Feminism, Debate and Social Change: Recent Anthologies on Feminist Theory and Praxis

Article excerpt

WOMEN AND THE CANADIAN STATE/LES FEMMES ET L'ETAT CANADIEN. Ed. Caroline Andrew and Sanda Rodgers. Montreal & Kingston: McGillQueen's University Press, 1997.

FEMINISM AND FAMILIES: CRITICAL POLICIES AND CHANGING PRACTICES. Ed. Meg Luxton. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1997.

BAD ATTITUDE/S ON TRIAL: PORNOGRAPHY, FEMINISM, AND THE BUTLER DECISION. Brenda Cossman et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

GRADUATE WOMEN'S STUDIES: VISIONS AND REALITIES. Ed. Ann B. Shteir. North York: Inanna Publications and Education Inc., 1996.

Feminism, like all other critical theories based in political action, thrives on debate. Indeed, it is through debate that feminist theory and practice have evolved to incorporate the changing circumstances of women's lives. Despite the range of ideologies and political practices that have always characterized feminist praxis, mainstream depictions of feminism continue to depict it as a dogmatic politic that is resistant to criticism. Mainstream media tends to present a united feminist position that is directed by an elite group who purport to speak for all women. This conspiratorial image of the women's movement ignores the debates that occur in feminist organizations and coalitions. It does not acknowledge that feminist ideologies have changed dramatically since the emergence of the contemporary women's movement in the 1960s. Nor does it recognize that feminist institutions and organizations have, accordingly, adapted structurally in order to reflect better the diversity that exists within the women's movement.

Much of feminist writing has focussed on ways to make the women's movement more representative of the women for whom it speaks. Coupled with the concern about making the women's movement inclusive are questions about what sort of strategies will address the immediate needs of women without losing sight of the need for radical social change. The books under review for this article add to an extensive list of feminist anthologies that present the debates of the past three decades of feminist theory and action. They reflect on the gains made by women's political action, question areas the women's movement has failed to address, and propose strategies for change that consider the day-to-day realities of women's lives.

Students of the Canadian feminism are taught that the women's movement has been active on two distinct, albeit interrelated, fronts: the grass-roots women's liberation movement and institutionalized feminist organizations. Women who espoused radical feminist ideologies sought to bring about social change through autonomous women's organizing and the creation of alternative services for women through grass-roots organizing. Their work was complemented and abetted by women who chose to work within existing institutions and political structures, and whose efforts prompted the federal government to strike the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) in 1967.' The Final Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada is among the most significant documents of the Canadian women's movement because it ushered in a new era of feminist engagement with the state. The ramifications of the report do not lie in the past. The RCSW, the consequent founding of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and the creation of federal and provincial bureaus to act as liaisons between the government and women's organizations established a unique relationship between the women's movement and the Canadian State. Dubbed the insider/outsider model, this strategy for change is premised on the belief that a critical mass of feminists working within the institutions of the state will ensure that the agendas of women's organizations will be addressed by governments.

Twenty years after the report was tabled, a group of activists and academics met at the University of Ottawa to discuss how the intensification and institutionalization of the links between the feminist movement and the state had affected women's lives. …