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VIEW: Maude Barlow on feminism

The Globe and Mail‘s ‘Drawn Off Topic’ column features an interview with Council of Canadians chairperson on Maude Barlow on feminism, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/drawn-off-topic/maude-barlow-on-feminism/article2150775/.

Are you a feminist? Yes.

How do you define that? I believe in equal rights and opportunity for men and women.

Don’t we have that currently? Aren’t we there? No. We’re on our way. The role of women, day to day, is not just about opportunity but what is life like for young women. Is everything fine now? I would argue no.

Can’t we now assume feminism is ubiquitous, or must it be reaffirmed with each generation? I think you’d have to work on it. The younger generation now doesn’t like to call themselves feminists.

Has it become a dirty word? To an extent. Partly, I like that. Why should you have to be grateful for something you never should have had to fight for. And in that forgetting is the ability to slide back. I’m really worried about what I call a counterrevolution around how young women are being portrayed and how they are seeing themselves. Teenage girls are into severe dieting, plastic surgery, big stiletto heels and very tight clothing. [These] are not about empowerment, they are about sex. If everything is still dictating that you should be and act and look a certain way, it is the same old sexism dressed up in new language and imagery. We live in a society that commodifies everything. Girls spend about seven times as much on clothes as boys. The advertising in the clothing industry is geared to girls.

Hasn’t that always been the case, no matter which generation? The fight for equality was for women not to have to put forward that sexualized look to be successful. Doing that is the opposite of the message of the women’s movement.

Women are going as far as they like in education, the workplace or in establishing their place in society. What’s wrong with how they choose to look while doing so? If you see yourself first and foremost as a sexual person, that is the most important image you are putting forward. It is not about what you think or your academic achievement or what you can do. It is about how you look. For all the advances that women have made, I think that young women still need to fight for the right to be individuals. They are to take their place in society without having to be sexualized objects. To choose to be sexual, fine, when you think it’s a choice, [not] because you can’t imagine looking any other way. It is still part of an underlying struggle for genuine equality. It is really hard in a capitalist market-based society where big corporations have no interest but the bottom line. They have access to these kids in a way that no other generation was ever captivated.

What about young women in university or entering the work force? She may be putting herself through university, competing for jobs equally with men. If she decides on a boob job or has her nose done or liposuction, is that not a personal empowered choice? A couple of generations ago, she wouldn’t have had those options, she would be home rearing children and keeping house. I would argue that it is still society-enforced. It comes from a lack of self-esteem. She hasn’t measured up to a look that our society has put out there. That is no different to how it was 30 years ago, except it is more extreme now. The advertisers have more access to her. [Young women] are bombarded by imagery from television, videos, the Internet, Facebook. All of it says there is a way to be and look. It is a way of dressing that I consider counter-liberated. A lot of the gains we made as feminists, as social and economic activists, feel to me to being undone. A society that is reverting to the worst of what women were taught. With a twist – that it is sexually liberated to dress like this, to talk like this, to walk like this. I don’t think it is sexual liberation. In many cases, it is the exact opposite.

What do you make of the so-called SlutWalks – street celebrations of women’s right to dress overtly sexually if they feel so inclined? I think they are done as fun, as personally liberating. I don’t think they are. I was sitting in the University of Lethbridge getting an honorary doctorate. One by one, these women who are wearing stiletto heels that they couldn’t walk in came up. Tottering. They were in pain. I think you are going to see a backlash, a new generation of young women who assert that this is the same old crap. We have to fight the women’s movement all over again.