Far from a wholesale rejection of feminism, this discourse of choice selectively incorporates feminism for its efficacy. As scholar Shelley Budgeon puts it, only by having recognized the legitimacy of feminist success, can feminism then be declared redundant. According to this view, feminism’s success is reflected in the diversity of choices now afforded to women in North America. Having purportedly achieved the same privileges as men, it is widely agreed that women are allowed to craft their destinies by freely moving beyond the sphere of domestic labour. They are now able to participate in the economy more generally as ‘paid labourers.’
The intervening force of feminism has quieted since women have assumed roles once only yielded to men. Blogger Meghan Murphy explains that the array of choice now presented to women has contributed to feminism’s decline in popularity, especially among young people. She adds: “This is how my friends think – I am not a feminist, because I have been afforded a number of opportunities and choices – so long as the choice is available, unhindered, I am ‘liberated.’” The discourse of choice, or what Murphy has coined “I choose my choice feminism,” offers women “particular kinds of freedom… in ‘exchange for’ or as a ‘kind of substitute’ for feminist politics.” The celebratory discourse of individual female achievement and empowerment, widely circulated in popular cultural forms (e.g. TV shows, such Sex and the City and ‘Chick Lit,’ such as Bridget Jones’ Diary), has defanged collective resistance and introduced the newly branded post-feminist moment.
The notion that the feminist project, lacking a concrete social reality in the West, has outrun its course, sheds light on the Canadian government’s approach to gender inequality in its policy work. While the discourse of choice and its rhetorical offshoots have been familiar to American politics for many years, it is becoming clear that the Hill has not been immune to its effects. Take for example the argument crafted by some of Ambrose’s supporters, which rested on the constitutional premise of free speech and privileged individual expression over collective solidarity. Ambrose was lauded not for the outcome of her vote (at least for Tim Powers, Ambrose’s pro-life view was not relevant to his defense of her), but for the fact that her vote reflected her personal beliefs. Clearly, as Ambrose demonstrated, the deployment of the discourse of choice has become routine in political debates about gender inequality. The SWC has not gone unaffected by this trend in politics. It is important that the SWC, the interdepartmental agency responsible for indexing gender inequality in Canada, be situated within the context of post-feminism. The general public discourse and policy discussions that treat equality as “a problem solved,” at least among affluent ‘white’ women, has served to restructure the SWC. As the value of feminism depreciates and is supplanted with choice politics, non-profit organizations and governmental agencies originally formed in support of Canada’s feminist movement(s) are increasingly obliged to modify their policies and operational budgets.
The Status Women Canada budget has long been an easy target for politicians looking to trim government spending. Since the early 90s, the federal government has “progressively downsized” its “gender-based policy capacity”. Determined to reduce the federal deficit, Jean Chretien’s Liberals alleviated its financial commitments to the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women and the Federal Women’s Program, the latter of which the SWC subsumed in 1995. In 2006, Stephen Harper’s newly formed minority government attacked the SWC’s already weakened operating budget and closed twelve out of its sixteen regional offices. Despite the 2006 federal surplus (largely inherited from the Liberals), the newly formed Conservative party implemented funding cuts to sixty-six government sponsored programs, many of which John Baird, then Conservative Treasury Board Secretary, described as “wasteful” and “ineffective”. Largely viewed by the Conservatives as an unproductive expenditure of taxpayer money, the SWC had to completely overhaul the content of its mandate in order to emphasize its commitment to advancing the economy. After the 2006 cuts, the words ‘equality’ and ‘advocacy’ were removed from the terms and conditions of the SWC mandate and supplanted with, as Janine Brodie writes, an “innocuous mandate” of “‘working to promote the full participation of women in the economic, social and cultural life of Canada.’” What money was made available to the SWC was redirected away from advocacy working groups to mentorship programs that focused on developing women’s financial management skills.
Though the federal gender-based infrastructure has arguably been marginalized politically since 90s, the 2006 cuts effectively severed any existing relation between equality seeking groups and policy makers. The new funding guidelines, which emphasized action-oriented spending, prohibited the SWC from launching independent research projects, which had proved in the past to be “critical and credible resources” for “policy makers-policy advocates and equality litigants.” Seasoned feminist activists and non-profit workers viewed these changes to the SWC’s operational budget as a death knell for an already attenuated women’s movement. As former board member of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, Leilani Farha, succinctly explained during a recurrent Status of Women committee meeting: “the new restrictions on advocacy and lobbying with federal funds and the bans on projects which promote women’s participation in public life will dramatically diminish democratic participation for women in Canada.”
While various women’s organizations across the nation publicly criticized Harper’s “two billion dollar ‘fat trimming’ exercise” on the grounds that it was anti-feminist, MP Beverley Oda, then Minister responsible for the Status of Women, advanced the government’s controversial new policy by adopting the opposite view. At the height of the controversy, in the fall of 2006, Oda defended the government’s decision to defund the SWC by explaining, “if women are continually told they are not equal, they will continue to believe that. We [the Conservative party] say that everyone in Canada is equal.” The public avowal of gender equality was tactically employed by the Conservatives to emphasize the supposed backwardness of the SWC’s original mandate, which, they argued, had only served to reinforce the portrayal of women as victims. The Conservatives used the rhetoric of ‘equality’ to prove to Canadians that feminism, having successfully achieved its goal, was indeed over. Oda was insistent that the new tax cuts reflected the government’s unequivocal belief that “all women are equal.”
In the fall of 2006, Oda demanded that the critics of the spending reductions stop perpetuating a “narrative of victimhood”: “We as women and as Canadians do not see women as victims. We know they have aspirations. We want to give them the opportunities that they deserve.” Oda’s message was that the “narrative of victimhood” had only served to negatively affect the advancement of women. The Conservatives smartly put forward a new narrative to anchor and justify future gender policy: women are entrepreneurs, capable of managing their lives without the ongoing intervention of government. The Conservatives selectively incorporated catchwords from the business world in its description of female subjectivity. The encroachment of the economic sector in most areas of public life (bureaucracy, education, health, etc.) has arguably shifted the ways in which politicians address their constituents. As the economy is increasingly touted by politicians “as the driving force of everyday life,” traditional forms of citizenship make way for new modes of “entrepreneurial subjectivity.” The narrative put forward by the Conservatives that figured the woman-citizen as an ‘innovator,’ ‘business elite,’ and ‘developer’ was used to justify their spending reductions in social services. Oda reasoned, for instance, that the savings from the cuts made to the SWC’s operating budget would be redistributed as tax breaks, affording women the opportunity to minister their lives without the mediation of government bureaucracy. Oda promised that the income generated by the overhaul of the SWC’s operational budget would present women with a greater array of choices. (Already that year Harper had employed the rhetoric of choice to campaign against Paul Martin’s pan-Canadian Childcare Program: “Choice in Childcare Allowance,” Harper’s answer to the Liberals, promised “‘to let parents chose [sic] what’s best for their children,… whether that means formal childcare, informal care through neighbors or relatives, or a parent staying at home.’”) The tax cuts may have been rendered by depleting funds to social services, but were strategically used by the Conservatives to advocate for women’s economic autonomy. The spending reductions postured as policy work that would promote female individuality and resilience.