Our Times 3

Our Bodies, Ourselves

Are We Free Yet?


Father still knows best. Whether in the form of the medical establishment, the firm, or the way women’s sexuality continues to be stolen and policed, women continue to find out that our bodies are not our own.

At twenty-three a friend of mine went to her doctor with a request to have her tubes tied. As someone who has never wanted children, it was the perfect birth control solution. She was denied, supposedly because of her age, while a slightly older male friend of hers had a vasectomy–unchallenged.

When I went to see my doctor, in a stable relationship and set firmly against hormonal birth control, my own requests were also refused. I walked out of the clinic, unhappy and disempowered with a prescription for the pill.

When so many people have settled into believing that feminism has fulfilled its goals, when rape jokes are okay because “everyone knows rape is bad,” when the mainstream media has taken to fretting about the fate of men post-feminism–it’s the perfect time for a right-wing backlash.

In this political climate, governments barely have to be stealthy in their efforts to erode our rights–because post-feminism, who’s looking? As funding to research and advocacy was cut at Status of Women Canada as the gun registry moves towards its demise, as this country has neither signed nor ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the term “backlash” is a little too assertive a term for this comfy conservatism.

It’s this environment, though, that also cries out for a feisty, young feminist movement. It compels us to spend time sharing stories, identifying themes, and plotting how best to take out the patriarchy. Ubiquitous right-wing nonsense? We’re watching.

Get Your Rosaries off our Ovaries

Nothing says unabashed retrogression quite so clearly as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s deeply embarrassing decision not to fund abortion in his G20 maternal health initiative this spring. Sorry, developing countries, what’s that? You’d like to be self-determining? Oops, sorry … father knows best.

Some folks pointed out the hypocrisy of having legal, safe, funded abortions here in Canada while refusing to fund abortions elsewhere–but when considered together with the series of bills that have been put forward recently (among them Bills C-484 and C-510), access to abortion here at home is more precarious than we might like to believe.

Safety Where?

There’s an ad series produced by Calgary-based domestic violence organization HomeFront that makes explicit the line between private and public. In one, a man sitting with his family in a cafe violently explodes on a server, pushing her over and pouring boiling coffee on her. The narrator observes, scathingly, “You wouldn’t get away with this here–you shouldn’t get away with it at home.”

Really, though, can a country at war–at home on indigenous people, those in poverty, on women, on people living in the street, and abroad in Afghanistan–legitimately claim outrage at violence in the private sphere?

The private sphere is framed as a closed, private place, even a sacred space. And it’s exactly this absence of prying eyes–of any kind of public surveillance–that leaves women so vulnerable to violence.

As the Conservative government pushes, again, toward the dismantling of the gun registry, even the little remnant of security the registry provided–this response to years of pressure from women’s groups–will be removed.

The patriarchy lives here, too. It lives when the division of household labour continues to favour men, when the federal Live-In Caregiver Program keeps women tied to their employers’ homes, and when the public sphere’s sexist responses to women leaders communicate not-so-subtly that women aren’t really welcome.

And now, as the much-needed data from the mandatory long-form census trots into the sunset, how exactly do we find out who does the unpaid work around here?

In the continued absence of quality, universally accessible childcare, as women continue to be paid a fraction of what men are paid–70 percent on average, when minimum wage doesn’t keep us out of poverty, when women are still being exploited in precarious jobs, and as our right to pay equity is eroded with an anti-union agenda, the reality is that women can be stuck in the private sphere–because of an economy that has an interest in keeping us there.

All Work and No Play?

In the private sphere or otherwise, feminists have better sex (Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan, 2007, Rutgers University). Apparently egalitarian relationships are more stable, healthy and satisfying.

Yet so many of us have been raped and sexually assaulted in our lifetimes and the rate is not decreasing.

Capitalism and patriarchy have a pretty tight relationship of their own–sending clear messaging from earliest childhood that, as a girl, your value lies in your sexual desirability. When a lack of decent advertising standards allows the marketing of baby bikinis and thongs, when is there really time to assert that women can be the subject of pleasure, and not merely the object?

We keep hearing about women in their 20s who have never had orgasms. There’s even a new documentary about it, revealing corporate capitalism’s tendency toward individualizing, medicalizing, and profiting from pretty much anything. Though less-than-satisfying sex could be rooted in a whole lot of things, patriarchy is bound to be twisted in there somewhere.

So whose sexuality? Has it ever been our sexuality? Is it any wonder we’re being asked to buy our own orgasms?

As we’ve heard, Ontario nearly adopted a progressive new sex education curriculum this spring. With the World March of Women, feminists across Canada are fighting to bring back anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist sex ed in the classrooms. How amazing would it be for kids to graduate knowing about their bodies, how to communicate effectively around sexuality, knowing about sexual rights, consent and responsibilities? But Ontario’s Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty caved to pressure from parents and religious groups. Disassembling the patriarchy isn’t easy, silly Premier–people are going to make noise. And they’re so much more comfortable doing it when Stephen Harper has their backs.

Hey, patriarchy? We see you. And we will take you down.

Juliana Scramstad was born in the Yukon of generations of strong, loving, feminists. She now, at nearly 28, is so deeply honoured to live in a place where she feels most grounded and alive, amongst many brilliant, feisty feminists, while getting paid to take out the patriarchy.

Just Another Indian Hidden In Canada’s Closet

I am what you may call an intergenerational effect. I see the norms of everyday living as a First Nations woman. My people suffered a great loss and now we cannot fill that void. We have tried alcohol, drugs and money. I can feel the pain of losing my culture and what could be a cure. Sometimes I feel like just another Indian hidden in Canada’s closet, and worse, believing I belong there.

I have shared a common experience with the silenced. I have learned to rise above it and stand against a lifestyle filled with shame and neglect. I am tired of Aboriginal communities believing this is a norm and pointing fingers at the victim. I will keep searching for the answers and I understand violence is not a cultural trait of First Nations. Violence is a cry for help, an easy pathway for those trapped. We must rise above it.

  • Josie O’Brien

This article appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Canadian Dimension (The New Feminism).


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