Archive for the ‘Feminism’ category

Twenty years ago today…

December 6, 2009


I was a first-year student in a Quebec university. Early in the evening of December 6, 1989, I had a class in the 7 to 10 pm slot, and that was where I must have heard about the Polytechnique massacre. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard, maybe on the radio, where details were emerging in snippets of panic and disbelief. A man shot a bunch of students, then himself, in a classroom? This was years before classrooms were to become familiar but still outrageous sites of bullets and blood, and the intense shock of the Polytechnique aftermath drove my spirit into hiding, just as I suspect it did for other women students of my age. Anglophone that I was, it took me several days to even piece together that the École Polytechnique was the engineering faculty of the Université de Montréal.

When Polytechnique the movie was released in early 2009, I made a point to see it through in a movie theatre and address the residues of that shock. There were four of us sitting in the seats when it started, and only my friend and I were left by the time it was over. Harrowing, shot in black and white, and not overly graphic, Polytechnique is a sober film that deals with composite characters and documented facts. I’m glad someone had the courage to make it, if only to serve as an archival piece about what happened on December 6, 1989.

The stress, styrofoam coffee cups, typical 80s music and informal group study sessions of university exam periods felt very familiar; there were no cellphones, iPods, laptops, or PowerPoint presentations – just textbooks, course notes and acetates shown on overhead projectors. There may have been a few of those funny convex mirrors posted at blind corners, just so students could avoid head-on collisions. The photocopy machines were always busy. Knowing that this scene would soon be interrupted by multiple shooting deaths was almost unbearable.

One of the most heartbreaking moments was when one girl from the classroom group sequestered by the murderer protested his labelling them as feminists. She shouted “we are not feminists, we’re just living a normal life!” And that was when he sprayed the group with a hail of bullets, and they all fell. But it was true, they’re weren’t really feminists. Even young women engineering students of the time, a very small minority among the young men, didn’t consider themselves feminists, or trailblazers of any kind. The trail had been blazed already, you’d have been crazy to pretend you were a pioneer of women’s rights by entering any professional degree program in 1989. Anyways, we had to study hard; there was no time to learn about feminist history or gender theory. Apparently we didn’t even have time for the basics back then, we were in such a rush to fend off the competition and earn a cherished spot in a professional program or a plum internship – and unless blatant discrimination was being applied, the most serious competition was from the perfectionist drive of the other women students.

I didn’t have the same excuse, however. In the fall of 1989, I was studying literature; this was before I reoriented my study program to focus on sciences, with the goal of studying veterinary or human medicine. And in early December 1989 I was reading The Diviners, a classic novel in Canadian literature that carries a good description of what life was like for women before women’s rights were part of the landscape. One day in class we were discussing the novel, which intrigued me, but I didn’t really know what to make of it, the constant setbacks and impossibly contentious roads chosen by Morag were incomprehensible to me. My sole comment on the novel in class: “Well, she doesn’t seem very happy, does she?” I offered that up with a mix of contempt for this woman who couldn’t find her way in life, who had difficult relationships with the people closest to her, and self-satisfaction because I wasn’t a feminist, and thus rejected struggle and wilfull unhappiness.

After the class, Charles, a senior student, came straight over to where I was sitting. From his severely receded hairline and grayish temples it was obvious that Charles was older than most of us; his contributions to class discussions put the rest of ours to shame because he had the authority of personal experience to back up his opinions. He looked me square in the eyes and said “you don’t know much about the history of women, do you?” I’m not sure what I said in reply to that, perhaps I didn’t say anything at all and just looked at him with my best deer-in-the-headlights face. He gave me a very brief but pointed description of what life had been like for women in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution, that Canadian women had been severely limited in their personal and professional choices until something like the mid-1970s, and ended his speech by suggesting that I open my eyes and ears for the stories I wouldn’t hear from my contemporaries.

