Feminism. It’s a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different folks. To me it means the fight for equality, not just for women, but for all people that are marginalized and oppressed. Others see it as a scam or a conspiracy theory designed to cover up “female privilege” and/or subjugate men.

“What, dinner not ready yet! What have you been doing? A picture of the future by our ‘mild-mannered’ artist”

Unfortunately patriarchy (which, by the way, also hurts men) is alive and well, and one of its effects is the demonization of feminism. Anyone who dares to publicly support it risks opening themselves up to criticism, ridicule, slander, exclusion, harassment, threats of physical harm and sexual assault, or other, often subtler, forms of punishment, especially if they happen to be a woman. The more vulnerable or underprivileged we are, the more dangerous it is to self-identity as a feminist, and the less likely it is we’ll be able to recover from our wounds.


It’s no surprise then that many women avoid having anything to do with feminism. The stereotypes and misinformation that are actively promoted and spread by governments, mainstream media, religious organizations, men’s rights activists (MRAs), and so on don’t help either. In an attempt to combat these stereotypes, and perhaps avoid some of the anticipated backlash, many of us try to play down the more threatening elements of feminism, separating ourselves from the imaginary bra-burning, man-hating, “feminazi” militants that some people believe represent the movement as a whole. But while it’s true that there are many different strands of feminism, some of which are more radical than others, there are still problems with dismissing “that” kind of feminism out of hand.

Image from Hark! a Vagrant – “Straw Feminists in the Closet” by Kate Beaton

First of all, we’re lending support to the “bra-burning” stereotype by promoting the idea that these women were/are irrational, that their actions were/are unwarranted, that they hurt rather than helped the movement, and that good feminists “know better.”  This does a disservice to the women that, whether you agree with their methods or not, risked a lot to help secure the rights we now enjoy.

Secondly, we’re excluding women that are angry, and have every right to be, by advocating a more “moderate,” liberal approach, while subtly reprimanding those that refuse to remain “calm” and “reasonable” in the face of extreme suffering, exploitation, injustice, and oppression. It’s easy to stay calm when you’re relatively privileged, much harder when you’re at the bottom of the ladder, struggling to survive, and constantly being shit on by everyone else. Many people may have trouble connecting to liberal feminism, not because it’s too scary or angry, but because it’s too nice, too complacent, too tailored to mens’ expectations, too focused on incremental reform as the one and only method of bringing about change, not to mention that it often completely fails to address the experiences and concerns of poor, working class, non-white, and non-cis-gendered women. Some of these people may feel that liberal feminism is far too preoccupied with symbolic gestures that are designed to make patriarchy more appealing to women, rather than actually working to eliminate patriarchy, and the systems of social stratification that support it, and you know what, they might be right.

Image by Nicole Stradiotto
Image by Nicole Stradiotto

And really, in all seriousness, what is so bad about burning a bra anyway?? It’s just a piece of clothing! How could this possibly compare to the acts of violence that women around the world face every single day? But of course we’ve been fed the narrative about “crazy” feminists so often that we don’t even stop to think about it. This narrative has been around for a long time (just check out this New York Times article from 1912), in various forms, and it’s typical of the divide and conquer strategies that have been used to undermine collective struggles throughout history. Not only does it encourage feminists to turn against one another, but it also reinforces the message that it’s always better to play by the rules–even if the rules were created largely by and for men, even if they’re unfair, and even if that means accepting less pay for our work, keeping our experiences and opinions to ourselves, or putting up with harassment and abuse, because nobody likes an angry, whiny, unreasonable, uncompromising, feminist.


I’m not saying that we shouldn’t welcome male allies, that men can’t be feminists, or that we can’t work together to further our goals, but neither should we be ashamed of our anger, or repress it in ourselves or others, or stop fighting for our rights because some people are upset by our anger or don’t agree with us. If the men that claim to be our allies are really on our side, they’ll feel angry as well, or at least support us in our anger, rather than trying to shut us down.


