100 years ago yesterday, women’s suffrage began in our city and country, which makes me wonder if we should be celebrating how far we’ve come, or gawking at how far we have to go until we reach true gender equality in Canada.
In 1916, women were more appendage than person within the workings of a state that is now looked at as one of the most progressive and peaceful in the world. Thanks in large part to the unbreakable resolve of many such ‘appendages,’ Canada can now boast a century of women’s suffrage (if you ignore indigenous women, which we disturbingly tend to do quite well), a closing wage gap, multiple female Premiers and a federal cabinet with gender parity. Hooray for Canada! Hooray for Winnipeg! That has been the tenor of many editorials, tributes and celebrations in the City that bears significant responsibility for the many achievements of the women’s suffrage movement, and for good reason. There is no doubt we live in a state that is unquantifiably closer to gender equality today than in 1916, and we should be sure to take some time to reflect on all the great things women have accomplished to make Canada what it is today, ever since they gained the opportunity to take part. However, it is also critical to consider how much farther we have to go, and how much greater our society can become for all of us if we get there.
For every man who acknowledges that we are still a far ways off from gender equality in Canada, there are likely a half-dozen who will say we have already arrived at, or are very close to, an equal state. They will point to many statistics that support this notion, such as federal wage equality legislation, increased efforts towards gender parity in government, including the aforementioned Trudeau cabinet, a perpetual increase of two-income households and of course the universal suffrage of all Canadian citizens. It’s not a ludicrous argument, but nonetheless a shallow one. A deeper look into cultural norms, and beyond statistical trends, shows that we still live within a patriarchal structure, which does not benefit anyone.
While I could name hundreds of examples of misogyny within our culture, and any of you could likely come up with hundreds more that I don’t even notice, I see most falling into the following categories: i) Systemic patriarchy, ii) Cultural patriarchy, iii) Authoritative misogyny and iv) incidental misogyny. I believe that misogynistic tendencies at each of those levels has led to an atmosphere which represses women, and treats them as a dependent and second-class group within society. I classify this as a trickle-down model, in which a historical tradition of male dominance has led to systemic patriarchy that manifests in a cultural patriarchy ingrained within society. One part of this cultural patriarchy is the relatively harmless, when in isolation, ‘incidental misogyny.’ The more insidious wing is what I call authoritative misogyny. As I will dictate, the key to solving the continued abuse of women in our society lies at the most basic levels of our every day life.
The systemic level describes the historical dominance of males in positions of power within a nation that manifests in a societal patriarchy. Political bureaucrats, governing officials and judicial authorities, who are largely responsible for the management, legislation and identity of a state have traditionally been roles filled by males. During the confederation of Canada, women were not consulted to negotiate the baseline of what is still the constitution of our country. After indigenous treaty negotiations ended in the late 19th century, indigenous woman were barred from federal political participation until 1960. The charter of rights and freedoms, ratified in 1982- a document designed to protect minority rights within Canada- was primarily negotiated by a Prime Minister and ten Premiers, all of whom were white males. To clarify, this is not meant to criticize those men in particular, in fact the charter has gone a long way in supporting the rights of traditionally oppressed groups of all kinds within Canada. Also, the trends I discussed earlier would suggest we are closing in on the equality of governing bodies within the foreseeable future. While that is a clear step in the right direction, the tradition of male dominance that looms over the governance of our country, and our world system, has resulted in a patriarchal manifestation at other levels of society. Even when we reach gender equality at the governing level, which I sincerely believe we will, male dominance has been ingrained into our society for so long that it has caused a systemic patriarchy which frames our every day life, even if we don’t always notice it.
While an encouragingly increasing proportion of males are willing to work towards statistical parity between men and women across the country, there is a significant lagging when it comes to males willing to work beyond that level. Many think that post-modern feminists who preach the need to break down systemic attitudes towards women and gender roles at large are overreacting, or simply seeing something that is not there. It is easy for humans to look towards different societies and eras with disapproval, but it is disconcertingly rare for people, especially those in an advantageous societal position, to recognize the failings of our present. You can see this within attitudes towards the systemic racism that haunts our judicial system. It is quite common to hear Canadians criticize the Americans for the clear prejudice in their legal system’s prosecution and treatment of African-American cases, however we are immediately offended if someone brings up the gross neglect of missing and murdered indigenous women in our judicial system. I do not pretend to bring something new to the table as far as recognizing the indisputable existence of systemic repression of women and other minorities in the western world. Here’s the scary thing though: women are not a minority. They are, in fact, the majority of the Earth’s population. And so it makes it all the more disturbing that women are constantly abused within the world system. That sad fact is proof that solving sexism is about more than just numbers. Unless you believe that women are naturally inferior or submissive to men, (in which case there is likely not much I can do to dissuade you of your perversions) then the explanation is that societal culture is controlled by males in such a way that women are systemically prevented from achieving equality, resulting in cultural patriarchy.
