In early March 2016, a group of successful white women gathered on a stage at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel to discuss gender barriers in business. The premise of the panel, hosted by the Canadian Club of Toronto, a 120-year-old non-profit that describes itself as the country’s “preeminent public affairs podium,” was that companies led by women are good for the country. But women own just 15 percent of Canadian small and medium-sized businesses. In front of a large like-minded audience, these perfectly coiffed women outlined the struggles involved in accessing capital, while also turning their collective brilliance toward crafting solutions.
It should have been a clear high-powered feminist moment—and it almost was. But with roughly ten minutes left to go, the rah-rah, you-go-girl train careened off the tracks. It was then that moderator Arlene Dickinson, of Dragon’s Den fame, read the first audience question from a cue card. “Do you consider yourself feminist?” she asked. “And if not, why?” Dickinson paused, and turned quickly to the audience. Her whole expression said “eek,” and there was no mistaking that she understood that this question was awkward, even if she didn’t precisely know why.
Suzanne West, president and CEO of the Calgary-based oil and gas company Imaginea Energy, took the lead. “I do not consider myself a feminist,” she said, making church steeples of her hands. “I love being a woman and who I am, but I am a big believer in meritocracy. I am a big believer that all people are amazing and extraordinary.” Feminism, she suggested, promotes the supremacy of women, enforcing an us-versus-them gender dichotomy. West went on to add that society has gone too far in dividing people—including by gender. Labels, she said, are roadblocks to creative fixes, not to mention women’s success.
To West’s right sat Vicki Saunders, the founder of SheEO, a crowdfunding-based financing platform for women entrepreneurs. “What does a feminist mean to people here, really?” she mused. “I don’t know what it means.” What it comes down to, Saunders says, is that she’s “a strong woman who cares about helping everyone thrive and do the best they can do in this world.” The last panellist was Sharon Connolly, vice-president of financing and consulting at the Business Development Bank of Canada. “It’s not a label I think about very often, to be perfectly honest,” she said. Like the other women, she stressed diversity, not feminism. For a business to be successful, it needs lots of different people at the table. Connolly waved her hands upward, as if she were juggling invisible balls. “So whatever that classifies as.”
Since its inception, feminism has weathered criticism. The most recent barrage—chronicled by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Susan Faludi in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women—occurred in the late 1980s. Popular media, Faludi argues, erroneously blamed feminism for many of the perceived problems affecting women. Such pervasive episodes of backlash, she contends, often occur following periods in which women seem to have made significant gains. Anti-feminists declare that the fight for equality is over—so what are feminists fighting for?
A few years ago, Elle magazine’s United Kingdom edition launched a feature called “Rebranding Feminism,” for which it enlisted three top ad firms to remarket the entire movement. The idea, staff at the glossy mag said, was to justify feminism for modern times, as if it were something women had merely forgotten. In explaining the project, the magazine’s editor, Lorraine Candy, said Elle’s research showed that “young women are confused as to what feminism means and whether it is relevant to them.”
A 2014 poll from Ipsos Reid concluded that only 17 percent of Canadian women were “core” feminists, the type who’d be likely to engage in activism or talk rights at dinner parties. Indeed, across North America, 5 percent of women actually declare themselves anti-feminists. In 2013, the Washington Times speculated that “feminism may be dead,” and the year after, Time magazine cheekily suggested that the word be banned—a move for which the editors later apologized. The New York Times reported in 2015 that “most people are still allergic to the f-word.” It doesn’t help that modern feminists seem confused, grappling with the movement’s many emerging pluralities as they try to progress beyond its historical focus on middle- to upper-class white women. Thanks to all the infighting, PR bungling, and anti-feminist smear campaigns, feminism is alienating women who support its equal-rights values but reject the label. As feminism teeters on the verge of obsolescence, it’s women who are now leading the charge to push it into history’s dustbin.
Janet bloomfield is a gregarious stay-at-home mom who hates feminism. When she is not busy baking after-school snacks or cheering her young son and two daughters from the sidelines of baseball and soccer games, she is often online penning vitriolic, click-baity screeds against the movement. In recent years, on Judgy Bitch, her popular blog—it has, to date, received more than five million hits—she has stated that the underage victims in high-profile rape cases are “dumb fucking whores,” and that single mothers are “clearly really, really shitty at making life decisions.” She routinely uses phrases such as “little dumbass feminists.” Her latest campaign, #WhyWomenShouldNotVote, advocates stripping women of the vote. Salon writer Amanda Marcotte included Bloomfield in a list of seven women in the world “who have made a career out of opposing women’s struggle for social, political and economic equality.” Bloomfield loves it when her incendiary jabs go viral. “It’s fun,” she tells me, laughing.
