Anyone who regularly reads my blogs knows that I am an unabashed and avid feminist. I’ve composed numerous pieces about the plight of women and girls around the world, but in the last four months I’ve consciously taken a break from writing about this topic. The first reason is that it started to feel like I was flogging a dead horse – repeatedly making people aware of a problem only goes so far. Secondly, I found myself rather downhearted as this past winter set in, and I just couldn’t face reporting more bad news. The start of this week marked another International Women’s Day, however, and I feel it is time to look at what headway (if any) has been made in the last year with regards to the rights and treatment of females.
The pandemic has had a deleterious effect on the progress of the women’s movement as a whole, as well as in the everyday lives of millions of women. Let’s start with the larger picture – what many observers have coined the “she-cession.” The shutdowns and job losses resulting from Covid-19 have hit women particularly hard, especially those earning minimum wage. A paper recently published by the Labour Market Information Council reported that employment for women in low-earning occupations is 14 per cent below pre-crisis levels, while their counterparts in high-earning positions have already fully recovered. In other words, women in the worst paying jobs are both the most severely impacted by this recession and the furthest away from getting back to work.
Single mothers have been negatively effected as well, with many experts suggesting that the recent economic lockdowns have wiped out the workforce gains they made over the past two decades. Single-parent mothers with children under six are not only disproportionately unemployed, but they have also become chronically under-employed, with many working almost two-fifths fewer hours now than they had pre-pandemic.
The good news is that Canadian women who have been negatively impacted through this recession have a champion in the person of Chrystia Freeland, our Finance Minister and an accomplished woman I hope will one day become our first elected female Prime Minister. She has recently convened the Task Force on Women in the Economy to advise the federal government on ways to address financial imbalances between the sexes exacerbated by Covid-19. Freeland said, “Canada’s future prosperity and competitiveness depend on the ability of women to participate equally and fully in our workforce.” Justin Trudeau clearly agrees with this sentiment, saying in a media statement last Monday, “To build a fairer and more equal Canada, we must ensure a feminist, intersectional recovery from this crisis.” I’m not naïve enough to believe that all the progress lost through the lockdowns will be gained overnight, but I am heartened that the welfare of women is paramount in our government’s mind as we crawl out of this recession.
Many women’s lives have been impacted negatively on a personal level as well. The increase in domestic violence has become an international problem on such a massive scale that the United Nations is calling for immediate global action to halt the surge. I’m not sure how the rest of the world is responding, but I’m happy to report that Canada is stepping up. Maryam Monsef, our Minister for Women and Gender Equality, recently sponsored federal consultations regarding domestic abuse during the lockdowns. The reports found that there has been a 20 to 30 percent increase in domestic violence in certain regions throughout the country over the last year. Meanwhile, social distancing directives have forced shelters to restrict the number of victims they can take in. Monsef has said, “What the pandemic has done with the self-isolation measures, with the closures of some of the support systems, is create a powder keg.”
Many urban shelters have reported a huge uptick in calls for help, some increasing by as much as 400 percent. Rural support services are experiencing exactly the opposite phenomenon – women have simply stopped reaching out. Wanda McGinnis, head of the Wheatland Crisis Society in rural Alberta, fears that many women feel that they and their children can no longer be accommodated in shelters because of Covid-19 regulations. McGinnis’s centre received 333 crisis calls in January, but the number dropped to 203 in March when isolation measures ramped up. She says, “A pandemic doesn’t make [violence] stop, a pandemic just makes that silent.” McGinnis also notes that the calls they are getting indicate that victims are in increasingly dangerous situations, with reports of women being “strangled and threatened with weapons.”
Monsef is now working on a plan of action to address this problem. She wants to implement “immediate support to families and to victims,” and to set up “a helpline for men so that they have a place to call when they are feeling stress and anxiety.” Lise Martin, the executive director of Women’s Shelter Canada, has been heavily involved in the consultation process with the government. She and the leaders in her organization feel that “there will be a huge surge in the demand for services once the isolation measures start to be reduced. That is where I think we will require further resources down the road, and I think shelters are already starting to prepare for that.” Let’s hope for the sake of all those brutalized and displaced women and children that Monsef will receive and distribute enough money to allow for such massive, ongoing support to an extremely vulnerable population.
Women’s access to abortions has suffered because of the pandemic as well, especially in the United States where reproductive rights have been progressively dwindling over the past several years. A 2013 judgement by the American Supreme Court virtually ceded control of this issue to the individual states, effectively making Roe v. Wade moot. Many states have used draconian laws to close abortion clinics as a result of this ruling. Texas, for example, went from offering 72 sites down to 17 with a single bang of its legislative gavel. These same states have also limited access to the morning after pill which used to be offered at local pharmacies, but is now only available at abortion clinics. There are six states which each have only one abortion clinic, meaning women now have to travel great distances just to purchase the pill. I read the account of one woman who had to drive 16 hours each way, making her miss two days of work she could ill afford to lose. In the end this woman considered herself lucky because there are so many others who don’t have the time, money, or means of transportation to take such a journey.
This scarcity of facilities means that many women have to go out of state to terminate their pregnancies. Lockdowns and border closings during the pandemic have made such trips impossible. Several states which are seemingly determined to outlaw abortions altogether have also used pandemic restrictions to make them even harder to attain. They have deemed abortions as “unessential services”, even though they are so clearly time sensitive. This new designation means that abortions, like all elective surgeries, cannot be performed. One of the few remaining Planned Parenthood offices in Texas had to cancel 261 previously scheduled appointments while turning away 583 calls from patients trying to book the procedure in the first week of lockdown alone. Many of the reasons which lead women to terminate a pregnancy have increased during this time of crisis, especially job and money insecurity. This collision of increased need with decreased access has left countless women in a terrible situation, facing the inconvenience and physical hardships of an unscheduled pregnancy and labour, followed by the heart wrenching decision of what to do with an unwanted child.
