Ottawa Writers Fest: Riding the feminist waves with Sally Armstrong

Sally Armstrong is at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 26.

The journalist, speaker and human rights activist Sally Armstrong has been reporting on the struggle for female equality for three decades and for most of that time progress has been “glacial.”

“But lately, my heavens, look at Greta Thunberg, look at Malala Yousafzai, look at #MeToo and #TimesUp. I believe that now we have lift off,” she said.

Armstrong is this year’s Massey Lecturer. She joins some distinguished company in this series that dates back to 1961 including John Kenneth Galbraith, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Marshall McLuhan, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Doris Lessing.

She was appointed in the early fall of 2018 and given an assignment.

“My topic was ‘How did women get oppressed in the first place?’ They told me to go back to the caves and find out.” And she was asked to find out how this oppression has been sustained over the centuries, where we are today and what we need to do to get to a better tomorrow.

After the research she had to write a book with five chapters. It was published last summer. Each chapter has been turned in a lecture and she’s been giving those this fall. The lectures are also broadcast on CBC Radio and National Public Radio in the U.S., in Australia and New Zealand and possibly on the BBC.

“It’s scary stuff, but I’m flattered to death. And I have never had to work this hard in my life.”

The result is a book called Power Shift which begins at the beginning of the patriarchy and ends as the world is hit by the Fourth Wave of feminism. Armstrong will talk about her book at the Ottawa Writers Festival this weekend.

You have to sift the wheat from the chaff when you are looking into the past because the anthropologists and archeologists who used to chronicle the stone age were men.

“That’s the way it was. Women were sidelined. Medical research only started to include women about a decade ago. The crash test dummy is a guy for heaven’s sake.” That fact raises all the technology that is not designed with women in mind such as over-large cellphones.

However many of today’s anthropologists and archeologists are women and they are bringing a new understanding to the work. That has opened up much for Armstrong.

“In reality,” she said, “if you go all the way back there was equality until the birth of the patriarchy about 10,000 years ago.

“I’d go so far as to say women probably invented agriculture (although her fact-checkers, she says, might blanch at such an assertion). Paleolithic women realized that the droppings from birds contained seeds and they put the droppings in a row and waited for it to grow. That sounds like agriculture to me.”

The patriarchy began with surplus food.

“That’s when people started planning for down the road. That’s when they realized they needed more labourers and men started acquiring pregnant women to accumulate labour. That’s the beginning of the partiarchy. At same time they were privatizing land.”

Over the centuries there were some women — nuns and priestesses, princesses and activists — advocating for equality. But the first really big worldwide movement happened in in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the Suffragettes. This was the First Wave. The movement did get the vote for women but nothing else changed much, if at all, she said.

Second Wave feminism happened in the 1960s “when we put our faith in The Pill and said ‘I want to be an astronaut’ and had consciousness raising sessions. We changed a lot. We even wrote our way into the Constitution, but we didn’t get equal pay; we didn’t stop the violence and we certainly didn’t get into the C-suite.

In 1992, Anita Hill took on Clarence Thomas. She testified, during U.S. confirmation hearings for Thomas, who was headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, that Thomas had sexually assaulted her.

“They excoriated her. That started the Third Wave because that was women started saying, ‘What the heck is this about sexual assault. Nobody ever believes us.'” But there was still more work to do.

The Fourth Wave began in 2012 with the rise of social media platforms as a place to work against assault and harassment, for equal pay for equal work,and for bodily autonomy. “That is when we got lift off,” Armstrong said she believes.

“Social media opened the door to all women; Indigenous women, racialized women, LGBTQ, poor women and disabled women. Now we are all marching to finish line. That created hashtag feminism.”

Armstrong believes this wave hasn’t receded.

“I think it is absolutely continuing to roll. I have evidence of that because of the reporting that I am doing all over the world.

“Here is what I am seeing: We used to depend on political will and public will to move the dial. What I am seeing now is personal will. This is new. This is mostly young women and also some men standing up and saying ‘What you are doing is not OK with me.’

It’s incredibly powerful, she said, pointing to the case of some 160 girls in Kenya, between ages of three and 17 who sued the government for failing to protect them from being raped and they won.

“Who would have believed such a thing would happen?” Nor does she believe people will return to complacency.

“Women are truly appalled that they are not being paid equally. Suddenly it’s a shocking statement. This was always there but now we are focused on it. Women doctors, for example, earn less than men. How can that be?

“Then there is the Netflix show called The Crown. (Claire Foy) who played Queen Elizabeth earned much less than the man who played Prince Philip.

“I think people are talking about it and I think it will be harder for corporations to continue to do this. Iceland has passed a law banning the practice. Norway has said women’s soccer team will be paid as much as the men. These are transformative changes and I believe they are sustainable.” To combat violence, women need to walk with men to get to the finish line.

“My book makes that very clear. I think men are more open than they used to be, but they aren’t open enough.

“I am related to men who aren’t open enough. If you are sitting in a bar and the guy beside you makes a remark on the breasts of the woman walking by and you say nothing I say you are as guilty as anyone else of the violence she has in her life.

“It’s time for this to stop. If a man knows his friend is hurting his wife and does nothing about it he’s just as guilty as the guy who gets arrested.

“We know financially it is ridiculous to have unequal pay. We know with women on boards companies make more money. We are different; we know different things. Bring the two to the table and you get a better result.”

Men need to say it’s time to change this behaviour, she said.

Armstrong has spent a lot of time in place such as the Middle East, Africa and Asia, She sees change happening.

In Afghanistan, where she first went in 1997 when the Taliban were in power, there is a women’s movement there that is banding together and making plans and change.

“We all look at Afghanistan as if it’s some sort of armed camp where women must be hiding in their homes. It is terribly insecure, but, having said that, Afghans today are better off than they have ever been. Life expectancy has gone from 47 years to 62 years. Maternal mortality has dropped 75 per cent. Polio has almost been eradicated and millions of children are in school, 40 per cent of them girls, she said.

Armstrong would prefer that equal pay happen naturally but she feels that legislation will happen if things don’t change soon.

As for women in politics, there should be more.

“They say 30 per cent is the number you need to change a culture. But don’t be too quick with the numbers.” She cited University of Toronto political science Prof. Sylvia Bashevkin who points to Judy LaMarsh, who, in Lester Pearson’s minority government was only the second female cabinet minister in Canadian history, was instrumental in creating the Canada Pension Plan, public health care and the royal commission on the status of women.

“I think politics has to change. We see them tearing each other to pieces. Women hate that Women hate gotcha stuff. A lot of women would like to see that change before jumping in the ring.”

But still, she believes, change is going to come.

In town: Sally Armstrong will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 26 at 1:30 p.m.. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.