From feminism to feminisms

Understanding the plurality of feminist thought

Lily Cason, News Editor

I’ve lost count of the number of times I've brainstormed the perfect slogan to scribble on my cardboard sign right before a protest. Almost always, I end up settling on something I deem to be just so-so. The same thing happened in January 2017, a day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, when I joined what felt like the rest of the world at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. for  possibly  the largest single day of protest ever, cardboard sign in hand.

While I didn’t have a “pussy” hat—pink hats with little cat ears sparked by then-president Trump’s comments about grabbing women “by the pussy”—I was the stereotypical attendee in almost every way: A white 15-year-old girl, passionate, idealistic, more than a little naive, and fully prepared to have no voice the following day from all the chanting and screaming.

I think this is the side of feminism many relatively privileged girls and young women are introduced to first. It’s made readily available to us. It’s the stuff that makes the news—it’s loud, and it’s flashy. I don’t say any of this to belittle protesting, or this brand of feminism more broadly, but as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized how many other forms feminism can take.

It turned out that what I once saw as a relatively homogeneous movement was much more site-specific than I had thought. For example, the feminism I engage with in Washington D.C., where I’m from, is often entangled with federal politics: Which senate and congressional races are looming, whether the candidates are progressive or regressive on so-called “women's issues,” and so on and so forth. Only when I got older did I learn about other feminist initiatives taking place in my city, namely Black feminist organizing like Jaimee A. Swift’s Black Women Radicals. These non-mainstream forms of feminism rarely receive the same external validation and media coverage, but nevertheless carry out vitally important work.

While some may think of feminism as a whole as the most easily identifiable activism we see in the news, like Women’s Marches, in reality, it encompasses much broader, more nuanced movements, ideologies, and art forms. This is probably why Alexandra Ketchum, a faculty lecturer in McGill’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, offered me the sage advice to “go with plural of 'feminisms' rather than single 'feminism.'”

Traditionally, scholars have summarized the historical stages of the feminist movement into three, and more recently four, “waves,” each characterized by a set of core principles and practices. As the story goes, during the first wave, middle-to upper-class white women were were mostly preoccupied with securing the right to vote for themselves, while second-wave feminists took up a broader range of issues like reproductive rights, the wage gap, and more, rallying around the cry “the personal is political.” Third-wave feminists rejected much of prior feminist thought, challenging notions of gender and sexuality, and advocating for the feminist movement to adopt a more intersectional approach.

Rather notoriously, many third-wave feminists adopted slurs which had been seen as sexist, derogatory, and inexcusable by second-wave feminists, reclaiming them as their own. Some believe we are now in a fourth wave, centred around causes like the #MeToo movement—but this is still up for debate. The wave theory itself has its limitations, however. Ketchum takes issue with it because she feels it only encapsulates the stages and evolution of a certain brand of white feminism, not all feminisms. The question remains: What are we talking about when we talk about feminism?

The many forms of feminism in Quebec

Far from being an evolving consensus of opinions, feminist thought has had its share of internal conflict. One point of contention within the movement was the debate over the creation of women-only spaces. In the 1970s and ‘80s, lesbian separatism was very much in vogue, and some straight women swore off of heterosexual relationships as a political choice. Unsurprisingly, this practice garnered backlash from many lesbians, who pointed to the long history of homophobia and oppression they had endured and disparaged the idea of “opting-in” to lesbianism. Even today, while some see women-only spaces as a way to increase lesbian visibility and establish much-needed spheres of safety for women, others see them as trans-exclusionary and counterproductive.

Ketchum explained that in Montreal, separate women’s spaces never fully took off. This was due in large part to the fact that feminist activism in Quebec overlapped with the fight for Quebec sovereignty—a movement led by people of all genders. The two political causes were—and often still are, according to a 2010 study—seen as inextricably intertwined. The radical Front de libération des femmes du Québec (FLF), formed in 1969, encapsulated this notion in its slogan, “No women’s liberation without Quebec liberation. No Quebec liberation without women’s liberation.”

