Framing feminism

The case for intersectional approaches to gender justice

Framing feminism

Whereas justice precludes the concentration and abuse of power in the hands of a few, the pursuit of justice necessarily conflicts with ‘peace’ — otherwise known as the status quo. Often, radical visions of an alternative society are dismissed as violent, chaotic, and simply not attuned to compromise between the haves and the have-nots; and so, struggle is reduced to reconciling binaries rather than transcending them altogether.

The subject of feminism like many heavily debated topics is disappointingly reduced to two poles in popular discourse. On one hand, there are the exclusionary conservatives like Milo Yiannopolous, who un-ironically depict feminism as a ‘feminazi,’ ‘man-hating’ conspiracy against which we need to defend ourselves. On campus, such thought has gained traction in recent years, illustrated by men’s rights groups and recent ‘free speech’ rallies that refuse to respect the fluidity and self-determination of gender.

On the other end, there are the ‘inclusionary’ liberals. Justin Trudeau, the man who championed gender parity in cabinet last year, ostentatiously prides himself on being a feminist. Hillary Clinton ran a campaign on prospectively being the first woman President of the United States. This version of feminism, which attempts to implement equity while preserving traditional institutions of power, is simple enough for so-called ‘progressive’ elites and masses alike to support.

However, both these perspectives are limited, and ultimately anti-feminist. The errors of the first are clear. Gender is constructed and reinforced by society in a way that favours masculinity and burdens female and non-binary genders with unique lived experiences. From the gender wage gap, to the assault on abortion rights on campus and beyond, to the rape culture that thrives in the acquittal of prominent figures like Jian Ghomeshi, we are no doubt far from any sense of gender ‘equality.’ To depict feminism as ‘feminazism’ reveals an anxiety possessed by the ideologues who use this phrase: that of a future that deconstructs masculinity and the power associated with it.

The more complicated criticism is directed at the ‘liberal’ view. Figures like Margaret Thatcher, Clinton, and Trudeau will be memorialized for ‘including’ the female gender in positions of power. But this is mere tokenization, by which femininity is assimilated into literally man-made institutions that are adversarial not only towards women, but toward human dignity in general. Consequently, we should think critically before applauding them.

Thatcher crushed labour unions and workers’ rights in her days – compromising working-class families and the women at their centres. Clinton committed hawkish imperialism as Secretary of State that has harmed women of colour abroad. Trudeau has funded billions in an arms deal to Saudi Arabia one of the most misogynistic regimes on the planet. Even female leaderships in the Global South, from Indira Gandhi to Sheikh Hasina, have arguably disadvantaged the marginalized people in their respective electorates.

In all, whereas feminism fundamentally represents the pursuit of human dignity, institutions and leaderships that are corporatist, imperialist, and elitist in nature are only deceptive shells of what ought to be a broad, inclusionary, and intersectional movement.

In Canada, too, the dialogue about feminism needs urgent re-shaping. Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta recently premiered her film, Anatomy of Violence, at the Toronto International Film Festival. Although the subject matter was the 2012 gang rape of an Indian woman in New Delhi, Mehta refused to re-victimize the victim; it did not focus on the woman or her trauma. Rather, the film humanized the men by speculating their impoverished upbringings and abusive relationships. Mehta’s attempt to show patriarchy as a structural problem as a problem that needs to focus on the construction of masculinity and its impact on men is commendable, and she insists it speaks to Canadian society too.

The International Relations Society at U of T recently hosted Dr. Joan Simalchik – coordinator of the Women and Gender Studies Program at UTM – in a discussion on the intersections between gender and conflict, much of which focused on pertinent issues of sexual violence and repression in peripheral countries: Syria, Iran, Chile, Dominican Republic, Rwanda, and Bosnia. In line with Mehta’s film, such discussions are important. However, it is too easy – and deceptive – to re-direct focus on the ‘rest’ of the world; to self-declare the West as already ‘achieving’ feminism, and to depict the fates of women elsewhere as helplessly oppressed.

