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Why History is Important to the Future of Feminism

A woman holds two old photographs

One of the most persistent questions that historians ask themselves and each other has to do with significance: why does a specific event, person, or idea matter?

Determining significance is important because, despite what you learn in elementary school or see depicted in the media, the study of history is not just about memorizing dates and facts. Instead, being a historian means pursuing ever-evolving “grey areas”, or the complexities that make life interesting and allow for different interpretations and perspectives.

Ask any undergraduate class why we should study history and predictably, someone repeats the adage: “If you don’t know history you are doomed to repeat it” – a quote that, in some form, has been attributed to George Santayana, Edmund Burke, and Winston Churchill. Historians are cautious of this deterministic line of thought for many reasons.

The concern is not so much that people are fated to repeat history, but rather, if someone is ignorant of the past, they may not recognize moments when society has changed, shifted, or failed to progress. The study of history reveals people and movements that shaped society into what it is today. History is not doomed to repeat itself, but ignoring it might make one think society’s progress was heading down a predictable path.

So why does this matter to historians,  and our understanding of feminism?

Kids are arguably growing up with more exposure to feminist thought and gender politics than any previous generation. The #MeToo Movement has pulled the carpet of privilege and immunity out from underneath the feet of predatorial men in power positions; genderless washrooms are becoming commonplace; and a growing number of celebrities have openly identified with or acknowledged more fluid concepts of gender and sexuality.

All of this enhances dialogues of inclusion and diversity, but without concretely rooting our understanding of and experience with feminism in the not-too-distant past, we may fail to see what exactly feminism has done for us and our peers. In fact, one of the most common anti-feminist contentions runs along the lines of: “I don’t need feminism because women are already equal.”

Now that women’s advancement and equality is (slowly) inching closer to becoming a reality, we need to remember, celebrate, and critically asses the legacies of those who have paved the way.

I grew up in what I light-heartedly call the “Spice Girls generation” (alternatively, the “Legally Blonde” generation). My idols yelled “girl power” and told me that girls could do anything that boys could do. As I got older, I quickly learned that I could not do or be whatever I wanted without also playing by the rules of the patriarchy or sacrificing small parts of myself.

Looking back on my childhood, I was an extremely confident and self-assured girl: I wrote in my journal that I was athletic, smart, and had lots of friends; I also was adamant that I did not wear dresses. Had I been born during my grandmother’s generation, however, a simple refusal to wear a dress might have been impossible, controversial, or revolutionary.

Many behaviours or beliefs considered to be routine in the life of a modern woman or girl in Canada have not actually been possible for long. And it should be noted that for racialized groups, immigrants, and LGBTQI2-S people these developments, or lack thereof, become even more pronounced. In this case, the past is not necessarily “a foreign country” as the historian David Lowenthal suggested in his 1985 monograph: the protagonists of feminist history walk among us. Exposing young people to their stories may solidify their transformation into activists of change and pioneers of progress for a better tomorrow.

As leaders and mentors to the next generation, we shouldn’t become solely fixated on women’s major breakthroughs alone – most commonly summed up as victories in suffrage, labour laws, and human rights – because women have also celebrated countless smaller but meaningful victories along the way.

Many of the liberties won by women in the past enrich contemporary women’s everyday lives, but are rarely acknowledged because they’ve become commonplace. Even fifty years ago it would have been radical, or at least unusual, for a woman to live or travel alone, have her own bank account, participate in contact or team sports, gain employment in male-dominated jobs, or wear whatever she likes. Even today, some of these rights remain under siege or have been used against women to perpetuate sexist stereotypes.

We need to ingrain in all kids, but especially girls, the massive historical movement that they could be a part of if they decide to stand up and further the cause for equal rights. There’s comfort in knowing that you can be part of something bigger than yourself. When a young woman demands an equal working wage, she speaks with the combined voices of generations of women who fought to narrow the wage gap. When she stands up to sexual harassment, she has the support of generations of women who worked to redefine “assault”, spoke up when it felt like nobody was listening, and persisted despite being asked “but what were you wearing?”. When she wants to boldly declare that she does not wear dresses, she has the support of generations of women who struggled to break the link between femininity and dress code, and who ignored the hateful words hurled in their direction for wearing immodest, or religious clothing. And we need to teach kids to stand up for – but not speak on the behalf of – others who are still fighting for rights that they may already possess.

People in Canada today continue to advocate for equality, and it is encouraging to see so many young women, men, and genderqueer persons contribute to meaningful causes like closing the wage gap, opposing rape culture, insisting on inclusive language and representation, and supporting equitable family policies. However, there are substantial problems with equality in Canada that will demand the attention of critical, innovative thinkers for years to come. One way to ensure that younger generations remain committed to positive activism is to highlight how far we’ve come in the last century, alone. It wasn’t an easy journey.

 

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