On March 2, I mentioned the importance of positive female role models for girls. But I don't think we ever outgrow the need for role models. So I think as I move into my twilight years, I'd like to become more like Maggie Smith. Or Judi Dench. Or perhaps Helen Mirren, Geraldine McEwen, Julia McKenzie or Joan Hickson.

Not that I know any of these women personally, you understand. But I do find myself admiring the characters they portray on the big and little screens. Strong, fiercely independent women who, while they care about others, understand that they need first and foremost to please themselves and to hell with what anyone else thinks. Women who defy ageist stereotypes. They're a wonderful antidote to those skinny, sunlamp-baked, age-denying Hollywood "babes" (not that there aren't younger actresses or female actors or whatever whom I admire as well).

In Hollywood, of course, looks tend to be everything. And yet, the women I have just mentioned are all, in my book, very stylish, exuding a kind of serene personal elegance.

This past week, I saw The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And I have to say I really enjoyed looking at what people were wearing, especially the older women. Long, flowing tops worn over trousers. Artfully draped scarves. Large yet tasteful necklaces and bracelets, often worn in multiples. Wonderful earrings. Chic yet practical, with nary a "killer heel" in sight. Clothes I could imagine myself wearing - assuming I could master the art of scarf-arranging and find a few more earrings I could comfortably wear without going through the ordeal of getting my ears re-pierced (long story there which I won't bore you with right now).

Then there's Miss Marple. The reason she's so successful at solving her cases is that she appears to be the stereotype of a harmless and perhaps slightly dotty old lady - everyone's favourite granny or auntie (Julia McKenzie, in fact, was excellent as "Gangsta Granny" in addition to her long career portraying Jane Marple) - but from her position of invisibility, looking up from her knitting or peering over the rim of her teacup, she is studiously observing and listening to everything and everyone around her while the authorities bumble on and jump to the wrong conclusions. As a youngest child, I guess I often felt that my viewpoint was automatically dismissed or not listened to ("She's too young to understand" type of thing), but we as a society often exhibit the same attitude towards old people. Elders are not respected to the same extent in our culture as they are in, say, many Asian cultures.

I'm going to need to give this whole role model business some more thought. And maybe by next year's International Women's Day, I'll have come up with a more comprehensive list.
NOTE: This entry was begun on March 10 but substantially amended and completed on March 11.

Friday was International Women's Day. Is the western world in the "Third Wave" now? We have certainly made progress since the first International Women's Day in 1911, both here and in less propsperous countries. But we've still got plenty of ground to cover and we've got a few rather striking blind spots as well. For example, our attitude towards Muslim women who opt to wear burkas or even just hijabs. In my view, it probably makes them more confident and sets them further along the path to self-actualization if they do not, along the way, have to worry about unwanted attention (or even just PERCEIVED attention) from men. Yet women (not to mention men) who have grown up here are often all too anxious to yank those comforting garments off them (whether literally or figuratively) on the grounds that they are symbols of women's oppression. Rather an ironic or circular rationale, wouldn't you say?

And the fact is, that even when we're just dealing with women who have lived here all their lives in the most predominant Canadian cultural settings, far too many women are abused by their husbands or boyfriends, usually just when they are trying to extricate themselves from the relationship. For the most part, I don't think we have appropriate models and mechanisms in place to handle this. For example, if a woman makes a complaint against her husband and then recants once the police arrive, they may still arrest him and slap a restraining order on him. Or they send the woman and the children to a shelter (why should it be the VICTIMS rather than the perpetrators that have to leave their own home?) Anyway, it's still totally REACTIVE as opposed to PROACTIVE. It's like putting out the fire but then not moving on to install fire extinguishers and smoke detectors or practising proper fire prevention in the first place! Because studies strongly suggest that abused women do not necessarily want their husbands thrown in jail for years so that they have to end up as single parents working on minimum wage or being on welfare because their job doesn't cover child-care costs. What they would like, preferably, is for the abuse to stop. And for that, we need at the very least to help these men to properly manage and channel their anger or mental health issues (In some case it may even be primarily a matter of getting them on antidepressants - unlike women, who tend to turn their frustrations inwards on themselves, men are much more likely to take it out on their nearest and dearest, who may or may not remain near and dear once that's happened!) Ultimately, we're looking for a culture change, but that can take time. The real culprit, as I see it, is that men (at least of my generation) have grown up with that Male Sense of Entitlement. And women, being products of their culture as well, have often unconsciously bought into it too. They have higher expectations of themselves and other women than they do of men, and are much more inclined to accommodate the man and dance to his tune.