And really, no matter how much we try to act tame and “play nice,” it will never be enough, because feminism, like all social movements, is always going to be threatening so long as it represents a change in the status quo. The moment it stops doing that is the moment feminism dies, or at least ceases to serve its purpose.  That doesn’t mean we all get to keep the rights we currently have either, because those rights weren’t granted to us by benevolent government officials out of the kindness of their hearts; they had to be fought for, and unless we continue to fight, they will be taken away. The process is already in motion. The expansion of the prison industrial complex, the suppression of wages and attacks on unions and collective bargaining, cuts to public services and a push towards privatization, government spying, the introduction of laws that allow for the suspension of basic rights and freedoms (usually justified by vague threats to “national security”), and the rising popularity of fascist parties, all point to a less than pretty future, and not just for women. While this list may seem to have little or nothing to do with women’s rights, intersectional feminism is concerned with all forms of oppression and inequality, and the ways in which they connect to and reinforce one another. If we start with the understanding that everyone, regardless of sex, gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and so on, has a right to respect, dignity, and a decent quality of life, we can start to see how these developments might negatively impact on those rights.


If we’re going to stand against this, let alone fight back, we’re going to need to embrace our anger, and the anger of others who, like us, are tired of the double standards, the excuses, the fear, and the hardship. Rather than dismiss it, we need to learn to use that anger, and turn it against the system that oppresses us; we need to make it work for us, rather than against us, as it so often does. I say this not because I think anger is a wonderful thing (it’s not), but because the alternative (passivity) is much, much worse.

I don’t know about you, but I’d take an angry feminist over an angry racist misogynist any day of the week.


Why I started going to protests

I grew up in a small, relatively isolated community in the heart of Labrador. Dominated by a military air base, my hometown was not exactly what you would call a hotbed of social unrest. That’s not to say important political struggles weren’t happening, especially between embattled aboriginal groups and the White majority, but I was largely insulated from them. As a child the only marches I witnessed on a regular basis were the annual Christmas parades. When I moved away to a attend a liberal arts university I was exposed to a lot of new ideas; terms like institutional racism, patriarchy, and Orientalism became a part of my working vocabulary. At the same time, I became aware of rising tuition fees, and student opposition to the hikes. Small protests were held on campus, but they were never people I knew, and they always seemed pitiably tiny in comparison to the majority of the student body that were content to carry on with their lives. It was easy to disassociate myself from them, and their methods, not least because I had parents that could afford to pay my tuition.

Then I moved to Quebec, and found myself in the midst of what would soon be called “The Maple Spring,” otherwise known as the 2012 Quebec student protests. The issue was the same, but suddenly the protesters were not some isolated group of strangers. They included my friends, my classmates, and my professors. Even then, it took some convincing to get me out on the streets. After all, tuition was much higher in the other provinces, more than double in the case of the university I had previously attended. So what was the big deal?

Had I been anywhere else that would probably have been the end of it, but, simply by virtue of being present at a university in a left-leaning department in a province with a history of student activism, I met people, read things, and witnessed events that slowly but surely led me to think otherwise. I met students that were working part time, studying full time, and still struggled to pay the bills, some of whom would not be able to return to university if the tuition hikes went through. I met parents trying to support their children on incomes that were well below the poverty line. I heard professors talk about the endless battle against the corporatization of the university, and classmates that clearly and patiently explained the importance of making higher education as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. I read news articles and comments dismissing the movement out of hand, implying that its participants were all a bunch of spoiled, entitled, lazy brats, and suggesting that Quebec as a whole was nothing more than a parasite sucking on the blood of Canada’s more “productive” provinces. I compared this to what I was seeing on the ground, to the cheering, smiling crowds banging pots and parading down the street, to the articulate statements of students and supporters, to the arrogant and repressive tactics of the Liberal government, and realized just how warped and uninformed my image of the student protests, and of protests in general, had been.


