An explosive gender revolution is under way. So why isn’t it changing anything?

Fuelled by #MeToo and rage, women with strong voices are demanding cultural change like never before. Why has progress stalled?

In October, the Economist posted a video titled, “Is #MeToo destined to fail?” featuring Tarana Burke, the African-American activist who coined the now-famous phrase “Me Too” in 2006 in response to black girls’ stories about experiencing sexual violence. The title was odd given the interview’s content: Burke revealed feeling panic when #MeToo began trending globally in October 2017, in the wake of bombshell reports that producer Harvey Weinstein had assaulted, harassed and intimidated dozens of women. She was concerned #MeToo would be asked to solve gender inequities when her focus was specifically on sexual violence: “When people try to make #MeToo [into] an umbrella that covers everything that has to do with women in particular, it definitely makes it harder,” she said, while noting links between things like pay inequity and harassment and violence. She wanted to turn the movement’s focus away from the “naming and shaming” that was dominating headlines—and away from famous white women—and for the narrative to shift to the millions of women and men who have been abused and harassed, and to understand “why [the attackers] were allowed to behave in the way they behaved.”

The questioning title elicited a predictable barrage of racist and misogynistic comments that laid bare the polarized and hostile attitudes also seen in the refrain “Has #MeToo gone too far?” and the Atlantic’s “Is #MeToo too big?” story from July, which suggested that a movement stoked by shared recollection of abuse and trauma had committed a cardinal female sin: taking up too much space.

But #MeToo is only the tipping point of an even larger women-led uprising triggered by a historic U.S. presidential campaign that provided a grotesque 21st-century gender referendum. The man eventually declared president called certain women “pigs” and “dogs” amid boasts of sexual assault as he demanded his opponent—the first female presidential candidate for a major party—be locked up. Months later, #MeToo provided an awakening in revealing widespread power abuses by men who shaped culture, news and legislation.

READ MORE: Inside the first year of #MeToo

Trump’s racism, sexism, ableism and attacks on gender rights also offered a textbook lesson in what scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw famously called “intersectionality,” the converging lines of various forms of oppression. The threat Trump posed to hard-won women’s rights saw women and men mobilize in global Women’s Marches of a sort not seen since the ’60s. A record number of women entered U.S. politics in response; in Democratic House primaries this year, women defeated men two-thirds of the time.

“Feminism,” a polarizing word, was named Merriam-Webster’s word of 2017, beating out “dotard,” as women wore “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” T-shirts and embraced Janelle Monáe’s anthemic Pynk. An emerging “rage lit” genre encouraged women to channel anger for social change: Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger; Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger; Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower; Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. These accounts of how anger is riven with gendered and racial double standards are themselves enraging: in 2018, women who talk anger are unattractive, unlikable and unfeminine, while men like Trump and Bernie Sanders command power by marshalling fury.

That women need such advice in 2018 showcases the bewildering dissonance of this moment. On one hand, women’s voices are everywhere—in high-profile allegations, and outspoken commentary in traditional and social media on everything from dress codes in schools to “sexy handmaid” costumes for Halloween. On the other hand: stasis. Brett Kavanaugh is a U.S. Supreme Court justice; Patrick Brown, forced to step down as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario after sexual misconduct allegations, which he is fighting in court, was elected as mayor of Brampton, Ont.; Louis C.K. has done several sets at New York City’s Comedy Club; Liberal MP Kent Hehr, accused of harassing staff, was uncontested in his nomination in Calgary Centre. And who even remembers that #MeToo allegation against our own feminist PM?

An elderly woman takes part in the Women’s March in Toronto, on Jan 20, 2018. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images)

“Stall” is a term frequently evoked, seen in a recent study by and McKinsey that found women remain vastly underrepresented in business: one in five senior leaders is a woman; only one in 25 is a woman of colour. “Progress isn’t just slow—it’s stalled,” it concluded.’s founder, Sheryl Sandberg, is the Facebook executive who famously told women to “lean in” to their ambition, something women did to the point of toppling over. Gemma Hartley’s book Fed Up reveals a similar stall on the domestic front as she complains she’s doing most of the “emotional labour”—remembering dentist appointments and such—despite her “progressive” marriage. It’s an imbalance revealed annually in Statistics Canada numbers that show men are taking on more domestic labour, but at a glacial pace.