I was mildly insulted, but his words worked on me, and in the years ahead, I did pay attention to history, to what older women said when they talked about about their lives, and to the experiences of older generations. I learned about how women in Quebec had been valued for their ability to bear vast numbers of children, and that as soon as they were no longer obliged to do so, they threw off the yoke of the Church of Perpetual Childbearing and mobilised an entire society to sweeping changes – changes that were enacted while I was a child and which my generation accepted as our birthright by the time we entered university. Did we imagine that if things hadn’t always been that easy, they couldn’t have been all that different?

Last year during a symposium at the Ontario Veterinary College on women in veterinary medicine, I learned that in 1972, Title IX legislation in the United States led to a massive inpouring of women students in veterinary medicine and other professional programs. It was such a vast and sweeping change that from one year to the next somewhere in the mid-1970s, there were more graduating women veterinarians in a single year than there had been in all the years taken together since veterinary programs were first created in the late 19th century. I don’t know if Canada had to enact similar legislation, but the same sweeping changes occurred here and in other countries on the heels of that major piece of feminist-inspired legislation.

By the time I entered vet college in 1995, 75% of my classmates were girls, in a profession that had once seen women excluded on the basis that we were too delicate and sensitive to study anatomy and perform many of the tasks vets had to perform. I still have a hard time imagining which ones, because I’ve done most of them, a few times with men standing helpless at my side. I’ve seen men turn a whiter shade of pale at the sight of blood and smell of pus; sights and smells that to me signal nothing more than a problem to solve.

Animal medicine has sometimes been a disappointment to me, as I’ve seen how often we use the bodies of animals as means to our own ends, with perfect callousness – as a kind of mirror to the way women were treated for so long. On the other hand, I wake up most days excited about the knowledge and skills I was allowed to learn, and couldn’t imagine my life without them.

For me, that’s been the experience of living a normal life. Too many women in different times and places have been prevented from living anything I’d consider resembling a normal life, and 14 women engineering students in 1989 were prevented from living their lives at all. It’s not ideological to observe that it was due to a young man’s anger and frustration at feminism (plus the easy availability of an automatic weapon) that women were slaughtered on December 6, 1989. It’s not the fault of feminist “ideology” that other women have pointed out that violence against women is almost uniquely carried out by angry and frustrated men; it’s not ideological to draw incredibly obvious parallels between December 6 and violence against women in homes and around the world.

Sometimes it just takes several years of personal and collective experience, while paying attention to history, to accept these hard facts.

As for myself, I finally learned to credit feminism with allowing me to live a normal life. And yes, I am a feminist, for as long as it will take.

Analogies and abortions

June 12, 2009

Having sat through too many evangelical sermons in my younger life, I’ve developed a strong resistance to arguments that draw on analogy. Most of the sermons I endured as a teenager and young adult were heavy-laden with analogies; now I can’t help seeing them as a recourse for lazy-mindedness (not always deliberate) and tendentiousness (usually deliberate). They’re useful for when you want others to believe something for which you don’t have concrete evidence, or which may contain many different truths that are unendingly complex, and the analogy helps you to focus on a single one.

I strongly object to analogies when it comes to pregnancy and abortion. Having been pregnant a couple of times in my life and not reeling anymore from the experience, I’m amused or offended, depending on my mood, when pregnancy is compared to owning a house in which you are hosting the homeless and you’re obligated to keep them overnight because there is a blizzard outside. Pregnancy is not much like organ donation; and it is certainly nothing even potentially akin to being a slave-owner or a (female supremacist) Nazi. (Seriously: those two last ones are central arguments of the anti-abortion movement’s desire to enshrine fetal rights. Anti-abortion advocates imagine that pro-choice women see fetuses as “subhuman”; therefore, much like Nazis and slave owners, they allow them to be eliminated at will. That leap of (ana)logic leads directly into the abyss of manipulativeness and dishonesty.) I’ve always seen the abortion-is-murder analogy as a shocking distortion of the reality of an unwanted pregnancy and the maternal-fetal relationship.