Born to a Seventh-day Adventist family in Northern Ontario and raised in rural Alberta, Bloomfield grew up with three brothers. She lived on a hobby farm and was generally fearful of her evangelical parents, whom she describes as “crazy and violent.” Her anti-feminist ideas began to coalesce during her undergraduate years, when she studied film theory at Western University. In her classes, films were generally viewed through the lens of women’s studies. Bloomfield learned how all the contemporary feminist scholars saw the world. She hated it. In her view, feminist theory propounded the belief that everyone would be better off if women were in charge. She thought of her mother, whom she saw as more violent than her father, and shook her head.
After graduation, Bloomfield realized that her greatest ambition was to be a wife and a mother. She wanted to create the happy nuclear family she wished she had—to paint herself into a Norman Rockwell. “You can’t say that out loud,” she says. “I was immediately met with criticism: ‘You’re wasting your life; you’re taking such a huge risk; you should never rely on a man; you should never rely on anyone.’” But Bloomfield was determined. Hedging her bets, she decided to pursue a masters degree in business administration—she was also consciously choosing her marriage pool. While at the University of Victoria, she met a man who was looking for a wife. She was happy. And whenever anyone criticizes her choice to get married and stay at home, she blames feminism.
Shortly after her son was born, her father attempted to reconnect with her. (Bloomfield had distanced herself from her parents, who divorced when she was a preteen.) He arrived at her door with a story and two boxes. One contained income-tax returns that showed he had never missed a child-support payment. The other was full of letters and cards that he had sent to her and her brothers, mailed back to him unopened. Bloomfield forgave him. But she was furious, and took to Google to research family law. Online, she encountered men’s rights activists (or MRAs) and their strong belief that fathers are unfairly disadvantaged during divorce and custody proceedings. Inspired, she officially launched Judgy Bitch in April 2013. It quickly amassed enough buzz to attract the attention of the MRA movement’s most prominent members.
Today, as head of social media for A Voice for Men (AVfM), North America’s largest MRA website, Bloomfield is a master of branding and development. In addition to fighting for men’s rights, AVfM preaches anti-feminism, calling “gender ideologues” a “social malignancy” akin to the Klu Klux Klan. As a whole, the so-called manosphere is growing, steadily challenging the feminist conversation and building a war chest to undermine the movement’s biggest victories—particularly aspects of progressive rape-shield and child-support laws. In the past few years, its members have played a role in a number of controversial campaigns, such as the battle to weaken, or eliminate, university policies on sexual assault.
Bloomfield lives on a tree-studded street in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It’s the type of place where doors are rarely locked, adults and children exchange waves and wander in and out of houses they don’t live in, and laughter spills down sidewalks. When I arrive at Bloomfield’s four-bedroom house in late June, she’s bent over her front garden tending to a bed of zinnias, snapdragons, and daisies. She greets me with a smile and an apology for her grimy hands. Bloomfield is a trim woman in her early forties with an etched, tanned face and clearwater blue eyes. When I meet her, she is wearing a red “Make America Great Again” ball cap pulled down snugly over her long blond hair. She is, as her hat suggests, a huge fan of Donald Trump. (She also has a Trump phone case emblazoned with the American flag.) Inside, framed children’s artwork decorates the walls. Chocolate-chip cookies cool on a wooden dinner table that can seat fourteen, but is right now providing a hiding spot for the family bunny.
Janet Bloomfield is not her real name, although it’s how she’s known to both her fans and enemies. Initially, she kept her legal name secret to protect her family from her controversial persona—she receives regular death threats. Her identity has since been revealed (by a male MRA activist who was affronted when Bloomfield protested blow-up penises at an event, she says), though she has threatened to shoot readers with her crossbow if they come looking for her. The public outing led to criticism of her husband, Tim, who is an associate professor in the business administration department at Lakehead University, and was associate dean at the time. Although the negative attention eventually died down—as Tim says, he doesn’t control his wife, or even really read most of what she writes on Judgy Bitch—Janet Bloomfield still prefers to go by Janet Bloomfield. The pseudonym has become her brand.