I define cultural patriarchy as the embedded bias of social and linguistic norms that frame women as a dependent and lesser partner to a dominant male. As I said earlier, this is exposed in two ways: Authoritative and incidental misogyny.
I define Authoritative misogyny as the active desire of a man to dominate women in a coercive, repressive and possibly violent manner. There are countless examples of domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and emotional abuse that fall under this category. Of course, the vast majority of society rightfully finds these acts repugnant and criminal. As such, many of these acts are accounted for under the criminal code, and are eligible to be prosecuted. What’s most disheartening is that while the level of such crimes against women is viscerally stunning, the proportion of offenders who are sternly punished, convicted or even indicted is correspondingly very low. That doesn’t even include the number of these crimes which go unreported by victims that are emotionally eviscerated, embarrassed and have no faith an inherently flawed system to effectively prosecute crimes that are notoriously difficult to prove and define. Many won’t see crimes such as rape or domestic violence as part of a cultural patriarchy, but as isolated offenses in which the blame is to be laid solely upon inherently violent people who commit them. Of course the blame should be primarily placed upon the criminal actors, and it is ignorant to believe that we can rid the world of violent criminals who exist within all sexes, races and religions. However, women, and especially minority women, have by far the highest rates of becoming the victims of a sex crime. I strongly believe that a concerted effort to stop misogynistic attitudes at the non-violent level will lead to a reduction in violent crime against women, and a safer environment for victims to report, and seek the prosecution of, their offenders.
It is my opinion that there are two root causes for the inflated amount of, and lack of accountability for, sexual misconduct and sexual violence in society. Firstly, sexual crimes are notoriously hard to prove. This is likely the most difficult problem to solve. The majority of sexual assault or rape cases come down to a “he said/ she said” proposition, in which it is often impossible to know with absolute certainty what happened. No jury member could have an easy decision putting someone in jail for a significant amount of time without knowing exactly what happened. Scientific upgrades, especially DNA, have helped mitigate this issue- but it is still impossible to prove whether sex was consensual or not, if both parties agree that it happened. The second cause, is societal attitudes towards gender, which have enforced the notion of male dominance over, and ownership of, women. This is where addressing cultural patriarchy, through incidental misogyny, will decrease crimes of sexual violence and misconduct.
All around us in society we see signs of Cultural patriarchy which are not meant to actively repress women, but contribute to a societal framework of misogyny. This is what I refer to as incidental misogyny. Incidental misogyny covers three escalating themes about women’s interaction with males that lay the groundwork for authoritative misogyny, as well as systematic inequality.
The first theme is the shallow perception of women. Many men feel that cat calling is harmless, and should be taken as a compliment. It’s not an outlandish argument, part of me would likely feel flattered to be called out on my looks, but I ultimately have no valid opinion on it, other than to say that I don’t get to decide whether cat calling is harmless, because it does not happen to me. What I can interpret, is that it articulates a major problem with the societal treatment of women. The cat caller does not know anything about the woman he is squawking at other than her looks, which is part of an overarching narrative that women are judged on a more shallow scale than men.
