Feminism, Polytechnique, and Jian Ghomeshi

Francine Pelletier and Sue Montgomery on the evolution of women’s rights

“Women have made great strides since my generation took to the streets four decades ago. Laws were changed, discrimination was banned, women became a vital part of the job market and the economy, and of course the education system. And yet violence against women continues as if none of this had ever happened.”

The evolution of feminism, violence against women, rape, inequality, and hyper sexualization were just some of the topics Montreal-based journalist and feminist activist Francine Pelletier covered in her talk on Friday night. The talk, entitled “Breaking the silence 25 years after École Polytechnique: women, violence and media,” began with a speech by Pelletier, followed by a question period moderated by prominent Montreal-based journalist Sue Montgomery, one of the women who began the #BeenRapedNeverReported campaign.

Francine Pelletier on how to overcome your ‘inner Jello’ and the obstacles women still face. Photo by Nathalie Laflamme.

Pelletier began her talk by showing the crowd some golden moments in feminism from over the last six months: Patricia Arquette discussing wage inequality during her Oscars speech, Emma Watson speaking about the “He for She” campaign at the United Nations, and the viral video of a woman being harassed as she walks through the streets of New York City.

She then spoke of what these events and videos mean for feminism.

“You see this and you think one of two things. A) wow: feminism is back. or B) for the more pessimistic amongst us, why are women still fighting for equal rights? Why are women still being harassed on the street? I think that the situation today contains a little bit of both.”

Pelletier then spoke about a horrific event, one that marked its 25th anniversary this year: the Montreal Massacre. On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lépine walked into École Polytechnique armed with a rifle and a hunting knife, entered a classroom, separated the men from the women, and shot all of the nine women in the class. Six of them died. He then went on a murderous rampage around the school, killing a total of 14 women.

“[Lépine] always made sure, and this is the particularly chilling aspect of this tragedy, to kill only women, going so far as to tell men to get out of the way,” Pelletier said.

Pelletier spoke of the denial that came after the killing spree—the fact that no one, including the media, seemed to want to admit that Lépine was targeting women. An article from Quebec City’s Le Soleil went as far as to say that the attack had nothing to do with women. Pelletier expressed that no headlines labelled attack as sexist, even though she was sure that, had someone targeted black people instead of women, headlines everywhere would have read “racist attack.”

According to Pelletier, it took 25 years before everyone agreed that the Montreal Massacre had been an attack against women.

“[This is an] obvious sign, I think, that despite visible progress the last 25 years have not been that kind to women,” Pelletier said.

Today, it is unpopular to believe that there is still a lot that needs to be accomplished when it comes to women’s advancement. She stated that although a huge number of women are present and excelling in universities, these statistics do not transfer to the work force.

“I too have found that there is a gap between how far women have come, their place today in the world, how they present themselves, and how they feel about themselves. I call it the “inner Jello,” Pelletier said. “There is a hesitance, a self doubt, and I include myself in this, that is hanging on despite four decades of feminism. Why is this? Is it just that it takes a really long time for what you think, and what you say to be on the same wavelength, or is there something else holding women back?”

According to Pelletier, there have been two major obstacles to women’s emancipation in the last 25 years: violence against women, and hyper-sexualization.

“I think that violence against women is the Western world’s dirty little secret. By secret, I mean shoved to the margins, and not taken seriously. Why? Because it puts into question the great promise that all of us hold dear: that men and women are meant to find each other, love and better each other,” Pelletier said. “And it’s a great dream. It’s also a means of constant intimidation towards women, a way of keeping them down. But women will never be equal as long as the threat of sexual and domestic violence persists.”

The Jian Ghomeshi scandal was a topic that came up quite often in the talk. Pelletier explained that this scandal was in fact a good thing, as it brought a lot of attention to an issue that is still taboo: sexual violence. Pelletier said that the Ghomeshi scandal may prove a turning point in terms of violence against women, as it showed that the violence in question is often in a grey zone.

Pelletier then spoke of hyper-sexualization, which we see everyday in advertising. According to her, second-wave feminism, which was about women reclaiming their bodies, had a hand in this. In fact, it was the marketing world’s response to the women’s liberation movement.

So what is the good news?

“Patricia Arquette saying what she did on oscar night, and Emma Watson going to the United Nations, and a young woman making sure people know what it’s like to walk in [her] shoes. It’s acknowledging that we’re not there yet, that much more has to be done, and hell yes, we’re ready to go the extra mile,” she said.

Pelletier then moved from the podium to sit down with Sue Montgomery and answer a few questions. Montgomery asked Pelletier about pornography and sexual education in schools, to which Pelletier replied that pornography was very much a part of the sexual violence problem, as it is teaching both boys and girls that violence is just a part of sex.

Montgomery then asked why it is that feminism is no longer considered a bad word. Pelletier explained that the ‘90s were a bad time for social movements. It seemed that people only wanted to go to the gym (this drew quite a laugh from the audience). Women did not want to follow the generation before them. But now, she explained, there is a new generation of women, one that wants to change the world, a generation that is angry. According to her, women like Beyoncé and Watson are also affecting the change and making feminism popular again.

Another topic that came up was the media’s coverage of sexual assault. This lead Pelletier to ask Montgomery about #BeenRapedNeverReported. Following the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, Montgomery launched the Twitter campaign which, in the first 48 hours, had been used over 8 million times.

Pelletier stated that she had not seen such a denunciation in over 30 years.

“What would a list look like if we compiled all the names of the women who had been raped and never reported it? I thought that list would stretch around the world, which in fact it did,” Montgomery explained.

Montgomery also asked what women could do to help men understand feminism.

“Women have to demystify feminism, that it’s not this big, bad thing, that it’s not about hating men, it’s about understanding how the world works, and how women are still disadvantaged in so many ways,” Pelletier said. “I think that men who love women will get it. So, maybe love is the answer.”

“You have to say that you’re not going to sabotage yourself. You have to believe in yourself. It doesn’t overcome that easily, it takes time. It’s treating yourself well, and thinking you’re worth it,” Pelletier said.

“Just believe in yourself,” added Montgomery.

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