In person, Bloomfield is a more thoughtful, less offensive version of her online self. She reiterates the ideas she posts online, but discusses them with more civility. One of her closest friends and neighbours is an Ojibwa woman who describes herself as a lefty and disagrees with most of Bloomfield’s political assessments (although, as her friend confesses to me over dinner, she also has reservations about where she fits into feminism). As I watch them debate climate change and unionization, Bloomfield suddenly exclaims, “See, if we were online, I would have called you a cunt, and you would have called me Hitler!” But as much as she laments the knee-jerk name-calling that dominates social media, she isn’t about to stop.
Parsing Bloomfield’s views is an exercise in contradiction. She tells me she can’t support the contention that it is a woman’s duty to be a mother and homemaker—she sees it as a choice (although she does believe that, if given the option, most women would happily stay home). She is unequivocally in favour of abortion rights for women in their first trimester, and calls Roe v. Wade “the absolute stunning achievement of feminism.” She is not religious and has rejected her evangelical upbringing. Yet she believes women shouldn’t have the right to vote, because they’re not eligible for the draft, they make bad economic decisions (particularly when it comes to military defence), and they’re too pro-immigration. Or, as she puts it on Judgy Bitch: “Women have had the vote in the West for almost 100 years, and all they have done is vote to destroy and destabilize the world men built for us, while protecting themselves from the blood consequences.” She’s since introduced a few exceptions to her rule: certain women—military personnel, mothers of sons, wives of men, and female politicians—could earn the right to vote.
Bloomfield’s decision to write outrageous headlines—“The world’s most retarded feminist: I have found her” or “Why are feminist women so fucking pathetic?”—is a tactical one. While in her bright kitchen, prepping pizza ingredients for dinner, Bloomfield proposes that women shouldn’t have nuclear-weapon codes, because their periods made them emotionally unpredictable. Her website’s headlines, Bloomfield says while slicing strips of cooked bacon, are intentionally written to grab attention. The more riled up feminists get, the more she pokes at them and laughs. While she admits her shouty tone may be too over-the-top for some readers, her hope is that Judgy Bitch will serve as a gateway into the diverse world of anti-feminism—and that, when compared to her, its other stars will seem more measured. A successful movement, she figures, needs both diplomats and troublemakers to flourish.
In Canada, the ranks of female anti-feminist leaders include YouTube celebrity Karen Straughan, who has more than 130,000 followers, and Alison Tieman, who heads a women-led MRA group called the Honey Badger Brigade. Another high-profile woman in the anti-feminist movement is twenty-one-year-old Lauren Southern, a BC-based provocateur and contributor to Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media. Diana Davison, who runs the YouTube channel Feminism LOL, has gained more than 43,000 followers, in part by purporting to have debunked the case against Jian Ghomeshi, which she believes is a media- and feminist-produced hoax.
On the establishment side, there’s Janice Fiamengo, an English professor at the University of Ottawa and an anti-feminist who believes that those who point to the existence of rape culture at universities are indulging in a form of dangerous make-believe. There’s also Anne Cools, a former Liberal Party member—now an independent—who was the first black politician appointed to the Senate. She believes that feminism is a collective “personality disorder” and opened AVfM’s inaugural international men’s rights conference with an energizing call to arms. “The cause that is before you and the things that you fight for are valid and just,” she said, adding that it was important for MRAs to remember they were at war.
Some of the women at the heart of the Canadian MRA movement were once feminists, including Theryn Meyer—a transgender woman who once served as the president of Simon Fraser University’s MRA campus group. “I used to be a feminist, and I was a fucking wreck,” she told Xtra in early 2016. “I was eating up everything that feminism fed to me: that the world was out to get me, that the world was structured to not accommodate me.” She admitted that while it’s true that she faces discrimination, she didn’t hold with feminism’s “constant harping” about it, or with what she saw as a conversation she had no power to change.
