Since the second wave of the women’s equality movement in the 1960s, the term “feminism” has been subject to bouts of withering criticism. At various times, feminism has been deemed too militant or radical, has been declared “dead” or has met with critics seeking to replace it entirely with something more palatable; “equalism” has often been offered as an alternative. In recent decades, women have also felt the need to qualify their views on gender equality with the phrase, “I’m not a feminist, but…,” lest they be thrown into the same category as radicals from the past.
Social change is a funny thing though. Over time, certain beliefs deemed on the fringe can slowly but surely become the norm. Racial equality and multiculturalism, gender equality, rights for people of all sexual orientations, Indigenous reconciliation – all were marginal or unacceptable concepts at one time or another. While we still have work to do in all these respects, these movements have become, or are becoming, part of our mainstream culture.
And so, too, is feminism.
Between 1992 and 2001, while working as a pollster, I had the opportunity to test the appeal of feminism among members of the Canadian public. Over the course of three national opinion surveys, I found that only about one-third of women identified as feminists, and that number was stable throughout the decade. Just slightly more than one-quarter of the men I polled identified as feminists in 2001. It was the first time I had ever asked men this question, and at the time even these numbers seemed rather high.
Fast-forward to the present: In a national survey I conducted in partnership with the Environics Institute this past October, 57% of the women polled identified themselves as feminists, as did 40% of the men. Based on my polling more than two decades ago, the number of women identifying as feminists has increased in every age group, especially women aged 18 to 24, 70% of whom see themselves as feminist. A total of 60% of racialized women identified as feminists, as did a majority of women in every region of the country.
What is driving this change? Gender-equality values have been embedded in our laws and constitution for decades, and in my estimation have clearly permeated our culture as well. Note the many companies using the theme of female empowerment to sell consumer products (Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign springs to mind), and the advent of concepts such as “lean in.” Still, these developments rarely challenge the status quo.
The most likely driving force behind feminism today is the continuing strength of an organized and intersectional women’s movement that continues to bring uncomfortable and necessary issues to the forefront of our cultural conversations. The 2017 Women’s March was among the largest protests ever in world history, and engaged large numbers of Canadian women. The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and violence exploded later that year as well, mobilizing women across all age groups and socio-economic backgrounds.
Feminism is also increasingly being adopted by Western governments wanting to take a more activist approach to gender equality. Sweden adopted a feminist foreign policy in 2014, followed by France, Luxembourg and Mexico. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have also frequently referenced feminism in policy pronouncements. Setting aside whether any of these governments has truly moved the dial in reducing inequality, the increasing use of this terminology in policy and communications has surely added to the “mainstreaming” of feminism.
Of course, gender inequities continue and the need for the women’s movement has not ended. Many of the challenges we have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic have roots in long-standing family and work realities that are gendered and racialized. Issues looming large are women’s labour-force participation and the need for accessible and affordable child care. A male-female pay gap still exists, and women continue to make up only 30% of parliamentarians after the 2021 federal election.
Feminism has come a long way. What was once a word suggesting militancy and extremism has found its place within our mainstream values system. And with so many young women happy to identify themselves as feminists, there will be no turning back.
Senator Donna Dasko represents Ontario in the Senate.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2022 edition of the Globe and Mail.