I’ve also considered abortion from the angle of the animal rights movement, something more of a personal and professional interest for me. While I can see a few parallels between the anti-abortion and animal rights movements, there are more divergences than similarities, and in fact the philosophical argument for animal rights is more of an evolving process with a rich philosophical framework. Most importantly to me, animal liberation/welfare/rights arguments are not based on analogies and projections; they are based on the realities of animals’ lives and the way we think about them and use them.

Because being pregnant – and being a fetus – is not like anything else or any other stage of human or animal development, analogies are inappropriate for describing what happen to a body and a mind during that time. Perhaps because I have observed and dealt with a lot of non-human animal pregnancies and deliveries, I’ve grown more sensitive to messy and complex medical realities and the risks involved for both mother and fetus, and therefore can appreciate the wide range of potential calamities that can occur. I can also appreciate the incomplete but evolving state of knowledge regarding diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, and people’s varying capabilities in handling problems and catastrophes. Most of the common things that can go wrong during a pregnancy or to a fetus can be addressed and corrected, but there is a small subset of devastating problems that cannot be fixed, not even with current technology.

Since the assassination of Dr Tiller, the renowned late-term abortion doctor from Wichita, by an anti-abortion zealot, I’ve been researching and reading about some of the conditions that have resulted in women choosing to abort a pregnancy that was initially desired. I was amazed at the number of conditions I had never heard of – though I shouldn’t be, as these most serious ones never come up in veterinary medicine and may have something to do with the complexity of the human genome, fertility treatments, and other factors: twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, trisomy 13, triploidy, fragile X syndrome, severe osteogenesis imperfecta, and many others. Another one here. And here. A few others I already knew about, such as severe neural tube defects and anencephaly.

A lot of women have decided to come out with their stories in the aftermath of Dr Tiller’s murder, and that is a very good thing. The holocaust rhetoric and imagery around later-term abortion were deliberately chosen by Francis Schaeffer (for which his son has recently apologised) when he wrote his treatises lamenting the decline of traditional religion back in the 1970s. While it’s understandable that women who’ve had a later-term abortion would just want to either grieve or forget the experience and get on with their lives, it’s important that they speak out in order to bring some truth and first-hand accounts to the table. People who casually imagine that women dispose of their half-grown fetuses cavalierly or out of convenience, or who believe that they must accept even the most severe congenital defect and care for a non-viable baby until it inevitably dies, no matter the consequences to their own reproductive and mental health, or the needs of their already-born children. These people need to understand that late-term abortion involves the most intensely personal situations, which sometimes include severe depression, cancer treatments and families with children who already have multiple disabilities. These issues should never have been allowed to become the target of a movement that pretends to be pious, but which has always been intensely political.

As for the pious individuals who still insist on sticking their noses and religious morality into the most private and intimate business of others, I think they should learn the meaning of empathy, and shame. A generation or so back, it was considered shameful when a woman had a baby out of wedlock, but with the decline of traditional religions and structures, the stigma of single parenthood has been erased. I can only hope that the appropriate stigma will attach itself to people who try to interfere in these most intimate problems and decisions of others.

Abortion and the animal rights movement

January 23, 2009

I’m writing this post in honour of one of President Obama’s first acts as president: today he will or has already overturned the “global gag rule” that banned federal funds from being used in foreign family planning organisations that either offer abortions or provide information or counselling about abortion.

It is known as the “global gag rule” because it denies US taxpayer dollars to clinics that even mention abortion to women with unplanned pregnancies.

The rule was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, overturned by Bill Clinton in 1993, and reinstated by Bush.

The gag rule was just another one of those candies, a “faith-based initiative”, that the Bush regime crafted to reward and invigorate a tightly organised mass of people that votes based on religious sentiment, particularly on a strong opposition to abortion, for their support that was instrumental in getting him elected twice, to the utter astonishment of the rest of the world.