Bloomfield also echoes the common anti-feminist sentiment that the movement has gone too far. “I believe in equality of opportunity,” she tells me more than once, “but I do not believe in equality of outcome.” Like every anti-feminist I spoke to, Bloomfield argues that feminism, although perhaps once necessary, now builds its message on the idea that women are perpetual victims. Anti-feminists argue that feminism has created a moral panic around rape culture (which they don’t believe exists in Canada), thereby encouraging man-hating. Bloomfield contends that feminism limits women (in that it devalues motherhood); sets them up for a life of misery (in that it’s responsible for selling the myth that women “can have it all”); and does nothing to empower them (in that it stresses what women can’t do, when, in fact, equality of opportunity means they can do anything).
Many feminists and members of the liberal-minded media have dismissed such criticisms as the rumblings of online trolls. But this ignores the many women who are dissatisfied with feminism’s perceived messages—specifically, the idea that it seeks special privileges for women (take, for example, the Canadian Club panel, or the many comments from Hollywood starlets such as Shailene Woodley, who once asserted,“I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance”). To many women who are mothers, successful entrepreneurs, and followers of bootstrapping can-do-ness, anti-feminism is like a clarion call to action that promises that, for once, the only thing that matters is their own hard work, sexism be damned.
In the past several years, many women who challenge feminism have expanded their influence. When I started this research in 2014, Straughan and Tieman, based in Western and Central Canada respectively, were working part-time to make ends meet while they focused on their anti-feminism and MRA advocacy work. But, this year, Straughan was able to quit her part-time restaurant job thanks to increased revenue from her YouTube ads and public-speaking appearances; she jokes, though, that she’s no Anita Sarkeesian (a famous Canadian-American feminist) and that sometimes she’s lucky enough to get her expenses paid. She’s routinely recognized in Edmonton, where she lives—on the street, at restaurants, and, recently, at the grocery store, where a man took a selfie with her to show his girlfriend, who, he told her, “would get a kick out of it.” She says she was even spoofed in an episode of Bones that focused on men’s rights. “It’s very, very different now,” she says. “And it’s all positive.”
Tieman, who runs the podcast and YouTube show Honey Badger Radio, also recently quit her day job to focus full-time on the Badgers. Currently, the show raises an average of $10,000 each month from supporters—enough, says Tieman, to keep her going and also to fund the work of two full-time and two part-time staff. She hopes that she will soon be able to take on some more people. Both she and Straughan say they’re more sought-after and connected than ever. Then there’s Bloomfield, who’s been interviewed on How’s It Goin’, Eh? hosted by Gavin McInnes of Rebel Media; NBC’s Today Show; and, in July, the Dr. Phil talk-show offshoot The Doctors. Wherever they appear, their core message is the same: feminism is dangerously past its best-before date, and women now flourish better without it. Or, more to the point, as Bloomfield once tweeted: #FeminismIsCancer.
Back in Bloomfield’s happy home, this message plays out over a post-dinner game of Jenga. A family friend has discovered that I’m here to interview Bloomfield about anti-feminism and wonders what Bloomfield’s youngest daughter, Jane, a whip-smart and impish seven-year-old, makes of the word. (She has no idea what her mom does online, though Bloomfield makes no effort to shield her children from her views.) Saying that she’s never asked, Bloomfield turns to her daughter: “What do you think the word feminist means?”
Jane doesn’t miss a beat: “Girls who think they are better than boys.”
“Do you think that’s right? Are girls better than boys?”
“No, boys and girls are the same.”
“The same but different,” Bloomfield suggests.
“They’re both human, so that’s the same.”
“Do you think girls can be soldiers?”
“If they want to.”
“Do you think most girls want to?” asks Bloomfield.
Jane pauses. “Some do.”
“Do you think some boys want to stay at home and be dads?”
Again: “Some do.”
Jane repeats that it’s okay if they want to—that dads should care about their children. Bloomfield asks her daughter again what feminists think, and Jane repeats her earlier answer, adding that it’s not fair for girls to think they’re better than boys. “Where did you learn that feminists think that?” Bloomfield wonders. Jane answers with a crooked grin: “I learned from you, Mom.” Her mom answers, proud, with a grin of her own.
Feminism and anti-feminism have long existed as mirror movements. While not all anti-feminists consider themselves MRAs (and vice versa), the two groups have common origins. The backlash against the f-word can be traced back to the innocent-sounding League for Men’s Rights. Founded in the late 1800s in England, the league sought to secure “legal and moral protection to men against the encroachment of women.” Its founder, William Austin, told journalists that the fledgling feminist movement meant men were always losing and women were always winning. Austin referred to divorce courts and marriage law as examples of great injustices against men.