The sense of déjà vu was evident in a sign held by an older woman at the 2017 Washington Women’s March: “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.” Perfect Me, a buzzed-about new book by Heather Widdows, argues women face unprecedented pressure to appear thinner, younger and firmer—sounding very much like Naomi Wolf’s 1990 book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. Unsurprisingly, a remake of the 1980 blockbuster 9 to 5 is on its way—in the original, women take revenge on their sexually harassing employer, nearly 40 years before #MeToo.

Another historical echo exists in the fact that women-led uprisings have emerged every 60 years or so since the French Revolution. These are framed as “waves,” an ebb and flow marking progress, then retreat and backlash. Feminist historians argue the “wave” metaphor is flawed in that it ignores continuity between generations. “It suggests that each wave of feminism is a monolith with a single, unified agenda, when in fact the history of feminism is a history of different ideas in wild conflict,” Linda Nicholson writes in a 2010 essay, “Feminism in ‘waves’: Useful metaphor or not?” The first wave, in the late 19th century, was directed at female suffrage, the abolition of slavery, the right for women to own property and retain their earnings, and reproductive rights. The “women’s movement” of the ’60s and ’70s, in which record numbers of women entered the workforce, focused on “liberation”—legislation that unshackled them as legal appendages of their husbands and from gender stereotyping. There was a call for equal pay, access to birth control and abortion, domestic violence laws and educational equality.

RELATED: Jian Ghomeshi’s #MeToo moment: It’s all about him

In Canada, the 1970 report from the Royal Commission on the Status of Women set in motion measures to fortify women’s equality in the public sector, including a call for pay equity. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), representing hundreds of grassroots organizations, was founded the following year, as was a government agency, Status of Women Canada. In 1988, at the tail end of the wave, abortion was completely decriminalized.

But the workforce that late-20th-century women entered was automatically hostile, structured on the male breadwinner, female homemaker model. With no commensurate domestic revolution, working women juggled home and work. The upshot: the caged prison of the suburban home described by Betty Friedan in her landmark 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, was replaced by an even more unaccommodating structure with a glass ceiling, a “mommy track” and a motherhood penalty.

Any swimmer knows waves don’t move in one direction only: as a big one advances, little ones are on the rebound, pushing back. The past two decades saw these forces at work in a backlash against feminists (feminazis!) and the notion of “postfeminism.” Ariel Levy’s 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture laid out the landscape in which women embraced and owned the kind of sexual objectification decried by earnest ’60s feminists, as seen in Girls Gone Wild and pole-dancing lessons. Academic Susan Douglas coined the term “enlightened sexism” in her 2010 book of the same name, which argued that “girl power” had been co-opted. Enlightened sexism “insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism—indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved—so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women,” as showcased in matchmaking reality shows, and the rise of the Kardashians.

Julie Lalonde, a 33-year-old Ottawa-based activist and sexual violence educator, reports that postfeminism initially informed her world view: “We came of age under this myth that gender equity had been achieved, that the work was done and that rights won can’t be lost,” she says. “And that we needed to be nicer to men now because we were all the same, and that wanting to get paid to do this work was kind of silly, so fundraise for yourself if you think you have a cute little project but overall, the system had been fixed and we were good to go.”

Julie Lalonde in Ottawa. (Jessica Deeks)

We’re in what appears to be the crest of another wave now, with a target less tangible than the right to vote or access to birth control. Where the activism of the past focused on progress, we’re now seeing a need to address unfinished work and overlooked populations—and to prevent backslide. Again, echoes reverberate: in 1991, Anita Hill’s testimony that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her didn’t stop his Supreme Court appointment. Twenty-seven years later, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Kavanaugh didn’t impede his appointment (one difference: George H.W. Bush didn’t publicly ridicule Hill as Trump did Ford). The pay gap persists, with women who work full-time earning as little as 74 cents on the dollar on average compared to men, according to Statistics Canada. When you narrow it down to women of colour and Indigenous women, the gap is even wider.