Tightly organised as they are around the issue of abortion, I don’t think they realise that their movement was a contributing factor to the revival of the anti-vivisection and animal rights movements. Six influences on the rise of the animal rights movement were identified by Harlan B. Miller in Ethics and Animals (1983), described by Richard Ryder as:

– the momentum of liberation: anti-colonialism, anti-racismt logical step was anti-speciesism
– scientific evidence that nonhumans share intellectual and perceptual faculties in common with humankind
– the decline in dualistic views separating mind from body: acknowledging that nervous systems in humans and animals are the basis for mental life and consciousness; this factor also relates to a diminished influence of conventional Western or monotheistic religion in public philosophy and politics
– the development of behavioural sciences (sociobiology and ethology) that attempt to draw conclusions about human behaviour from observations of other animals (i.e. that homo sapiens is just another species, albeit a tool-making and book-writing one)
-the rise of environmental and ecological movements
– the ethical debate over abortion, particularly when it focuses on the “person” concept in ethics and law.

Of these six influences on the animal rights debate, I find the abortion one to be the least significant, practically speaking, though it may have lent some moral crusade sentiment to activists.

I work and live with many different species of animals, and I can’t really say whether officially defining them as persons would change much about the way I treat them – which is always with respect and care for their bodies and psyches (at least the ones I get to meet up close); most of the time with love and strong attachment; sometimes with exasperation. Too often, however, I treat them with disregard – I’m not proud of that, but I do have to be honest: I still eat meat (though I try not to), wear leather gloves and use a multitude of other animal-based products that I’m probably not even aware of half the time. And yet if I do wish to consider animals (which ones?) as “persons”, it would only be to improve their overall situation in our society. It seems quite obvious that depending on the species and the context, they share our capacity for suffering, self-awareness, anticipation, fear, pleasure and many other emotions that we think makes us special as humans.

In the same way, I have no quarrel with considering the zygote/embryo/fetus to be human. I don’t see what else they could be, given the DNA involved. But that doesn’t stop me from supporting abortion rights, and from thinking that Canada has taken a wise stance with regard to abortion, that of leaving it unlegislated. To me, this means that when problems of accessing safe abortions are taken care of, it’s a matter that concerns only the woman who inhabits the body where a pregnancy is developing. In general, human zygotes/embryos/fetuses are protected by protecting the health and safety of women, so there is no systematic discrimination against these fetuses, which is one of the more specious arguments of the anti-abortion movement.

Animals on the other hand, face a systematic lack of protection of their bodies and interests simply because they are animals; different species are afforded different kinds of protection according to their status as property or objects of affection. Even though I don’t always completely agree with the focus and direction of animals rights, I am indebted to many animal rights scholars and specialists for helping me understand the status of animals in society, and how we think about them when we do what we do to them in research and in the food industry.

As for the anti-abortion movement, it does not appear to me to have the same universal moral grounding and concern for life that the animal rights/environmentalist movement has. The sole focus is human life in the womb, from the time of conception (and possibly even before that). The big idea is: human life inside the womb has absolute rights, regardless of circumstances. That’s going one further than God, imho. I continue to marvel at the way anti-abortion activists in recent times have aligned themselves with regimes that have been enthusiastic about wars, pre-emptive strikes, environmental despoilment, torture of prisoners and over-zealous military protectionism. A person really has to wonder where they got the nerve to adopt the pro-life moniker.

I think I’ll stick to following what the animal rights’ scholars and environmentalists have to say in the coming years. I find their focus to be a lot less self-serving and chauvinistic than those who want humans to overrun the earth and drag us all into a culture of death by Armageddon.


