Last week, while scrolling through several news apps, I was struck by a headline declaring that Poland’s constitutional court had ruled to ban abortion with exceptions only in the cases of rape, incest, or mortal danger to the mother’s life. Polish women have since taken to the streets in massive demonstrations to protest the ruling and defend their fundamental right to bodily autonomy. In Canada, we are fortunate that this right has been upheld since R v. Morgentaler and Tremblay v. Daigle of the late 1980s, but this recent news should serve as a sobering reminder of the continued struggle for women’s rights. Reflecting upon this subject, I have come to wonder what it would mean to live in a country where my body is a political playground. Even more, I have come to wonder why it is that my body should be legislated when male bodies are not. Ironic, isn’t it, that men decide what I can do with my body, but it would be unthinkable for a woman to control theirs.
Later, during a virtual family dinner, I brought up the brave women marching all around Poland to protest their rights. I then began to explain how even though Canadian law has recognized a woman’s right to decide whether she wants a child, abortion is only one battle in the war against gender-based discrimination that is prevalent every day. In response, a member of my family (male, white, and educated) claimed that discrimination against women in Canada no longer exists – “after all, it is 2020”. With fire in my eyes, I began to argue my case.
What does it mean to be a woman in 2020, after all?
While significant progress has been made towards equality in our legal system, discrimination is far from being a thing of the past. Sexism is not an out-of-date ideology that we have surpassed as a society, but rather an increasingly-suppressed symptom of the patriarchal structure that impacts society on all levels. Famous feminist scholar Kate Millet explains that in such a system, “every avenue of power within the society… is entirely in male hands”. Yes, a woman can now legally rise to a position of power, but this does not change how the system values the advancement of men and engages in a larger discourse where they are in the foreground and women are in the background.
Being a woman in 2020 means being ignored in business meetings and called “bossy” or “bitchy” when she refuses to go unheard. It means ignoring the policies of a prominent politician because discussing her appearance seems more interesting. It means being slut-shamed for having an active sex life while a man would be worshipped for the same thing. Being a woman in 2020 means facing constant microaggressions (in the best-case scenario) yet, being reduced to an “angry woman” when you speak up against it.
I am an angry woman. Angry at having to conform to both unattainable social standards and double-standards that define what is or is not acceptable for me to do. Bitter with those who admire my beauty but ignore my brain. Hysterical that my career as a female lawyer risks reaching the glass-ceiling effect because I will inevitably have to leave to give birth to the next generation. As if my gender somehow implies that my career is a hobby before my “true” purpose, childbirth.
Masculocentric acts of reinforcing dominance manifest themselves across all social relations. In sports; “don’t get beaten by a girl!”. In relationships; “why don’t women leave their abusive relationships?”. In cases of sexual assault; “why had she agreed to go home with him if she didn’t want to sleep with him?”. On social media; “why is she showing her body like that?”. The examples are endless, yet I ask; “why is she not valued for being able to swim faster than a man?”, “why must she watch her drinks and avoid his advances?”. In a system where men control power, it is considered a great shame to be beaten or rejected by a woman, emasculating even. In this way, toxic masculinity is a weapon against not only women, but also men. Thus, I congratulate the young Quebecois boys who showed up to school in skirts recently to confront sexist dress codes. However, I reprimand educational institutions for not having the same praises to the years of young girls deviating the same dress code to prove the same point. If I remember, I was called arrogant and got detention. Why is the discussion valid now that boys are involved?
My voice is important. Female voices are important. Yes, we have made legal progress, but our fight for equality must go beyond justice on paper. As a white woman, this is only the tip of the iceberg, the battle of women of colour and indigenous women is a much greater challenge. We have an obligation to support them now more than ever. As lawyers, academics, and individuals, we must all work together to deconstruct the subtle and overt manifestations of the patriarchy wherever they may present themselves.