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Feminism is no longer the taboo “F” word, but what does it really mean?

As a concept, feminism is debated a lot. Second-wave, third-wave…does it matter, haven’t we won already, and isn’t it time to stop? Lost in the debate is this: what is a feminist? We asked three accomplished women to help define our terms and remind us what we are — or aren’t — fighting for.


MARGOT FRANSSEN, 61, founded the Body Shop Canada in 1980 and generated $1.3 million to fight violence against women. She has received the United Nations Grand Award and was a guest speaker at the UN World Conference of Women in Beijing in 1995. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002 and is a founding board member of Women Moving Millions —a philanthropic effort to raise millions for women and girls around the world.

A feminist is… a justice seeker. I am a no-holds barred feminist, but it is an old-fashioned word, and I wish they wouldn’t have used the feminist term from the beginning all those decades ago. There’s different jargon for different generations. My daughters are 27 and 29 and neither of them would call themselves a feminist, and that’s okay — it’s a vision, not a title.

What I can’t stand is when successful women say, “I’m not a feminist but…’” It’s the “but” that makes me crazy. They’re dismissing the fight of an entire generation. It’s one thing not to use the moniker, it’s quite another to reject it; especially if you expect sexual sovereignty, equal pay for equal work, and equal opportunities for advancement.

A feminist is just a freedom fighter. It’s not so much about equality as it is about justice. Feminism doesn’t mean handouts – it just means you give everyone a fair step up; if you’re shorter, you get two steps. Feminism is about the universal good – giving those with a little less, just a little more.

Feminism lets men off the hook, too. Women today are given permission to do all the things that men do, but not the other way around. Women are given permission to become executives and stay-at-home moms and soldiers, more than men are given permission to do the softer work. Today, being a stay-at-home dad is more acceptable than it once was, and feminism gave that to men. It gave men that choice.

If you are a professional woman in any field today, you are there because someone fought hard for you to have that opportunity. If you are a woman who chose to raise your kids, or not have kids at all, you need to thank someone for making that a dignified choice. But the women’s movement isn’t over, it’s just getting started, and I’m okay if no one uses the word feminism anymore.

LINDA J. DAWSON, 53, is CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity. The CCD’s vision is a society without prejudice and discrimination.

A feminist is someone who…. sees value in a plurality of differences, including those based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and the frequently unseen diversity of ability/disability, and the equality of opportunity despite those differences.

The ability/disability issue has been especially important to me in my career. I was 22 and a graduate student when I contracted encephalitis during a routine dental procedure. I was fortunate to survive this often-fatal disease, but I had to leave school and move in with my parents during a lengthy recovery. I was in my mid-30s before I was able to begin my career. This is the first time I’ve spoken publicly about my disability.

Employers 20 years ago were reluctant to hire people who are differently-abled, regardless of their qualifications. I learned that I had to hide my disability to find employment and I did so for 20 years. When people see others who look like them, they often assume the playing field is level. That’s not necessarily true. I’m not in a wheelchair; if you saw me, you wouldn’t know I incurred significant brain damage, or that I face daily challenges in dealing with a variety of learning and cognitive problems.

As the executive director of a 14,000-member, male-driven, national service organization, I remember the occasion when a past president commented on my work, saying “You are incredible, you could be the wife of the prime minister one day!” I wanted to retort “Wow, all this from a woman, and a disabled one at that!” But I was afraid of losing my job.

So why speak up now? Partly because the potential ramifications no longer frighten me: I know the CCD Board of Directors will support me. But being a feminist is also a big part of it.

Our younger employees are much more aware than my generation was. They speak up, and they refuse to accept prejudice or discrimination. I am proud of them, and I am equally proud to work in an organization that promotes those values. But acceptance of diversity remains, as always, at risk. Attitudes change, and hard-won victories over intolerance can be reversed. The challenge now is to not just preserve our past successes, but to build on them.

ETANA CAIN, 25, has worked on Parliament Hill for a party leader, and for a Toronto- area MP. She is the Chair of Equal Voice, a national organization dedicated to equal representation in all levels of politics in Canada. Cain attended McGill University where she coordinated the Women in House Program, which encourages political involvement among female students.

A feminist… stands up for women’s equality and challenges the status quo – it’s a pretty simple concept – and yep, I would call myself a feminist.

The feminist movement, and feminists in general, need to be more supportive and inclusive, and that goes to the attitude held towards younger women. I often hear that younger women don’t care about feminism, or don’t believe that it’s truly needed, and I don’t understand where that comes from. It’s untrue that young women are ignorant about women’s equality, or that we think everything is great; nor is it true that we think that no more work needs to be done, or at least that is not my experience.

I grew up in Toronto and attended Ursula Franklin Academy. Dr. Ursula Franklin herself is a very accomplished woman, having won a lot of awards, including the Order of Canada, and for her, a large part of the school was to get girls involved in science and technology, and to encourage women to think big and make a difference. So I’ve always been in an environment with young people who are actively trying to make change.

For me, an important part of being a feminist is supporting other women. Mentorship – someone who is willing to share her experiences and answer questions – is key. My mentor, Brenda Halloran, the Mayor of Waterloo, has used her position as mayor to help inspire and guide other women and to me that qualifies as a form of feminism.

There is a lot for all generations of women to learn, and plenty of opportunities for mentorship, and to support one another. All it requires is taking someone under your wing, and sharing some of your experiences. That’s what a feminist does.