So what’s it like to be an activist from afar? In short, it’s not easy. It does, however, bring into relief some of the reasons why I helped to create Antigone Magazine. Expressing oneself politically is a right and a privilege AND a responsibility. I remain convinced now more than ever as Canada enters what is sure to be a trying five years under a conservative government that we are responsible for expressing ourselves, and expressing ourselves truthfully. Thus, the need for community-building exercises to leverage the voices that are underrepresented, unspoken for, and silent is even more pressing. I helped start Antigone to teach young women to express themselves politically and to act on their beliefs, and to help other women doing so. It’s often said that the only way the house of commons will become something more than the cockfights it currently hosts is if women start running the show: I agree.
I happen to be one of 2 female trustees on a school board of 7. This translates into 28% female elected representation on our board which is significantly higher than the national rate of female representation in municipal, provincial, territorial and federally elected seats which sits at about 21%**… though maybe the participation rate will be higher after this most recent election.
At any rate, even though there’s 28% female representation in that room, sometimes being 2 out of 7 feels a bit outnumbered. Especially given that a lot of the Administrators that are in these meetings are also men.
Now I know that some women watch hockey. I definitely KNOW in my heart that when everyone in the room starts talking about hockey except for the only women present, that they aren’t purposefully trying to exclude us. People talk about things they know, things they have in common, they use these topics to build relationships. I do it too, if I know someone has a boat, I talk to them about it because thats what we have in common. BUT….
A feminist since the age of fourteen, MLA Laurie Blakeman has 40 years of activism under her belt. She is an unrepentant, some would say “militant” feminist and social advocate who has worked to make changes both inside and outside the political realm. She was first elected as a Liberal to her home riding of Edmonton Centre in 1997 and since that time she has served on House committees, as a Shadow Minister for Environment and Culture & Community Spirit, and as both the Official Opposition Deputy and House Leader. She has also performed the duties of Executive Director for the Alberta Advisory Council on Women’s Issues. It is no wonder that she received the 1999 YWCA Woman of Distinction Award, an early distinction for a long career of creating change for women and all citizens. You can learn more about her here. MLA Laurie Blakeman graciously agreed to chat with me. When we managed to connect and here’s what she had to say: Q: How and why did you get involved in politics?
A: Anyone who’s interested in changing the world they live in will eventually get involved in a number of different things. I got involved in several organizations, walked in a lot of marches, wrote a lot of letters, made a lot of speeches, but at a certain point, I felt that I wasn’t about to move my issues any further without getting involved in organized politics. So, I did the research, found a party, and joined a young campaign team that worked to elect a new female representative. At that point, I was asked to join the constituency board for that party and ran for that riding four years later. I now know that running and winning that first time is pretty special. A lot of great politicians fail many times before they win and it’s very important that they stuck with it.
Q: Why do you think women should get involved in politics?
A: People are still active in changing public policy, but I see an abandonment or mistrust of organized politics. This is a mistake. Maybe because they are impatient, wanting a bigger voice sooner, there’s an increase in women participating in special interest groups instead of politics. It also used to be the politics were one of the only places that women could change their world and now women are able to be leaders in other fields and industries. Now politics have to compete to get the bright women into the field and right now they aren’t doing well attracting them. However, while you can affect some changes in legislation outside organized politics, you’re working one ring out. More women need to be involved in politics and if the structures don’t work for you, change it. To me, not having women on committees was not acceptable. No women with economics degrees for committees? No. Go out and find them. I raise the issues, ask the questions and put in the work to make system changes. There’s a lot of people remaining one circle out from actually changing policy. Yes, it’s a male set up, adversarial, and combative. Women can be combative. I’ve been very successful in changing policy, and from the opposition the whole time. There’s less hooplah when it happens, but that doesn’t mean it’s not success.
Q: What issue do you see as particularly important for women?
A: We’re continuing to seek choice, access and opportunity. Ultimately, we’re trying to get women to participate fully in our province, and our country. That happens in a social, legal, and economic way. For example, we’re not going to have full participation if many women are working minimum wage jobs, but the province refuses to increase minimum wage. In fact, too much time is spent on the social issues as opposed to legal or economic. Equal legal and economic access and opportunity are crucial. If women can’t earn the same amount, you have less access to full citizenship. You have less access to buying power, higher education, positions of power, etc. Pay attention to women’s economic status. That’ sabout choie as well. That’s about being about to stay at home and be respectd ffor that and making that economic choice.
