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Navigating sexism within a class divide

By: | December 16, 2016

Cathy Bennett recently came out about the unfair sexist harassment she received, but it’s a more tangled mess than it seems.

Michelle Keep
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"The bottom line is that if we want kinder and more empathetic people in positions of power, then we must stand up against all gendered harassment," writes Michelle Keep. File photo by Brian Carey.

Cathy Bennett and I are likely as far apart as two Newfoundland women could be.

As a working class woman, I see the provincial finance minister as someone who has the world. A successful business owner, someone who has opportunities everywhere she looks, and the money to finance it. It’s a stark difference from the life I’ve led and continue to lead, and her priorities are miles from mine.

She’s a rich woman in a position of power, and there are people going hungry, choosing between heat and food, because of her policies. It’s easy to think of her as a symbol. No longer a person, no longer someone of value, but a symbol of wealth, prosperity, and power.

The Liberals’ policies this past year have hurt people. They’ve especially hurt women, cutting back essential services, slashing positions, raising taxes, and focusing on short term measures at the cost of long term stability. The people in this province are hurting from so many different sides, with big business reaping benefits from the good years while the average person faces desperate times.

The cost of sexism in a movement

Yet when Cathy Bennett comes under sexist personal attacks, we have to think of the consequences. While I have more in common with any average man in this province than our finance minister, sexist attacks on her have a ripple effect.

These comments tend to paint anyone who is against the government’s policies in a negative light. They drive other women away, not only from politics but from activism because many are likely to see the anti-austerity movement as less welcoming.

It’s a moment that derails the real discussion — about helping those who need it most, and about giving aid to women and all others at the margins of society.

Second-wave feminists often said the personal is political. Our experiences, living in this world as women, is a political experience.

Writing this article is a challenge, because I feel pressure to say certain things. To come out and denounce the abuse as wrong — which it is. To support Cathy Bennett against this abuse — which I have.

But I can’t be silent about the class oppression that Ms. Bennett and her Liberals have enacted upon the province.

Let’s focus on a movement and a resistance that’s free of language which ostracizes your sisters in the struggle.

We need to hammer the final nails into the coffin of sexism so we can move on with the discussion and focus on what matters — on helping those who need it most. A movement of solidarity with and for working class and poor Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can’t be unified as long as women — even the ‘elites’ — are given special hate.

If you’re as bothered by having to hear about the plight of Cathy Bennett instead of the plight of the many more women suffering various hardships in the province right now, then let’s fight the sexist attitude that breeds this thinking and behaviour. Let’s focus on a movement and a resistance that’s free of language which ostracizes your sisters in the struggle.

We can’t normalize bullying. We can’t put the onus on victims to suck it up, shut up, or grow tougher skin.

When we do that, we’re saying we only want one type of politician: one who is so self-assured, they don’t listen to dissenting voices; one who is so cocky, they don’t consider the needs of their constituents; one who is so tough, they have no empathy for those in need; one who has no need for the opinions of the working class.

Rachel Notley, Kathy Dunderdale, Sandra Jansen, Donna Kennedy-Glans, Michelle Rempel have all all received absolutely disgusting personal and violent threats against them. Politicians are in the position to make drastic changes — good and bad — to people’s lives. Some of these changes will cause individuals to react strongly, out of fear, anger, frustration, or annoyance — much of it justified.

But making insults personal, rather than focusing on attacking policy, not only discredits one’s arguments, but it does nothing to further one’s causes or relieve one’s anger.

But not too fast

However, included in Bennett’s slides, among the heinous comments, was a zine cover from an anti-austerity group. It named Bennett as the enemy. And isn’t she? For a lot of working class people who have been feeling the pinch of the higher taxes, and the reduction of services, she is.

The zine’s closing page and call-for-action contains the following text:

So what can you do?

Tell Cathy Bennett how extraordinary you think she really is!

Tell government to stop cutting services that will disproportionately impact women!

Tell government to invest in jobs and programming for women!

You have a voice! Your voice matters! These issues may not impact you directly, but they are matters of life and death for many of the most vulnerable people in this province!

To put the zine cover along with a disgusting quote, pairing them together in the minds of viewers, is disingenuous. The zine contained no threats, no personal insults, and only attacked the Liberals’ policies, handed down by Bennett.

Some people are upset that Bennett is asking for our sympathy and compassion when she has shown her province so little. In handing down the budget, she damned many people to poverty and uncertainty, while her government continues to spend millions on lawyers’ fees, on severance packages to other wealthy people, on feasibility studies and public consultations vastly outstripping the cuts that working class people have to bear.

The poor have a right to be angry, and they have a right to be angry with Bennett. Her decisions, in doing her job, have had a direct impact on those struggling. They have a right to have their say, and to be vocal, and they have a right to be able to voice those concerns.