Women and gender have been specific Trump targets, most recently in proposed legislation that will declare gender immutable and fixed at birth, a law that summons images of “gender traitors” and “gender crimes” from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “The first step of authoritarian governments is to target women’s rights, specifically reproductive rights,” says Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Ottawa-based advocacy organization Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. “We see that with the Trump government and many others, like Turkey.”

Activism has always been animated by personal stories, from Susan B. Anthony withstanding abuse in the 19th century, to Rosa Parks’s defiance in Montgomery, Ala., to Gloria Steinem’s undercover infiltration of the Playboy Club in 1963. Activist Judy Rebick, president of NAC between 1990 and 1993, says there’s a straight line between #MeToo and the consciousness raising of the ’70s, when women told personal stories that revealed systemic problems: “You’d go to groups and say, ‘My boyfriend treats me like shit,’ and you’d find out everybody’s boyfriend treated them like shit and it’s a social problem.” Rebick sees the current moment as “the biggest feminist activist wave we’ve seen since the ’70s,” though #MeToo exists on a much bigger scale with social media, which gives it immediate impact.

READ MORE: Why a federal #MeToo law won’t be enforced any time soon

One difference, Rebick says, is the absence of the more formal group organization of the ’60s. That has resulted in women fanning out across activist movements. Black Lives Matter and Idle No More were both founded by women, she notes, and women are at the forefront of the environmental movement. There’s also a greater infrastructure and appetite for personal narrative now, sometimes at the expense of focus on specific structures and policy that need to change.

#MeToo has yet to yield measurable change, says Susan Whitney, an associate professor at Carleton University who specializes in the history of women and gender. She points to a recent New York Times story that noted 201 high-profile men have lost their jobs due to #MeToo. “That hardly a revolution makes, especially given the high-profile nature of those jobs—and the fact that other men have often moved into the positions.” Feminism in the ’60s was part of a larger revolutionary movement, Whitney notes: students in the streets, Black Pride, gay rights. The current landscape is different: “A rise of illiberalism and far-right politicians across the developed and developing world, the collapse of the post-Second World War international order and the retreat of the U.S. as an admittedly flawed defender of human rights and international norms.” There’s also economic distress, seen in the stagnation of wages, with 41.7 million American workers earning less than $12 an hour, which disproportionately affects women, who are “still segregated in jobs that pay the least and who usually make less than men even if they are doing the same job,” says Whitney. She is disheartened by how the backlash after the Kavanaugh hearings spurred political reaction, “especially among white men, but also sometimes among white women—the majority of whom, let’s not forget, voted for Trump,” she says. “There couldn’t be a more unfriendly group to pretty much all women than the 2018 Republicans, who have generated more enthusiasm on their bleats about male victimhood than on any policy proposal.”

Next to Trump’s America, Canada benefits from the halo effect. Though signals of revolution are different between the two countries, Canada is no stranger to gender inequities and violence: a 2015 report by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found entrenched sexual abuse and harassment in the RCMP and military; the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women continues; niqab phobia puts Muslim women at risk; there have been many accounts of harassment on Parliament Hill; the Toronto van attack in April that killed 10 and injured 16 was directly linked to misogyny. This year, 108 women have been killed as the result of gender-based violence, many by partners or former partners. Imbalances abound: 73 per cent of MPs are men; we’ve never elected a female prime minister (Kim Campbell’s short-lived run did not survive a general election); Canada ranks 15th out of 29 OECD countries in the hourly gender wage gap.

READ MORE: Can the Royal Winnipeg Ballet get past its #MeToo moment?

Lalonde sees anger on an individual level, she says, but it tends to be directed at what’s happening in the U.S.: “People are saying our allies in the States need our help. Meanwhile, our own house is on fire.”