Now, I must hasten to add that I know the vast majority of men do not abuse their partners. Nor are men always the abusers (as a recent storyline in Coronation Street points out), and nor are gay and lesbian couples immune from abusive relationships. It can be dangerous to generalize, as I know I'm doing. Still, I did hear even back in the 1970s or 80s of a rather progressive movement underway in parts of Ontario. If there was a domestic abuse incident, the first response in most cases would be for a community service worker to approach both members of the couple TOGETHER and say something like "I'm so sorry this happened," not initially attributing the blame to either party, and take it from there. This avoided creating or exacerbating an adversary situation and got the parties involved to work together with the help of an impartial intermediary. Now, perhaps there were and are situations where this type of intervention would be impracticable, but it seems to me it still might be a good tool of first resort.

Everyone feels sorry for the "single parent", usually the mother; yet there's precious little support for the woman who thinks things through, weighs the pros and cons and decides that on balance, it might be better for her children as well as herself to stay and make a go of things. "Doesn't she have any self-respect? Is she NUTS?" people ask. And years later her grown children may try to take her to court for not protecting them from their father, in a bizarre blame-the-victim scenario. Not that I'm condoning abuse, but definitely things that were considered a normal part of growing up for previous generations - the strap in schools, corporal punishment at home, and so on - would tend to be considered abusive in this day and age, so you can't really judge the conditions of several decades ago by the standards of today. Moreover, while I'm not exactly seeing a "false memory syndrome" behind every tree, I think it's undeniable that we perceive things very differently at different points in our life, so it's easy for children and adults alike to, um, get the wrong end of the stick.

A lot of the progress women still need to make relates to their role in the workplace. The wage gap, for starters, is still a reality, even though it has narrowed. I think that when I was a kid, I just assumed that if I decided to get married and have kids, I would have the CHOICE whether to stay home with them or go out to work. But as it happened with me - and I know I'm not alone in this - I never really felt I had any choice BUT to go out to work. I was the main wage-earner for a large part of my working life but even when my partner earned more, I was always the one with the SECURE job so I didn't feel I could just quit, even at points where I really disliked my job and was intensely stressed out. And while they DID offer maternity leave when I needed it, the paid benefit was only 15 weeks of the amount offered under unemployment insurance, offered after a two-week waiting period. If you wanted to take longer off than that, it was totally unpaid, though they did keep your job open for six months after the birth.

The women of the generation before mine, of course, were also lacking in choice, except that it was the reverse choice. They would be required until the mid-1950s to resign upon marriage; and pretty much throughout the 1960s, it was game over (or at least career over) if they got pregnant. Still, for women who WERE and REMAINED in committed relationships in that era, I'm going to go out on a politically-incorrect limb and say that in many ways, I think they had it better than my generation. The reason? Their husbands were in a booming market and their starting salaries tended to be more generous (adjusting for inflation) than they are today, in part because it was just expected that they needed, on that salary, to support a wife and three or four kids as well as themselves. If they had a university education, they were part of an elite and commanded a higher salary; but even if they didn't, often they were able to pursue higher education at the employer's expense. And the minimum wage back then (again, obviously adjusting for inflation) went farther than it does today. I know there were downsides. It was the era of Organization Man and employers just assumed (usually correctly) that they could relocate their employees and uproot the entire family at a moment's notice. And I think it's also true to say people's expectations were lower. They didn't just assume they'd be able to buy a house right away, have a bedroom for each child and maybe a spare room left over, two or three bathrooms, a playroom and a garage. Even so, I think that for women at least, it was from post World War II to the mid-1960s that was really the age of leisure - not the future (which is now the present), when we were supposed to be working far less and having more time to pursue our own interests and having technology as our servant instead of ourselves being slaves to technology!