The class divide in Newfoundland and Labrador has been felt for a long time. From the merchants and the fishermen, to the oil tycoons and the underemployed, Newfoundland and Labrador has for at least 500 years been home to haves, and have-nots.

The have-nots struggle, while the haves live a more comfortable life, removed from concerns of how to afford a grocery bill or a rent payment.

Making it personal will not achieve the goals to close the class divide, and in fact only divides us further.

Derailing the conversation

There are many important conversations to be had around these issues: about the amount of empathy we should extend to a person many consider an oppressor; about the fact women don’t run for office for many reasons, including the amount of scrutiny and harassment they’d have to put up with.

Unfortunately, the conversation about women in politics and bullying has once more been overshadowed by a disingenuous conversation on equality.

Would people react differently if a male politician called a meeting of all-male journalists to discuss harassment?

The short answer is yes, they would. And rightfully so.

This is what politics and journalism have looked like for far too long: men, often white, deciding policies that affect all of the province, country, world, and having that be reported on by other men. Women have only recently started to be more present in Canadian politics and media, and we still have a long way to go before we achieve gender parity.

We need to live in the world we have, not the world we want. Equality is what we want, not what we have.

In order to get to that equal society, we need to address inequality at its root, and sometimes that is going to call for marginalized people to have meetings and form groups and organizations on specific issues that relate primarily to that marginalized group.

We need to live in the world we have, not the world we want. Equality is what we want, not what we have.

Equality sometimes needs to be forced. There are many systemic barriers to equality, and too often the status quo is the easiest path. To have change, we need to have the infrastructure to support that change. That means setting up quotas and meeting target goals for gender parity, and yes, sometimes that means having all women present to talk on women’s issues.

To ask if we’d react differently to all-male panels and boards is unfair and ignores hundreds of years of Newfoundland’s historical patriarchy. Men have held power over political office and media, designing it to meet their needs. That is how it has been, and there is no equivalent to women making space for themselves. Until men have been considered second class citizens for countless generations, we can’t simply switch the genders and expect the same reaction. 

It’s also a distraction tactic.

Why is it more important that Bennett asked for strictly female reporters, rather than the fact that she was receiving such heinous threats and comments about her body? How insulting is it that there are some who are more upset that a woman was given preference over them, than a woman being shamed and insulted for doing her job?

Cathy Bennett chose to not have male reporters in the room because she “wasn’t personally comfortable having that discussion for the first time publicly with men in the room.” This is fair. Bringing up topics of sexualization and sexualized threats, along with the vulnerability of admitting you’ve been bullied, is a very scary thing.

Men in politics absolutely get harassed and bullied, and that is wrong. But we can’t pretend the type of harassment women get isn’t unique. The gendered violent threats toward women is something most men don’t receive, and men often can’t believe the frequency, or intensity, of those threats.

Unfortunately, these threats are at once nothing new, and increasingly frequent, as social media allows more and more people to say hateful things without repercussion.

The quid pro quo of solidarity

The bottom line is that if we want kinder and more empathetic people in positions of power, then we must stand up against all gendered harassment.

Cathy Bennett: You want us to stand in solidarity with you, against those who seek to tear you down.

However, we ask, in return, for your solidarity with us — with other women. You have a unique position of intersectionality in your roles as finance minister and the minister responsible for the status of women in the province. This presents you a unique opportunity to provide support for the women of the province — those who haven’t had your privileges, who struggle to feed their families, or who aren’t as brave and as strong as you.

So Cathy Bennett, we’ll stand with you. But we need you to stand for us.

A lot of times, women are called upon to support the women at the top. To be ‘with her’, to speak out against the sexism that some of the world’s most powerful women experience. We do this because it’s right, and because we believe that sexism is wrong.

Yet too often there’s silence from the women at the top when the average woman is experiencing harassment or hardship. And that silence is uninspiring.

So Cathy Bennett, we’ll stand with you. But we need you to stand for us. Let’s see the quid pro quo.

We need you to come up with an innovative budget with teeth.

We need you to look critically at massive payouts for projects and people that aren’t needed at the same time you’re cutting back essential services.

We need you to work toward strict, enforced pay equity, quotas for gender parity in the house, and give real, material support for the vast numbers of struggling working class women in Newfoundland and Labrador, like a living wage.

If there’s any hope of overcoming this class divide, we need your support to close it.

Hillary Clinton’s “I’m with her” slogan was uninspiring for most women in the United States because it painted the ‘solidarity’ of feminism, of women, as a one-way street, with all support going to the top. Few women bought into it.

Solidarity is a two-way street. Please stand with us, Cathy Bennett.

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