Nothing is further from the truth, for the ‘liberal’ Western public has its own issues. For example, Canadians’ apparently progressive reactions to Donald Trump’s comments on women during the election, included attempts to differentiate ourselves from the United States and were often framed using possessive and relational descriptions of women, where men remain dominant to power and dialogue. Instead of acknowledging threats to women’s dignity and humanity, we tend to frame issues with reference to how ‘our’ women would feel, and are told to think about ‘our’ daughters, wives, and sisters as potential victims.

It is precisely this patriarchal undertone that exists in Ontario’s newly elected Progressive Conservative MPP Sam Oosterhoff,the 19-year-old who has been vocal in his opposition to same-sex marriage and question abortion rights. Ontario, for all its ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘progressiveness,’ is not off the hook.
Ontario, for all its ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘progressiveness,’ is not off the hook.

Feminism must be re-framed revolutionarily. It cannot be a tool for institutions to appear to diversify themselves while committing patterns of injustice, and it certainly cannot be centred around men, who are the people in power of those institutions. To create more just societies, women must be granted the agency and self-determination needed to create just institutions from scratch.

Notably, the most formidable examples of this are women of colour who are furthest from the attention of power and popular discourse. This includes Indigenous women in Canada, who are at the frontlines of struggles against neocolonial development projects; Black women in the United States and Canada, who make up the core of the Black Lives Matter movement; and the Kurdish women of Rojava, fighting ISIS and simultaneously building multiethnic socialism.

Where feminism means human dignity for all through the deconstructing of masculine systems of power, the binary of ‘feminazism’ and ‘liberal tokenization’ that dominates popular discourse is a fallacy. Feminism must account for the dismantlement of all dehumanizing institutions of power including racism, imperialism, and capitalism all of which affect women the most.

In this context, men who envision a more just society, even with good intent, must also acknowledge the positions of power they have exclusively monopolized. They cannot be the ones to lead that struggle, for it must be marginalized groups who re-create a world in which their communities and selves are their own to define.

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies. He is a columnist for The Varsity.

The F-word

Forging feminism at the university and beyond

The F-word

This is the second installment of a two-week feature on the history of feminism at the University of Toronto.

Though feminism has succeeded in recognizing students’ rights, the movement continues to be mired in stigma. Among many other labels, it has faced accusations of irrelevancy, misandry, and exclusivity. For these reasons, and for others, for better or for worse, many students remain hesitant to claim the title of ‘feminist.’

Delving into the history of feminism can help us understand not only how we reached this point, but also give us a clearer sense of the movements future prospects. We spoke to students and staff to explore the multiplicity of feminism within our diverse student body, the potential it holds to improve our lives, and the internal obstacles it must overcome in the years ahead.

Defining feminism

Feminism, in basic terms, is best described as a movement for equality between men and women. This idea is easily traced throughout the movement’s historical development.

“Research shows there have been waves of feminist activism,” explains Sylvia Bashevkin, a professor of political science at U of T. “The issues emphasized in each successive wave may change, but there remains an underlying commitment to drawing out the dynamics of gender inequality and pressing for fairer opportunity across time.”

Specifically, the women’s movement in Canada is often divided into three “waves.” In the early 1900s, women rallied for various civil rights, such as suffrage and the right to hold political office. This activism relied heavily on notions at the time of women as natural caregivers, who could offer a distinct and beneficial nurturing perspective in public life.

After World War II and the consequent erosion of strictly gendered workforces, feminism saw its second wave emerge in the 1960s and 70s. With broadened notions of equality, activists scrutinized how oppression manifested subtly in socio-cultural planes — such as the media and school curricula — while continuing to challenge legal discrimination concerning areas such as pay equity, sexual assault, and abortion.   

Today, activists often speak of working with the “third wave” of feminism, which describes a more concerted focus on breaking down the gender binary and increasing consideration of how multiple identities of race, age, class, and sexuality affect women’s experiences.