Thirty years later, in Vienna, Sigurd Höberth von Schwarzatal founded Der Bund für Männerrechte, which translates as The Federation for Men’s Rights. A divorced man with the eyebrows of a Hollywood starlet and a moustache reminiscent of two dead caterpillars, Höberth von Schwarzatal remains a men’s rights folk hero to this day. One of his infamous statements is “We love and honour the ladies, but we want to leave to our descendants once more real mothers and wives, and to prevent their being killed off by the alleged emancipation of the woman.” A news article at the time said that his group was made up of bachelors, divorced husbands, and unmarried fathers. He insisted that married men wanted to join his group, but couldn’t, because their wives held their coattails too close.
At the group’s first mass meeting in 1926, its members showed an unbridled distaste for the new feminist movement. “The feminist, hysterical and degenerate café scribblers have helped cunning woman to forge intolerable chains for men,” one rally member told a journalist at the time. “The man is roped before the family coach, and on the driving seat sits the ‘gracious lady,’ and if he doesn’t pull till he drops, she swings the whip of legal paragraphs over him.”
Many such groups crusaded against alimony payments, saying they shackled men to the responsibility of marriage while encouraging women to become “out-and-out adventuresses”—Höberth again. They demanded that alimony be repealed, or that at the very least, women also be forced to pay it (should the divorce be their fault). Silent-film star Charlie Chaplin, who was ordered to pay his second ex-wife, Lita Grey, hundreds of thousands in alimony, was reportedly sympathetic to the movement, earning himself the admiration of men’s rights activists at the time and today.
As Putnam’s Monthly Magazine—an early competitor of Harper’s that later merged with the Atlantic Monthly—put it in 1856, in one of the earliest mentions of men’s rights, “Putnam is for progress. Putnam is for woman’s rights; but it is also for man’s rights—for everybody’s rights.” That doesn’t sound so bad. But the magazine’s editors went on to state that since in marriage the man was like the “guardian and master” and the woman “a child and a servant,” he was duty-bound to take responsibility for her behaviour, even if her actions were atrocious and even if they were her idea. As an illustration of women’s powers of manipulation and penchant for wickedness, the magazine cited Lady Macbeth, implying that many women were persuading their husbands to commit murder in Victorian England.
The rhetoric found in the manosphere today is similar, though, of course, modernized. In March 2015, #LetsTalkMen billboards appeared in downtown Toronto with the words “Half of domestic violence victims are men. No domestic violence shelters are dedicated to us.” The signs depicted a hunched-over Fabio type, fingers plugged into his ears, shrinking from a screaming vampiric woman. A Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE) logo, which features both the male and female gender symbols, appeared in the corner. CAFE is a registered Canadian non-profit; most of its advocacy centres on men’s rights, because “investment and support for educational and social programs stands at a level that is far from equal to the seriousness of the problem.” One of its major areas of concern is what it calls widespread “hatred and contempt for men.”
This messaging style owes much to the first wave of the modern men’s rights movement, which started in the 1970s. Activists then primarily focused on the rights of divorced dads and the demasculinization of popular culture. During this time, MRAs fed into men’s resentment. In 1989, Montreal Massacre shooter Marc Lépine worked language commonly used in the MRA community into his manifesto. Fuelled by a burning bitterness toward high-achieving women, Lépine stormed the École Polytechnique and—after reportedly shouting “I hate feminists!”—murdered fourteen women before killing himself.
Many modern MRAs disavow Lépine and Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 killed six and injured fourteen near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara: two sorority girls were among the victims. (Before the shooting, Rodger had prepared his “manifesto,” in which he claimed he wanted to punish women.) Both men eagerly adopted anti-feminist MRA parlance, although both media and activists within the movement have focused instead on the men’s mental-health issues.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a US non-profit organization that monitors the activities of domestic hate groups, has, for its part, criticized Texas-based AVfM for vilifying women who have made allegedly false rape accusations. AVfM’s founder, Paul Elam, doesn’t particularly want his organization to be seen this way. Elam brought the movement online and worked hard to connect and unify it, while at the same time trying to help it shed its radical right-wing associations. He has remained inflammatory—in 2010, he named October “Bash a Violent Bitch Month” (in the Swiftian tradition of “A Modest Proposal,” Bloomfield argues)—but he is also savvy. Under Elam, the MRA movement began actively courting women. He must have known that with them on board, it would be harder for critics to call the organization misogynistic.