Q: Have you ever experienced any discrimination as a woman in politics? If so, describe your experiences and how you handled them.
A: I never know how to response; it’s kind a “Duh”. Of course I’ve experienced it. You have a public profile so that other people can throw stones at you and I am still a minority in my workplace. Others have the advantage of making more money and having fewer expectations about their time. In reality, every politician could do with a wife, but I don’t get that, so I’m still doing the work at home that my colleagues don’t do.
Specifically, I have had a member attempt to assault me in the House in front of other members, without consequence. There was also no help from the Speaker or Sergeant-at-arms, and that allowed for a long period of targeted verbal harassment that went on over a year. No one did anything to help until I went back into the community and explained what had happened. Women’s organizations rallied around me. Neither the structures that were in place within government nor the officials designated to deal with this helped me, but the women who were running events and organizations worked to create a place where I could work safely and even triumphantly. I would be surprised if something like the assault happened today, but then I was surprised that it happened then.
Q: What is your Dream for Women?
A: The full and equal participation of women in the life of… fill in the blank. The city, the province, the country. Everything aspect.
Women have to come a lot further in their economic and legal status. The Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] allows for that, but if we hadn’t had women working to make those changes in the Charter, we wouldn’t have section 15. That’s about a legal standing and you need that legal standing before you can enforce these equalities. We’re been able to do that, but we’re still behind. Political representation is part of that legal heading and we haven’t reached that critical mass yet. I started in a caucus that was 50% women and have been in one where I’ve been the only one, and I can tell you it’s a lot easier when there’s 50% women.
Q: What advice do you have for young women?
A: Just do it. Politics, it’s a busy life. There are more things to do than you have time for, but in reality there’s only a few people between you and what you want. If you want to do it, you can. If you’re waiting for someone to show you a way or help you out or organize until it’s perfect, you’ll wait a hell of a long time. No one has time to tell you how, and there’s never a perfect time. Just do it. If you’re trying to change the world, go out and start changing it. If you really want to do something, you say I’ll do it, you do the work, and you’ll get it. Look to yourself. Go back to your roots. You have to change the structures that led to problems. I did that.
Finally, anger is a great energizer, and I recommend it. Anger is a great energizer, and I recommend it. I think women are often too nice and we do get angry, and we some see anger as not a quality that women should have, but that anger can be energizing to action and if we embraced our inner anger more often we’d get more done. We also have to embrace the inner joy, of course. However, how do I keep going? Outrage is a great energizer. We need a lot of energy and we have a lot of things to be done. I thought there’d be a lot more done by now, but we have far to go still.
MLA Blakeman also happens to have a Youtube channel where citizens can watch politics in action. Check it out an example!
Here she’s a talking about gender reassignment surgery issues in Alberta and its funding in the province through healthcare. However, she has a number of videos on a broad spectrum of issues, from censorship to human rights. They’re definitely worth a look.
I think the hardest part of being an activist is the constant fear of failure that you experience. Especially when you are the one in charge, there can be a constant fear that the dreams and programs that you are proposing or organizing will not work out. There are so many things that could potentially go wrong. You might worry that you won’t get funding. That no one will care. That you won’t make a difference.
When you have the energy and ideas to do something that you believe is important and yet you can’t get the money or the interest or the political traction to ensure that the change or the event happens – this is very frustrating. Sometimes just the fear of not having the money, the interests or political traction is enough to cause you to rethink the whole project. What happens if you decide to organize an event and it fails. What is failure? It all depends on what your goals are and if your goals are quite ambitious… what you define as failure might be someone else’s wild success.
When the cause means so much to you, when your activist identity and self are so integrally wrapped up in the activist work that you are doing, then how frightening and disabling does fear of failure become? How do we push on in the face of fear and obstacles?