While the “waves” framework holds a lot of currency in mainstream Canadian media, many have critiqued it for being rooted solely in Anglo-European history and thus failing to recognize the myriad other stages upon which women have fought against gender inequality.

“I think the ‘waves’ are good intros, but ultimately take away from some of the variations and nuances of feminist organizing,” says Ellie Ade Kur, a PhD student in human geography and a feminist organizer. “They find ways to boil decade-long struggles down to one or two issues, which can be helpful for people new to feminism and the history of feminist thought. But not really helpful in understanding how complicated these kinds of movements are.”

Investigating the dynamics of colonialism in Canada can help to highlight where the “waves” framework falls short. For instance, Indigenous women’s resistance to the 1867 Indian Act — which has long been associated with the imposition of patriarchal oppression upon relatively egalitarian Indigenous communities — cannot be easily slotted into any of the three waves indicated above.

The inherent duality presented by classic conceptions of feminism can also be problematic. Stating that women are ‘just as good’ as men shifts the focus away from creating an inclusive and representative space for women based on their individual identities. An emphasis on equality between men and women also excludes the experiences and perspectives of those who do not identify within the gender binary.

“There’s always just the general question of inclusion: where are queer, Black and Indigenous voices? Where are the voices/ideas of women facing multiple forms of marginalization?” asks Adekur.

What seems to be constant within feminist movements, however, is the fact that they embody a challenge to the status quo. “Ideally, feminism is a resistance and a criticism of hegemonic social structures,” explains Jades Swadron, a third-year student, who notes how her activism works towards dismantling not only the patriarchy but also systems of oppression based on class, race, and sexuality.

“Feminism isn’t just about women, it’s about transformation of world order,” states Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, a U of T alumna and a founder of the women and gender studies program. “Not just for women but for everybody.”

Resilient revolutionaries

The strategies employed by feminists in order to achieve their goals vary just as widely as conceptions of feminism itself. Feminists have a long track record of mobilizing for social change, and earlier methods to create this change were particularly daring.

In 1957, for instance, a group of female students disguised themselves as men in order to enter Hart House and watch John F. Kennedy participate in a debate. While a glimpse of one student’s nail polish ultimately led a security guard to realize they were women (and subsequently kick them out), the act helped to highlight Hart House’s archaic rules. 

“It was definitely a political statement,” says Judy Sarick, one of the participating students and former reporter for The Varsity. “This was before the feminist revolution when there was little institutional support for women. It was up to the individual to be as brave as she needed to be.”

Abortion was also a key issue for feminists on campus. During the 70s, distribution of information about abortion was prohibited; yet the Student Administrative Council (SAC) — predecessor to the UTSU — circulated thousands of McGill Birth Control Handbooks containing information about abortion anyways.

What’s more, the SAC rented buses to enable students to join the infamous Abortion Caravan, which drove to Ottawa to demand the legalization of unrestricted abortion services access. This constituted Canada’s first national feminist protest and gained widespread media attention when protesters chained themselves to their seats in the Parliamentary gallery.

In a similar vein, former editor-in-chief of The Varsity, Linda McQuaig, went undercover posing as a pregnant woman to “expose the coercive tactics used by a campus Catholic organization that was purporting to offer students abortion counselling.”   

“Although things started off calmly,” recounts McQuaig. “I was soon told that if I decided to have an abortion, I would have to live with terrible guilt all my life because I would always know that I had killed!”

Perhaps most notably, however, is the cheek within which Ramkhalawansingh and Armatage advocated for the establishment of an official women and gender studies program. They pored through the Arts & Science calendar, cutting and pasting existing courses that might have anything to do with women and gender studies into an unofficial brochure. After sticking a U of T crest on it, they distributed the brochure all over campus.   

