Feminism still relevant despite tough road

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day this week, it is worthy of some careful reflection in Northumberland.

Feminism no longer holds the same cache as it did 30 years ago as women struggled to find equality with men in business, politics and at home. For some young women, even the term feminist brings to mind radical, angry women from middle-class families struggling to find their own identity in a world bent on imposing one.

Certainly, gains were made. Still, the overall picture is grim. The United Nations reports women make up 53 per cent of the world’s population, but only hold one per cent of the wealth. A report released last week said only 11 per cent of women hold seats on corporate boards and 21 per cent of seats in Parliament. In the workplace, Canadian women hold half the jobs, but take home 20 per cent less pay.

For working women, the news is a mixed bag. Women were more likely to hold jobs during the recent recession, as compared to men, according to Statistics Canada. More mothers are working than at any other time. But under closer scrutiny, a sharper picture emerges.

The reason women are more likely to hold jobs is because they are paid less and cheaper to keep around. Also, the majority of women work part-time, less than 30 hours per week. These jobs cost employers less because there are no benefits.

Finally, women are the ones staying home and not working, as compared to men. In fact, in Northumberland women are three times more likely to do unpaid house work as a full-time job, meaning 60 hours per week or more, according to Statistics Canada.

But, it is not just statistics. Simply go around and observe. The lower paid, part-time retail jobs are filled by women. One rarely sees a guy working regularly working the cash register.

Women in politics in Northumberland are another story. There is only one woman sitting as mayor in Port Hope. Women are a minority on all councils. One woman sits on Cramahe Township council. The remainder all has two women, which represents less than half the votes. Certainly, there are a long list of women who have served in public with distinction. But, they have never held the majority.

Finally, women in Northumberland have a tougher time economically. Take for example single-mothers. A single male with a family (anywhere from one to three kids) makes a median income of $54,000 approximately. Yet, a woman in the same situation makes only $35,000, nearly $20,000 less.

But despite the less than perfect picture, Northumberland County has a rich history of people who have fought for women’s rights.

In a letter to the editor in the Cobourg Star in 1831, the author (only identified as “O”) tells the story of a woman who arrived at a polling booth during the municipal election asking to vote. She was refused. The situation was described as unfair and unreasonable. This was 73 years before the rest of the country would be swept up in a national debate on the same subject.

The struggle continues for women in Northumberland, in Canada and around the world. And, while the term “feminist” may not be in vogue, the issues women face are very real. There is a real vacuum in terms of leadership locally to ensure these vital issues are not lost on the agenda. It should not take another 100 years to make sure meaningful equity exists.

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