Right now, I am working on a number of projects for The Antigone Foundation. One example is the cross-Canada Dreams for Women Leadership Tour. The Cross-Canada Dreams for Women Leadership tour will involve the Antigone Foundation visiting at least 5 cities across Canada where we will run one day long Leadership Boot Camps with the help of local leaders, organizations, and volunteers. We will be providing leadership training to girls aged 10-30. The purpose is to get more young women involved in leadership, politics, activism, and feminism.
As I prepare to start coordinating the Dreams for Women Leadership Tour, I am afraid. I fear that no one will want to sponsor us. I fear that we will not be able to get women to participate. I fear that we will not be able to put the tour on.
I fear all these things. But I also know that this tour will change the worlds of many young women. I hope that it will inspire people. I hope that it will lead to action and achievement and change. This knowledge and these hopes are what keeps me pressing on through the fears and putting myself and my organization out there.
Have Antigone and I failed at a project in the past? According to our expectations (which are always to take over the world), yes. But each ‘failure’ has been incredibly useful and educational. Sometimes the few people who have come out to an event have been instrumental or we have changed the mind or educated one person. To me, that is success. But an event turning out as planned is also a great success and what I always work towards.
Working towards it can be hard but it is also a mental game which takes a lot of energy. The excitement and hope for the event must be stronger than the fear of what you will lose if you fail. It takes a lot of energy because you (as an activist) must try to manifest the dream and the vision that you have for the event. And by manifesting a big dream and vision you are making yourself vulnerable. You are putting out into the dirty, mean world, an ideal and a cherished hope and dream. The world is not easy on these hopes and dreams. It will mock them, thwart them, ignore them, laugh at them, have contempt for them and do everything it does to degrade and demean them, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident.
I find that sometimes when I experience disappointment, I shrink back into myself for fear that this taste of failure will spread across the whole project. I begin to question myself. Who am I to believe that I can do this? Who am I to be dreaming this big? I start imagining everything going terribly wrong and then I have a hard time continuing on. I think that is one of my biggest struggles; maintaining hope and direction in the face of criticism and disappointment. I think I am learning how to do that though. And that is making me a better activist. A more resilient one. A more focused and determined one.
I have experienced things recently that I would have once seen as a failure. But these failures have been quite productive and important to me. They have made me see what is really important to me and what I really desire to do and achieve. They have forced me to focus myself on the things that I truly care about rather than diffusing my energies over a number of different sources. I am feeling something akin to what J.K. Rowling spoke about during a commencement address she gave at at Harvard:
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and I began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I truly belonged. I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive and I still had a daughter who I adored and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life. You might never fail on the scale that I did but some failure is inevitable.
It is impossible to live your life without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you fail by default. Failure gave me an inner security that I have never achieved by passing examinations. Failure gave me an inner security that I could not have attained any other way. I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline than I had suspected. I also found out that I had friends whose value was more than rubies. The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to know yourself or the strength of your relationships. It is a true gift that has been painfully won and it has been worth more than any qualification I have ever achieved.
This is the final part of a series on the 54th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Click on a link to read further.
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 , Part 8 , Part 9
I will probably write more than just one post-mortem on the 54th Commission of the Status of Women for me. I’m writing while staying up too late in Calgary, waiting impatiently to be home with my kids, and have stayed up to that point that I’m scared that if I go to sleep that I will miss my plane.
I didn’t actually get to see Senator Clinton. I had referred to her in my tweets, facebook and blog as “Hillary” and some other tweeple sent out a message to people blogging and tweeting the CSW asking that we refer to the Senator by her proper title. The Feminist communication on this is that when people refer to male politicians they do so by either the proper title and last name, or simply last name.
I suppose referring to a public or professional official by their first name kind of implies a familiarity that isn’t seen as respectful as the title-last-name thing. I’m not that picky about much. I usually refer to people by name because I’m never totally sure of their proper titles (unless it’s an easy one like “president” or “minister”) and I’m usually too lazy to google.
All of that, however, is secondary to the fact that I didn’t actually get to see her address the United Nations on the last day of the CSW. I did wait for over two hours in a line where I was shouted at by UN security personnel. I started livetweeting that after one of the security guards yelled viciously at a woman who looked over seventy. She had approached the guard because she wasn’t sure which line she should have been in.