“We got called into the dean’s office,” recalls Kay Armatage, a professor emeritus and pioneer of the women and gender studies program. “The dean was very, very forceful about it. He said ‘This is not the way we do things at the University of Toronto…if we are going to start a program in Arts and Science, we first form a committee to look into the matter.’” And so they did; in a year after that event, the women and gender studies minor had been established.   

“It was totally guerrilla tactics,” remembers Armatage. “It worked out very well, even though I was shaking in my boots… being reprimanded by this very tough person.” 

By the early 2000s, the heyday of radical student activism had seemingly passed, yet the question of whether feminism is still present on university campuses remains up in the air.  Ramkhalawansingh, for one, thinks it has simply changed forms.

“When you become institutionalized and become part of the structure, the way in which you mobilize is very different,” Ramskalawansingh explains. “…[Y]ou become part of the bureaucratic process…[T]here are offices to deal with these issues now.”   

Even the quickest survey of the university’s diversity & equity page confirms this, with offices for Sexual & Gender Diversity, Sexual Harassment, and Family Care figuring prominently. This is not to mention the advisory committee to the provost, which was struck last year, that was aimed at preventing and responding to sexual violence. 

This is not to say that grassroots activism has completely faded away. In response to the death threats made against U of T feminists and the equity and women and gender studies departments last fall, hundreds rallied to protest misogyny in its modern manifestations. Moreover, there has been growing student pressure on the administration to pay more attention to sexual violence on campus.

Intersecting narratives

Despite these changes, a significant problem within the movement continues to demand attention — namely, how to ensure that those women who are marginalized on planes other than gender have their voices heard. It is this distinction that some believe has contributed to the weakened feminist presence on campus. 

“If you try and see what progress is like for people of colour, queer and trans people, especially trans women, and in more particular fields,” Swadron explains, “…you will start to question if the changes since then have been all that pronounced.”

Adekur has also had many personal experiences with this lack of inclusivity. As the former Internal Liaison Officer for CUPE 3902, she recalls receiving targeted messages harassing her after speaking out about equity issues in the union, only to be told that “being so vocal and ‘combative’ about ‘contentious issues’ has its consequences.” Yet, when white female members received impersonal harassment regarding a union policy, the organization immediately went to work on an online harassment policy.

“It’s about whose voice is taken seriously, whose pain we choose to believe and how our sympathy is so unevenly spread,” she explains. “I used to ask white men in my union to literally repeat the words I said so that the same audience, hearing the same point, would take my thoughts and ideas seriously.”

In another instance of racialized sexism, a professor at a sociology conference approached Adekur and insinuated she “probably [knew] how to work a pole” since she studied sex work. He then offered to be her mentor — citing his expectation that black women needed support and guidance in academia. “…[T]hat story is a very real example of how young, black women and our bodies are sexualized and the kind of liberties people feel they can take,” Adekur says.

Unfortunately, the feminist movement often mirrors society at large by dismissing and even perpetuating these manifestations of discrimination. Swadron cites being made to “testify” about her experiences to cis women, who often do not see that she, as a trans woman, is just as much a part of the feminist movement as they are. Not only does this attitude simply add to the discrimination and hostility trans students often face on campus, it also negates the equity-orientated basis that feminism claims to rest upon.

Women of colour also face distinct marginalization in feminist discourse. Women’s right to vote in Canada, for instance, is often dated to the early 1900s. Yet, this erases the fact that Indigenous women’s unconditional right to vote was only recognized in 1960, only slightly more than 50 years ago. The overwhelming emphasis on women’s right to abortions also tends to obscure the other side of reproductive rights — that is, the right to bear children — which, historically, has been denied to Indigenous women via government-mandated sterilization initiatives.

This sidelining of racialized women manifests frequently in feminist organizing on campus as well. Nish Chankar, associate vice president, equity of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and co-president of Trinity’s Students for Gender Equity, notes that the speakers at the feminist rally last fall were “disproportionately white.” In particular, the “white saviour comments” about women in Afghanistan — made by keynote speaker and New Democratic Party candidate Jennifer Hollet — were, she felt, framed in such a way to distract from persistent gender equality at home. 