There’s much to address. #MeToo has resulted in a rise in calls to sexual assault centres without an increase in funding. Recent actions by Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government show how quickly legislation addressing gender inequity can be undone: it revoked the consent-based sex education curriculum, disbanded an expert volunteer panel on violence against women, took away paid leave for domestic violence and vetoed a minimum wage increase. “I don’t know what the Goldilocks number [is] of horrible things [that] have to happen before this explodes,” says Lalonde. “The Toronto van attack should have been our moment. The minute we realized it wasn’t motivated by Islamophobia, we let it go.” Where U.S. feminism has the most powerful adversary and political foil possible—the man sitting in the White House—Canadian feminism has the most powerful friend and diffusing influence: a self-proclaimed feminist PM heading a government that is, broadly speaking, friendly to women’s programs. (Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has also defined himself as “feminist.”) That difference in politics, as well as a key difference in how advocacy groups are funded, shapes the kind of activism that is happening—or not happening—here. Funding of groups in the U.S. comes from private funders or foundations, as we’ve seen in the formation of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, launched by women in the entertainment industry to help females working in low-wage industries whose lack of financial stability makes them vulnerable to gender-based violence and exploitation. “That means very little stability [for advocacy groups], but also frees them from the whims of the government,” says Lalonde. Almost all funding for women’s groups in Canada, on the other hand, comes from various levels of government. With a responsive government, that brings stability, Lalonde says. A more hostile government, however, stifles advocacy, as seen in the deep cuts to Status of Women Canada and women’s programs under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, whose position on “women’s issues” vacillated between avoidance and attack.

Dependence on government funds can discourage the critical pushback needed to make change, Lalonde says. Take the Gender Equality Network Canada, a three-year federal initiative announced in 2017 that will see 50 local groups receive more than $18 million. Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef noted in October that the funding “will help support a viable and sustainable women’s movement across Canada.” The network brings together 150 women activists regularly to tackle a range of issues: gender-based violence, women in trades and STEM, female entrepreneurship, Indigenous women’s leadership, child care, the gendered impact of poverty, and immigrant women.

RELATED: Bill Cosby’s guilt is recognized in first #MeToo court case

At the last meeting in October, Lalonde says, people were angry and fired up in the break-out groups. “But in the big group discussion with the minister, the only criticism came from feminists from Quebec.” Lalonde sees missed opportunity: “You have 150 women coming together for two days, and we’re not pushing back to demand more government accountability. People don’t want to bite the hand that feeds.”

Decades ago, confrontation and criticism of the government was the norm at NAC’s annual general meeting in Ottawa, where government members, including the prime minister and the opposition, publicly fielded questions, says Rebick. NAC received government money but worked independently. “It was an amazing exercise in democracy,” she says. NAC disbanded in 2007 due to budget cuts.

“Trudeau is great in a lot of ways,” says Lalonde. “I think he believes in feminism, and that it’s a core principle of the work he does. He’s also done an incredible job of normalizing feminism, making it something you expect to hear from your prime minister.” But that shouldn’t shield him from criticism: “Within the movement, there’s a sense we should be grateful.”

The timing is ripe, says Lalonde. “If Trudeau can’t announce a national action plan for violence against women within the context of #MeToo, then when?” There’s a strong economic and national security argument to be made: violence against women costs $12 billion annually, on par with the economic costs associated with smoking and use of illegal drugs; links have been drawn between intimate partner violence and mass killings and domestic terrorism.

There’s no better time to protest, Lalonde says. “The Prime Minister can’t afford to alienate the feminist movement. He’d lose all credibility internationally if we were in the street marching against his government or his policies.”

Others call out the government for not living up to its women-friendly optics, such as Cabinet Minister Karina Gould bringing her baby to work. Bill C-65, dealing with harassment in the federal workplace, fast-tracked because of #MeToo, doesn’t adhere to best practices for whistleblower protections, says Duff Conacher, director of advocacy group Democracy Watch. “It’s not an independent system; politicians are still running it.” It allows the government to keep everything confidential unless it happens to not like the person involved, he says.

Karina Gould, Minister for Democratic Institutions, with three-month old son Oliver and husband Alberto Gerones on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, May 22, 2018. (Photograph by Peter Bregg)

Big structural change is needed, Rebick contends. “If you want to be a feminist government, the biggest thing you do is a national child care program. That would massively change the status of women in this country.” It was a goal never achieved by the second wave, she says. “It wasn’t because the women’s movement wasn’t strong enough; it cost too much money for a government mainly looking at keeping capitalism working.”

