on the street, in the city, or time of day. I know that. But I went there anyway. I went to “what did I do” and to “what didn’t I do”. I went there even though I knew the problem wasn’t with me. The problem was with him.
My shock, discomfort, and fear made him feel powerful.
But not for long. No more, buddy. I won’t change my neighbourhood walking routes (though I may cross the street), what I wear, or how I act. I will not smile for you because you tell me to. You have no right to ask me. I will not say hello because you insist that I do. And the next time you do it—the next time you feel a misogynist compulsion to put me in my place and intimidate me with your words or actions, I will (from a safe distance), in clear and simple terms, tell you to stop harassing me.
I can also now report my street harassment on a number of websites dedicated to street harassment. One of my favourites is Hollaback www.ihollaback.org an online movement and social activism organization that allows women to document their experiences, access resources, and educate their community. Hollaback is a world-wide movement, with a Niagara page at niagara.ihollaback.org
I had no clue that March 30-April 5 was International Anti Street Harassment Week until I started writing this post and checked out: www.streetharassment.org
That organization also offers tools and resources to people who want to launch safe public spaces campaigns in their community, or to people who witness street harassment and are at a loss on how to act against it. The site also makes it clear what street harassment is, including “unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons which are motivated by gender in public spaces that invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.” I would add that street harassment also transects class, race, age, ability, and sexual orientation. It is about asserting power and as such is as academic Hawley Fogg-Davis says, “a terrorism of the mind”. Fogg-Davis notes that women, and those who identify as gay and transgendered, know street harassment will happen in their lives, but they don’t know for certain when or how it will happen.
The Everyday Sexism Project offers another harassment reporting site. It allows contributors to document instances of harassment and sexism on the street as well as in private spaces, at work, and at school, through its website at canada.everydaysexism.com or via Twitter @everydaysexism
There are many more street harassment sites that provide resources and reassurance. The stories posted on these sites are both disturbing, and affirming. They are disturbing because they are real and current. The harassment is perpetrated by people who know better but gain power from acts that are menacing and threatening. The stories are affirming because the people who post them can feel free to express their pain, fear, anger, and frustration without recrimination.