“It’s disheartening to go to events like this, as a racialized woman, that aren’t necessarily for us,” Chankar says. “It’s not about there not being enough racialized feminist speakers on campus, because there are — it’s that not enough action was taken to make the rally as inclusive as every feminist rally should be.”

Similarly, Bosibori Moragia, a second-year English literature and African studies student has “been in situations where mine and other black women’s complaints have been silenced because they’re seen as derailing tactics.” She explains that the distinct problems that black women try to bring up are often pushed to the bottom, or even off, the feminist agenda. “It feels like what we’re really being fed is the age old adage that our ‘negro’ issues will be attended to as soon as white women have their emancipation,” she explains.

As a result, some have made calls for a more intersectional approach to feminism.

“Womankind has a plethora of members who fall into different categories and identities. These criss-crossing identities ultimately determine how they move through the world as a woman,” Moragia explains. “Intersectionality is about meeting people where they’re at and casting away the idea that there are ‘one size fits all’ approaches to fighting the patriarchy.”

“Intersectional feminism is all about acknowledging what it means to occupy a number of marginalized identities  — what it means to be a queer, trans, racialized woman, or a woman living with a disability, for example,” says Adekur. “Intersectional feminism should really be the movement we default to when we think about feminist thought and action.”

The road ahead  

Moving forward, there is plenty of opportunity at U of T to bolster this feminist change. As an educational hub, the institution has the capability, and likely, the resources, to unpack and combat inequality through research.   

Ramkhalawansingh notes how, when she and Armatage first attempted to create a curriculum for the women and gender studies program, women were invisible from public records. This gender bias can have disturbing consequences for academia — for instance, the failure to acknowledge women’s participation on the farm in the 1911 census meant that female agricultural labour was written out of history.   

The creation of the women and gender studies program has helped to remedy some of these gaps in academia, while feminist scholarship within other programs have challenged mainstream narratives. “Early in my career, it was clear that the category of gender was not accorded academic importance,” recalls Bashevkin. “This pecking order has shifted over the years.” Recently, editors of a leading international reader on US foreign policy invited Bashevkin to contribute the first ever chapter on gender to their book, which will appear in 2017 — an invitation that, Bashevkin says, “constitutes one small but telling signal that older patterns may be changing.”   

The development of more wholesome analyses of society are doubly important, given that university research often influences public policy. “I think we [as a university] have an obligation to say ‘Let’s share our great knowledge, let’s make sure that opinion leaders and decision makers know,’” says Mayo Moran, provost of Trinity College and first female dean of the law faculty. “…I believe knowledge is the fundamental springboard of change and values.” 

Students themselves have a plethora of suggestions for what directions campus feminism can take going forward, ranging from developing a sexual violence policy to implementing quotes for women in leadership positions, or even the creation of a feminist UTSU slate. While the details may differ, the general consensus seems to indicate that feminism still has a significant role to play on campus, and the aversion towards the movement is no reason to stop organizing.

“There has not been a single meaningful social justice movement that was initially received by open arms,” explains Chankar. “Society isn’t as malleable as we think, and change needs to be gradually accepted… So we’re not stopping anytime soon.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version.

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A path not strewn with roses

Unpacking sexism on campus, from past to present

A path not strewn with roses

In 1881, Henrietta Charles wrote a letter to Sir Daniel Wilson, then president of University College. “I beg to claim the right to attend lecture in university college. This right has hitherto been denied to women. Permit me to ask if that is quite just?”

Though at first Wilson staunchly opposed the idea of co-ed learning, years of feminist lobbying eventually compelled him to recognize the right of women to obtain university education. In 1884, University College admitted its first female cohort: a mere nine students.

Today, the picture appears drastically different. Women make up 55 per cent of U of T’s student population, and earn over half of the awarded degrees at the undergraduate, masters’, and doctoral level. More broadly, Canada is ranked first in the world for gender parity in literacy rates, along with enrolment in primary and post-secondary education.

