Friday, March 8, 2013

Sexism: It's not just from men.

We are at one of my least favourite days of the year:  International Women's Day.

Let me explain.  About 20 years ago, I went out with a bunch of friends to The Rivoli Cafe in Toronto, a favourite old haunt of mine to an event to celebrate International Women's Day.

The Rivoli has three spaces:  a restaurant, a bar on the side and a famous backroom that is a club/performance space with a stage.

I went out with a group of men and women, gay and straight, coupled and single.  We grabbed a table in the bar, planning to see the show and attend the party in the backroom.  We were told by the organizers of the event (not, I hasten to add, the lovely people who run the Rivoli) that the backroom was for women only, so we, the women, would have a safe space.

I went back to my table of friends and explained that we couldn't take any guys into the back.  The men were all terribly good sports about it.  I went into the back with one of my girlfriends to check things out.  There was music and dancing and a lot of really, really, drunk women. One woman came up behind me and full-on grabbed my breasts.

I wheeled around, hands up, to see a woman, only a bit larger than me, drooling drunk. When I confronted her, she said, ( I'm not making this up) "Oh, you look so beautiful and I just wanted to talk to you."  I said, "If you were a guy, I'd have decked you, and by the way, that's no way to start a conversation with anybody."  She started to cry.  I left, and went back to my table of friends. I was there as a feminist, and a woman, and I'd just been sexually assaulted by a feminist and woman. I haven't been to an International Women's Day event since.

I went to a gender segregated school, and I was fine with that.  I like gender segregated bathrooms.  I host girls' night a few times a year.  I get that the vibe is different when the room is mixed company.

Excluding men from an International Women's Day celebration feels, well, sexist.

Yes, I get that gay women and gay men have clubs that exclude patrons who are not of the same sex to avoid trouble-makers and harassment.  Many gay bars however, are open to members of all sexes and persuasions.  I have had great fun dancing and chatting in gay bars all over the country. Certainly I never had any trouble like the kind I had that night.

An event  billed as an event for people who support women's rights should include men.  Otherwise, it discriminates on the basis of gender.  Women fought hard to break down the boys' clubs. I don't feel comfortable locking men out of a room they want to help me be in.

Drunk members of either sex groping me without permission don't make me feel safe.
I've worked for women who thought it was OK to pay me less than a man, I've heard women make comments about other women's bodies that were viciously sexist.  Women put huge pressure on other women around dress, weight and grooming. There are a lot of women on the editorial boards of those magazines pushing plastic surgery, hair dye and diets.

Then there are all those great high-status equal opportunity exploiters of female labour: Margaret Thatcher, Leona Helmsley and Imelda Marcos, to name a few.  Let's not forget Asma al Assad who seems quite content to shop in London, and stay silent of the subject of the distress of the people in her country, Syria, while women, men and children are murdered and forced to flee as refugees.

You don't have to be a man to exploit or abuse a woman, or indeed other people. You just have to feel entitled to do it.

I don't want an International Women's Day.  I  will not attend any "women's only" events tonight.

I want an equal number of  men and women in Parliament and the Legislature. I want a National Daycare Policy and I want equal pay for work of equal value, which the Supreme Court of Canada just ruled lawful - wait for it - in 2011. I don't want anyone of either sex to feel free to make free with my person without my permission, or degrade or exploit me in any way.  I would  like to see more women take to task other women who trash women, pay them less, judge them solely on their appearance or contribute to their one-down economic position in society by providing them with unstable, insecure, employment.

My International Women's Day includes men who support the above-mentioned values. Not including men in the fight to win our equal rights feels, well, sexist.


  1. I appreciate your comments here, Celeste, and want to thank you for putting this out there. There has been a long discussion in a feminist group of which I am a part about the inclusion of men in the group -- we have some, and smart and supportive men they are, too -- and so I've been thinking about this issue. Exclusionary policies are a problem because there are always good reasons to make exceptions for individual people's experience and abilities which almost always transcend categories like gender, sexuality, class, race, etc. That said, it's easier to exclude than include, which is often why groups will choose that route. Inclusion takes thought and effort, as well as a constant consideration (and re-consideration) of how big we want the world to be.


  2. Why do you want to see an equal number of men and women in parliament? And does that extend to wanting to see an equal number of men and women in management positions in big corporations? I've never understood the rationale behind that.
    Do we push for equal representation because we believe that there is no difference between men and women, and if the system were fair an equal number of each would rise to power? Or are we saying that a woman's different sensibilities should always be equally present because effective leadership demands both a male and female perspective? Or are we just cheering for the politically correct position? Or are we so cynical that we don't believe leadership requires any particular qualifications -- they're all corrupt self-serving egomaniacs anyway; it might as well be one as the other?

    1. Thank you Andrew, for your thoughtful comments and questions.

      I would like a more balanced male/female perspective in government. I think the hours and the travel as well at the enormous cost of mounting a political campaign keep many women from running for office.

      Work/family life balance remains an enormous issue for women and men with children. I have had many women say to me, "We're both working, but if the kid is sick, the expectation is that I stay home."

      I think that goes a long way to explaining why there are certain jobs that women, well-qualified women, don't take. When you throw the fact that many people are delaying having children which tends to leave them in the "sandwich" with elder care and teen-aged kids, you can see why fewer women want to take on board work or run for office. Their family responsibilities and careers peak simultaneously.

      I think the entire way we work might change if there was more/better/different accommodation to the needs of families with two working parents.

      I think there are plenty of qualified women to run for office with backgrounds in administration, journalism, policy analysis, academia, finance, law and medicine. Women are often invited to run in seats where the party knows they have no chance of winning but want to field a full slate of candidates.

      I'd like to see more women in office for the same reason I'd like to see proportional representation: it would be more democratic. For the record,I am not at all cynical about democracy.

      As to corporate governance, some companies are trying to get more women on their boards. It remains a boys' club in large measure and yes, I think as women continue to make the aggregate of consumer decisions it would likely bring about a change in corporate culture if we had more representation of the boards of corporations.

      To summarize, it is not just gender representation that needs to change, it's the rules of the game.