January 3, 2009

In the eleven years since I first put baby to breast, the issue of public breastfeeding (or more specifically, breastfeeding in public spaces that are actually owned by various entities) has come into the news a few times. During the two years when I was actually breastfeeding (1998 and 2002, to be precise), I was blissfully unaware that this was all about breastfeeding rights for mothers. Naively, I had presumed it was all about eating rights for babies. Thus armed, I proceeded to feed my baby from the breast in restaurants, hotel lobbies, airplanes, parks, museums, beaches, offices, and pretty much anywhere I happened to be at the time with my hungry babies.
The thing I loved best about breastfeeding was the convenience. No bottles to heat, no worries about spoilage, nothing to store and nothing to discard, and no crying baby waiting while the bottle was prepared and heated.
Not once did I ever catch a glimpse of disapproval. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that anyone could be offended by breastfeeding; however, it often occurred to me that people might be annoyed by a squalling baby, therefore I obviously wasn’t completely insensitive to other people’s physical well-being (as infants, my kids were loud and persistent criers when they got down to it; it was best not to let them get worked up in the first place).
Some of my best memories of breastfeeding include the genuinely approving looks I got from elderly men and women as I breastfed in malls and restaurants. Seniors spend a lot of time in malls, and as a young mother, so did I – for the logical reason that we both needed a place to walk and sit out of the cold and snow (I had winter babies). We happily shared that space, and nobody ever got more than a very quick flash of breast flesh, if at all. They’d have to have been sitting nose-to-nose with my baby to get a glimpse of areola.

So eleven years later I am wondering what all the fuss is about, and why breastfeeding mothers are labelled (by some) as lactivists if they reasonably insist on their right to feed their babies in public. I would have hoped that by now, this right would have become completely uncontested.

As for Facebook and its “standards of decency”, it is apparently only photos of the entire breast with baby attached that provoke dispute and deletion. I think it should be understood that women who post these photos are doing so for some very excellent reasons. Some may live in places where public breastfeeding is not an uncontested right, which was not my experience.
In humans, breastfeeding is not an instinctive behaviour (sucking is both an instinctive and learned behaviour in babies – like all mammals, human babies are definitely hardwired to suck, but many babies have to be taught to suck in such a way that is not painful or damaging to the mother; in some babies that can take a few seconds, others – like my firstborn – need a few days to catch on, ow.) For mothers, breastfeeding is a learned, cultural behaviour. In Western culture, breastfeeding was all too often an undertaking that was shifted to women of a certain class, wet nurses, who became experts at it and passed along the know-how within their own culture. Often, these wet nurses had to share their breasts with the babies of upper-class women who were breeders but not feeders. But with the democratisation of our culture, eventually breastfeeding came to be encouraged in all women. Of course, I’m skipping over a lot of history here, including the advent of formula in the 1930s, which many women , who had hung on to the old prejudices, figured would save them from having to learn to breastfeed their infants.
So all of that to say that breastfeeding can often be difficult for the average woman to learn and adapt to. It hasn’t gotten easier for women since the 70s, because each individual woman has to understand the mechanics and principles involved, plus she has to understand her own milk production in synch with her baby’s growth and appetite. It can become all-absorbing, a full-time job in fact, at least for the first few weeks and months. After about one month or so, if milk production is adequate (it isn’t in all women, a fact that complicates breastfeeding even further) breastfeeding suddenly becomes the easiest thing in the world, and if all goes well, one suddenly realises its matchless advantages.

So I can understand why women are presenting photos of their breasts on Facebook. This is the image they are projecting of themselves, at this point in time, because breastfeeding has become their world, their singular occupation, and they may even have important information or tips to share with others. It’s like an icon – there is knowledge behind that image.

I just wish the 12-year-old boys who run Facebook would grow up more quickly and realise that breastfeeding photos are neither sexual nor “disgusting”. I predict that if they don’t realise it by themselves, they will be shamed into it by some very determined mothers.

To help them on their way, I’d suggest they read Marilyn Yalom’s wonderful book, A History of the Breast. It will make them think about breasts in more interesting ways than they have yet imagined.

Change happens: thanks, feminism!

