User Tools (skip):
International Women's Day approaches. It is a day to celebrate and recognize women, but also a day of action to advance the equality of women. Of course, you might think most of the action has been taken, leaving only the celebrating. Things have changed for women in universities in Canada, certainly, in the last 30 years. In the '70s, when I began a degree in philosophy at McGill, there were no women among the faculty in the department. Undergraduate women were silent in classes. There was only one female teaching assistant. When she met her students for conferences she looked at us with cold fear – the fear, presumably, of her isolation as a woman in that department, and the way it made her visible. I doubt anyone was unkind to her, but kindness is not really the issue. Certainly the men who taught me were generally kind and respectful. Still, when I went to submit my honours thesis to my advisor, he said, "So what are you going to do now? Get married?"
That told me everything I needed to know about his expectations of women. Actually, I went to graduate school; we don't have to do what others expect of us.
Now, the philosophy department at McGill includes lots of women (although there are more men). We are far from voiceless. We talk in classes, we talk in meetings, we talk to one another. These changes in academic life might seem emblematic of a general progression to equality for women. Political life, however, remains dominated by men. At a political panel the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women (MCRTW) organized with students a few months ago, women from three different federal parties all emphasized the need to bring more women into politics. The panelists said women often cannot envision themselves governing, or they do not believe they are represented by the structures of electoral politics. Whether women remove themselves or are excluded, they end up on the outside, without representation in decisions that matter to their lives. That is why feminism has always been most interested in voiceless women, in figuring out how to allow them to speak.
What needs to be said?
That living in Canada does not give all of us the same degree of equality. That poverty and sexual violence and cultural prejudice continue to exclude people. That we need to strategize how we might collectively address these aspects of women's lives. That International Women's Day still matters because only a tiny proportion of women in the world have the practical means or the social power to express what they need, much less what they want. That some of us may enjoy more, if not perfect, equality is actually the beginning of the story, not the end. That feminists have to work in the interests of women who are most marginalized and take direction from those women. That we have to work for the social and political inclusion of women while building links with those who question the very idea that gender should structure a life in determinate ways.
Meanwhile, the MCRTW supports students at McGill who are celebrating International Women's Day this week. The student group Women Without Borders has put together a special issue of the MCRTW E-Newsletter on women and development which considers feminist issues in a number of countries (www.mcgill.ca/mcrtw). The issue offers a critical perspective on "development" and its benefits, a question we've been exploring as we formulate research axes for the new Institute for Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Another group of students is organizing an evening of community theatre, Radical Vulvas, a response to the Vagina Monologues. Both the newsletter and the theatre are attempts to allow women to represent themselves in and to a world that has changed immensely since my days as a student, but one that still falls short of social justice and equality for all.
Marguerite Deslauriers is a Professor of Philosophy and Director, McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women.