In recent years, women have helped the MRA and anti-feminist movements gain traction by expanding their focus to rape culture: dubbing it a feminist-invented myth, anti-feminists claim that sexual violence, like domestic violence, is a gender-neutral problem and that men regularly fall victim to false allegations of sexual assault. “There is a real danger that this highly visible MRA mobilization around sexual violence could foreshadow the erosion of feminist influence,” write University of Alberta scholars Lise Gotell and Emily Dutton in their paper “Sexual Violence in the ‘Manosphere.’” Such anti-feminist campaigns, add the authors, “exploit” young men’s anxieties around changing consent standards—by proclaiming that “yes means yes,” for example—and shifting sexual and gender norms toward simpler, more appealing answers.
The anti-feminist challenge has deepened feminism’s fracturing. The sisterhood’s fault lines are varied and numerous: race, class, age, sexual orientation. White women, especially, have been guilty of pancaking all women’s experiences together, flattening out differences and adopting a Musketeers-esque all-for-one mentality—which assumes the “one” is them. Patricia Arquette unwittingly revealed the privilege problem after receiving her 2015 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when she placed the feminist cause above issues of race, sexuality, and class. “It’s time for all the women in America,” she said, “and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of colour that we’ve fought for to fight for us now.”
She stuck to her statement, even as other feminists, particularly Roxane Gay, wondered at the implications: Did Arquette think racism was a thing of the past, or that all those groups were mutually exclusive? This myopic view isn’t limited to the rich and famous. Women of colour repeatedly report being relegated to the sidelines of the movement. A handful have even become vocal anti-feminists. Feminism has also been notoriously unkind to transgender women. One of feminism’s grandmothers, Germaine Greer, has repeatedly and publicly said they are “not women,” but men.
She’s not alone. In response to increasing advocacy around transgender rights, a whole branch of anti-trans feminism—or trans-exclusionary radical feminism—has sprung up. The TERFs, as they’ve dubbed themselves, have derided any attempts to include transgender women in the movement, barring them from their own events and bullying them at others. And so perhaps it’s no surprise that transgender women such as Simon Fraser’s Meyer feel there’s no room for them in feminism. There are echoes of this “Do we really belong?” uncertainty from women with disabilities, women in the sex trade, those on the LGBT spectrum—anybody, really, who doesn’t neatly fit into established societal categories.
In 2014, Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick—a feminist herself—bemoaned Canada’s apparent lack of feminists. Envious of the UK for having a feminist superstar in Caitlin Moran, Mallick wrote: “Where are Canada’s prominent young feminists, if it has any active, prominent feminists at all?” The US had its pick of women-as-brands, she added: Lena Dunham, Roxane Gay, Jessica Valenti. Where were our feminist voices? Post-publication, Mallick was, rightly, criticized for her conflation of celebrity work and feminist work. Despite its lack of brand power, Canada’s feminist movement is robust and diverse. Those who want evidence have only to consider the PEI activists who campaigned for abortion rights in the province; teens Tessa Hill and Lia Valente, who successfully lobbied to get the issue of consent into the Ontario school curriculum; the many Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women activists, who recently won the years-long fight for a federal inquiry; anti-violence activists such as Julie Lalonde and Farrah Khan; the founders of Idle No More; and members of Black Lives Matter. The challenge for these diverse women, however, is that without a famous face to unite them, there is also no single, galvanizing message to rally around.
Two years after Mallick’s column, I saw evidence of the divides within the movement when I attended a Toronto event—part of the national Spur Festival, a celebration of politics, arts, and ideas—in April 2016. It boasted a one-word title, à la Madonna: “Feminism.” The program booklet provided scant context: “Spur celebrates the accomplishments and contradictions of the Feminist Movement and explores feminism in practice.”
As the minutes ticked closer to showtime, I watched as the downtown Toronto theatre filled to three-quarters capacity with men and women. Fifteen minutes after the scheduled start, the stage lights blinked on, tiny suns that revealed the speakers’ racial diversity: two white women (Constance Backhouse, a university professor and legal scholar, and Stacey May Fowles, a novelist and essayist); one Indigenous woman (Kim Anderson, a Métis writer and university prof); and two black women (moderator Vicky Mochama and Lena Peters, a young activist and founding member of Black Lives Matter Toronto). The next hour unfolded with a humming energy as the women discussed everything from racism to colonialism to the possibility of a feminist Magna Carta to Instagram.