Despite all this, in the end I only attended three different events (including the 200,000-strong protest on March 22, which left a long-lasting impression on me). The rest of the time I conjured up a series of excuses, or convinced myself that I just wasn’t the type to go out and protest, that these manifs (short for manifestations) and demos weren’t for me. I was wrong, but it took me a long time to figure out why. The first problem was that I didn’t fully understand the importance or meaning of solidarity. I felt that, because I wouldn’t be directly harmed by the proposed increase in tuition rates, I had no right and no need to go out and protest it. I had no concept of how social movements have grown throughout history, and how so much of their strength lies in the ability and willingness of diverse groups to stick together, and show support for one another, even when they do not directly benefit from doing so. It seems so simple now, but I never bothered to ask myself: If I can’t stand up for a cause that matters to someone else, why should I expect them to stand up for mine? I am now of the opinion that solidarity is the foundation of positive social change, and that it is, in effect, the only thing that can save us from the destruction of the many by the few, but I was a long time getting there.

quebec students

The second problem was that the mainstream media, the education system, and other social forces had taught me to see activists, and activism, as a special category of people and activities that are totally separate from the lives of “ordinary citizens” like me. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi,  David Suzuki, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, these were the sort of people that got involved in activism, the “great men” of history, the leaders and the shakers capable of rousing the masses (as if the masses had no ideas of their own). The rest of us (the un-roused masses?) had other things to worry about, like getting an education, and finding a job, and maybe starting a family. Of course it’s now apparent that these “tried and true” steps to achieving a comfortable and fulfilling life are growing more and more out of reach, even in the world’s wealthiest countries, but for a while this just seemed like the natural order of things. Either you were an activist, or you were a regular Joe; there was no in-between. In my head mass movements were a thing of the past, never mind that they were happening all around me.


It also took me a long time to figure out that there was more to being a “responsible citizen” than voting for an elected representative every now and then (a very comfortable and convenient fiction). In fact, most of the important historical gains that some of us still enjoy today (such as universal health care, weekends and the 8 hour work day, women’s right to vote, anti-segregation policies, etc.) were the direct result of either the threat or the reality of widespread social unrest, expressed through protests, civil disobedience, strikes, sabotage, and other disruptive actions that prevented governments and corporations from carrying on with business as usual. Unaware of this history, I was unable to make the connection between social change and social unrest, between political reform and popular pressure, in all its myriad of forms. I had been fed a watered down version of democracy and a whitewashed image of history, and it had the effect of disconnecting me from the political realities that shape my everyday life. It left me disempowered, while covering up my disempowerment with inspiring narratives about entrepreneurial, self-made men (and occasionally women) that are helping to make the world a better place. “If you just work hard and buy into the system,” I was told, “you too can rise to the top, and make a difference.” “Don’t worry about things you can’t change,” I was told, “just focus on your own life.””Protests are for radical extremists and deluded hippies,” I was told, “and you don’t want to be associated with that, now do you?”


Having stood, to some degree, on both sides of the fence, I am now just starting to realize how much effort goes into building and maintaining that fence. The careful selection of which protests are covered in the media, and how, the failure to connect current movements with historical struggles, the divide and conquer tactics used to turn us against one another, the idealization of the role of the police and the demonization of the protesters, all of this works to prevent us from identifying with the people on the streets, particularly the people risking arrest, the people being harassed, beaten, stalked, and threatened by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. And for the most part we accept it, or shrug our shoulders, because nobody wants to get arrested, right, and it’s not like they’re achieving anything anyway, the bunch of whiners. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we ought to recognize it as such.


While I go to more protests now, I’ll admit that I still make excuses, and I still find reasons not to go. Probably 90% or more of the protests I hear about (and agree with) I don’t attend. I’m not proud of this, because a lot of the time it’s not a lack of privilege, ability, or access to information that’s preventing me from going; it’s straight up fear, and laziness, and apathy, and sometimes just the feeling that nobody is listening, nobody is on our side, and it’s all a big waste of time. The only thing that gets me there is encouragement from people I admire and respect and the reminder that solidarity isn’t something you do when it’s convenient, it’s not about picking the winning side, and it’s not about instant feedback or success. Protests aren’t always effective, or beneficial, but the very fact that the establishment goes to such great lengths to discourage us from participating in them suggests that they’re not useless either.

Around the world protests are on the rise (along with social inequality, global temperatures, and fascism), and one way or another we’ll all have to decide what that means for us personally. Do we sit back and watch the show, or do we get involved (if we can)? Which movements do we support, and which do we oppose? How far are we willing to go, and what are the consequences if we go too far or hold back? These aren’t just questions for self-proclaimed activists, they’re questions we all have to face, and the sooner the better. No one is asking or expecting you to burn down buildings, or smash windows, or fight riot cops, or anything like that. I just want to know if you’ll be there.