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Royal Commission on the Status of Women @ 40: Women's diversity and community leadership

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Caroline Andrew, University of Ottawa
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Portfolio’s ‘Equality Then and Now’ series, marking 40 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Look for more on this topic in upcoming posts and at Congress 2010.

Forty years on, it is interesting to look back on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) that was led by Florence Bird.  In part there is some nostalgic feelings for that time when – to some extent – the solutions looked clear: give women access to well-paid jobs in the public sector and a lot of inequality would be eliminated.

I always saw the Royal Commission as Simone de Beauvoir being brought to bear on the Canadian reality. In part, this solution did not take enough account of the complexities of class and race – and the issues of violence – but it certainly did target an extremely important area and one where the political pressure of the Canadian women’s movement could and did have influence. Although not perfect, the public sector in Canada has certainly seen a huge feminization over the last forty years.

What has changed since the RCSW is a great deal more visibility to intersectionality. Women were certainly never a homogeneous block and we have become more conscious of the need to integrate the various dimensions of intersectionality into our thinking about women’s roles.

I have argued elsewhere that the women’s movement has been the best of the social movements in Canada in terms of their ability to seriously consider intersectionality (and I didn’t say good – I said better than others. But that’s another subject).

In terms of things that have changed for the worse: It is certainly the diminished political pressure that the Canadian women’s movement can bring to bear on the state. But at the same time – and here I will go out on a Pollyanna limb – I would argue that many of the essential messages of the women’s movement at the time of the Royal Commission are now much more widely shared than they were forty years ago.

I will use as my example an event I recently attended, a ceremony of the Ontario government recognizing the work of women and girls. The awards are called Leading Women, Building Communities and the ceremony was held in one of the innumerable community spaces in Ottawa. It was a very diverse crowd and the range of accomplishments was wonderful – from creating after school programs for pre-adolescent girls designed to give them a positive view of themselves and their bodies, to a program that finds furniture and delivers it to refugees arriving in Ottawa; from multifaith housing and multifaith public education in the schools, to the Famous Five championing active citizenship for women, and to women bringing neighbourhoods together to build collective plans for better development.

The word ‘humble’ was the one most often used by the women acknowledging their award. Yet it was not only about being humble, it was also – and palpably – about pride of accomplishment, of women realizing that they had been able to develop their capacity and their talents to do things, to build programs, raise money, inspire others to work with them, build organizations – in other words, exercise leadership.

And it was leadership across the intersections of diversity: a very wide range of class affiliations, languages, races and religions, elderly women and very young women and women with babies, across sexual orientation. There was leadership at a camp for children of GLBT families and there was leadership by a young woman who said she owed her leadership to her husband’s influence. The pride was about building community but it was also pride in being a woman and having made a difference – it was women’s leadership at a community and grass-roots level.

It is true that women have been building community for hundreds of years, but I would argue that there is a difference:  The women being acknowledged were pleased to be acknowledged as women and as community leaders – for them, equity matters.

Caroline Andrew, FRSC, is a professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa and the first chair of Echo, Ontario’s new women’s health agency.

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Equity Matters

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Interculturalism and pluralism