Mochama directed the conversation, balancing contributions from women whose approaches to feminist practice often bore little resemblance to one another. The differences came to the forefront when Mochama asked the panellists to finish the following sentence: “We the feminists, to form a more equal society . . .” As Fowles jokingly groaned “Oh, God” at the enormity of the question, the audience laughed and clapped. Anderson, who responded first, stated simply, “Respect all life.” Backhouse said that any declaration must focus on changing the culture to dismantle discrimination. And Peters emphasized that we shouldn’t even try to achieve the unity any answer would suggest: “That’s the scariest version of feminism, right? The club . . . That’s why so many people shy away from the label.” She added that she doesn’t want her grandchildren’s feminism to resemble hers—“It would be sucky and old,” she laughed. Fowles agreed, noting that she “would certainly not want to write” any such proclamation. The clearest message? Nobody knows right now.
Given their own chance at the mic, audience members kept circling back to feminism’s unwieldy messaging. One asked how to better include men, another how to better include mothers—a third wondered how to quell the social-media infighting. Midway through, a woman’s voice broke on the first word of her question. Impeccably cool in cat-eye glasses, the young woman told the audience she was biracial. Her mom’s hand popped up a self-conscious hello from the crowd.
She apologized for crying as her voice warbled. She was heartbroken, she told the panellists and everyone else in the room. “The saddest thing for me,” she said, “is the divisiveness between women.” Wasn’t there a way we could all work together? In response, Peters chided her. She doubted, she said, that white women ever sat around a table and wondered how to get other women involved—asked themselves how they could give up a little of their power and work together instead. For Peters, and many others, the suggestion that feminists all play nice presents a certain danger, a forced Stepford-like homogeneity.
After the session wrapped up, I caught up with the young woman and her mother. It bothered her that nobody had wanted to talk about the divisiveness. There had to be a way to work apart, but together—to acknowledge the many differences among feminists, she said, but also their common goals. She worried what would become of feminism if they couldn’t. It was like women were fighting over bread, she told me. One person had two slices. Maybe she had three. I could have had four. “But we all fucking don’t have enough bread.”
In October 2014, the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released “Progress on Women’s Rights: Missing in Action,” a report aimed at assessing Canada’s implementation of the United Nation’s 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which outlined barriers to gender equality and proposed methods for overcoming them. In most high-income countries, the CCPA report declared, women have high levels of health and education—more than ever before, they’re completing postsecondary degrees. Yet, two decades later, the authors argued, not enough has improved: women still don’t have enough bread.
The list of inadequacies is long: success in higher education is not shared equally among women in Canada, nor has it translated to economic equality or equal representation in leadership roles—women are under-represented in politics and business. More women now live in poverty, particularly Indigenous and “racialized” women and women with disabilities: the rate has increased to more than 13 percent, which is higher than that for men. More than a million women in Canada have experienced sexual assault or intimate partner violence in the past five years. Women are more likely than men to work part-time or unstable jobs, hold multiple jobs, and make minimum wage. Women’s median employment incomes are 34 percent lower than men’s, and, in 2008, when the pay gap was measured across occupational groupings, there was not one industry—not health or sales or manufacturing—in which women’s hourly wages were on par with men’s. Access to abortion has dwindled in some areas.
When mainstream feminists confront these problems, they often default to a “we’re all the same” narrative. Consider the historical milestones celebrated by feminism. We’re fond of saying Canadian women earned the right to vote in federal elections in 1918. But we make less of the fact that it was only white women who earned that right. Most women of colour weren’t allowed to vote until the late 1940s, and Indigenous women won the right only in 1960.
Then there’s Canada’s Famous Five, the celebrated women who won equality for their fellow white women but spewed racism and xenophobia. Three of them campaigned in Alberta for the sexual sterilization of people deemed mentally disabled: the practice became law in 1928, leading to the mutilation of thousands of women before it was struck down in 1972. Today, feminists often focus on the concerns of straight white women, primarily middle-class and able-bodied ones. Women of colour, gay women, transgender women, women with disabilities, and so on, are often overlooked. No wonder so many women feel left out.
