on behalf of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter Collective
in alliance with Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution
and with Chris Hedges
Last week on news site Truthdig, Mr. Hedges drew a bright line under what is required to be a Socialist in the USA in 2015. I found it brave and interesting. Recently Spanish and Greek leaders caught our imaginations exposing to the public new international debates of socialist and anarchist politics and neoliberal economics. Last week the Canadian group LEAP responded to the bankruptcy of Canadian election talk with its Manifesto. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the same week dignified our hopes to defeat colonialism. This week the pope announced some support for LGBT rights and then called down the destructive forces of capitalism. Hardly radical acts, but surprising. Who knows? Maybe these things matter and we are in the days before the dawn. Maybe we can lift the darkness imposed on us all by patriarchal neoliberal control.
For a moment, we from our two women’s groups were tempted to announce criteria for who gets to use Feminist as a self description and what obligations are imposed on one who does. For instance the media invents an impossible contradiction in saying “right wing feminist”, a “racist feminist” or “elitist feminist”. Of course feminists fail sometimes to be anti- racist or anti-colonial. But since women are the majority of the population and the majority of women are poor and brown and since Feminism intends to be a liberating force on behalf of the whole group women, Feminism and Feminists willingly accept that we are obliged to struggle against racism, against colonialism and against imperialism. Feminism proceeds toward an end to male supremacy and to achieve that it necessarily proceeds with an economic and political agenda toward an egalitarian and enthusiastically democratic future.
VRRWS and AWCEP emerge from the second wave women’s movement in the philosophical tradition first articulated by Simone de Beauvoir. Now that we have better translation of Beauvoir she provides an even clearer light. Like Hannah Arendt before her, Beauvoir calls women to take our place in the public sphere as fully participating adults knowing that we re-create ourselves and freedom as we go. She warns us against the false notions of freedom for instance in the glamour of Hollywood-style celebrity or as in high track prostitution in which we would trap ourselves in servitude to the empty fantasy of men. She argues to us that the freedom to seek and to cherish is that freedom which expands the freedom of others.
Women were coerced and beaten, bought and sold and women surely suffered the ravages of rape in the Second World War but we had yet to expose, much less confront the normalcy of Violence against Women. Kate Millet mapped a history of patriarchy but she did not see it either. North American Feminists invented transition houses and anti-rape centers in 1973. Without them we would still be ignorant of the numbers, of the range of incidents and of the combined impact. Within a couple of years Diana Russel called feminists together in the International Tribunal of Crimes against Women in Vienna. Researcher Holly Johnson at Statistics Canada built on that information and according to international experts Dobash and Dobash created the best survey techniques in the world. But since 1993 the Canadian government refuses to ever repeat her survey. If such treachery prevails and the cuts continue we will be in the dark again. Male supremacy adapts to keep women in our place as handmaidens, playthings, tools and captives.
In our responses to another woman or women in distress, Feminists in our groups consider that it might have been us. That necessitates as a Black leader of women Kimberle Crenshaw argues, incorporating and embodying immediately an intersectional approach to our differences in class and race. It also ties us to other roots in the radicalism of Jane Adams and Rosa Luxemburg in exposing structures of power.
How to proceed? As we face the horrors of missing and murdered women, is it more helpful to examine the stories of only the Aboriginal women missing and or murdered? When is it more informative or helpful to examine the details of all the women in Canada missing or murdered. What of families? Nations? What of their class and colonialism? How does it matter that many were destitute, prostituted? Who should count? Who should speak? How do we do it all? How do we acknowledge and ally with other collectivities?
Feminist Aboriginal leader and organizer at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center, Fay Blaney said last week speaking to five hundred women at Vancouver’s Take Back the Night rally:
”Women survivors of male violence – Together we have fought to end male violence
Survivors of Prostitution have fought to abolish prostitution
My Indigenous Sisters – Together we have fought to bring attention to our ‘murdered and missing’ sisters.
Now that the world is looking at us:
Why are we not standing at the forefront?