At face value, Canada seems to have achieved gender equality in education. Yet, as demonstrated by Wilson’s resistance to open the institution’s doors to women, progress toward gender equality has been and continues to be slow. At Hart House, for example, it took over 50 years for women to gain casual access to the building and facilities without the accompaniment of a man.

Women doing archery at U of T in 1946. Nathan Chan/THE VARSITY

Women doing archery at U of T in 1946. Nathan Chan/THE VARSITY


Remnants of this sexism continue to linger beneath the surface of our institutions in increasingly subtle, but nonetheless powerful, ways. Understanding this past will lend us insight into present activism, and help us to gain a clearer perspective on the issues that remain unresolved. Although thorough, representative discussion of every issue and of every woman’s experience is not possible, leafing through the pages of the feminist movement in the university’s past is a good place to start.

Gendered roles

Throughout the University of Toronto’s history, stereotypes about women were blatant in general discourse, as well as within campus associations. Arguments against co-education assumed that women must remain in their ‘natural’ place, the domestic sphere. “To cram our girls with learning,” one poem read, “you’ll make a woman half a man…This process is unsexing.”

These discriminatory stereotypes have been slow to fade. Upon perusal of The Varsity’s archives, for instance, we found an article from 1955 that asked male students, amongst other objectifying questions, whether they thought “college girls make good wives,” or whether they were “too smart.” One respondent thought that “the most important female virtue was proficiency over the kitchen stove,” while six other male students claimed that “the best feature in a woman was to do what she was told.”

Even at the height of second-wave feminism in the early 70s, there were students who continued to see women as subordinate. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, a pioneer of the women and gender studies program, notes how female student politicians in particular often faced taunts that were misogynistic and sexual in nature. “When one of the women who was running for president got up to speak, they’d yell ‘take it off, take it off!’” she recalls.

Similar challenges remain today. Female student leaders continue to face backlash for not fitting the stereotype of a soft-spoken, conciliatory woman. Citing her experiences with public speaking, Daryna Kutsyna, co-president of Equal Voice U of T, explains how, while her male peers are praised for their strong delivery, she has frequently been told to tone down her voice or not come across so “bitchy.”

“It definitely makes me feel like I have a smaller range of expressing myself than my male peers,” she says. “Like my workplace performance depends more on my agreeability than my merit.”

Khrystyna Zhuk, president of the Innis College Student Society, and an Arts and Science director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), has had similar experiences. “As a woman, you have to work much harder to be taken seriously and can only express your opinion in a certain way for it to be valued,” she explains. “Women who are outspoken, opinionated and [who] challenge the way that the system works often get shut down and labeled unreasonable, angry, and unprofessional.”

Karina*, another woman in student governance, spoke of a particularly blatant case of dismissal based on gender. When coordinating logistics with an event participant or university administrator, she often “cc”s other executive members — who happen to be male — to keep them in the loop. Some replies to her emails, however, were subsequently directed only to the male executives, removing her from the email chain completely.

“I can’t even communicate with a person because they would rather respond to male students who are peripherally involved than work with me,” Karina says, expressing frustration at the frequency of these incidents. “I think as a female on campus you have to be prepared for people to assume you’re less competent and to have less faith in your ability to contribute.”

There is growing academic study within cognitive psychology that identifies such implicit biases as manifestations of a broader and persistent trend of everyday sexism, making it difficult to dismiss these experiences as outlying extremes.

Mayo Moran, provost of Trinity College, and the university’s first female dean of law, points to research that has been done at the university to shed light on the validity of these claims.

“There’s been very good research done at the business school, at the law faculty,” Moran notes, further outlining that universities, as “repositories of knowledge” have typically been at the forefront of explaining and devising strategies for combatting subtle gendered discrimination.

The first step, however, is to recognize the fact that a problem still exists. “I don’t think it’s something we should have to deal with but it’s also not something that will change [overnight],” explains Karina. “I just wish people would acknowledge that it’s a reality.”