But the second decade of the millennium has ushered in a new wave of intersectional feminists who are ready for change. This idea suggests a plurality of feminisms, and a movement that acknowledges that while women are all fighting for equality, they’re not all standing on even ground while they do it. Many feminists have described “intersectionality” as being like moving through the world tethered to a set of weights—add one if you’re a woman, another if you’re a woman of colour, another if you have a disability, another if you land on the LGBT spectrum, another if you live in poverty.
There are some who, often derisively, call this growing idea part of the fourth wave of feminism. Conservative Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente penned an exploration of fourth-wave feminism after learning about “something called intersectionality” in March. After snarkily, but accurately, defining the term as “the view that all individuals have multiple identities and that all oppressive institutions are interconnected,” she lamented that “these folks” who championed it had influence outside university halls—and then prayed for it all to go away. “When I grew up, kids were urged to be blind to differences. Now they’re urged to see nothing but,” she wrote. “Perhaps one day we’ll stop trying to identify ourselves by labels and just call ourselves human beings.” Even Antonia Zerbisias, former Toronto Star columnist and co-creator of the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported, has railed against fourth wavers. In the wake of Ghomeshi’s sexual-assault trial, she wrote, criticizing the criminal-justice system, “Memo to my sob-sister fourth-wave feminists: get over it.”
One saturday in June in Thunder Bay, I accompany Bloomfield to a self-defence class. She often trains in the alleyway between the buildings next to her dojo, she tells me, but rain has forced us inside and into a stairwell—presenting her with a situation that could soon have real-life implications. In a few weeks, she will be giving a talk at the International Men’s Rights Conference in London, England. While she will have two bodyguards at the conference, she has decided she should be prepared. On top of receiving death threats, she’s also been warned that, if given the chance, any number of people would like to throw acid on her face. She turns to her trainer: “What colour is acid?” Would she be able to tell whether someone was approaching her with a cup of it? He ponders the questions, then decides to run through a few scenarios. Bloomfield practises blocking and hitting, disabling her attacker with a swift head hit to the railing. She is too slow, sometimes, when it comes to deciding where to punch, which way to move. It’s something her trainer says they’ll work on.
Back at her house, scrolling through the screen captures she keeps of many of the insults she gets via Twitter—in one day, two particularly trollish tweets earned her more than 90,000 replies—it’s clear that Bloomfield gives as good as she gets. But the death threats, the possibly serious threats of violence, are something else: that’s not the game Bloomfield is accustomed to playing. While she’s not about to abandon her social-media philosophy, which is, essentially, “never back down” (a method that’s led to many account suspensions), the threats have spooked her.
They’re also a stark reminder that, at its most extreme, the battle to control our narratives and future paths has become so fraught that some of us feel compelled to learn how to physically protect ourselves and our interpretations of female empowerment. In their paper, Gotell and Dutton argue that an analysis of MRA claims can deliver important lessons about the contemporary status of feminism. That’s true. But engaging with anti-feminism also reveals, more generally, the many ways in which women are wrestling with how to position themselves in the world.
The violent forms taken by online debates show us that all sides—feminist, anti-feminist, and those waffling in between—have become convinced that a win for another group would spell disaster not just for women, but for all of society. We also have to deal with the uncomfortable question of who gains what when women are pitted against each other, especially women who all claim to want the same thing. These aren’t easy questions, and it’s unlikely that death threats and vile insults from either side will solve them.
To be a woman now means having to decipher contradictory messages: that she can have it all and also that she is in danger of having nothing. To be a woman now, especially a young one, is to be always worrying that you’re not doing it right—whatever “it” is—while at the same time hoping that something will come along and save you, show you how to get to that vague place. Whether we believe our salvation lies in feminism, anti-feminism, or somewhere in between is a decision each person has to make. Would that we were all as certain as Bloomfield.
While feminism tries to reconcile its pluralities, the anti-feminist message is getting louder. Its simpler brand offers an alluring sales pitch—a version of empowerment that requires less of women, yet purports to offer more control and celebrates the “be yourself” modern mantra. If there’s anything feminism can learn from the anti-feminist movement’s efforts to topple its biggest wins, it may be that it’s more necessary than ever for women to keep making more bread.
This appeared in the December 2016 issue.