Feminism: As Many Ways To Wear The Word As There Are Women To Wear It

Elizabeth Renzetti | March 8th, 2017

Photo: Getty Images

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…

I appreciate Clinton for her progressive policies on the environment and what are quaintly called “women’s issues”—education, health care, family leave. I appreciate that she has the tenacity of a boxer and a wonk’s eye for the 200th page of a briefing document. For Mildred, a political junkie, it’s also personal: for more than 20 years, although she’s only ever voted in Canadian elections, my mother has been a Hillary super-fan. Whether Clinton was trying to shepherd health-care reform through a recalcitrant Congress or trying to corral a wayward husband, Mildred thought, “She always behaved with class.” (They shared the difficult-husband dilemma, which had to be a bonding moment.)

“I think she’ll make a very good president, a wise president,” says my mother. “She’s certainly better qualified than that—than that—” She can hardly bring herself to utter the name Donald Trump, in the same way that the wizards in the Harry Potter books refused to say “Voldemort.”

She needs another drink. We both do. Because at this point, two months before the election, it’s not clear if Hillary Clinton will be able to free herself of the long-baked sexism of a country that was more interested in her cookie recipes than her work as a crusading lawyer, New York senator and secretary of state.

She has called the two decades of attacks on her character “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” and part of it is certainly that. But equally, she’s faced what all women of a certain age have known through their lives: that power is harder to come by when you’re seen as the bossy girl in the room, the shrill one, the unlikeable buzzkill. The one who gets things done—at a price.

Rebecca Traister is a New York-based journalist who has been writing about Hillary Clinton for years, before the 2008 Democratic primaries (she lost to Barack Obama) to this year’s slugfest with, first, Bernie Sanders and then Donald Trump. Traister has seen an evolution in Clinton’s campaign style, in her increasingly progressive polices and in the increased warmth that American feminists feel towards her.
One thing hasn’t changed, though: the former secretary of state is viewed with something close to loathing by a good percentage of Americans and not just the rabid Republicans selling buttons that promote a “KFC Hillary Special—two small breasts, two fat thighs, left wing.”

When I reach Traister on the phone in New York, she’s buzzing with thoughts about the campaign; she recently wrote a much-admired profile of Clinton for New York magazine. “There’s a real mystery about her unlikeability,” says Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, about the 2008 presidential race. “Anyone who gets near her finds her to be tremendously likable. Yet her likeability numbers are in the toilet. It’s irrational—it’s not about disliking her politics, which would be rational. It’s really about her.”

There are any numbers of theories about why this would be: we still aren’t used to hearing women ask for political power, so the register of female voices grates; women running for office aren’t accepted in the same frame of reference as men, which is usually reduced to, “Would you like to have a beer with X?” In short, women are not only held to a different standard, we aren’t even sure what the measuring stick looks like.

Traister has another theory, wonderfully laid out in the chapter of her book titled “Hillary Is Us.” In short, Hillary Clinton’s journey through two decades of political mud and sexism, with all its compromise and failed promises, reminds many of us of our own imperfect struggles that fell short of ridiculous expectations. She is our cracked mirror.

The positive side of this—and perhaps Mildred and I are proof—is that as women get older, they tend to have more sympathy for imperfection and care less about the judgment of others. In the slang of the day, we have fewer f***s to give.

“One hypothesis about why people come around to deciding they like Hillary Clinton more as they get older is that they have experienced more obstacles,” Traister says, “and that permits them to relate more and to feel more personally passionate about putting a smart, progressive woman in the White House.”

A woman in the White House: it would be a milestone for feminists, a symbolic goal on turf men have ruled for decades—hell, they wrote the rules. It would be a dance-worthy moment in a way that the victories of Margaret Thatcher (awful politics) and Kim Campbell (admirable but short-lived and uninspiring) were not.

Next: Gender stereotyping may be subtler now…

Women take part in a march in Sao Paulo on October 23, 2016, to protest against violence against women and in solidarity for the brutal killing of a 16-year-old girl in Mar del Plata The killing, in which the high school student was allegedly raped and impaled on a spike by drug dealers, is just the latest incident of horrific gender violence in Argentina, which has seen more than a year of mass marches to protest brutality against women. (Photo by Cris Faga/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
(Photo by Cris Faga/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

At least on the surface, Americans seem ready for a female president: in Gallup polls, more than nine in 10 say they would vote for a qualified woman to be commander-in-chief. That is theory, and reality is another thing. In 1872, the first woman to run for president, Victoria Woodhull, was called “Mrs. Satan” by the press. She was imprisoned on trumped-up obscenity charges and was locked in a New York jail on election day—an election she couldn’t vote in, anyway. Now, 144 years later, Donald Trump refers to Hillary Clinton as “the devil,” and supporters at his rallies scream “Lock her up,” when he mentions her name. Sometimes it feels like we haven’t come very far after all.