The higher, the fewer

Women’s equality at the faculty level has experienced similar progress, but it has not been without its obstacles. Early hiring practices in the late 1920s — backed by provincial governmental policy — were founded upon the stereotype that women made better wives than professors. In fact, in 1931, the University’s Board of Governors explicitly declared that it was “undesirable to employ married women in the university.” Even after World War II, several department heads were notorious for keeping their staff as a literal ‘old boys’ clubs.’

As such, the university once seriously lacked a visible presence of women in senior positions. Dr. Kay Armatage, professor emeritus and a founder of the women and gender studies program, notes that when she came to U of T in 1965 there was only one female English professor. Similarly, Moran recalls speaking to female law graduates from the 50s and 60s who grew up not knowing any female lawyers, judges, or professors.

*Dalla Lana School of Public Health not included because no 2004 data available; it became a faculty in 2013.

*Dalla Lana School of Public Health not included because no 2004 data available; it became a faculty in 2013.

The university has seen a steady increase of female faculty through the years; from 2004 to 2013, the percentage of full time tenure stream professors increased from 19 to 27, and associate professors increased from 37 to 41. Among other benefits — such as promoting more diverse syllabi and perspectives in academia — the presence of more female faculty can create a stronger network of role models for female students.

“I do think it is incredibly important for people to see people who are like them who can succeed,” explains Moran. “The thought of saying: ‘I can do this’ is so much harder if you don’t have anyone to look to and say ‘I could be like that!’”

In certain ‘male-dominated’ disciplines, the need for mentorship may be  even more pressing. “We know that some girls have a difficulty imagining themselves as engineers primarily because of the small number of women role models in engineering,” says Dr. Cristina Amon, the first female and current dean of applied science and engineering.

Notably, however, the engineering faculty has consistently made a concerted effort to increase gender diversity — this includes the promotion of various networking and informative programs, such as the Young Women in Engineering Symposium and the Girls in Leadership Engineering Experience.

Women make up on average, 55 per cent of U of T’s student population . When this number is disaggregated by faculty, however, significant gender disparities are present. We have picked five faculties to display the wide range of gender enrolment rates across campus. Jasjeet Matharu/THE VARSITY

Women make up on average, 55 per cent of U of T’s student population . When this number is disaggregated by faculty, however, significant gender disparities are present. We have picked five faculties to display the wide range of gender enrolment rates across campus. Jasjeet Matharu/THE VARSITY

As for employment practices, the U of T Human Resources & Equity Division has various formalized initiatives to promote diversity. “The push is very much on being proactive, to make sure that everyone is well educated on proper process,” says Katy Francis, director of strategic communications at HR & Equity. She highlights that the U of T recruitment network meets monthly, with representation from all of U of T’s divisional offices, so as to “promote best recruitment practices as well as share ideas, resources and learn from guest speakers.”

For instance, Francis identifies the language used in human resources as a “big topic” of concern — care is taken for job descriptions to reflect flexibility in work hours and respect for work-life balance, while documents should be mindful to use gender-neutral pronouns.

Noting that she was appointed dean around the same time as Amon and Dr. Catherine Whiteside, the first female dean of medicine, Moran explains that she sees her appointment as part of a tangible shift: “this signalled a commitment on the part of the university to look hard and to promote women, including into areas where women had never been as numerous [or] as powerful.”

There remain, however, murky questions concerning pay equity. “Research across North America shows that…Women faculty tend to be paid less than men with similar qualifications,” explains Dr. Sylvia Bashevkin, a professor of political science who specializes in women’s politics. “This affects not just the current income of female professors but also their pensions later on, not to mention their internal standing within departments and potentially their sense of self worth.”

