faster feminism

Women, Silence, and the State

Last week I had the opportunity to watch Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada. This documentary is organized around the 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The commission found that women in Canada were lacking rights, recognition, and protections around issues of equal pay, affordable and accessible child care, and that they wanted access to abortions on demand. Of the more than one hundred recommendations made by the committee on the status of women none of them had to do with violence.

Status Quo? takes up these four concerns more than four decades later and asks what has been gained for women in Canada since the Commission. You may not be surprised to hear very little has changed.

Women are targets of violence on a daily and disproportionate basis, especially women of colour and Aboriginal women. Women still do not get equal pay for their work. Child care is inaccessible, unaffordable, and the Harper Government’s Live-In Care Giver Program has created a new way in which to off-load unwanted labour and unfair working conditions onto women from developing nations. And abortion? Well, I just learned that in my new home province of New Brunswick I would need to get two letters from two doctors to get an abortion at one of the two hospitals providing the service such that it is covered by my health care. Guess how difficult it is to obtain a family doctor in New Brunswick? Given that, should I need to get an abortion I would have to pay cash for it up front. There are no abortion services on Prince Edward Island. The unfinished business of feminism indeed.

Watching this documentary got me riled up, and it got me thinking again about the ways in which the state actively participates in the silencing of women. Silence works on myriad levels, and it adapts for different subject experiences and positions.

I am aware of the unearned privilege that I have. I am highly educated. I am white. I speak English fluently and without a marked accent. These things grant me privilege that I didn’t earn myself (ok, I earned those degrees, but no one ever questioned my right to obtain them). Most of the time I feel as though I can speak up when I want to, command authority when I need to (everyday in classrooms), and make my own choices. But then I was reminded how pernicious structural and gendered silencing can be:

Lily Myers’s performance cut close to the bone for me at a number of different points. I watch my students, my friends, and even myself apologize for speaking. I learned at a young age to have a relationship with food. I have learned to absorb in ways that are so subtle that I rarely am even conscious of them. Myers’s performance doesn’t speak for every woman’s experience — and it isn’t trying to — but what it does underscore for me is the absolute necessity of constantly asking whose voices we are hearing, why we are hearing them, and why they feel they have the right to speak. We need to continue to be vigilant in teaching women to speak, to take up space, to recognize why and how they have internalized the silence expected of them, and to speak out on behalf of themselves and others.

This past week has seen increased state sanctioned violence against and attempts to silence Mi’kmaq protesters and allies in Elsipogtog. You’ve seen the burning cars on the news, but you may not have seen the real stories of police aggression. You may not have seen the women singing in peaceful protest. As we near the year anniversary of Idle No More and of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike I am reminded of the ways in which women speak despite the attempts to silence them. I am reminded of how much work we all still have to do.