Updated: Jan 22
At the beginning of the Covid crisis, I thought women were doing pretty well. It was the first public crisis I could remember where so many women were in positions of authority. Most public health officials were women and many prime ministers and presidents were following their lead.
It was generally agreed that women leaders were doing a better job leading during a pandemic then men and especially compared to the most patriarchal males like Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro. Could be a powerful culture shift, I thought, maybe not as powerful as #Metoo, but changing people’s attitudes about what leadership looks like is vital to gender equality.
Then the economic impact of lockdown became clearer. Women’s employment was dominant in sectors hardest hit by the recession and was slower to rebound as the economy reopened. Women accounted for 45 percent of the decline in hours worked over the downturn yet will account for 35 percent of the recovery. Employment among women with toddlers or school aged children fell 7 percent between February and May 2020 compared to a decline of 4 percent among fathers of children the same age. Single mothers were even more significantly impacted, with employment among this cohort down 12 percent from February to June, compared to a 7 percent decline among single fathers, according to Bloomberg News.
Canadian economist Armine Yalnitzyn coined the term “she-session,” and said, “We need a she-recovery and it starts with childcare.” “No recovery without a she-recovery,” she insisted. What a great slogan for a women’s movement—if there were one. Don’t get me wrong, there are many women’s groups who are organizing petitions and lobbying but there no visible feminist movement. We should have seen thousands of women in the streets as we did when Trump was first elected. We should have seen hundreds of petitions, demanding the national childcare program feminists have been fighting for since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women called for it in 1970. But we didn’t.
Canada used to have a national women’s federation, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), which united more than 500 women’s groups across the country, would have been at the centre of such protests. Instead, we have public intellectuals like Yalnitzyn and Sheila Block who are doing a good job in describing the coming crisis for the media and the possible solutions. But where are the troops on the ground to make sure that governments take the actions that need to be taken?
What we need, says journalist Nora Loreto in her new book Take Back the Fight: Organizing Feminism for the Digital Age, published by Fernwood, is a pan-Canadian, anti-racist feminist movement.
“Two decades of neoliberalism have destroyed a structured, pan-regional feminist movement in Canada. As a result, new generations of feminists have come to age without ever seeing the force that an organized social movement can have in democratic society. They have never benefited from the knowledge, the debates, the actions, the mass mobilizations or the leadership that all accompany a social movement and instead organize in decentralized silos,” says Nora.
The Black Lives Matter uprising is inspiring with its ability to pose profound questions about our racist, patriarchal capitalist society, and the need to transform our institutions, working from the bottom up. I wonder if the organizational technology that worked in my generation, when NAC was an influential force, can work to build a new national feminist voice today. Loreto points out that such an organization would look very different, but she believes it is needed to provide a space and a place for discussion, debate and action. I’m not so sure.
Loreto has written an in-depth assessment of second wave feminism in Canada and raised important questions about the way forward. Whether or not a new national feminist group that unites diverse organizations and individuals is the answer, I have a feeling that, at this critical moment in history, raising important questions is the first step towards finding our way out of this profound and promising crisis. Saying not sure might be the best way to find out.
Originally appeared in Herizons Magazine