Why are the National Roundtables being organized by the Assembly of First Nations?
Why is the focus on “victims”?
Why is the focus on “Families”?
The subjugation of the collective “women” is part of the story. That’s why in searching for solutions we consider that it might be us tomorrow who cannot make it to our safe homes or out of our unsafe homes, who cannot report or who dare not report or who have reported to no avail. So when we fight to secure her needs, her increased liberty, in her particular and specific situation, we admit and we know that we are also fighting for our own freedom.
The oppression of women exercised in and maintained by male violence against women is real, current and ongoing. And I warn you that some of it will and should come to mind as we talk.
I know you have heard reports of the UBC student-wife blinded by her husband, of a BC husband punishing his wife by burning down the house while their children slept, of women’s bodies in BC woods and streams, of women missing from our communities and of predatory men cruising reserves, cruising hospital parking lots and cruising university grounds and cruising downtown ghettos.
You know of women being thrown out of Vancouver windows, you read of a Canadian military leader creeping into neighbour’s houses to wear women’s underwear and plan their rape and murders and Canadian priests seducing children and of husbands shooting escaping wives and mothers in their BC hospital beds. You know of Canadian parliamentarians harassing their young aids and of Vancouver men luring and buying children on the internet, of sailors ordering up vans of Vancouver women across the security gates and into our harbours, like so many pizza’s and of sailors delivering women and children to markets in Vancouver by dropping them into the Pacific Ocean off our shores and by delivering young women and girls to predatory men in so called hairdressing salons or to men who have ordered care givers or mail order brides or language teachers or real estate agents knowing they are defenseless.
I know you heard about some of the rich men with power over us all like Dominque Strauss- Khan who brutalized his hotel maid, the party girls hired for him to abuse, the woman journalists who covered his activities and his wife. You know about men of the left like Assange squandering his leadership and our trust with his abuse and violations of women of the left, with every expectation that we will without his self criticism apology or promise of change, consider the violation of him more important. You know about celebrated men of the arts like Ghomeshi luring, deceiving and torturing his fawning young fans, his female co workers and the aspiring young artists around him. You know about men of squalor and degradation like Pickton and the family and gang members around him who revel in the underworld of male violence against women. You know about Martin Tremblay preying on young aboriginal women with drugs and so called parties until they were dead. You know about the man and those like him who penetrated his partner when she was un-conscious and defended his right to do so with law. You know about déclassé men like Moazami who are so sure of their entitlement that they trade in the trafficking and prostitution of young girls to collect what they see as their share of the excesses of our society. You know about Klassen the art dealer who travelled the third world and on his return was caught with the DVD’s of his own sexual assault of girls under 14 in Colombia and the Philippines; so sure was he of first world rights to exploit the vulnerability of girls and women for his own pleasure. In BC 6 husbands have killed wives this year. 15 murdered last year. Two husbands a week in Canada kill their wives. Most incest goes undetected except by the girl who has to live with it and the woman she becomes. We require ourselves to make sense of this.
In the failures of the criminal justice system we are faced with the mistreatment of the remains of Cindy Gladue and the even more repulsive debate in the court as to whether the trucker who penetrated her vagina with a knife was intending murder or whether that act was something he bought as part of prostitution. About the racist murder of Tina Fontaine our ally Leslie Spillet says from her place as director of Ka Ni Kanichihk, about missing and murdered aboriginal women in the prairies “I believe we have now reached a level of consciousness that this is an issue that doesn’t seem to be going away”.
400 women charge men of the RCMP with sexual harassment. Men in United Nation peace keeping troops forced refugees to pay for food and shelter with sex. The Vancouver police first failed prostituted women by ignoring the calls of their families and friends to investigate their absences and to investigate the johns because they did not see women as worth their while nor johns as dangerous. Now that same police force fails by refusing to enact the new law; refusing calls to arrest johns and pimps and brothel owners. They don’t see them as dangerous. The ignored policewoman Shenher who mined the files of missing and now murdered women, says “not much has changed”. Pickton the john claimed 50.