For instance, there are a multitude of male actors, who could be classified as average at best in appearance but have nonetheless gone on to highly successful careers do to their immense skill set. However, female actors who have gone on to long, successful careers without a sterling appearance are much fewer and farther between; those that do are almost never cast in leading, or romantic roles. On news television, you consistently see expert panels made up of middle-aged to elderly men gathered together to discuss politics, finance or sports while women serve as the amiable host who is often decades younger and styled-up extensively to be perceived more for her looks than her knowledge. In politics, women are often treated as lightweights by the media and are consistently questioned by society on whether they are strong enough to make tough decisions. If they are complimented on their strength or intellect it is often qualified as them being a “strong woman,” or “independent woman.” You would never hear such ‘compliments’ for a man, of which such virtues are expected. (Agnes Welch, Mary)
The second major theme of incidental misogyny is that of perceived female dependence. There are a multitude of unspoken covenants regarding hetero-normative relations that express a perceived female dependence on males. For instance, the social rules of chivalry which encourage men to make the first move in pursuing relations with a female, to pay for her meals and to pick her up for dates all express that females should be content to rely upon male support. The flip side of these covenants is the third, and more dangerous, them, of incidental misogyny, which is perceived male ownership. Occasionally, males, incorrectly and criminally, take for granted that if they act chivalrously, they can expect to get anything they want from the woman. (Robert, Alana) This paints a picture not dissimilar to prostitution, and one that is disturbing, but all too real. When men feel their actions constitute gaining ownership over women, this results in Authoritative misogyny, sexual misconduct and rape. While the majority of men are reasonable enough to act chivalrously without breaking the law if they are turned down, the mere tradition of female dependence in relationships is concerning, and reflected throughout our language.
Why is a 25 year old male always referred to as a “25 year old guy,” rather than “boy,” but a 25 year old female is often referred to as a “25 year old girl,” not “woman?” Why do relationships often feature terms of endearment such as “my girl,” to describe the woman as though they are a possession? Why is it that if a group including females and males walks into a room, you can say “hey guys,” without thinking twice, but saying “hey ladies,” would be sen as a slight? When women get upset they are described as “bitchy,” and are rarely taken as seriously as an upset man who is “angry.” We have all likely used one or all of these conventions of language without trying to be sexist in the least, but nonetheless, these and many other turns of phrase are inherently misogynistic by dictating that women are some how lesser than, shallower than, or dependent upon, men. Even if the actor in each of these circumstances is being completely harmless, any societal ritual which leads to patriarchal norms is complicit in creating a repressive atmosphere. Even the mere fact that “woman” and “female” are extensions of, rather than separate entities from, “man” and “male” suggests primary dependence on the male. Of course that is one example of a tradition which is unlikely to ever change, but others should be done away with. I personally do not believe in marriage, as we no longer live in a time in which men can or should actively own women as property; therefore it is absurd that women are, by ritual, ‘given away’ by their fathers and newly decreed as ‘Mrs. Husband’s Name.’ I would happily confirm my love to someone with a ceremony one day, but I refuse to engage in a process that is rooted in outrageously sexist behavior. If you believe that these acts of incidental misogyny are truly harmless, its your prerogative to say I am overreacting, but I personally believe they make a significant difference. At the very least, we should all recognize the existence of a systemic, ritualized patriarchy, and the problems it poses to society.
In summary, I am thankful that in the 100 years since women were granted the right to vote, we have come this far as a nation towards reaching gender equality. However, to truly honour the women who poured their heart and soul into making gender equality a reality over the last century, I plead that we make the next 100 years about the ability of men to stop embracing the cultural patriarchy that has characterized modern society, and to do our part in destructing the rituals which make up a cultural patriarchy. We can only go so far in addressing the statistical gender gap that has plagued Canadian government for its entire history. To go deeper, men must be as willing as women to stop incidental misogyny, to rebel against traditional gender norms, and stand up against against sexual violence.
I am a white male, one that many would argue has benefited from the patriarchal society we have been built, but to that I would disagree. I have been the victim of very few stereotypes in my short life, but there is an undeniable pressure that exists within all men to be strong, to be composed and to be dominant. At times, I, like anyone else, am none of those of things. And at a younger age, confronting that reality lead to a high level of social anxiety, and extremely low self-esteem to the point that I would hide from people I knew to avoid unplanned social situations which were especially stressful. My fear of not being able to fulfill my predestined role as a male, was likely because I had no choice of what roles I was expected to fill. In my opinion, it is every bit as crucial that men are liberated to be able act in anyway they please as an equal human being, as it is that women are not systematically repressed because of how they were born. Years from now, I do not want to talk about differences in gender norms, I do not want to talk about a lack of gender equality. I likely will not be here in another 100 years, though one can hope, but when my child, my grandchild, or anyone who is on this Earth in 2116 is asked to talk about gender, I hope more than anything they have nothing to say.