‘Gender is having a moment’: How the wars over misogyny and feminism have finally reached a fever pitch

Nothing the Canadian Association For Equality does, even a picnic, is untouched by controversy and outrage in the modern .

The men’s rights organization, newly granted charitable status, has been on a roll, raising funds for a resource centre in Toronto, and protesting its perceived unfair reception at various university campuses.

This week, amid the runaway success of the feminist #yesallwomen campaign and fierce debate of the role played by misogyny in a California spree killing, CAFE once again played the role of anti-feminist pantomime villain, as the host and sponsors of their annual “Equality Day” picnic on the Toronto Islands cancelled at the last minute, claiming they were unaware of the political agenda, and thanking the many people who informed them.

The picnic is of paltry consequence, but the frantic attention paid to a small advocacy group reflects the heat thrown by these latest flare-ups of the gender wars, in which powerful ideologies are lined up against each other — one side conceding theoretical equality on their own historically privileged terms, the other seeking revolution, liberation, and the overthrow of privilege.

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As it grows and proliferates, gender conflict is starting to look like the dominant theme of the age, in a way that, after 9/11, Islam and the West characterized the 2000s.

“Gender is, I believe, having a moment,” said Joan Simalchik, professor of history and coordinator of the Women and Gender Studies program at the University of Toronto Mississauga, citing for example the stories of Malala Yousafzai, and the campaign to save the kidnapped Nigerian girls.

Anthony Harvey/Getty ImagesAnthony Harvey/Getty ImagesMalala Yousafzai

“It’s really tricky to know how social change happens, and paradigms shift. For instance, in South Africa, [activism against] apartheid was an issue from the 1940s, but it was very small.… All of a sudden, it was huge. How did that happen? I wish I knew.”

She contrasted the modern gender situation to LGBTQ rights, in which “all of a sudden, it’s not really a big issue anymore.”

For gender, on the other hand, change is in the air. Everything about it feels big. As with bullying — once seen as a regrettable fact of life, but now denounced as a social scourge — so does sexism now face the greatest and most powerful cultural opposition in memory.

The signs are abundant. From pitched discussion of “slut-shaming,” “rape culture,” and the campaign to ban “bossy,” to the outrage that former New York Times editor Jill Abramson was described with the loaded term “pushy,” with its sexist connotations, gender conflicts seem to be at the cutting edge of cultural change.

In opposition has risen a strange guerrilla force of men’s rights activists, drawing flak, often deliberately, from hyper-empowered feminist activists with itchy trigger fingers, as CAFE illustrates.

Both sides pose as progressives, but both often behave as reactionaries.

“In many ways, [men's rights activists] want to be proactive and progressive, in terms of viewing men in families, and domestic violence. And they don’t want to be excluded from the discussion, and they want to promote a good discussion about men’s involvement in fatherhood or various gender issues. But it is reactionary, unfortunately, in terms of what you see [on campuses] in terms of being excluded. There has been quite a push back, and the universities have rethought security issues,” said Robert A. Kenedy, who studies the men’s rights movement as an associate professor of sociology at York University.

In and the West, women are historically closer to equality than ever before, with most policy and legislation long since caught up to modern views of equality. But just as civil rights did not erase racism, neither do equitable hiring polices make an equal workplace, nor does strict prosecution of sexual assault make campuses safe.

To the feminist activist, then, there is more to be done, high ground to be taken at home, at the office, at school, in government, and on the streets. It seems the time has come to solidify gains, to assert what the laws limply declare, and take a great leap forward. Progress is satisfying, but revolution stirs the blood.

The fiery mood changes how people respond to the littlest things, as illustrated for example by the two-day outrage this week, complete with allusions to Willie Pickton, over an imagined link between six routine missing person reports in Toronto, now immortalized as #torontowomen. (All but one had been located by Friday.)

AP Photo/The News-Press, Peter VandenbeltAP Photo/The News-Press, Peter VandenbeltPolice tape marks off the scene of a drive-by shooting that left seven people dead, including the attacker, and others wounded on Friday, May 23, 2014, in , Calif.

In this climate, Elliot Rodger’s massacre at Isla Vista near the University of California, Santa Barbara, tragic as it was, presented as an opportunity to prove a point, that misogyny kills. This was a modern Ecole Polytechnique, women killed because they were women.

“All of a sudden, his letter is everywhere across the world and people can read it and it has a possibility of people responding together quickly,” Prof. Simalchik said. “One of the problems with the rapidity of social media is it doesn’t really give us time to reflect. Only time will tell what exactly was happening here. So there is a danger in people leaping to conclusions or easy solutions. Clearly there was more to it than just misogyny.”

Because that opportunity was seized, however, almost gleefully in some parts — a Globe and Mail column addressed to “moderate men” lamented their silence and said: “By virtue of existence, you’re in on it”— it was also a chance to call out opportunism, in which the role of mental illness was sidelined, as was the gender of his victims, four of whom were male.

Both sides succeeded in making their point.

Elliot Rodger might have killed more men than women, but the first three men were his room-mates, a prelude to the purposeful carnage. According to his own words, the women were more to the point. As such, the Isla Vista killings feel more like an historical event, rich with cultural significance, than a senseless tragedy.

Jonathan RingJonathan RingGermaine Greer.

“The fact is, misogyny is entrenched in our culture and has been historically, cross-culturally, for centuries. It goes way back,” said Prof. Simalchik. “So there does seem to be a cultural shift. Because often in the past people would deny that it was misogyny at the basis of it, and now they’re leaping to it. They’ve sort of made this radical shift to thinking that’s all it’s about.”

Gender, which crosses the borders between public and private lives, “has always been a part of social change,” Prof. Simalchik said, and that is likely to continue as its ascends the ladder of cultural preoccupations.

“Feminists’ arguments have never historically stood only on their own,” she said. “They’ve always been part of a social ferment for change where gender becomes glaring, right back to the first wave of women urging the vote. It was part of the anti-slavery movement. It all came about combined. And then in the Sixties, the second wave, with all kinds of liberations: black power, gay liberation, flower power, it was part of that. Now, you wonder if this is becoming the paradigm for equality now.”

Like rules, however, paradigms are made to be broken. As Germaine Greer, the leading feminist thinker, put it in a lecture this month at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, she is a “liberation feminist,” and liberation feminism has not even begun. “We have only just begun to understand what might be involved, and how hard we have to work not to ride roughshod over concerns and identifications that we barely understand,” she said. “We have a lot of growing up to do.”

She rejects “equality feminism,” which “would have men and women living together in a world unchanged.”

“You can say that it’s great, isn’t it, that women can have equal pay.…  All of that stuff is presented to us as if struggles for women’s rights are over. You’ve won it all. You’ve got what you wanted. Really? We never defined what we wanted. It was always presented as if the lives lived by men are the lives we wanted to lead,” Ms. Greer said. “You don’t want to be allowed to vote for somebody else’s agenda. You want a new agenda.”

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