One feminist initiative which has been conspicuously absent over the past year is the #MeToo movement. I was so heartened by all those women with pink hats who marched on Washington, and felt cautiously optimistic that the sheer number of demonstrations around the world might be harbingers of a growing trend towards equality between the sexes. Then George Floyd was killed and Black Lives Matter demonstrations grabbed the media spotlight, which seems able to illuminate only one injustice at a time. There is no question that the race protests are warranted and necessary, I just wish they had left some air in the room for further attention to the ongoing struggles of women. I was thinking about these issues when I came across a new documentary on HBO called Allen v. Farrow which explores, in four episodes, the very public dissolution of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s relationship amidst charges of child abuse. This whole sordid affair took place in the early 90s. I was peripherally aware of the case at the time, but I never really got the details because the bulk of my attention was taken up by my two young children. I decided to watch the program to see what had actually gone on.
Allen and Farrow never married or lived together, but they were in a committed relationship for over a decade, holding keys to each others’ New York apartments, spending much of their free time together, and collaborating closely on Allen’s movies. Eventually Farrow, a woman who clearly loves being a mother, adopted a child with Allen, a girl named Dylan, and had a biological son with him as well. Their son was initially called Satchel, but has since taken the name Ronan. Ronan Farrow is a reporter for The New Yorker, and his investigation into the Harvey Weinstein abuse allegations won the magazine the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2018. Allen is legally Ronan’s father, along with Moses (another of Farrow’s children) and Dylan, both of whom he adopted in 1991.
The real drama began in 1992 when Farrow discovered almost simultaneously that Allen and her 21 year old daughter Soon-Yi were having an affair, and her 7 year old daughter Dylan claimed that he had sexually interfered with her in the attic. The documentary definitely has a pro-Farrow feel to it, and while I’m sure that some mitigating details were omitted, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that something untoward happened between Allen and his little daughter. Dylan, now 37, insists that her father touched her inappropriately, and she seems genuinely damaged by the whole affair.
The thing that really caught my attention as a feminist relates to the defence tactic used by Allen’s lawyer. He drew heavily on a book called The Parental Alienation Syndrome, written by American psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gardner. Gardner coined the phrase ‘parental alienation’ as a way to describe children in acrimonious divorces who are coached by one parent to make false claims of abuse or mistreatment at the hands of the other parent, essentially as a form of revenge. There is no question that this scenario does occasionally play out in custody battles, but Gardner asserted that 90 percent of mothers who make such claims are liars who intentionally program their children to repeat false accusations. Gardner held fast to that number even in cases where there was no corroborating proof, or when there was a preponderance of evidence that some form of abuse had actually occurred. He theorized that mothers alleging abuse were expressing, in disguised form, their own sexual inclinations towards their children. It turns out that Gardner’s concepts have no scientific basis whatsoever – they are not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association or any other professional body, and all of Gardner’s books were self-published without benefit of the usual peer review process.
Gardner’s parental alienation theory was used by Allen’s lawyer in his trial despite resting on such unproven ground. He claimed that Farrow had coached Dylan as an act of retribution for Allen’s dalliance with Soon-Yi, and that his client was blameless. Domestic violence experts roundly denounce Gardner’s work, with one going so far as to say that it is “probably the most unscientific piece of garbage I’ve seen in the field in all my time,” and with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry writing that it is “a recipe for finding allegations of sexual abuse false, under the guise of clinical and scientific objectivity.” Yet despite all this, Gardner’s undeniably suspect theory cleared Allen’s name.
Gardner’s work is to this day regularly cited in the American justice system – a fact I largely attribute to its central assertion that women are often hysterical (Gardner himself wrote a book called Sex Abuse Hysteria), and are natural prevaricators to boot. Even though it is demonstrably true that the vast majority of rapists, pedophiles, and violent criminals are male, and even though it is widely acknowledged that physical and sexual abuse are common occurrences, the overwhelming perception still seems to be that men accused of such crimes are probably innocent. Women either brought the abuse on themselves, are over-reacting to it, or are flat out lying. I would argue that this underlying assumption pervades not only the justice system and countless other institutions, but also exists in the minds of many in our society as well, particularly men of my age and older. This fact was verified the other day in a conversation I had with a 63 year old male friend.
We were talking about the Allen/Farrow documentary, and he kept insisting that there was no point in dredging the whole thing up again. I suggested that Dylan might feel differently – that speaking her full truth might be quite healing, especially considering that Allen was exonerated. My friend then forcefully asserted that no, she wasn’t going to get anything out of it. He, like many men his age, is ridiculously sure of his opinions, a perspective which I imagine comes from years of unquestioned privilege and validation. He then went on to say that it could very well have been the case that a hysterical woman (Farrow) simply made a false claim. We’ll just never know. And there it is – without having seen any of the documentary or really knowing any particulars of the situation, he confidently reeled off the unfounded yet ever present presumption that the woman involved was off her head with emotion and thus couldn’t be trusted.
I am immensely cheered by seeing strong, smart women like Freeland and Monsef in positions of influence in this country, and feel confident that they are making decisions which will positively impact the lives of Canadian women. I have maintained for some time that progress for women will only be achieved when we are allowed at the decision making tables, and I’m gratified to see that this seems to be happening more and more. Further steps in our quest for equality will only be possible, however, when old white guys, particularly those with power, die off and take the most limiting, damaging, and sexist patriarchal ideas with them. The young men I meet seem refreshingly egalitarian in their outlook, and their advancement into positions of authority, alongside a growing number of women, will be to everyone’s benefit. I feel very optimistic about the world my daughter and future generations of females will live in.