As the historian Sean Mills lays out in his book //The Empire Within//, many women in Montreal, including those in the FLF, saw themselves as marginalized by both their status as women //and// their status as Quebecers, thus believing that both obstacles needed to be eliminated to achieve true liberation. This is an example of intersectionality—the idea that multiple parts of one’s identity can cause overlapping experiences of privilege and marginalization. The FLF’s rallying cry was a page out of Black feminists’ book: These feminists coined the term and have long since pushed for an intersectional approach to feminism that recognizes the need to not only dismantle the patriarchy, but also all other oppressive institutions.

However, the FLF was not very inclusive of Black women and other marginalized groups, frequently refusing to expend energy on the fight for racial equality. This illustrates a greater pattern in many feminist circles: Black women and other marginalized feminists are often excluded from the conversation, sometimes in spite of having inspired it in the first place. Instead, these women created their own, separate, groups—such as the Congress of Black Women of Canada  and Quebec Native Women Inc.—to more adequately address their struggles.

There were other tensions between FLF’s members that went beyond their exclusion of racialized people. Because of the unique mix of French and English language and culture in Quebec, activists often drew from multiple streams of feminist thought.

“There is an influence of American Anglo feminist writings coming into Quebec, especially through scholars coming to McGill University, like American feminist scholars coming in,” Ketchum explained. “But, then you also have the France-French influence.”

It was precisely the issue of language within the FLF, which was founded by both French and English speakers in 1970, that caused a rift in the organization just a year after it was created. Francophone members didn’t like the increasing import of English-language texts into the Montreal feminist scene, which they saw as inherently colonial, and thus began to exclude Anglophone members of the group.

While the FLF’s Quebecois nationalist brand of feminism was at the time the predominantly recognized and lauded form of the movement in Montreal, it is by no means the whole story. In this way, it is much like the feminism I was first exposed to in D.C. Without the activism of the Kahnawake women, who pushed back not only against the patriarchy but also against white settler colonialism, advocating important changes like the revision of section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act, the women’s movement would not be where it is today. The same goes for the work of Haitian women in Montreal, who emphasized the role of class in the feminist struggle in their work.

The accessibility—and inaccessibility—of academic feminism

Since coming to McGill last year, I’ve been exposed to more feminist scholarship than ever before. While fascinating, one thing that has stood out to me is that some feminist scholarship can feel extremely inaccessible. While reading parts of Judith Butler’s //Gender Trouble// for my critical theory course, it was hard not to wonder who this text is accessible for—and who the hell fully understands it.

When I spoke to graduate student Winnie Yang, who is working toward her PhD in sociology with a concentration in gender and women’s studies at McGill, she brought up the difficulty of //Gender Trouble// unprompted. Perhaps it’s just that notorious.

“I think it's some type of inside joke for people who study genders or whatever,” Yang said. “Like in 'Gender Studies 101' people will talk about //Gender Trouble// by Judith Butler. [It’s] just the piece that's always assigned in any gender courses or feminist courses, so I've read it so many times, but just never understand it. Every time I read it, I don't know what's going on.”

Of course, such theoretical texts aren’t useless. //Gender Trouble// triggered a philosophical revolution, redefining the parameters within which feminists conceptualized liberation. These texts can also inspire more accessible forms of scholarly work, such as research into the lived experiences of people of various genders.

“I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that some academic work is not readily accessible for people,” Yang expressed. “To a certain extent, [...] a lot of empirical research stems from the theoretical pieces that we talk about, and then they translate the language and they go out and actually use these theories to do research in real-life settings.”

Yang isn’t just speculating. A 2018 article in the journal //Frontiers in Psychology// addressed how concepts from Butler’s 1990 book, such as gender performativity, can and should be further harnessed by social psychologists doing research on gender.

