In honour of International Women's Day, we consider the many waves of feminism.
As we sat on the front porch of my house in Toronto, drinking wine, it occurred to me to ask my mother a question I'd never asked before.
"Are you a feminist?"
"Define feminism," she shot back. My 85-year-old mother had put her red-painted fingernail on a question that has dogged the women's movement for more than a century. She raised her glass of cranberry-and-white wine and waited. (I hope genetics reward me with her longevity and scalpel-sharp brain, but I'm glad we don't share a taste for fruity neon cocktails.)
"It's just a word," I said, slightly irritated. I had spent my life thinking, working and acting as a feminist and now failed to have a proper answer at hand. "It can mean what you want it to. For me, at its most basic, it's about equality of opportunity for men and women."
She shrugged. "Well, I'm sure I am. Look at the hospital. When I was working, the nurses were down here"—the hand clutching her pink drink lowered—"and the doctors were up here. Now it's more equal. In those days, we had to stand when doctors came to the nurses' station. That doesn't happen anymore."
Mildred worked as a nurse in a large downtown Toronto teaching hospital for more than three decades beginning in the 1950s, and the stories she tells of sexism both casual and institutional would make your hair turn white. When I was a kid, I'd make her repeat them over and over, shrieking with laughter. It was only when I became an adult and experienced the world in all its imperfect glory that I appreciated what she had been through, the barriers that she and her colleagues had smashed while they were exhausted and underpaid and still had to go home at night to work a second shift for ungrateful husbands and children.
It's hard to fathom now the things that were considered acceptable then. One doctor thought it was the nurses' job to shave his back every day. Another had my mother make his golf appointments, coaching her on the way to get the best tee times: "You dial six numbers, Milly, and then dial the seventh at precisely nine a.m." When my mother was groped by a patient, she reported it to the man's doctor. Shrug it off, the doctor told her. Boys will be boys.
When the nurses went on strike for better pay and working conditions in the 1970s, they were demonized as selfish and uncaring and somehow unfeminine in their desire for professional status and a living wage. One day as Mildred picketed on Queen Street, carrying a sign my siblings and I had painted, a driver rolled down his window and screamed, "Florence Nightingale would turn in her grave if she could see you!"
She has lived a feminist's life, even if she hasn't said the words—or, more precisely, if I have failed to ask them. She was delivered by a female obstetrician, Marion Kerr, at Women's College Hospital in 1931. Mildred was a working woman and a single mother, who took the difficult step of leaving my difficult father when it would have been easier all around to stay. She raised my sister and me no differently, in terms of expectations, than she raised my brothers.
"Things have changed," she says, as we sit on my porch. "Look at how it is for you girls now." I think she means look at how easy it is, and in many ways of course she's right: She was born only 12 years after women gained the right to vote in federal elections (aboriginal and Asian women would have to wait decades longer). Now we have a Prime Minister who has carefully appointed a woman for every man in his cabinet. Today, laws protect the principles of pay equity and freedom from sexual violence.
In theory, anyway. In practice, women still earn less than men in this country, are far less likely to be represented in political office or at boardroom tables and still experience horrendous levels of assault and domestic violence. On top of that, the Internet has become a cesspool of misogyny, especially for young women who dare use the f-word that some people find so obscene. Feminism, that is.
Mildred looks back and sees the remarkable progress we've made, and I look ahead and see an exhausting road that never ends. But, as we sit on the porch in the warm late-summer sun, one thing unites us and gives us both hope. One person, rather. She's an unlikely, hyper-accomplished, pant-suited, history-bedevilled 68-year-old, the prickliest ray of hope ever: Hillary Clinton.
Next: I appreciate Clinton for her progressive policies...
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