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Feminism revisited

Published:Sunday | November 11, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Glenda Simms, Contributor

For more than 100 years, the impact of patriarchal values on the marginalised status of women in every society in the modern world has been challenged by individuals and organised groups of women.

Out of this universal struggle, the term 'feminism' entered into polite conversations in the exclusive parlours and on verandas of women and their daughters, especially those who occupied the upper level of societies in North America and Europe. At this level, such women had found ways to get our education, even though the patriarch was not in agreement with such 'ungodly and unnatural' desires.

As the momentum for meaningful change in the status of women evolved into what was popularly defined as the Second Wave of Feminism, a wide cross section of women on all continents placed their concerns on the global agenda.

Middle-class white women in North America and Europe used their positions of privilege in the academy to produce some of the seminal works that defined feminism. Black American and Caribbean women highlighted their dilemma in the intersection of race, class and gender, as they claimed the label 'womanist'.

In this clash of ideas, lesbians asserted their right to be free from the restrictions of heterosexism. Feminist theologians reinterpreted the biblical tracts that suppressed women in the name of God. Aboriginal women asserted their right to be fully compensated for the robbery of their ancestral lands and the erosion of their cultural rights, and the United Nations started to listen more keenly to the voices of women and girls who live in the nation states of this exclusive club.

As a founding member and as president of the Congress of Black Women of Canada, I probably made a special impression on the Progressive Conservative prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney. In 1990, he appointed me to the position of president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. And the rest is history.


Over the past several months, I have had the luxury of contemplating the evolution of our movement to free the women of the world from their unique forms of disempowerment.

To this end, I recalled some of the ideas which I shared with the cross section of women in Canada. They include the following excepts:

1. "Women must work together to fight poverty and violence, the main problems facing women in the 1990s ... . Feminism is a unifying force that can enable women to overcome the pressing problems of the decade, but the feminist movement must be strengthened and must reach out to all groups that are struggling for equality and their human rights." (published in the Leader POST, February 10 1991)

2. Feminism, even among many women, is still a derogatory term ... . It irks me when I meet young women in traditionally male-dominated disciplines and institutions and they deny the impact of feminism on their lives. They tell me that they had high marks in their high-school programmes. I responded, 'Are you thinking that your grandmothers were not born with brains? You are here because we pushed open these doors for you.' (The Star-Phoenix, February 16, 1991)

During the seventies, eighties and nineties, leading feminists and womanists energetically and strategically challenged the patriarchal mindset in every country. In Jamaica and the rest of CARICOM, Canada, the USA, Europe, the Middle East and in every United Nations gathering, the rights of women and girls were debated in both passionate and intellectual terms.

Many of us marched and wept, lectured and cajoled, struggled and sacrificed. We gathered with candles at ceremonies that remembered the lives of murdered women.

One such moment stood out: the 1989 massacre of 14 young women at the Montreal Polytechnic by one white man, Marc Lepine, who accused them of being feminists. In other words, it was feminism that was responsible for ensuring that these young women developed the intellectual skills to qualify to enter this most prestigious engineering school. They had no right to aspire to such a level.


In 2012, when we take a national and global assessment of our struggles to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, we need to ask if we have lost the essential momentum to conquer the backlash and the cynicism against the womanist/ feminist agenda.

The following questions are worth answering:

  • Have the champions of women's equality rights grown old and tired?
  • Have they spent their energies creaming off the best of the social capital for themselves, their friends and their children?
  • Have they failed a generation of young women who have come to believe that the struggle is at an end?
  • Have they fallen back into the trap of being the cheerleaders to the boys - in politics, social settings, and decision making?
  • Have the sisters become too fat, contented and smiling?
  • Have some of us become oppressors and hate-filled dragons as we gain a toehold in a man's world?

It is the ideas inherent in such questions that prompted writer Meghan Murphy to pose to her readers the idea of choice feminism. In the summer 2012 edition of Horizon, a Canadian feminist magazine, Murphy discussed how our rallying cry got co-opted and why we need to take it back.

According to Murphy, "A lot of conversations about female empowerment today seem to be stuck in a discourse of choice that makes it difficult to challenge anything at all. She points out that traditional feminism used political philosophies to explore the ways in which structural inequality limits women's and girls' freedom. Choice feminism is about defining any choice that a woman makes as empowering. For instance, when a woman chooses to work in a strip joint or when a young girl chooses to sell her body on Port Henderson's 'Back Road', there is no need to think about the factors that could affect such choices.

Factors such as poverty, class, lack of education, abuse and the continuing cultural objectification of women's bodies, among others, become irrelevant to the woman's choice.

After all, the new chorus shouts about the importance of a woman's choice to do anything.

'If men will pay, why not take the cash?' is the mantra of such choices.

Murphy argues: "[Choice feminism] has co-opted feminist language in a way that takes the political out of the personal."

True feminists must continue to insist that the personal is the political. The battle continues.

Glenda P. Simms, PhD, is gender expert and consultant. Email feedback to and