While feminism can sometimes be buried in these dense texts, it’s also full of ideas that can readily be applied in practice. After all, many women don’t need to read a book to understand gendered violence; they experience it every day. In 2017, the same year I attended the Women’s march, the #MeToo movement exploded.

Targeted feminist activism

When the #MeToo movement went viral, a reckoning ensued. Many institutions and individuals were forced to confront their role in perpetuating the cycle of sexual violence against women. The Quebec music scene was no exception. Long-standing issues of low representation, unequal pay, and harassment were just as present north of the U.S. border. For example, in 2017, less than 30 per cent of spots at musical festivals and other programming in Quebec went to women, despite them making up nearly 50 per cent of the industry.

Much like the broader entertainment industry, the music industry in Quebec came late to addressing sexism. This was partially because of its sporadic and gig-based working conditions, McGill PhD candidate in sociology Lysandre Champagne explained.

“It took a little bit more time in music, to engage with the feminist movement, and to really take it as a whole and to regroup,” Champagne said. “Because [the arts are] so spread out over time, and [...] it’s so informal [...], it has been super hard to get these women together. ”

That changed in 2017, when a group of 136 women—including prominent artists Mélanie and Stéphanie Boulay, Ariane Brunet, Catherine Durand, Ariane Moffatt, Safia Nolin, and Amylie—penned a letter calling out the sexism within Quebec’s music industry and demanding festivals do a better job representing women. These women also founded Femmes en musique, or FEM, a group that strives to highlight and combat sexism in Quebec’s music scene.

“It's now a group that has been working for political issues representing women and trans people and queer people [...] in the music industry in Quebec,” Champagne said.

Like many other feminist collectives, Champagne noted that FEM has received backlash over an initial lack of diversity and inclusion. In response, groups such as MTL Women in MusicLotus Collective, and have formed with the goal of representing a more diverse array of people.

In recent years, all of these groups, along with a few others, have been brought together by UQAM researcher Vanessa Blais-Tremblay’s DIG! Project, a network that strives to compile data on and ultimately combat inequalities in Quebec’s music industry. Champagne, who is a research assistant for the project, showed me an extensive map of resources the team has compiled that includes information on the aforementioned groups, financing music, promoting music, legal services, and more.

But feminism doesn’t just line library bookshelves or improve working conditions—it also helps the women who are perhaps most in need of material support.

Feminism as front-line work

Frontline work helping women in need through sites like community centres and shelters is undoubtedly a feminist project. It’s also a needed one, especially now as the pandemic, ever-pervasive in our lives, has disproportionately impacted the women of Montreal. Marianne Pelletier, is the Frontline Services Evening team leader at Chez Doris, a day shelter that provides a wide range of services for vulnerable women in Montreal. She explained that the organization has had to make difficult decisions during the pandemic.

“As of now, we really had to rethink our services because of the pandemic,” Pelletier said in an interview with //The McGill Tribune//. “And so, [...] in December of last year, we had to make a very tough decision [that] we would only focus on our services on homeless women, which means that all of the housed women didn't have that place anymore.”

I asked Pelletier whether she identifies Chez Doris as a “feminist” organization and whether that label holds much stock for her. She responded with an adamant “yes,” explaining that feminist intervention is critically important to the organization’s operations. Pelletier emphasized that Chez Doris doesn’t do what is called in French “donner la morale,” or tell women what is right for them. Rather, it strives to meet them where they are.

“I think that's one big part of feminist intervention,” Pelletier said. “To [be] here and now with the person.”

In my opinion, this is an important facet of feminism that white liberal feminists, in particular, tend to overlook. Too often white feminists talk down to those they purport to want to help and see their feminism as “the” feminism. As I grow older, I recognize that any universal conception of feminism is going to exclude certain groups, thus harming the whole movement. While I will undoubtedly find myself hunched over a recycled piece of cardboard with a sharpie in hand sometime soon, I hope it will be with a richer conception of feminism than my 15-year-old self had.

Illustrations by Xiaotian Wang, Design Editor