Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1999

Working to End Hostility & Violence Against Women

Joyce Green
Annually, on or near December 6, people come together in communities and on campuses across Canada to commemorate the Montreal Massacre. We name the victims, light candles, sing and pray and listen to speakers. Then, we go our separate ways, isolated in a social and academic context that is characterised at least as much by hostility to women as by their inclusion. What is the significance of this event for us now?

Ten years ago at École Polytechnique in Montreal, 14 women lost their lives at the hands of a murderous misogynist, a man who hated women. This is not some radical feminist interpretation. Marc Lepine hated women being in the engineering faculty of a university. He said so. He identified these women as feminist, separated the men from the women and then shot the women. Misogyny doesn't get much clearer than that.

The Montreal massacre was shocking for two reasons: the number of women slain, and because it took place in a university, what we generally think of as a public and safe place. But apart from the numbers and the venue, the murder of women is a common occurrence in our society. In Canada, about 150 women are murdered each year, approximately two-thirds killed by intimate male partners. Many more of us are raped, assaulted, or live in chronic fear of being subjected to violence in our homes by those who love us, or randomly, in public places. We curtail our autonomy because of this fear. We self-censor: what we wear, where we go, what we say. It doesn't matter: good, careful, compliant women also are killed. If it can happen to hardworking engineering students in their classes, it can happen to any woman. These women did not have to be feminist to be victims. They did not have to be whores, or old, or poor, uppity or ugly. They had only to be seen by one extreme misogynist to be transgressing in a place reserved for male power.

Misogyny has many forms. It exists in the violence of our systemic exclusion from public life; in the denial of the value of our unpaid domestic and paid labour; in the cultural representations of women as objects for male delectation or derision. Always, there is the potential for explicit physical violence which constrains our freedom.

There is no safe place in our society for women and children. We are statistically most likely to be beaten or killed in our homes. We are subject to harassment on the streets and at work, and to assault if we do something as defiantly as going for a run in a park. It is as though we were being punished for being women; it is as though fear were an instrument being used to control us. Not all women need share these particular experiences or this analysis in order for the fear of these experiences to effectively constrain most women.

The significance of the December 6 commemoration lies in its testimony to what too many of us know: misogyny pervades even society's most elite and inclusive institutions, and misogyny kills. While we remember these particular murders, let's keep the context centred. The consequences of Lepine's actions reverberate in academia now. Many women faculty members and students carry a heightened awareness of vulnerability to misogyny. Who among those of us who employ a feminist (or other critical) pedagogy and analysis have not been recipients of hostility from students and colleagues who are ideologically opposed to our existence in the academy as meritorious intellectuals? It goes with the territory, a territory staked out by and for an intellectual and canonical elite characterised by sex, race, and class privilege. Sometimes those of us who are marked as transgressors feel we are on enemy territory, and all the institutional anti-harassment committees combined are ineffective in preserving some safe intellectual and physical space for us. The Montreal massacre stands for the proposition that we are all vulnerable to misogynist terrorism.

Changing the context that made the Montreal massacre possible means changing the societal context of women in Canada. It means transforming a cultural ethos of devaluing women relative to the male norm. It means pursuing, as an equality objective for women, the full measure of adult autonomy that men unreflectively enjoy as a matter of course. It means normalising women's participation in all of the power structures that society values, and valuing the domestic, reproductive and caregiving work that women also do. It means contesting misogynist canonical materials by the inclusion of those who have been systematically excluded. It means teaching about power relations and privilege in relation to The Canon. It means freedom from fear and oppression, and freedom to participate fully and authentically.

Speaking of freedom, the poet Judy Chicago wrote: "And then all that has divided us will merge / And then compassion will be wedded to power / And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind / And then both men and women will be gentle / And then both women and men will be strong / And then no person will be subject to another's will." Blessed be.

Dr. Joyce Green is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Regina.