Justin Trudeau’s 'Feminism' Deserves Scrutiny, But Maybe Not from Partisans

Young women have better reasons to hold the PM accountable than pundits and politicians.

by Vicky Mochama
Apr 18 2019, 2:07pm

Prime Minister Justing Trudeau speaks during a town hall meeting in Cambridge, Ont., on Tuesday April 16, 2019. Photo via The Canadian Press 

Is Justin Trudeau is a fake feminist? Conservative MP Candice Bergen sure seems to think so. In a YouTube video and in the House of Commons, she repeated the allegation which stems from the exit of two women, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, first from the Cabinet via resignation then from the Liberal caucus via the prime minister’s expulsion. Bergen has been joined in this by fellow Conservative MPs Lisa Raitt and Michelle Rempel.

With the election looming like a regularly scheduled pap smear (i.e. uncomfortable, stressful and yet You Have To Do It), there’s clearly a lot to be gained from this alliterative fun.

The treatment of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott necessarily draws attention on Trudeau’s feminism. If he can’t work with women who disagree with him, how can we take his feminism seriously? By taking feminism seriously.

The thing is: Justin Trudeau neither invented feminism nor has he perfected it. And we should be cautious whenever a man calls himself a feminist; rather than rapturous applause that he has managed to hit all the syllables without falling over, he should be asked to cite his sources.

(While seeking election in 2015, Trudeau wasn’t only saying that he would read Lean In and form a Lean In circle, he was stating that he intended to run a government with feminist principles in mind, and that deserved rigor and scrutiny. In the absence of that, the Trudeau approach to feminism has been hard to measure against any particular metrics.)

Dissatisfaction over both his policies and the SNC-Lavalin scandal spilled out into quite the drama. At the annual Daughters of the Vote event at the beginning of April, organized by women’s political empowerment group Equal Voice, some young women stood up and turned their backs on Trudeau while he was speaking.

One woman characterized her participation as in support of her fellow Indigenous delegates. Another said in a post-event scrum, “I turned my back to say this is a silent protest—we were not going to be disruptive—but we must be heard, that there needs to be more done on reconciliation.” She cited the RCMP’s arrests of members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation protesting the portion of the LNG pipeline that runs through their territory. Hannah Martin, a Mik’maw woman, put a statement directly to the prime minister over the Alton Gas project in Nova Scotia and other destructive Canadian mining projects, saying, “To me, you cannot be a feminist if you’re raping the land.”

Their analysis is finer and more exacting than the question of whether Trudeau’s feminism is simple artifice. Their answers deserve attention, rigor, and context. And thus, so do Trudeau’s claims to feminism.

He intends to close off the overland routes for claiming asylum, which is a small but fundamental change to Canada’s asylum regime. He bought an oil pipeline! Black and Indigenous women continue to be growing prison populations and this government’s approach has not been markedly feminist in disrupting or ending that trend. How, he ought to be asked, does this any of this square up with his feminism? Is a pipeline feminist?

His government’s achievements on some fronts are laudable. From pay equity legislation to reductions in child poverty to a commitment to meaningfully changing a culture of harassment on Parliament Hill, the Trudeau government’s feminist accomplishments aren’t nothing. I’m uneasy with the idea of discarding those sizable and real changes to so many lives.

One of the great patterns—and secret joys of feminism, in my opinion—is that internecine fights over practice, policy, and purity have shaped its entire history. There are no waves of feminism without this constant push and pull. Folks get mad and form the Combahee River Collective. We’re all the better for it.

The idea that sits most uneasily is the notion that feminism is simply the act of being nice to women. Does the expulsion of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott (and indeed, Celina Caesar-Chavannes’ experience) weaken the prime minister’s feminism? Let’s be real: he’s a moneyed white man who has seemingly sacrificed few of his privileges, so it was already a little sus.

But feminism is not apolitical: Trudeau has, as the leader of the government, achieved a lot for feminism.

And if he continues to claim it, he is fully accountable to its many and varied tenets. Whether his is as constrained as economic gains for a portion of women or as expansive as pro-environment, anti-carceral, decolonized feminism is a constant question that must be answered. As Jia Tolentino wrote on the nature of feminism and offense, “The avowal of something does not instantiate it.” Or more directly, ask Kat Stoeffel wrote—of male feminists, no less—“feminism is a practice, not a status…”

It definitely is not a zero-sum game of point-scoring. And if it were, Rihanna, Malala, and your aunt who always has good gossip and better advice would be at the top of the leaderboard.

(Perhaps there is a Feminist Heaven a la The Good Place where there is a scoreboard with points. I rather think I’ll be having cocktails in Feminist Hell, which is a closed feminist Facebook group with no moderators.)

Anyone can claim to be feminist but those who do should be scrutinized in direct proportion to the acts they undertake and choices they make. Because even if we were to scroll way down to the portion of that leaderboard where men are allowed, there wouldn’t suddenly be asterisks for Men Who Do Good But Are Fake Feminists.

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