Demanding equality, period.
A few weeks before International Women's Day, I was on the road and stopped for a coffee. Stirring in my milk and sugar I looked up and noticed a flyer advertising an undoubtedly worthy cause: an IWD event supporting a local shelter for women and children. “Celebrate women’s achievements!” and “Call for greater equality!” it read. Something about those last words made me feel uneasy. I pictured the women’s rights movement taking the form of the orphan in the Charles Dickens’s novel begging, “Please sir, may I have some more…?”
Let’s consider for a moment what “greater” means when we’re talking about equality. Are we saying we’ve achieved equal status but want more? Or is it that we admit we’re not there yet but trying to get closer? Either way, doesn’t equality mean, well… completely equal? As in 50/50? According to Webster’s Dictionary, equality is indeed just that: “the state of being equal; correspondence in quantity, degree, value, rank, ability, etc.” In mathematics, too, equality simply means same value. All of which reminded me of the poster I have at home, one I’ve kept from my equal marriage rally days (before it was legalized in Ontario), which says in French: “Ni plus ni moins: comme tout le monde!” I don’t want to be less or more, just equal.
So how did the status of being equal become a comfortable continuum? And what is the danger in using such non-committal language when it comes to our fundamental human rights? In her piece “How I sanitized the feminist outrage over the Montreal massacre,” journalist Shelley Page shows how a choice of particular language has the power to shift the story and shape the way we think about the issue. Years after her reporting on the killing of the 14 female engineering students at l’École Polytechnique, Page opened up about the pressure to use language “the public could get behind” which meant removing any traces of feminist anger and analysis from her reportage. Page referenced Maureen Bradley’s documentary “Reframing the Montreal Massacre” which examines the role of the mainstream media in shaping not only public discourse and perception but our collective memory that builds our nation’s narrative. Decades later, we continue to water down and depoliticize transgressions against women’s rights.
Calling for “greater equality” or “greater awareness,” while noble and well-meaning, serves to soothe conservative ideology while taking the feminist edge off, lest we sound too radical or angry. As a result, we are stuck in perpetual process mode, always striving yet never achieving full equality as structures of patriarchy and oppression remain intact.
The truth is, we have many good reasons to be angry. Equality is not part of our reality. If it were, women would be earning as much as men do in 2015. A survey by a well-known financial company found that even the younger generation of college-educated millennial women makes $20,000 less per year than men with the same level of education. If there were equal gender representation in the corporate world, for example, the Ontario Securities Commission wouldn’t need to implement new rules requiring companies to disclose the number of female board members and executives in a desperate attempt to promote diversity. If women were regarded as equals in sports, their teams would receive as much funding and attention as their male counterparts; people (and men) would want to watch them play because of the great display of athleticism, not because of how women look in their outfits. If the media treated women as equals, we wouldn’t need campaigns like #AskHerMore encouraging reporters to focus on women’s craft, not their bodies or clothes and manicures as they walked the red carpet. If I felt equal, I wouldn’t need to change my route to maneuver around construction sites or other places in my city where I feel unsafe and subjected to street harassment. These are far too many “ifs” and there remain many, many more.
Studies continue to show gender-based disparities in almost every life category possible. Half of Canadian women experience sexual harassment according to statistics that aren't changing, while the disproportionate number of murders and disappearances of Aboriginal women is not even recognized by our government as a social issue worthy of attention.
So this International Women’s Day, let’s take an assertive stand and demand real and substantive equality, for all women. Let’s stop asking for “greater” and instead fearlessly claim what is ours: equal rights, period.