Why Are Quebec’s Elected Women Officials Avoiding the Feminist Label?

Both the current and former ministers for women issues in Quebec say they are not feminists.

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Mar 7 2016, 8:10pm


Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée, pictured above, abstained from aligning herself with the feminist label last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Throughout the past week, the current and former ministers of women in Quebec made headlines after publicly eschewing the feminist label.

Instead of identifying as a feminist, current Ministre de la condition féminine Lise Thériault said she was "more egalitarian" than feminist, while the former minister, Stéphanie Vallée, said she is "not of that generation."

Feminism is about choice, and part of that has to do with the freedom to identify as one sees fit. These women can hold whatever opinions they like, and are under no obligation to adhere to feminist ideology—there's no feminist Gestapo on the hunt for those who refuse to partake in the movement. But their reasoning behind publicly denouncing the term bears examination, as do the implications of their assertions.

Why would two women in power, two women who have held the position Ministre de la condition féminine, avoid attaching to a label designed expressly to support women? Their choice feels even odder given that the federal leader of their party publicly preaches staunch "because it's 2015" feminism.

Judith Lussier is a columnist with Metro in Montreal, and she says she thinks the minister of women has a duty to know what feminism actually is, rather than just thinking of feminists as caricatures.

"We ask for ministers to be competent in their field," she told me over the phone from Montreal. "I think [Thériault] showed a lack of competence. She didn't read about feminism, and she is not very knowledgeable in that field."

Lussier said this would have been a good opportunity for Thériault to make a statement about true equality, but instead, she chose to reinforce misconceptions.

Thériault says she's more egalitarian than feminist. In her book Les libéraux n'aiment pas les femmes, Aurélie Lanctot talks about how feminism, in many ways, does not matter to Liberals, who stress the belief that given equal opportunity under the law, anyone can succeed. There's this idea that the term "feminism" somehow insinuates that being a woman is an inherent handicap in the world. Thériault and Vallée are displaying prime examples of this attitude. Thériault's feminism, such as it is, is more of the rah-rah, women-can-do-whatever-we-want, gender-be-damned variety.

But while it's absolutely true that all people have great capacity to succeed, not everyone is given the same chances to develop or be seen due to systemic injustices. This reality is now obvious to more people than ever before, and it's garnering more media attention. In failing to recognize that, Thériault and Vallée are ignoring women's realities. The result is tone deaf, privileged statements like these. (Perhaps they think "egalitarian" is French for "not threatening the status quo" or "careful avoidance of male feather-ruffling?")

The trouble is, their sentiment ignores the fact that we're not quite living in a free and equal society. As Lussier says, there are barriers set up to prevent women from doing whatever they want, and there are inequalities among women.

There is a Quebec context to this, though, as Lussier explains, and some of that has to do with the shootings at L'ecole polytechnique in 1989. An angry man who was rejected from the school shot and killed 14 women he saw as taking up space that was rightfully his. Lussier says that while one would expect the tragedy to mobilize feminists, it spawned a feeling in some Generation X feminists that perhaps women really had gone too far.

Kimberley Manning is Principal of Concordia University's Simone de Beauvoir Institute, and she thinks the comments may have more to do with the province's finances than with any real political sentiment.

"This might be more about what's going on in terms of austerity in Quebec right now, and the desire to focus more on individual solutions rather than collective, feminist solutions," she says. "Collective, feminist solutions cost money, right?"

Either way, she says, she was surprised to hear what the two women had to say. "I think of Quebec feminism as one of the strongest forces of feminism in the country. Not all provinces have status of women ministries, or have the daycare we have here."

In a letter quoted in La Presse, Theriault said she is a feminist in her own way, but that she doesn't want to be associated with a movement that is against men. Not only is that a misunderstanding of what the movement means, but it also undermines the progress that those within the movement are still trying to make.

Explicitly eschewing the label feminist hurts the many people who are doing the work to equalize opportunity in this country. Steph Guthrie just dragged herself through the justice system in an effort to lessen harassment of women online, and three (plus) women just stood up against formerly adored CBC broadcaster/alleged woman abuser Jian Ghomeshi. But the system looked the other way, and now these women are doing the same. Feminists across the country are doing the work officially designated ministers of women should be doing, and a lot of the time, they're doing it unpaid. Naomi Sayers works on a constant basis to draw attention to the unspeakable number of ways the system fails Indigenous women. Trey Anthony andd'bi young anitafrikaare doing the work to spread messages of Black womanhood and power. Jodie Layne tirelessly educates the internet on body positivity. Saadia Muzaffar works to make the internet safer for women. AJ Ripley chronicles the story of their transition week after week on their blog, advocating for better healthcare for trans people.

Despite all of their hard work, though, the world still isn't safe for women and trans folks. In Ontario, for example, nearly half of all men think survivors of abuse are to blame for what happened to them. And despite increased educational efforts both in school and by activists and celebrities, sexual assault rates in Canada are not dropping, with fewer than one in ten survivors reporting sex crimes.

To recoil from the word "feminist" is to do the same to these people, and to the harsh realities politicians should be focused on fixing. Manning says it would behoove Thériault to work with feminist groups in order to gain a better understanding of women's issues and a greater appreciation for the work that's being done.

I suspect the resistance to the word feminist has to do with a fear of acknowledging the true condition of women in this society, and of the work involved in creating a new and better system. It is much easier to ignore the current state of affairs than it is to try to process how bad things are and then put in the a lifetime of effort to rectify it. But if these two women take the time to unlearn their misconceptions, they are uniquely positioned to do just that.

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