Defining the current wave of feminism


Given the recent news of the threat against U of T feminists, after which several classes had to be cancelled as a precaution, I’ve penned an article that looks at the way other media address feminist issues, which changed the way I think of feminism.

To start, there’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, by Anne-Marie Slaughter. This headline originally appeared in The Atlantic when she wrote about her complex decision to quit her job as the first female director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department in order to devote more time to her family. Her oldest son was struggling at school, and with another child to look after, her husband could not cope alone. Slaughter’s demanding and inflexible work schedule was something that is natural in the highest rungs of government jobs. International emergencies do not happen on a set time frame, and thus cannot wait for anyone’s home emergencies to be resolved.

Slaughter voiced her verdict on the working environment currently governing America by saying: “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time’. But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

The impact of this article was astronomical. Women were divided over its message—here was Slaughter confessing that her country’s current working environment would not allow her to be the kind of employee and mother that she wanted to be, forcing her to choose one over the other. Being a mother, she chose to sacrifice her job instead of her children.

In this piece I want to look at two issues, both dealing with the treatment of women in their respective societies: the lives of working mothers in Canada, and the treatment of women in India. Let us start with the first. Slaughter is convinced that even the most regimented jobs out there can be made to be more accommodating to the raising of a family, for both men and women, but only if there are bosses out there who are willing to do that.

Earlier in the year, CBC aired a documentary called The Motherload on its program Doc Zone. What the women interviewed here said about the reality of their working and parenting lives mirrored Slaughter’s observations. Mothers trying to juggle childrearing with work obligations often discovered that “motherhood is the unfinished business of feminism”, in the words of York University professor Andrea O’Reilly, who sums up the inequity by stating: “We’ve had much success for women [through feminism]; we’ve had very little success for mothers.”

Stephanie Coontz, author and historian of family and marriage, states that “the gender revolution has not so much stalled as it has hit the wall, gone as far as it can go without blowing up our families”. What will keep that explosion at bay is changes to the workplace environment.

And these are just our first-world feminist problems. In India, things are worse yet. I am sure that readers are familiar with the 2012 New Delhi gang rape of 23-year-old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh Pandey by six men while travelling on a private bus. In March 2015, British director Leslee Udwin released a documentary about the incident titled India’s Daughter, which was promptly banned in India. Udwin and her team interviewed one of the accused, Mukesh, who was the bus driver.

When asked about why the rape happened, he acts the dunce before contradicting himself: “I can’t say why this incident—this accident—happened. Mainly to teach them a lesson… When being raped [the girl] shouldn’t fight back… She should be silent and allow the rape.”

Hearing Mukesh speak so candidly, I think it is rather clear what happened. The men were drunk. Pandey resisted. Their rage at being resisted started to look like homicide. I think this type of rape is different from the rapes detailed in The Hunting Ground. In it, the young men raped their fellow college students for personal pleasure, out of the ennui of their daily lives, perhaps. Women on college campuses were portrayed as easy prey for a guy needing to get it off, especially if alcohol was involved.

In both cases, women are viewed as inferior to men, and thus to be taken advantage of, but the Delhi gang rape reeks of having been done out of pure hatred, not pleasure, unless the men were sadists, which of course is a possibility.

Alcohol acted as a lubricant for the men’s deeply held resentment against women who had what they did not: an education, a job that pays enough for leisure activities. Women like Pandey had generally out-succeeded men like Mukesh, and some couldn’t take it. In their rage they not only raped but tortured Pandey, who succumbed to her injuries days later. India was in turmoil, with mass protests breaking out in large cities and people young and old demanding justice and a changed attitude toward women in society.

A few weeks after this documentary came out, my local paper reported that another high-profile rape had occurred in India—this time of a 70-year-old nun—who was retaliated against when she tried to prevent the robbing of a Christian missionary school in eastern India. Some things never change, it seems, or else change too slowly to notice.

India’s constitution provides for the equality of the sexes, but in practice that remains a goal the country is fearful of achieving due to millennia of cultural norms. Because if you let women be fully autonomous, thus making them equal to men, that would necessarily precipitate the end of a number of India’s cultural cornerstones: arranged marriage, the dowry system, and the absolute sanctity of marriage. Divorce rates would likely rise as more women feel free to leave marriages that have no hope of working out, and the way they exercise their sexuality would be much more in line with how they feel than with what is expected of them. India presently seems unwilling to undergo such pivotal changes, and thus feminism is unlikely to arrive in the country any time soon.

In trying to define the shape of 21st century third-wave feminism, and after labouring through my research, I’ve concluded that the goal of our feminism is to once and for all end the need for it, at least in the West.

When Simone de Beauvoir famously tried to define herself, the first sentence that came to her mind was, “I am a woman.” That was back in 1946. In 2015, the first sentence that comes to my mind is, “I am a human being.” Getting from Beauvoir’s example to mine is the shape of 21st century feminism.

Valeria Ryrak
Alumna, English