Excerpt from the Introduction to The Satellite Sex: The Media and Women’s Issues in English Canada, 1966-1971 by Barbara M. Freeman
Lately, a spate of revisionist articles and books, both popular and academic, have suggested that the baby boom generation of feminists and their younger acolytes have gone “too far’’ in their continuing demands for equality. The argument goes something like this: we have won all the major battles and it is time to “Junk the Feminist Slogans: The War’s Over.’’ Some of this assessment has come from a few younger journalists who have recently produced critiques of the women’s movement. Other writers are more seasoned opponents of feminism. While they are writing from different political perspectives, they are all essentially grappling with the argument that “old-style’’ feminism is just not working and may even be backfiring.
Just as telling as the critiques from the young, however, has been a creeping backlash against the advances women and minorities have made in the last three decades, which has taken the form of shunning and disdaining anything declared to be “politically correct,’’ an unfortunate term that has the effect of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Generally, these writers tend to blame “radical feminists’’ of the leftist variety for just about any social ill or perceived government meddling that they oppose.
Terence Corcoran, writing in the Globe and Mail, hotly declared that the federal Human Rights Tribunal’s pay equity decision of July 1998 which favoured the lowest-paid and mostly female civil servants — a decision based on the legal precept of equal pay for work of equal value — was a “radical feminist monster’’ steeped in Marxism that could cost the federal government five billion dollars in back pay. What Corcoran omitted in his tirade, which essentially stereotyped feminists, was the fact that it was Canadian women from all walks of life and political persuasions who demanded an end to unequal pay thirty years ago. They had many other grievances, too, including discriminatory labour and marriage laws, inadequate pensions, unfair taxation rules, limited educational and career opportunities, severe restrictions on reproductive freedom, and the absence of government-sponsored childcare. Most of them would never have considered themselves feminists, let alone Marxists. They were acting on the humanist, liberal democratic impulse of the post-World War II years, which, while influenced to some degree by socialist thinking, was essentially capitalist and individualistic in nature. Although many regulations and practices have changed in women’s favour since then — often with the help of progressive men — fair remuneration is still an issue for many women, especially when even the federal government prevaricates over enforcing its own laws.
Other injustices close to many women’s hearts also remain outstanding, such as the sexual double standard that still emphasizes a woman’s physical appearance over her abilities, unequal representation in politics and public life despite the gains women politicians have made, the lack of adequate childcare and governments’ unwillingness to provide it, and difficulty obtaining abortions in some cities even though the procedure is now legal. Too many minority women, including aboriginals, still struggle with poverty and the other indignities that are a direct result of racial and sexual discrimination. Lesbians, women who were barely mentioned in polite company 30 years ago, have gained a great deal in basic rights and freedoms since then, but many still feel that it’s not safe to come out to their employers and close associates.
Missing from much media commentary on women’s issues, aside from a strong dose of reality, is a sense of history that would put the current debates about gender into perspective as the most recent phase of an ongoing grassroots movement for change. This book is my way of trying to set the historical record straight, both as an account of women’s attempts to attain equality in Canadian society and as a study of how the English Canadian media covered those issues 30 years ago, using news-gathering techniques that are still common today. It explores how the Canadian news media, print and broadcast, covered women’s issues in the late 1960s, using the Royal Commission on the Status of Women as the vehicle that gave these issues concentrated exposure. Using this evidence as a case study, it also challenges the current thinking on the women’s movement of that era as well as the journalistic conventions of objectivity, fairness and balance. It questions whether these values really allow reporters to get to the heart of the matter when they cover women’s issues.