On International Women’s Day 2021 we are publishing this excerpt from Take Back The Fight: Organizing Feminism for the Digital Age, by long-time feminist organizer and writer Nora Loreto (Fernwood Publishing, 2020). The book is available at your local bookstore or from the publisher’s webstore.
Corporate feminism dominates what passes for mainstream feminism in Canada today. Tinkering with corporate boards, getting more girls into science, technology and engineering disciplines and inclusion measures have become the work that most corporate players are proud to engage in.
On International Women’s Day each year, there is a corporate parade showing off all the neat things that businesses are doing for women. On IWD 2019, Air Canada had an all-women crew, from pushback and ground workers to cleaners, pilots and attendants. The Montreal to Brussels flight was made possible by a team of women. In their press release, Air Canada said, “there are no glass ceilings at Air Canada.”
Air Canada regularly wins awards for being one of Canada’s top diversity employers and there’s little question that they’re better than most. But they are still far from being representative. While both major hiring centres are in Toronto and Montreal, only 22 percent of their workforce are visible minorities, and the number of women they employ is under half of their workforce. Only 5.5 percent of their pilot workforce are women (in India, where there is the highest number of woman pilots of any country in the world, it’s 13 percent).
In 2006, the Supreme Court sided with the union representing flight attendants, saying that Air Canada was wrong: they should have considered flight attendants (where women are an overwhelming majority) and pilots as employees who should receive equal pay. Just five of the twenty-two members of Air Canada’s corporate board are women, including the VP of in-flight service and head of communications, both fields where women dominate.
Air Canada is better than most of the corporate world and even there, women aren’t represented in equal proportion to the population. That’s because corporate feminism cannot change the structures that help to perpetuate gender inequality. It also hides the real reason why we celebrate important commemorative days.
As writer Tannara Yelland wrote for The Huffington Post: “In stark contrast to the particular brand of peppy, individualized feminism that has been dominant for decades and is only recently beginning to show cracks, IWD was from its inception about recognizing radical politics led by women, and especially labour politics. It was, after all, first recognized by the Socialist Party of America in 1909 as a commemoration of the Ladies’ Garment Strike in New York.”
The radical roots of International Women’s Day have been sanitized on purpose. It’s safe to hold a brunch or breakfast, or to celebrate how many women are on your corporate board. IWD is a nice marketing moment for an oil company to brag that its new board chairman is a woman, or that a company has decided to reduce the price of pink pens in relation to the price of blue pens. But IWD was a day for feminists to remember that women paid with their lives for better working conditions, and that women’s oppression on the job or in the home both cause harm and underpin society’s patriarchal structures. In absence of these memories, we forget, and instead we laugh when we see that McDonalds — a corporation that relies on low-paid service employees who are more likely to be women as a way to boost their profits — put the Golden Arches upside down to honour women. Because nothing honours women like a giant W.
The power that corporate feminism has to sanitize and confuse what feminism should be, is immense. When feminists believe that we will dismantle the patriarchy when the local police chief is a woman or the premier is a woman, we ignore the fact that individuals holding specific positions cannot confront patriarchy on its own.
Patriarchy is woven into every aspect of Canadian life. With colonialism and racism, it creates a class segmentation that determines who is on top and who is not; it doles out different wages to different kinds of people based on their identity or the job that they’re working and it determines that some people in society hold value above other people. It imagines that the average woman is middle aged, white and middle class, and then sets out to fight for a better world for that woman in particular. When it ignores the diversity and range of womanhood, it also ignores the complex and various ways in which patriarchy, colonialism and racism cause harm to women and will continue to cause harm until we force things to change.
Because patriarchy underpins so much of life in Canada, seeking to undo patriarchy amounts to an attack on the foundations of this country. To do so effectively requires radical action. Anything less will lead to a minor victory at best, and actually perpetuate patriarchy at worst. When feminists celebrate small advances made for white women alone, the women who are left behind then also must confront those feminists for erasing or ignoring their experiences.
The radical roots of women’s liberation have always existed alongside a slower, elitist and unrepresentative brand of feminism, and the latter has depended on the radicalness of the former to make even the slightest advances. Women’s liberation has been radical because it had to be.
From early factory fires where hundreds of women workers were killed, to movements that have looked for ways to help women fleeing from abuse — patriarchy kills. When your life is on the line, action must be swift and it has to be radical.
In their manifesto, Feminism for the 99%, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Battacharya and Nancy Fraser argue, “that mainstream media ‘equates feminism, as such, with liberal feminism.’”
In a review of their book, Marina Manoukian elaborates their thesis: “Far from being a movement of solidarity, liberal feminism has worked to disseminate the values of neoliberal capitalism: at the expense of women, especially women of color and migrant women, while posturing as a feminism that empowers women to ‘lean in.’”
Transforming feminism away from its radical roots and towards the current incarnation today as corporate, individualized feminism has been the right’s most powerful weapon to spay the effectiveness of feminist movements. Corporate feminism is the antithesis to radical feminism. It co-opts the name so that feminism doesn’t go too far beyond minor reforms, while enabling corporations to continue to hoard record profits. Modern capitalism depends on patriarchy to function as well as it does, and so feminism poses a direct and existential threat to the corporate world.
There is a chasm between the corporate feminism of Lean In, the bureaucratic, posturing feminism of Liberal politicians like Maryam Monsef and the women who experience violence and death by the hands of someone they know. Monsef ’s gender-based violence strategy is heavy on awareness, including an awareness program that engages boys and men to learn how not to be violent. Without intense pressure from women’s groups, we probably couldn’t expect more than this.
Government policy has enormous influences on how women live: precarious housing, low-waged work, lack of supports for child care, lack of mental health supports, lack of easy access to abortion, lack of safe public transportation in rural areas of Canada and insufficient gun control all play a role in how violence against women continues to rage. A $20 million per year strategy, while government refuses to implement systemic changes to the status quo, will do little more than raise awareness. And, as the phenomenon behind #MeToo demonstrated, raising awareness has a limit too, as service agencies and shelters are already at their capacities.
Canada’s labour market is segmented by race and gender, and unless the federal government takes seriously the way that capitalism subjugates women workers, especially those who are racialized, there will never be enough change for all women to benefit. And if feminist policy can’t help the most marginalized women, then it’s the same kind of white feminism that mainstream feminists in Canada have been demanding for more than a century.
Nora Loreto was the NB Media Co-op’s 2020 annual keynote speaker.
This commentary was first published by the Media Co-op.