When women entered the workforce en masse, the assumptions were very different. It was assumed that they were working for "pin money" to buy a few nice little extras. I think it's partly because of that that minimum wages and average starting salaries eroded over time. Pay equity legislation rightly stipulated that employers couldn't just lower the men's salaries to match the women's but I would argue that over time, that's precisely what started to happen. Even in two-parent families with fewer children, people decided that they couldn't manage on just one salary yet even on two, they were worse off than their mothers and fathers before them. There were a lot of other factors at work too, of course - stagflation, the erosion in the value of higher education as well-educated baby-boomers flooded the market, the oil-price shocks, free trade and technology and the increasingly open economy, draft-dodgers, immigrants and refugees (some of them illegal) who were willing (or at least compelled) to work for subminimum wages for fear of extradition... the list goes on. To me, these are simply FACTS. I'm not arguing that they're bad or good or right or wrong, nor am I suggesting we can or should go back to the past. And obviously, having spent my entire adult life (until my recent retirement) in the workforce, I most emphatically would NOT want to go back to the era before we had pay equity, parental benefits, and so on. The fact is, I really don't have very many answers or solutions.

I will make one last politically-incorrect statement before I sign off, though. Unions, while they have certainly been part of the solution, have also been part of the problem. In part, I think that's because historically, a lot of the union movement has been very much a part of the hard-hat and lunch-bucket culture, of construction workers and truck-drivers ogling and harassing women. Even in white-collar unions, union conventions, rallies and other events are often held on weekends and during non-working hours - which can often preclude the full participation of busy working mothers. And often, even when a weekend event is in the members' own city, the union encourages participants to stay overnight in a hotel room so they can sit around the bar and get drunk, or whatever other socializing they want them to get involved in. Unions are, in my experience, often much more apt than employers to feel that they somehow "own" their members (employees in the case of employers) and can tell them what to do with impunity - walk the picket line or not, withhold extracurricular activities in the case of teachers, etc. And quite frankly, that's antithetical to family life. The union-executive to rank-and-file relationship, like the employer-employee relationship, should be a mutually beneficial one, an exchange between equal parties, whose interests coincide in some respect even as they may diverge in others. I remember telling one woman who was a devoted unionist, some time in the 1980s or 90s, that I was working part time. She looked at me inscrutably for a second or two and then said something like: "I don't know how I feel about that because I sort of feel we should ALL be working shorter hours." I guess she thought I was almost a scab for voluntarily working shorter hours for shorter pay. A response I thought of only later was along the lines of "Well, my child isn't going to put her growing-up years on hold until the union manages to negotiate shorter hourse for everyone!" Let me tell you, for part of that time period, my partner was unemployed and I was actually supporting a family of three (and a half, if you count the cat) on ONE part-time salary!! And people like her wonder why they don't get more female involvement in unions?

I'm bothered by male discrimination against women, but I think I'm even more bothered by WOMEN who fail to support OTHER women, who don't see us as capable human beings who differ in our needs and interests and make decisions and often difficult choices in life based on a variety of factors. For example, we have to stop this business of stay-at-home mothers who put down "working" mothers, or employed mothers who put down the stay-at-home mother. And there are many other examples out there. It's silly, it's unproductive and it stands in the way of real progress. We don't have to all think alike or speak in unison - we just have to respect each other's differences and choices and points of view.

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