Post-feminism in Canadian Politics
by Nadine Adelaar
On September 26, 2012, members of parliament voted on motion 312, a private member’s bill concocted by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, which promised to reassess the legal definition of when human life begins. In the debate that preceded the vote, Woodworth asserted that Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada, which states that a “child becomes a human being… [only] when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother,” failed to “protect the inalienable rights of all.” Largely perceived by opposing parties, women’s advocacy groups, and major media outlets, as serving an anti-abortion agenda, the motion was defeated in a vote of 203 to 91.
While the defeat of Woodworth’s bill momentarily settled the abortion debate on the Hill, the same groups that had publicly refuted motion 312 were quick to scrutinize the result of Conservative MP Rona Ambrose’s vote. As the acting Minister for the Status of Women Canada, Ambrose was widely criticized for voting in favour of a motion that indirectly interrogated the juridical legitimacy of Canada’s abortion law. Ambrose, who has held the ministerial role since 2010, was accused by New Democratic Party MP Niki Ashton of “clawing back women’s rights.” Ambrose’s vote led many to question whether her views on abortion conflicted with her duty to represent the interests and advocate for the equality of Canadian women. Ashton, along with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) and the Fédération des femmes du Québec, have since called for Ambrose’s resignation as the Minister for the Status of Women. An online petition that advances this view has to date accumulated over 15, 000 signatures.
Ambrose’s response to her critics has been relatively muted. Shortly after the motion was defeated, Ambrose explained through a tweet that her vote reflected her longstanding concern about the “discrimination of girls by sex selection abortion.” Since the tweet, she has had little more to say on the matter. As expected, Ambrose’s support for motion 312 has been championed by various pro-life organizations across the country. More surprising is that her defenders are not limited to the pro-life, neo-conservative crowd. In the wake of the vote, op-ed articles from reputed news sources and social media comments evaded the sticky politics of the abortion debate and instead adopted the principle of free speech to launch their defense of Ambrose.
Globe and Mail journalist Tim Powers, for example, opined his perplexity at the “verbal pummel” flung at Ambrose for no less than “being unafraid to act on her own personal convictions.” Powers politicized Ambrose’s vote by emphasizing the symbolic import of her ministerial role. Part of Ambrose’s mission as the head of Status of Women Canada (SWC), he argued, is to create “equality through an acceptance of various voices – not just one.” According to this logic, the minister of SWC should not be expected to vote against motion 312, in fact, it was more ‘feminist’ of her to have eschewed the “current flow of opinion, i.e. the pro choice view.” By expressing her personal convictions about abortion, Ambrose paradoxically advanced a diversity of beliefs. Of course, this argument suggests that any perspective that challenges the pro-choice view is disproportionately neglected by media outlets and Canadian politicians. Whether or not he means to, Powers endorses individual choice as a solution to the unstable and oftentimes debilitating terrain of representational politics. If Ambrose cannot conceivably represent all women with a single vote, the next best option is that she speaks only for herself.
While the adverse reactions to Ambrose’s embrace of motion 312 unmask a shared anxiety over the significance of her ministerial role, neither pro-choice nor pro-life advocates directly questioned the political efficacy of the Status of Women Canada. Of interest to both groups was Ambrose’s choice to voice her personal opinion on abortion. Consequently, the SWC only featured indirectly in the abortion debate when it was used by Ambrose’s critics to emphasize the minister’s betrayal of women’s rights. Ashton, for instance, altogether bypassed a conversation about the ongoing relevance of feminism to Canadian politics by leveling her critique directly against Ambrose’s belief system.
The rallying point of Ashton’s critique – the contradiction between women’s rights and a pro-life ideology – serves to deflect the less palatable question of whether Ambrose’s vote evinces a change in the SWC’s policy towards reproductive justice. The aftermath of motion 312 might have excited conversation about the federal government’s relation to the SWC, and by extension, its current approach to feminist advocacy. Yet silence is also telling, and we can perhaps read the public’s disinterest in the SWC as further proof that the governmental agency has lost its ability to impact major policy on the Hill.
