Canadian Women & the Struggle for Equality is a tedious look at the historical changes in the status of women in Canada through a “progressive” worldview. The author, Lorna Marsden, formerly a Canadian senator and the president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, is a feminist and sociologist at York University. Intended for undergraduate students in sociology, she aims to analyze how the so-called improvements in women’s equality were put into action since Confederation.
Marsden herself, however, fails to provide an adequate definition of what “equality” means. She excuses her failure because different women activists meant different things when they said “equality.” However, she admits she will use the “Abella standard” as a “general measuring stick.” The definition crafted by Judge Rosalie Abella to be used for labour regulation states equality is “a process of constant and flexible examination” that sometimes “means treating (people) as equals by accommodating their differences.” Nevertheless, it is hard to determine what Marsden means when she mentions equality in the rest of the book, whether it refers to equal opportunity or discrimination in favour of women. More often than not it seems the latter.
Marsden’s empowered woman is married to the state. She must have access to a wide variety of benefits, in particular, state-sponsored daycare. But everything must be done on the federal level. Marsden wants laws to be harmonized across the country because, she claims, different laws across provinces cause difficulties for women who are moving. She acknowledges that there is a benefit in a couple being able to “shop around” for their favourite regulations (regarding, for instance, divorce), but the idea that local circumstances are best addressed by local governments seems to be lost to her.
Marsden takes it as granted that controversial issues such as abortion, birth control, and same-sex “marriage” fall under the rubric of “equality” and does not even entertain that it could be otherwise. At several points, she vaguely mentions that women’s rights are not acknowledged everywhere in Canada, but fails to make the connection that, for instance, her beloved abortion could cause gendercide or be a result of compulsion. Her political bias is evident when she mentions REAL Women of Canada in a footnote, putting them in opposition to women’s rights because they “lobby for support for mothers to stay home to raise the children and for wives to be submissive to their husbands.”
This came not long after a passage advocating for women’s household work to be recognized and complaining of the “double burden” women take on by joining the labour force and performing household duties. Clearly, though, she does not intend recognition to mean that the choice of some women to stay at home to raise their children would be supported. Rather, recognition means restricting all women’s work to the professional sphere. She admits: “Campaigns to recognize the work of child-rearing have not achieved subsidized child care nor reduced the double burden of women.” It is implied that formal employment provides meaning in life, and not child rearing.
“Reliable” birth control, for Marsden, is a woman’s right on the same level as suffrage. Although she sings hymns of praise to contraception repeatedly, she does mention that the birth control movement was initially eugenic.
To Marsden, the 1969 liberalization of abortion was according to the “desires of the people” and public opinion agreed with the Supreme Court striking down the abortion law in 1988. Later, though, when writing about the Abortion Caravan, she states most women probably opposed abortion, and uses unreliable statistics from activists to claim 2,000 women died in Canada per year of illegal abortions. Marsden is inconsistent over whether abortion was the result of a popular movement, or whether it was the action of a minority that pushed it into common practice.
Moreover, Marsden depicts the husband and wife as an adversarial relationship and not one cooperating unit. Husbands are in her account to get divorced, abandon, and rob the woman of her rights. In modern times, she writes approvingly, a woman “may support a group or a politician promising her child care, tax benefits, or more rights, even if the men in her life disagree.” The man in a woman’s life is the state.
In using the general term “women,” Marsden implies that about half of the Canadian population is a homogenous unit with the same priorities and aspirations. She makes herself the chief spokesman for millions who would not agree with her advocacy of “reproductive rights” or big government for women. Putting moral differences aside, as Marsden herself admits, the book as no original research or ideas. While there is some interesting historical information about legitimate struggles for equality, the book’s contents and themes are repetitive and tedious. She treats day-to-day matters like women getting a job and joining a local group as if they were remarkable achievements. Marsden doesn’t think too highly of women, does she?
Pauline Kosalka writes for The Interim.