As the country’s marquee feminist, Trudeau’s tendency to take up feminist oxygen can eclipse under-the-radar grassroots efforts. In 2017, his chief of staff, Katie Telford, credited the PM with making abortion available in P.E.I. after 35 years. Yet Kate McKenna’s comprehensive 2018 history, No Choice: The 30-Year Fight for Abortion on Prince Edward Island, credits the tireless work of activists over decades; Trudeau was not mentioned. A PMO spokesperson told Maclean’s that Trudeau was involved in a 2016 meeting with P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan in which he raised the issue of access to safe and legal reproductive services in the province; the PMO also “provided advice and support to the premier’s office as they moved forward on this important issue.”

In late October, the federal government announced its long-awaited pay equity legislation via an omnibus new Pay Equity Act, which gives federal public servants and political staff, as well as federally regulated sectors such as banking and telecommunications, three years to impose pay equity after the law passes. Status of Women Canada will be repackaged as the Department for Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) and enshrined in law so it isn’t as vulnerable to political cuts. Monsef framed the move as good for the economy, quoting one estimate that the country could add $150 billion dollars in less than a decade by implementing “policies of fairness and equality.” It’s an odd focus for a feminist government; it downplays equality as a societal value while highlighting an economic system that has traditionally undervalued women’s labour.

RELATED: Kristin Raworth: #MeToo can become a ‘journey to change’

Just as the November mid-terms are viewed as a vital measurement of gender politics in the U.S., so is the upcoming federal election expected to reflect bristling gender wars. “I’m concerned the lead-up to the election is going to be ugly, racist and brutally misogynist,” says Lalonde. “I’m worried that’s going to stoke some of the fires we have in this country already.” It’s too early to say whether we’ll see the same female participation seen in the U.S., says Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, a non-partisan Ottawa-based advocacy organization that encourages female involvement in politics. Running women doesn’t equal electing women, Peckford notes, but “provincially and municipally, the number of women on ballots is encouraging in terms of more women feeling confident to pursue elected office, even if they’re not successful the first time around.”

Entering politics is logical, based on the kind of leadership women already provide in their communities, says Peckford, who was just elected the first female mayor of North Grenville, Ont. “Women feel responsibility to step up and offer different kinds of leadership, not because they’re homogeneous but because they realize if they’re not well-represented in political ranks, then the needs they have for themselves, their families and their communities may not be well met.” Some of Equal Voice’s most tenacious champions have been conservative-leaning women, says Peckford, noting that a third of the PC candidates in Ontario’s June election were women, a higher percentage than the Liberals ran in the last federal election.

Systemic inequity and sexual violence can’t be solved by women alone, Rebick says. “Men have gotten more involved, and that’s good,” she says: “You have to have men talking to men about how they are treating women and calling them on it.” The broad-based protest to the Ontario government’s repeal of the sex education curriculum is another sign of change. “Instead of the women’s movement fighting on it, we see teachers, 40,000 students, LGBTQ,” says Lalonde. She sees hope in youth in schools pushing back and getting teachers on board “to say screw you to the curriculum, they’re going to teach anyway.”

Demand for the cultural change at the core of #MeToo is long overdue, says Rebick. “We understood in the early days we were fighting a system—ending patriarchy. But as we got more powerful in terms of changing laws and getting more women into positions of power, we lost that understanding of the cultural shift that had to be made.” Changing laws isn’t enough, she says. “We changed rape law in ’82 and again in ’92, but it didn’t change anything; you still had a militarized patriarchal police force, and a patriarchal justice system all about win and lose, where women weren’t believed. The culture changed, but not enough.” Looking ahead, this can’t be a single-issue movement. Whitney notes that change takes time: “We think of revolution as a short thing, but it has stages and phases and often turns back onto itself.” But if activists can continue to tap women’s renewed outrage, there’s hope things will get better for a population few would now dare to call the second sex, despite the evidence.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.
  • By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.