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Where have all the feminists gone?

No longer in your face, feminism has joined the battle against all forms of inequality

Madeleine White - March 2008.

March 9th is International Women's Day and as we celebrate the economic, social and political achievements of women, I have to ask, "Is feminism dead?"

This question seems more pressing these days with the renewed discussion of the status of women that has been triggered by Hillary Clinton's U.S. presidential bid.

In the absence of massive 1970s-style street marches, many of us might be persuaded that the fighting feminist movement is over.

But as a young woman in Canada with a headstrong passion for sexual equality, I recognize there's still a reason to fight and I know there are people still striving for political goals set decades ago.

So, is feminism dead or are we just trying to ignore it?

To examine whether feminism has expired, we need to know the life signs.

Historically, these were obvious. Protests, marches and demonstrations provided vivid images of a progressive and powerful social movement. Those images from the 1960s and 1970s are gone. Without blatant public displays of social unrest, concern over the demise of feminism is understandable.

This is not the first time women have been vexed about the status of feminism. The 1980s were a decade of harsh conservative backlash toward the movement. In fact, in 1991 Susan Faludi's book Backlash questioned whether feminism was still alive.

The word "feminist" still packs a punch.

When I state that I'm a feminist, people respond with an open-mouthed stare. The fact that this label can still conjure up a negative stereotype tells me that oppression against women still exists.

"The word `feminist' points to the larger social struggle that a commitment to feminist principles would entail. It's like asking people if they are revolutionary," says Rachel Gorman, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute. "I take the fear around using the word to mean that feminism has retained some of its potency."

People have mistaken changes in feminism for its death. But feminism has become more diffused since the 1970s and that has made it more difficult to recognize.

"I think feminism has evolved to include the larger issue of inequality," says Eleanor Hill, a member of Equal Voice Youth, a Canadian multi-partisan group dedicated to getting more women elected at all levels of government.

"I don't think it's a bad thing for issues feminists want to tackle to be included in a larger discussion of equality as long as we keep raising them. Feminist issues are not women's issues they are societal issues. To frame them as a women's issue only marginalizes them into a special interest issue."

By combining feminist, racial and class issues, it's easier to understand the complexity of social discrimination.

Curing one type of injustice doesn't erase it completely; we have to go after all forms of discrimination if we want true equality.

Another way feminism has evolved can be explained in the way society's reaction to sexism has changed.

Debra Thompson, one of my former political science teaching assistants, believes the mechanisms by which sexism works have gone underground in Canadian society. Since they aren't as visible, feminism has had to work in more discreet ways.

"The realities of race and gender in this country either go unnoticed or are minimalized," she says. "Your experience of racism and/or sexism is considered unique, personalized. We are told it is not a consequence of a systemic problem. The days of overt and legalized sexism/racism are over. We can't point to laws that we need to change. This reality leads to a culture of denial, whereby both women and men don't see patriarchy for what it is."

The gift of establishing formal and legal equality in Canada, given to us by the hard work of second-wave feminists, is a poisoned package. Yes, sexism is no longer in your face and a lot of oppression has been alleviated, but its covert nature can lead us to complacency.

Furthermore, we have to challenge whether the reaction to sexism is enough for the current feminist cause.

"Everything changes and evolves over time, so our responses have to change," Gorman says. "But I think without a conscious planned movement of solidarity and vibrancy, we are actually just reacting to one element at a time."

So, what has come out of my search for feminism? I feel confident stating that feminism isn't dead. Yes, it's more diffuse, more subtle. Our refusal to recognize the changes in feminism allows us to ignore it. The attitude that argues "if it isn't a second wave street demonstration, it isn't feminist" is damaging.

But we still have to be able to point to something and claim: "That is feminism at work."

So, where have all the feminists gone?

A quick way to answer that is to Google "feminist activity" You will find websites for international feminist organizations, feminist academic articles and feminist blogs. The mass movement of the 1970s has translated over to the Internet. Women are connecting with women (and feminist-minded men) through this new way of creating communities aimed at ending sexual discrimination.

The pulse of feminism is still beating strongly. But to find it, you have to listen a little harder.

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