Gender stereotyping may be subtler now, but it’s still very much in play. Look at how Hillary Clinton’s voice is criticized, her workaholic tendencies, her allegedly frail health. “Gender dynamics have been at play in presidential elections forever,” says Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar with the Center for American Women in Politics. “Everyone’s always played the gender card. It’s just that for centuries that’s meant proving you’re man enough for the job.”

For the first female presidential nominee for a major party, this is akin to walking a tightrope in four-inch heels. As Dittmar says, “Hillary Clinton is walking the line between proving she’s woman enough—in that being a woman can be an advantage—and at the same time man enough and tough enough to meet the expectations of presidential office.”

As Mildred and I sit on the porch, I think about the tightropes each of us has walked in our decades, balancing children and husbands and jobs, desires and expectations, always feeling a toe forward cautiously, always expecting to fall and yet managing, at the last moment, to save ourselves—and each other.

Feminism has been the central ideology of my life, and the battle for equality is the hill I’ll die on (metaphorically only, please). I’ve tried to instil these values in my own children. One day I find myself watching The Bachelor with Mildred and my 10-year-old daughter, Maud. Maud and I are long-time Bachelor fans and use the show to dismantle gender stereotyping—or at least this is how we justify our viewing. Mildred is a Bachelor novice and horrified by the whole thing. “The women are all expected to look exactly the same,” Maud says, disapprovingly, of the bachelorettes. “Does he have all his wits about him?” Mildred says, disapprovingly, of the bachelor. We are subverting the patriarchy from within, I tell myself, and eating nachos while doing it.

Yet, most of the time, I’m not sure what feminism means to any one person, as I told Mildred when we sat on my porch. Is it Beyoncé’s high-wattage embrace of the F word? Is it the British Prime Minister Theresa May, a tough-talking Conservative, wearing a T-shirt that says This Is What a Feminist Looks Like? Is it Emma Watson’s glittering He for She equality campaign at the UN? If feminism is so glamorous, why did two-thirds of women polled by Chatelaine magazine last December say that they run from the word?

Perhaps it’s because there are as many ways to wear the word as there are women to wear it. Whenever I’m feeling depressed about the snail-slow progress of women’s issues in this country, I realize that it will all be okay: the movement is in excellent hands. There is a new, savvy generation of feminists out there, deconstructing sexist video games, fighting against street harassment, campaigning against sexual violence on campus.

Next: The future of feminism.. 

The future is young women like Tessa Hill and Lia Valente, two feminists from Toronto who were only 13 years old when they shook up the educational establishment last year with a documentary they’d made in Grade 8 about rape culture, called We Give Consent. The petition they created to make consent part of the Ontario sex-ed curriculum got more than 40,000 signatures. They met with Premier Kathleen Wynne, and a discussion of consent found its way into the newly reformed curriculum.

“Of course I’m a feminist,” says Lia when I call her up and ask her the question I always want to ask girls her age (but am too polite or afraid to ask). “I’ve always been a feminist. It’s the lens I see things through, and that’s changing all the time now as I talk to other people and hear their different experiences.” Both girls are 15 now, in Grade 10, and are keenly interested in the intersections of feminism—how gender, race and socioeconomic status influence a movement that has been criticized as too white and too middle-class. Her friend Tessa chimes in: “We were always feminists, but in Grade 8 I would say my ideas about it were quite narrow. Then as we created the film, my love for feminism got stronger as we talked to different people and saw how many different experiences there were out there.”

How is it that feminism is constantly both on its deathbed and finding new life? As feminists, we’ve surfed more waves than all the Beach Boys combined. The first meant winning the vote and government acknowledgment that we were in fact persons, not animals. The second involved an escape from the household and its dreary expectations. In the third, we were free to pole-dance our way to sexual empowerment. Each was successful in its way, and each was tainted because it failed, like every social movement, to be ideologically pure and perfectly realized. Maybe the word, like Hillary, has been around too long for it to be likeable. It’s our cracked mirror. Feminism is us.

On July 26, the night that Hillary Clinton secured her nomination, I phoned my mother and heard her voice choked with tears on the other end. “You’re more emotional than you were with the births of your grandchildren,” I said, mostly joking. In fairness, she has eight grandkids, and there will only be one first female U.S. president ever. Maybe it will be this year. If it is, you can bet that Mildred and I will pour a couple of pink cocktails and put on our dancing shoes, and we will dance.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue with the headline, “I Am Woman,” p. 44-47.