But the picture at U of T remains unclear. In a 2010 study, the U of T faculty association found that female faculty were indeed being paid less than their male counterparts in all professorial streams. Due to aggregate numbers, however, they could only tentatively conclude that “in a number of areas there appears to be gender salary discrimination.”  When asked about what steps are being taken to identify and address any existing pay equity, Francis said the university “does engage in periodic analyses of salary data” and that “[d]ifferences in salary that are not explained through [factors like discipline, rank, history of merit awards, etc.] Will then be subject to further analysis.” Unfortunately, there was no indication that these analyses would be made public.

One of the most notable compensation disputes occurred more than twenty years ago, after the Ontario pay equity act was passed. “In 1989, I was $10,000 dollars down from my male equivalent,” says Armatage. “I got [compensation] retroactively [for] two years. But I had been teaching full time for more than 10 years, nearly 15 years. So, had they had to go back and pay me equally for all that time, it would’ve been a bundle!”

Subsequently, in 1991, the university adopted an Employment Equity Policy; three years later, they settled a class-action lawsuit in which retired female faculty — who were not included in the 1989 compensation review — alleged “the university had been unjustly enriched by paying them less than men performing the same work.” Unlike the University of British Columbia and Mcmaster University, U of T has not had any compensation initiative for female faculty in recent years.

“Pay women faculty members equal to men,” says Armatage when asked what the university should be doing to contribute to feminism.  “There is not equality if women are considered secondary workers.”

The logic of gendered violence

Perhaps the most concerning issue for women on campus is violence. Instances of extreme physical violence — such as the murder of fourteen women and serious injury of many others, at l’Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal in 1989 — seem to be considered anomalies we need not worry about today.

Yet, doing so ignores how anti-black and transphobic police brutality continue to touch the lives of many female students, while the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women has only recently received government attention. Rates of sexual assault at universities also remains a concern.

This is not to mention that gendered violence exists on a coercive continuum. From death threats to harassment to domestic abuse, it is used to scare women, particularly those who challenge the status quo, into silence and subordination.

Most notably, last year, the university was shaken when explicit, violent death threats made against U of T feminists, and the equity and women and gender studies departments, appeared online. Though many were surprised at the vitriolic nature of the posts, campus feminists regularly face such threats.

Last summer, Celia Wandio, a fourth-year student at Trinity College, wrote an article for The Varsity on why it is important to believe survivors of sexual assault. In response, one user published a comment explaining at length why Wandio was “worse than a murderer,” while another penned an anonymous blog post using Wandio’s full name, viciously attacking both her arguments and her person.

Nish Chankar, associate vice president equity of the UTSU has also received hate mail from men’s rights activists in response to an article she wrote for The Varsity, detailing her opinions on the problematic nature of these groups.

Moreover, Jades Swadron, a third-year student, explains that she, as a trans woman, is particularly visible for perpetrators of gendered violence. Alongside other factors on campus that make trans persons feel unsafe — such as washroom inaccessibility — Swadron has been subjected to verbal and sexual harassment, and has also received death threats from anti-feminists.

To outside observers, online bullying and attacks may seem mostly benign — annoying rather than seriously impactful — yet, they are often rooted in the maintenance of unequal power dynamics. Whether or not this is the intention behind those actions, their consequences are notable and concerning.

“One of the ways of discounting what people are trying to do is put labels on them and undermine the intent,” says Ramkhalawansingh, referencing early anti-feminist dissent to the establishment of a women and gender studies program. Such name-calling and threats were expressions of aversion to challenges of the status quo. “When you start wanting to change power relationships and changing the distribution of power… it does make people uncomfortable,” she explains.

Chankar expresses similar sentiments: “Why is there so much pushback? Because we’re winning. Because feminists are making a difference.”

So for all the resistance to gender equality, it is clear that feminists on campus are still determined to soldier forward. While considerable progress has been made in breaking down legal and cultural barriers, there is an understanding that students must remain vigilant and avoid complacency in the face of work left to do. While this road to gender equality is arduously long and not one “strewn with roses,” it is certainly one we must continue to tread.

*Name changed at student’s request