Sexual assault figures on every campus have been covered up by administrations that prefer to advertise falsely and leave women unprotected. Constance Backhouse feminist legal scholar and ally reports the misuses of Restorative Justice on campus such that the woman who reported the threatening young dentists in Nova Scotia got no say in just who was restored to what and in fact she left the school. It is surely true that the rapes of young women on campus got more immediate attention than prostituted women on the downtown east side but in neither case can women count on the rule of law or access to justice any more than they can when they call to report the violence of men in their families.
A week ago on Media Morning of Coop Radio, Irwin Ostindie asked Chris why he stands with Feminist resistance and he answered that “it is important to stand with all the oppressed” but also that “Feminism is part of a wider resistance to capitalism and imperialism”.
We would like to answer that question too: why should all of us stand with Feminists?
- Because no other political movement requires commitment to the fight for women’s freedom from male rule.
- Because until now no other movement even commits itself to ending the violent part of that rule.
It is no small thing that Mr. Hedges has put on his list that socialists must fight male violence against women in all its forms including prostitution.
- Because no other political movement privileges or even fully hears the voice of women or the nature of the realities that women collectively live much less the voice of women’s self organized activists and groups.
This women’s movement collects those voices particularly in our anti- violence work. It undertook with those voices, praxis over fifty years, producing data, ideas and practices with which the left has failed to contend. It has forms of intersectional development, of leadership, of movement, a set of organizations worth your examination and participation, forms of revolt worth your engagement, and a global network of rebels at work on personal and political levels.
We want you to consider that Socialism cannot succeed without Feminism. Not only because women are the majority. Not only because we cannot overturn any other form of oppression without freeing women but because women especially over the last fifty years through Feminism have developed some ideas, practices, structures and methods that make sustaining victory so much more likely.
We don’t accept every benefit offered. You will not find Vancouver Rape Relief or Asian Women’s Coalition Ending Prostitution accepting funds from the Playboy foundation. We are not in league with large corporate ad campaigns for beauty products. We have refused deals with those who would have women buy skunk oil potions to ward off rapists. We do not have meetings with public relations teams of large profit making corporations like Avon (which a prime minister suggested to us). Nor do we accept honoraria or government contracts to endorse the recruitment of women to the military, to boards of corporations or to banks. Those are not the advances for women that we seek. Nor do we agree to be the managers of the poor or the victimized. We don’t take government contracts to teach women so called “life skills” or to teach them how to be entrepreneurs on their starvation level welfare or family support check or by selling or renting body parts, or how to seek jobs that do not exist or how to take responsibility for the abuse heaped on them. But we are happy for this benefit.
The women in our organizations agree with Chris Hedges that we are living in a global revolutionary moment. There is a crack where the light got in. More of us can see current versions of colonialism including prostitution and the horrible urgency of indigenous peoples for land water and peace; we see the particular peril of indigenous women to the sexualized racism of brutal angry men. We can see the climate crisis and squalid excesses that brought us here. We are haunted by the terrible migrations of so many from lands that are mined, bombed or stripped of their capacity for life. We can see the ravages of patriarchal neo-liberalism and we experience the pressures on us all to choose our collective future.
We too look to the history of social change. Even without the damage of the purges of radicals from unions and society, the socialist theory and practice of 1915, 1950 or of 1970 will not do; neither my grandfather’s Wobblies, his communist party, nor the Waffle. Women at the time demanded change and we do so now. High on our list is an end to male violence against women. We know now that what makes governments and corporate powers yield some advances is an independent women’s movement that we build. The Weldon global study observes and measures that our movement makes change for women more likely than having women in office or having left wing governments in power.
People watching on the internet are catching our breath at the same moments. Every day now we gasp watching each other try to get into the square or home from the “kittling” in the square, to get through the dark safely to the toilet or to get through the next border, under the next barbed wire, to wrap our papers in plastic and drag our grandmothers to the rooftops and lace our children into life jackets in the next small boat. The young know that wars and climate changes means it could be us. If we don’t win, it will be us. We exhale as we watch each other scale the next wall or organize the next encampment. In the camps, even at Occupy, even in the Toronto and Seattle risings, sexist violence poisons the air in the snorting of the authorities but also in the men at our sides. May we be wise when, one of these days we link arms, and our joint breath creates a giant bellows in common cause.
