It’s International Women’s Day — a day to celebrate female achievements and reflect on women’s rights. It’s also a day to be a proud feminist.
At age 74, I’ve witnessed many achievements for women. Leading feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem used their notoriety to launch the fight for equality and women’s rights. In the 1960’s the pill made birth control easier for women and gave them control in establishing careers. Isabelle Peron, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and, more recently, Angela Merkel showed that women could win elections, lead governments, and leave their mark on the world’s stage. Talented women have gone to space, achieved fame in sports arenas, earned Nobel prizes in science and literature, led Fortune 500 companies, and held positions such as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
The victories for women have not come easily and the fight for rights and equality isn’t over. Women are still paid less than men for the same work and are under-represented in leadership roles in business and government where the glass ceiling remains. In many countries, girls do not receive educational opportunities. Young women are often forced into loveless marriages. Domestic violence continues to impact women making them unsafe in their homes. Many women feel unsafe in certain public spaces, especially at night. Low-income women, especially, face too many economic and power injustices.
Developing a Feminist Worldview
There was nothing specific in my upbringing or early academic training to make me a feminist. I grew up on a farm where my mother shared many of the decisions (and the heavy work) equally with my father. My father died when my brother and I were pre-teens. It was then that my mother’s strength blossomed as nothing prevented her from taking strong protective actions to make sure that her children could flourish. She was a powerful female role model although she would never have described herself as a feminist.
Every reader will have their own story of how they developed a feminist perspective and how such thinking influenced their development. The personal choices, affronts and experiences that provided the genesis of a feminist worldview in their personal and professional journey will differ. For some, it may have been a gradual struggle; for others, years of women’s studies and advocacy led to a feminist perspective.
In my personal journey, a few incidents from the 70s and 80s stand out. I never attended a women’s march or rally; I never burned my bra or made a public show of my values. Nonetheless, these experiences were important in developing my feminist worldview.
- When starting my first job after graduate school, another recent MSW graduate (male) was also being oriented and signed up. We received the benefits package. I would receive term life insurance up to the amount of my annual salary but the male social worker would receive term life up to twice the annual salary. I immediately challenged the man, to whom both of us were reporting and who was doing the orientation. I asked whether my life was worth only half the amount in comparison with my colleague. There was some muttered response about men being breadwinners and needing more insurance. However, to the credit of my boss and the small children’s mental health centre where I had this job, the benefits package changed shortly afterward and women received term insurance up to twice the amount of their annual salary. A small victory for equal rights.
- Once I established in my job, I decided to apply for my first credit card. It was the mid-70s. I had all the documents necessary including my passport, verification of my address, and validation of employment. To my surprise, the bank clerk informed me that I would need to have my husband’s signature before the application could be processed. I objected — but to no avail. My husband had to sign the credit card application. No victory with the bank! I conceded as I wanted the credit card but I changed banks soon afterward.
- After several promotions and attaining an MBA, I became the Executive Director of the children’s mental health centre where I began my employment. The agency had a teaching agreement with the Faculty of Medicine at the local university. This agreement needed an annual review by executives from the agency as well as the university. At the first review after my promotion, the Dean of Medicine arrived in our boardroom along with other university dignitaries. As chair of the meeting, I sat at the head of the table and was the only female in the boardroom. The Dean condescendingly asked if I would be taking the minutes of the meeting as he seated himself beside me. At that same moment, the male Director of Finance (let’s call him Mr. X) of our organization walked into the room. I paused to let the comment sit in the air, then smiled at the Dean and told him that I would be chairing the meeting but that Mr. X would be taking the minutes. The Dean blushed; the meeting proceeded without further incident; and, the teaching contracts for our agency were renewed. I know that some of the ‘old boys’ from the university who were in attendance took notice! I’m not sure that any attitudes changed on that day but I still feel the sweetness of the moment!
- In the late 80s, I was recruited for a plum position to head a large provincial mental health centre. I had several interviews with board members in key positions followed by a lunch meeting that lasted for most of another afternoon. I knew from the tone of the meeting that I would get an offer but remained ambivalent about whether I was up to the challenges of this role. As I was driving home after the luncheon, a lightning bolt hit my brain! Why was I questioning myself? Any man offered such a position would be eager to fill the role and I was aware of two of the other applicants both of whom were male. My mind changed immediately and I pushed for a lucrative and substantial offer. This was an important personal victory in terms of believing in my leadership ability, skill, competence, and value that I would bring to any organization.
In the 40 plus years of my professional career, I worked with many feminists of both sexes who encouraged and influenced my thinking. Many women leaders in social services, as in other fields, faced sexist behaviour from male colleagues as well as various types of gender discrimination. Although we worked to close the gender gap wherever and whenever we could, the pace and scope of change were slow. Much remains to be done before women achieve equal rights.
Although many young women today do no call themselves feminists, I’m encouraged to know that most of them hold progressive views of equality and women’s rights. They are unafraid to challenge stereotypes. They are impatient and less tolerant of the gender gap. Greater confidence to speak up and refusing to accept second best will advance positive change. They may not call themselves feminists, but that won’t stop the quest for women’s rights and gender equality.