Chantal Hébert adopts this view for an op-ed piece written for The Record, in which she argues that the “outcome of the vote demonstrates that the status of women ministerial brief has outlived its usefulness.” Hébert’s comment, though incisive, remains dissatisfying for its failure to address the reasons for the SWC’s perceived superfluity on the Hill. Likewise, the term ‘useless,’ which Hébert uses to describe the ministerial post, is itself decidedly ambiguous. It must matter why the SWC and its spokesperson are no longer useful today. Is SWC a useless agency because it has ineffectually handled the “work of gender equality” at the parliamentary level or is it useless because advocacy for women’s rights has become outmoded in our current society? If the latter is true and we are able to clearly identify a perceptible shift in society’s treatment of gender inequality, the SWC’s mandate of equality may no longer serve a clear end. Plainly put, the SWC’s existence relies upon society’s reception of feminist principles. If society views the work of feminism to have completed itself, then the work of organizations like the SWC become unnecessary.
As Ambrose’s vote and the debate that followed indicate, feminism in its organized forms has increasingly been uprooted by discourses of freedom, empowerment and choice for women. The affordance of choice to women in domains formerly inaccessible to them has altered the ways our current society values and offers support to equality-seeking organizations. A question that continually crops up in partisan rhetoric and the popular media – why should the federal government employ tax money to financially assist feminist organizations, when women today are entirely capable of managing a family and a career? – intimates that female autonomy has alleviated the exigency of feminist projects. A closer look at the association between post-feminism and choice politics may help us to answer why, as Hébert charges, the SWC has become useless.
There are various ways to analyze a population’s attitude towards feminism. The Huffington Post, for instance, recently conducted an online survey that asked Americans of different ages and backgrounds whether they considered themselves feminists. The results showed that only twenty percent of Americans would use the term ‘feminist’ to describe themselves. Yet when asked if they thought that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals,” eighty-two percent of survey participants agreed with the statement. The majority of Americans that participated in the study advocated for gender equality, yet repudiated the title of feminist. The survey exposed that the participants largely miscomprehend their own beliefs, but did not try to explain why the majority of them held the term ‘feminism’ in such contempt. The survey would suggest that the term’s taboo is partly generated by confusion. Yet viewed in another light, this need not be a contradiction if gender equality has already been achieved. If feminism is indeed over, then the participants can reasonably discredit the term and support gender equality. The study thus serves to index society’s growing reception to post-feminist ideas.
Scholar Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner refines this view, arguing that many young women and men who support the content of feminism resist the label because it has “an outdated, 70s connotation.” She claims that this generation has failed to personally connect to the history of struggle that the term feminism inevitably recalls. This generational barrier may partly explain why the term has devolved into a dirty word in popular culture, often deployed as a cliché or insult, interchangeable with derogatory slurs, such as bitch, man-hater, and feminazi. Rowe-Finkbeiner, whose research is influenced by interviews she had conducted with female university students, provides an example of feminist bashing. Traci, the interviewee, says, “When I think of feminists, I think of those women who are totally against men. I wouldn’t want to be labelled as a feminist. Actually I don’t like labels at all—I just want to be me and have my own opinions.” Traci’s unoriginal description of feminism is outstripped by the second half of the quote, which may strike some as a more honest explanation for why she resists the term. Traci hesitates to adopt feminism not only because of its ugly cultural associations, but out of concern that it would inhibit her individuality. That is to say, her investment in her own uniqueness prevents her from participating in political projects like feminism. The disavowal of “descriptive and prescriptive labels,” Rowe-Finkbeiner argues, is a recurrent trend among young people today. Like Traci, many from this generation associate their capacity to define their identity with their political freedom. More accurately, this means that young people do not reject labels outright, but adopt them like coats, to conveniently shed when the moment serves. The ability to choose one defining label among many has come to represent individual agency in contemporary politics.