Until then, when we see the American socialists debate the role of Saunders and Clinton, we watch the struggles of the Spanish and Greek populations, when the NDP is challenged by its own membership in the LEAP Manifesto against the destruction of the earth, the security state and the misery- making economics, we take some heart.
But we are also cautious in our enthusiasm. We remember the lack of support when Andrea Dworkin joined us in Banff to fight the medicalization of rape victims and the avoidance of the criminalization of men who rape and batter. We remember the promise of change after the Montreal Massacre and the cross party agreement expressed in the report called the War against Women. We remember the lack of support from the left and the unions when women fought as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women to democratize the constitutional debates that restructured Canada and undermined women’s support and feminist development. We remember the refusal to support our collective call for a new relationship with indigenous people and immigrants.
In the weeks after 9/11 the women in our little groups gathered more than a thousand women in Ottawa across the street from parliament under a banner of Women’s Resistance from Victimization to Criminalization. Representative of the World March of Women were just back from meetings to challenge the World Bank. We remember the death threats and denunciations. You might remember Sunera Thobani’s speech denouncing the deceitful use of women’s oppression by our government and pundits alike using women as an excuse to invade. When we invited her to speak, she denounced American imperialism as having “blood on its hands”. We led a thousand women in Ottawa to stand with her against the war.
If you’re hesitation to support Feminism is that you think that an independent women’s movement and Feminism create the destructive force of identity politics you need to think again. We don’t choose “women” as an identity but as a collective reality of oppression and as the name of the group in which we gather to resist.
Maybe the men who think like Chris will prevail. The new version of socialist will include a genuine fight against male violence vs. women and toward women’s advance. Maybe they will see prostitution as part of the neo-liberal squalor being imposed on us all. Maybe they will partner with an independent women’s movement and even see it as in their interest to support that movement’s growth. Most Socialists have long conceded our individual rights to control our own bodies in reproductive processes. But we see no plan for our sexual autonomy or our personal security. Nor any sign that most men of any stripe plan to value personal intimacy or economic security. We see no political recognition that not only do we want maternity leave but we want men to tend their children and their parents and the sick. Certainly the LEAP Manifesto indicates willingness to discuss our collective rights to an individual share of the common wealth through Guaranteed Livable Income, to collective childcare, to recognize colonialism and our indigenous nations. But it is no alliance with feminism. Until the uprising does ally we are lost.
I’m an old woman, a decade older than Chris and I can say what has been true for me over the years. We see the young struggling to rise. I want to caution the baby-boom about dominating the young with political ideas that did not work: deceit, central committees, vanguardism, elitism, patronizing as identity politics the issues of race and sex, primary contradiction nonsense, and on the other hand referencing as credentials a laundry list of issues or of current ways to say issues without drawing them together in a transparent analysis and plan to attend to the oppression of women. Let us be careful that as we rattle the right wing gun toting tyrants we plan to depose, that we also caution the old leaders of the left to avoid running out in front of the parade and limiting the vision, aspirations, the daring and the concessions to Feminism of the more willing young.
As we sigh with the weight of it, as we huff and puff with the difficulty of coordinating our breath and as we discipline our needs to the frustrations of the climb of the barricades before us, I give you a poem by Sharon Thesen who had it posted on bus shelters as part of the Poetry in Transit campaign way back in 1999. I keep it above my desk
Unable to imagine a future,
Imagine a better future
Than now, us creatures
Weeping in the abattoir
Only make noise and do
Not transform a single fact
So stop crying. Get up. Go out. Leap
The mossy garden wall
The steel fence or whatever
The case may be and crash
Through painted arcadias
Fragments of bliss and roses
Decorating your fists