December 11, 2008

Over at unrepentantoldhippie, JJ has again neatly made the point that even though you don’t want feminists to speak for you as a woman, that’s OK, because it’s not about you, as an outstanding and outspoken individual, it’s about the historical fact that women once did not have the same political and social rights as men did, but that through the continuing struggle, rising, falling and rising again, of feminism over several decades and at least a few centuries, things have changed. Even though that’s apparently too complex a history for some people, it’s undeniable that feminism has had one of the most profound impacts on Western society – for good or for evil, depending on your point of view. But please, let’s be consistent, and honest with history. If you think feminism is so awful, and you don’t accept the fact that it has made momentuous and positive contributions to women’s lives, it would be really neat if you would forgo those changes and acquired rights, and live as women did 50, 70, 100, 200 years ago. But alas, you cannot. Short of dropping out of society, you can’t return to that golden age of oppression. Feminism was not a “natural” evolution of human society; it was a struggle, all the way along.

I’m reading the third edition (2002) of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. One of the cool things about this book is that the prefaces for the 1975 and 1990 editions are included. Singer expresses his humble amazement at some of the rapid developments in the animal rights movement over the past 30+ years, and how it has influenced practice – particularly in the European Union, where changes have greatly outpaced North America in terms of animal welfare laws and changes in husbandry practices (notably for chickens and pigs). For example, by 2012, European egg producers will have to provide 750 cm2 (120 sq in) per bird; in Canada the current recommendation is 450 cm2, and only 350 cm2 (52 sq in) in the United States. The changes proposed for Canada and the United States are already seen as outmoded and inacceptable by European farmers – who are starting to consider that maybe hens need a system that does without cages altogether…

In the first chapter of Singer’s book, he discusses the reaction to proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecroft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. In a move reminiscent of bloggerdom, a satirical work appeared soon after: A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes (i.e. animals). The author was anonymous at the time (hmm) but it is now known that it was Thomas Taylor, a distinguished Cambridge philosopher. His satire pointed out that if Wollstonecraft’s arguments held for women and children then what if we extended them to dogs, cats, and horses? (Yeah, what if we had to stop beating them to an inch of their lives for disobedience, or rounding them up off the streets and cutting them up into pieces while they still lived and breathed…) Of course, as satire, it was surely a hilarious read for literate men of the day. But still, a century later, things hadn’t changed that much for women. They still didn’t have the right to vote or own property, and they were not considered persons under the law; in addition to a thousand other humiliating details. By the 1920s, when women were finally allowed to vote in England, Canada, the US, and Australia – they still weren’t paid equal wages for similar work, or allowed equal educational and professional opportunities.

Progress continued slowly, until the incredibly rapid changes in laws and customs that occurred just before I was born, and continued at a whirlwind pace as I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s. Feminism has been influential to the point where even the very conservative religious culture I grew up in (evangelical Christianity) has become nearly unrecognisable in some of its aspects – the emergence of Sarah Palin would be Exhibit A, and though I really don’t wish to elaborate on her, except to mention that back in the 1980s, mainstream evangelical church leaders thought that the day they let women have political or religious authority over men meant that there were no men fit to lead and we were all heading for hell in a handbasket anyways. (Exhibit B would be pastors telling their members to have (hetero)sexual intercourse every day…. As I check this link, I realise that I attended this church briefly, about 20 years ago. They didn’t display cheesy-sexy beds anywhere near pulpits in those days.)

But of course Palin’s not exceptional. She’s simply part of a culture that has changed to the point where you are more likely than not to have a woman as your doctor or veterinarian. When I graduated from vet school as a large animal practitioner almost a decade ago, it was the turning point, when the balance tipped to a female majority of graduating vets. Yes, we had and continue to have our struggles, to obtain reasonable mat leave and time off to nurse babies and be with our young kids and return to our jobs – but I am pleased to note that in Canada at least, women (and men) vets are increasingly willing to sub in for each other in temporary locums, as women take time off to have children and then return to work on a part-time basis, until their kids are older.

But back to animals à la fin. Even though the seemingly intractable problems of humans, animals and the environment can drain us of energy and create cynicism, negativism is no help at all, and it suffocates hope. Changes in thinking about animal welfare and rights have made a difference, and continue to do so. Change doesn’t happen overnight – but sometimes it can happen with breathtaking rapidity.