Lesson: Women’s Movements in Canada

In Module 1, you learned that in the post-war period, many Western states like Canada institutionalized a new way of thinking about the role of the state in the lives of its citizens. After the Great Depression, many Western states embraced the introduction of social and economic programs, such as unemployment insurance and welfare, aimed at protecting citizens from hardship if the economic system failed.  In the aftermath of World War Two and the Holocaust, the international community also embraced a commitment to human rights. The combined effects of these new ways of thinking about the state, citizens, and rights presented an opportunity for marginalized groups to make claims on the state for equality, equity, and inclusion. The women’s movement emerged in this context. In this lesson, we will consider the unique contours of the Canadian women’s movement, placing it in the global context of new social movements, and consider French, English, Indigenous, Black, and immigrant women’s distinct experiences with feminism and patriarchy. Along the way, we will focus on defining key terms like: patriarchy, sex and gender, and feminism.

“We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my house”

Betty Friedan (1963) in The Feminine Mystique

Liberal feminism is both a theory and a social movement which argues that women should be included in institutions traditionally dominated by men, such as government, the workplace, and universities. Liberal feminists tend to understand equality as sameness; that is, a liberal feminist view holds that women are equal to men when they are treated the same as men.

Liberal Feminism & Black feminist critiques
Listening Time: 4 min 41
Recorded by Daisy Raphael

In Canada, English-speaking women, who emphasized the liberal feminist pursuit of political representation, employment opportunities, and education, dominated the women’s movement. In the 1960s, a rising sense of Québec nationalism meant that the Québec women’s movement formed separate networks and organizations. Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples and racialized immigrants emerged as powerful social and political forces challenging the Canadian myth of two founding nations. These national differences are important for understanding the Canadian women’s movement from the 1960s until the mid-80s, in which Indigenous, Black, immigrant, refugee, French, and English women articulated distinct experiences with structures of oppression such as patriarchy, racism, and colonialism.

Canadian Women’s Movements
Listening Time: 9 min 38
Daisy Raphael

The 2012 National Film Board documentary Status Quo: The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada by Karen Cho features footage from the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.

BIG IDEA: Sex and Gender

Feminists, queer, and trans scholars are not unified in their definition of gender. Gender and its relationship to biology is the subject of ongoing theorising and debate.  Since the emergence of the women’s movement in the mid-twentieth century, feminist, queer, and trans scholars have advanced distinct theories of sex and gender. 

Generally, ‘sex’ refers to biology, including chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia.

‘Male’ and ‘female’ are categories that refer to biology, differentiating people based on chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia.  When social scientists say ‘gender’, on the other hand, they typically mean the cultural, social, and political meanings ascribed to bodies.  So-called “gender reveal parties” — wherein soon-to-be parents announce their child’s gender using pink or blue cakes — presume that a child’s gender identity will neatly correspond to the baby’s sex assigned at birth. ‘Gender’ reveal parties do not reveal anything about a child’s gender identity; rather, they reveal fetal sex (specifically, genitals). These parties are one example of ways people ascribe social, cultural, and political meanings to bodies. This lesson presents two different theories of sex and gender and explains that biology is actually more complex than ‘gender reveal’ parties might suggest. 

“Gender Reveal Party” by ron.aguilar@gmail.com is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir articulated the sex/gender distinction in her 1949 book The Second Sex, in which she writes, “One is not born, but rather becomes [a] woman” (1949: 283).  By this, she means that sex does not naturally lead to femininity and an experience of subordination; rather, women learn to be feminine and subordinate to men.  What boys and girls and men and women learn about masculinity and femininity comes to shape their very experiences of themselves — men, Beauvoir argues, learn that they are the ‘norm’; women that they are ‘the Other.’  Beauvoir’s distinction between biology and experience — or the process of becoming a woman — challenges biological determinist views of sex and gender. 

A biological determinist perspective holds that biology is destiny — that behaviour, identities, and even gender power relations are the result of natural and immutable physical differences. 

Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble challenges the distinction between sex and gender. Butler’s Gender Trouble troubles the categories of men/women/masculinity/femininity.  She interrupts the notion that sex is a neat and tidy “container” for socially constructed meanings about gender. Butler argues that gender is performative. Performativity means something a little different than just being an act. Instead, Butler (2012) explains that how we walk, talk, dress, act, and engage in relationships, “produces a series of effects that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman”.  In other words, the ways we enact gender make it seem as though gender is our innermost core — as opposed to a series of behaviours. Butler argues that gender identity is produced and reproduced — sometimes through affirmations of ‘correct’ gender behaviour, like a girl playing with a doll might be praised for being sweet and caring — and sometimes through more regulatory admonitions of ‘incorrect’ gender. This might include a boy being bullied for being perceived as too ‘weak’ or effeminate. Such ‘normalizing practices’ try to “keep us in our gender place.”  Enforced heterosexuality or heteronormativity — concepts we will come back to later on in the course — require a binary sex/gender system (male/men/masculine versus female/women/feminine). But, we can subvert gender regulations, resist normalization, and disrupt heteronormativity by engaging in gender trouble. Butler’s theory of gender as performative opens up space to consider what it means to be queer or trans, since her theory disrupts the idea that biology and gender identity necessarily correspond with one another. Check out Thinking about Gender on the wgs101.org site for a video featuring Butler and a lecture from Dr. Michelle Meagher on gender dualism.

Importantly, increasingly the fields of biology and medicine support feminist, queer, and trans scholarship and activism. (See, for example, Ainworth 2015.) These fields challenge binary ideas about sex and gender, and that sex and gender are simple, stable, essential, and accurate.  Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology and Gender Studies, explains in a 2018 New York Times op-ed that “there is no single biological measure that unassailably places each and every human into one of two categories — male or female.”  Intersex people, who have chromosomal, hormonal, or genital variations from the ‘norm,’ challenge strict binary classifications of ‘male’ and ‘female’.  Currently, the international medical consensus is that doctors and parents should work together to support intersex children by affirming a child’s chosen or ‘felt’ sex/gender identity instead of deciding a child’s sex.  

Bodies are complex – and so are debates about how bodies matter.  Between 1968 and 1998, for example, the International Olympic Committee mandated chromosomal sex verification tests for women athletes in an effort to prevent women deemed too masculine from competing against ‘real’ women.  Yet, scientists report that there is evidence to support the notion that chromosomal testing could verify sex.  Today, the IAAF’s “hyperandrogenism policy” requires women with naturally high levels of testosterone to take medication to bring levels below a certain threshold in order to compete as women. This view equates hormones with sex and sex with gender. Yet, Fausto-Sterling explains that assessing genitalia, hormones, and/or chromosomes cannot ‘prove’ that one is more male than female, more female than male, more man than woman, or woman than man.  Fausto-Sterling argues that science does not have all of the answers when it comes to explaining the relationship between sex and gender, and credits social movements for pushing scientific and medical communities to reject strict classifications of sex and gender.  

As you continue the course, consider how distinct authors understand the relationship between sex and gender to get a sense of the multiple ways feminist, queer, and trans scholars understand bodies and identities. We will come back to these concepts throughout the course. 

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