You've got a long way to go, baby

I learned something I didn't want to know this week. Either the party of which I am a member is less feminist than I thought, or my feminism is more radical than I thought. Or both.

Just to be clear, when I say I am a feminist, I am not espousing legal equality for women in a man's world. That's the Sheryl Sandberg school of feminist thought (if it can be called that) in which you can be on a level playing field with men as long as it's their field and their rules. Rather, as a feminist I envision a world in which the playing field is level because it was made by and belongs to everyone. In my feminist world, women participate fully not by being like men but by changing the rules.

Utopia? I don't think so. But I'm starting to wonder if my party thinks so.

Don't get me wrong. I belong to this political party because for the most part I belong in this political party. Its policies are the best fit with my values. Of the three major federal parties in Canada, it is the one in which I feel most at home. But that feeling was shaken last week.

There was this fundraising event. It was promoted by some women in Toronto. It was for women to, as the invitation put it, "really get to know" the party leader, to have "cocktails and conversation" with him. It was not about asking political questions, but rather much more casual questions such as "what is your favourite virtue."

As soon as I saw the invitation, it instantly struck me as sexist and condescending, aimed at women who read Cosmopolitan and used to watch Sex and the City. Not that there's anything wrong with either of those. I was a faithful viewer of SitC. But to have a political event marketed in such a way, to have the leader presented as a sex symbol, seemed to me to be treating women as uninterested in politics so that they had to be lured in. One commentator called it a "pink sandbox."

There's no question the event found its target audience. I don't pretend those women don't exist. At $250 a pop, it sold out (possibly thanks to the widespread criticism on Twitter and in the media) and raised a whopping sum for a fund that helps women run for public office. I applaud the result. But even after several days of consideration, I'm still appalled by the approach.

From what I saw, the event and its marketing were criticized by some and defended by others (including one of the organizers) for the wrong reasons. Even the media were asking the wrong questions. I don't think it's problematic to have an event exclusively for women. Neither is there a problem with acknowledging that women have a long way to go to catch up to where men are in the political process. None of the parties has enough female MPs. The problem was that the marketing made it feel like the event was some kind of tea party for the women's auxiliary of the party. It was hard for me to believe that high-powered, clearly well-heeled women would take this kind of approach.

For me personally, the problem became worse in a party discussion forum. There were people there, both women and men, who understood my objections and agreed that the event was insulting to women. Some disagreed, and I expected that. But some could not see my point at all. I got things like "you're overreacting" and "what's wrong with an event aimed at women" (the wrong question again). The discussion got derailed, as these sorts of things are wont to do (and I share some of the blame), and I was left with a bad taste in my mouth.

I still think my party is the right place for me. There is no question the situation would be worse in one party, and I think no better in the other, and I don't support the policies of either. I will still work hard to help the party and the candidate in my riding win the next election. I still think our policies support full participation of women in the political process at all levels. But the patriarchy dies hard, even among progressives and otherwise enlightened people. I thought my feminism was fairly mainstream, but I'm beginning to see that there is work to do in my chosen political home. Feminism as I define it is too important to me not to have it be part of the core values of my party.

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