Happy International Women’s Day!
My name is Amanda Reaume and I am the Executive Director of The Antigone Foundation. We believe it’s time for Canada’s feminists and women’s organizations to work together to leverage the power of social networking to connect around common causes and concerns across the country, both online and in person.
That is why we are launching Antigone Connect , an online site working to engage women’s organizations and feminists across the country to work collaboratively for women’s rights and equality in Canada and around the world.
We are hoping to create a powerful online network that will be able to help lead the Canadian women’s movement forward in the coming years. As we approach Canada’s 150th Anniversary, we are all aware that there is a great deal more to be done in Canada to ensure women’s equality. More women in politics and managerial positions, accessible child care, changes to the Indian Act, equal pay, and equal pensions are just a few of the things that the Royal Commission on the Status of Women identified as necessary for equality nearly fifty years ago. They have still not been fully realized and this is going to take cooperation and coordination to accomplish.
Canadian Women’s History
This past fall, Antigone Magazine put together an issue about Canadian Women’s History and we spoke to Marilou McPhedran. She talked about how women organized around constitutional issues in the 1980s to ensure that women were included within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As McPhedran mentions, they did this without even a fax machine. With phone trees, letters to MPs and a lot of conviction, these women changed our country. We can too. Many of us now have access to e-mail, the internet, social networking, maybe even Blackberries and Smartphones. Some also have well paying jobs and contacts with women and men in power who support work for women’s equality. We owe it to our foremothers to leverage all the technologies and privileges that we have to connect and make sure that their legacies are not forgotten.
Inspired by the next issue of our magazine (to be released in March 2010) entitled The Future of Feminism, we will be offering individuals and organizations opportunities to write about their visions for Canadian feminism. In blog entries, on Antigone Connect forums, on Dreams for Women postcards, and by leading online chats, we invite people to contribute to imagining the future of feminism. Email us at antigonemagazine at hotmail.com if you are interested in helping out.
We launched this campaign this week and we are moved and excited by the response so far. It would be great to see you at Antigone Connect.
Thanks in advance for giving this a few minutes of your time, and for sharing this message with anyone you know who would like the women of Canada to unite together to transform our country.
This post is part of a series on the 54th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Click on a link to read further.
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 , Part 9 , Part 10
I am lagging lagging lagging behind, but luckily for me, I have been live tweeting, which means that not only can interested readers follow along in point form (search #csw54 at twitter.com) but I can go back and refresh my memory from the tweets!
March 4th (Thursday) seemed to hold a Rural women’s theme. I began the day at a session highlighting the work of the Salesian Sisters in rural South America. The Sister’s panel was made up of women who had accessed their services in Ecuador and Guatemala. The women talked about the circumstances that they had come to the Sisters from.
March 3rd was the day that the United Nations Celebrated International Women’s Day. The occasion is celebrated a few days before the actual event to allow Delegates to the UN the chance to get home in time to celebrate with their communities.
I started the Day at the NGO general briefing at the Salvation Army. A South East Asian delegate asked if we could lobby for a resolution specific to women in extreme poverty and women with disability with our respective government meetings and regional caucuses. The Women’s Labour Congress also asked us to join them in their lobby for a resolution on women’s economic empowerment, and women from Arabic women’s caucus would like to see a resolution on women in occupied territories, and the general women’s labour group finished and released a draft of their open letter to the Secretary General about the long lines and poor state of the UNCSW.
After the NGO debrief I moved back to the main building and made my way to the overflow room (Conference Room 2) to watch the UN celebration of International Womens Day.
It was very nice, the Secretary General made a wonderful and engaging address. He spoke about the way that he honors women because he is a husband and a father and a grandfather. He talked about how important he felt it was for men throughout the world to recognize that violence against women is a direct violation of their inalienable human rights.
The 54th UNCSW has focused on taking stock of the progress that has been made in the implementation of the platform, as well as using the opportunity to identify and prioritize the ways that we need to move forward. The main indicators that countries seem to be reporting on are access to education, political participation, economic security and violence against women. The latter three priorities are mirrored in the “Three Pillars” that the Status of Women Canada seem to talk about so often.
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