March 9, 1996: International Women's Day.
I chanced to be near City Hall in Belleville, Ontario where a small number of women were forming up into a platoon. The sun was setting and the weather was cold. Nonetheless, cheers went up and the group marched off towards the downtown business area, stalwart in the face of problems identified and the smallness of their numbers.
I was so struck with their fortitude that I resolved to offer a suspicion I had been habouring.
Feminist strategy suffers from an ironic flaw:
- The woman's moment has been preoccupied with demonstrations, rallies, and other forms of public education. This is sensible in terms of collecting and distributing information about abuse, nurturing solidarity, raising consciousness and elevating spirits.
- The difficulty arises when this strategy moves to the next stage ... communicating the fact and extent of inequity and injustice. Feminists have not merely identified some males as villainous. The word on the street is that all are suspect.
- The best any woman can hope for is to stumble across a representative that "isn't too bad".
This characterization is logically possible. However, one wonders how statistics of abuse and discrimination could then have been gathered. If everyone is 6' tall, being 6' does not attract attention. If all males are abusive, how is abuse noticed or measured?
Of course, women could be utilizing their own behavior as a benchmark.
Unhappily, this would mean that feminism’s strategy is even more paradoxical. Demonstrations are attempts to communicate. Even if most women were on-side, the job would not be done. According the the feminist axiom, abuse would continue. Yet what would be the point of continuing? The remainder of the population is male – and irretrievably flawed!
That is, men are incapable of responding to evidence of their own shortcomings. Even if some men are not overtly chauvinistic, they share a bred in the bone ‘empathic deficit’.
What feminists overlook is that their central premise means that remonstrations, demonstrations and petitions – insofar as they hope to involve more than the sisterhood – are doomed to fail.
It follows that, even if some men, institutions and legislations appear to be on the mend, political, sexual or economic expediency is always involved.
Indeed, these false ‘success stories’ may be a factor in feminism’s apparently stalled agenda. Intellectual, articulate and vigorous women enjoy their own company of course, but they also gravitate to tolerable men. The fact that this select group has been able to ‘mend its ways’ lends false hope to feminism's consciousness-raising, sensitivity-enhancing projects.
Of course, most women appear to know better. Cynicism and expectation of abuse is the glue holding feminism together. Most women voluntarily attest to the moral deafness of males. Women are correspondingly anxious about the provisional nature of their political and corporate successes. In August, 1998, the Canadian federal government appealed the pay equity decision of its own tribunal, a decision that would have (partially) repaired discriminatiosn suffered by female civil servants.
In 2000, the election of President Bush in the USA was widely perceived as a threat to the Roe vs. Wade pro-choice legislations.
As a rule, individuals suspected of villainous behavior do not get to sit in judgement when their cases are tried. Feminism is even more counter-intuitive. The guilty verdict has been delivered: men are self-centered, insensitive and often brutish.
Yet indictments continue. Aggrieved women cannot get beyond pressing their case.
There is another problem. Beyond the practical difficulty of pleading abuse trials before male-dominated tribunals, doing so legitimates - and hence perpetuates - the status quo. Slaves arguing moral issues with slaveholders have rarely been successful. Most understand this and rarely consent to have such conversations. This is not only pragmatic but prudent. Pleading one's case before one's oppressor implies that they have the moral high ground. If oppressors have the capacity to redress wrongs, the status quo is acknowledged to be at least potentially benign.
To the extent that this is not the case, feminist initiatives have always been doomed. There indeed seems to be growing recognition that the women's movement has failed. Of course, remarkable achievements in awareness and sisterhood solidarity have occurred.
What is lacking is any sense of what the next step might be. Feminism exists in a cul de sac. Many women seem to be exhausted by experiences of discrimination, 'glass ceilings', the vacuousness of employment and pay equity initiatives ... .
The way forward for the Feminist Movement involves empowerment. However, empowerment cannot be granted, it must be accomplished.
In short, rather than beseeching or demanding concessions, feminists must consider what could be done building upon the consensus and solidarity they have achieved. Women comprise more than 50% of the world's people. They cannot be thought of as an oppressed minority. They are, however, an oppressed majority. This has been overlooked because feminists have been focused upon instances of oppression: Women denied the vote, women denied property rights, women discriminated against in workplaces, women suffering sexual abuse, women suffering legal discriminations ... .
As a majority population, women need not – and should not – ask for relief.
Women could translate their experiences of oppression and recently achieved solidarity into a magic bullet striking deep into the male-dominated commercial world.
They could do this by organizing into consumer collectives or bargaining unions.
In the past, this would not have been possible. Retailers were locals, friends and community members. In North America, retailers provided links to distant manufacturers for hard-pressed, often poorly-educated, settlers. Modern commercial practices trade upon nostalgic images of retailers committed to community well-being and value-adding service. Rotund, genial businessmen smile from billboards and television screens. President’s Choice products and Dave’s Specials reassure millions that they have stalwart friends in high places.
In spite of these reassurances, corporations have evolved into male-dominated hierarchies, rife with sexual abuse, wage-inequities and other gender-based discriminations.
Feminists have not yet identified this evolution of corporate-based retailing as the vulnerable underbelly of institutional exploitation and discrimination. This would be an important achievement. Workplace abuse, political chauvinism, corporate chutzpah ... would then be linked to proceedings over which the world’s principal shoppers possess enormous potential leverage.