Washroom Wars: Yay for Gender Neutral Bathrooms; Nay for Ignorant Buffoons

by Ruwani Dadallage. Ruwani is a volunteer at Women Against Violence Against Women and an all-around kickass feminist. 

I never thought I would write about washrooms on a feminist blog. But an incident that happened at work made me realize how important feminist advocacy is no matter where we are.

My colleague, a smart, politically correct woman we shall call A, brought up the need for at least one gender neutral bathroom in the building we occupy. Since anyone outside the hetero-normative archetype has an increased risk of rejection, judgement, mistrust, bullying and assault, the idea was proposed in an effort to create a safe and comfortable environment in the building for anyone transgendered, gender non-conforming, gender queer, and anyone of all gender identities and expressions.

Seeing how we occupy a historic Vancouver building, and how we would probably need permission from the gods and a sacrifice to get approval to renovate, the easiest solution was to assign the existing men’s single stall restroom as our new gender neutral washroom. Open and shut case. So we only needed approval of our boss to take down the old sign and replace it with a cool gender neutral sign. We were so pleased with our resolution and pat ourselves on the back for being such great allies. However, in my feminist bliss I sometimes forget that not everyone thinks of inclusive solutions.

Enter colleague B. First he guffawed. Then added that this was one way we were attempting to increase the number of washrooms for women (okay, that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, women always have to wait in line), and no way was he going to share a restroom with everyone. He didn’t want to go into a washroom after a girl has taken a stinky dump!

I wished he stopped rambling there. He also believed that transgendered persons would have to learn to face the harsh realities of the world, and get used to there not being spaces like this for them. He went so far as to say that even in the more progressive public spaces the gender binary is still clear, with respective washroom stalls for men and women. Then concluded by saying picking which washroom to go to would be the least of worries for a transgendered person.

I had steam coming out of my ears. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this rubbish. This is a professional, adult male, spewing forth blatantly myopic, male privilege beliefs. By not taking the time to understand these concerns it is easy to overlook how much violence and discrimination someone would face because of their transgender identity or gender non-conformity. A transgendered person could be in danger of experiencing transphobic/homophobic slurs, harassment, violence in relationships, physical abuse, sexual assault or murder.

These experiences are particularly grave for trans women due to transmisogyny. Many cisgendered women have the misconception that they would be in danger if allowing transgendered women in a shared restroom. They are expected to prove that they are “real” women. The number of cases that are reported of a trans woman driven out or assaulted just for wanting to use a washroom are far too many, and these assaults are carried out by other women as well as men.

Colleague B apologized the next day for his behaviour and the way he held onto his beliefs. Nonetheless, he still stood by what he had said earlier and did not apologize for thinking that way.

In the midst of supportive colleagues it only takes one person like this to bring me back to reality to remind me of the palpable tyranny that exists, of the oppressive patriarchal dogmas and why feminist advocacy is so important. We may have won the battle this time with the newly installed washroom, but there is a long war ahead of us.

- Ruwani Dadallage xx 

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“The Bachelor,” otherwise known as: “Day-Old Cheese Pizza”

I have a confession: I watched this most recent season of “The Bachelor.” I have a gut-wrenching instinct to apologize for this because, “as a feminist,” I should be ashamed of watching something so terrible, right?

Too bad, “as a feminist,” I’m also learning how not to apologize for doing something people think I shouldn’t do. Too bad shame isn’t useful and learning to resist it is an invaluable part of my feminist journey to be a whole and happy human being. So here’s to empowered engagement with all of the horrible things patriarchy, capitalism, and oppression throw at us! I watched the whole season of “The Bachelor” and I’ve got a thing or two to say about it.

If you’ve heard anything about Season 18 of the show, you’ve probably heard all the talk about the bachelor himself, Juan Pablo Galavis, being a total jackass. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty good chance this is true. There are, for example, the homophobic remarks, the slut-shaming, and the other generally offensive things he’s decided to say to women.

But that’s not what I want to write about. While all of the above is totally gross and horrible, we have to take in to account that Galavis was the star of a reality television show, meaning, what we saw of him may not actually be a reflection of reality. It is also absolutely necessary to ask ourselves what it means for Galavis to be the first Latino bachelor to star on the show. Whether conscious of it or not, how did racial stereotypes of Latin American men as “macho womanizers” seep into the producers’ editing of the show? Despite being blonde and blue-eyed in true all-American fashion, Galavis’ Venezuelan accent marks him as “foreign,” as not/un-American, and it would be naive to think that this didn’t mediate the way he was perceived by both producers and audiences.

There may be a variety of reasons that the producers of “The Bachelor” had an interest in making Galavis the bad guy. However, the reason that stood out so starkly in the show’s final episode was that Galavis refused to buy into the premise of the show the way everyone expected him to.

On the show’s final episode, all the contestants get back together to discuss the highs and lows of the season. Galavis entered the stage to a chorus of booing. The show’s “winner,” Nikki, didn’t get the same negative reaction but that’s because, apparently, we’re all just supposed to feel bad for her. We’re supposed to feel bad not because she ended up with a (potentially) slimy guy like Galavis, but because Galavis didn’t ask her to marry him. To the outright horror of the shows producers and “Bachelor” fans far and wide, Galavis ended the season by telling Nikki that he didn’t want to propose because he wasn’t 100% sure he loved her. HOLD. THE. PHONE. HOW DARE HE??!??!?!?

Oh… wait… wait no. No, that’s actually a totally reasonable thing to say. Unless you’re the star of a show dedicated to making happily married folk out of conventionally attractive white people who’ve spent 2 months going on lavish and unrealistic dates involving 25 other people, of course.

The major issue here, was that Nikki had told Juan Pablo that she was in love with him several months earlier. “The Bachelor”’s host, Chris Harrison, was visibly distressed by this shocking turn of events. He spent the better part of his interview with the couple trying to coerce Juan Pablo into confessing his eternal affections. At one point, Harrison admitted, “I don’t know what I’m looking at.”

I don’t know what I’m looking at.In Chris Harrison’s world, any relationship that isn’t on a fast track to heteronormative monogamous marriage is a relationship with no name. 

I’m not naive. It’s not like I’ve ever expected anything radical or progressive from a reality show that buys into so many toxic notions of masculinity, femininity, marriage, family, and love that I wouldn’t know where to begin to catalogue them all. But I guess I just thought they’d try to do a better job of hiding it. I guess I expected them to spout propaganda about the inclusivity of “The Bachelor,” to claim that it tells the stories of real lives and real relationships. I honestly didn’t expect Harrison to be so glaringly obvious about the fact that it’s all a contrived fantasy. 

Because, really, which one of these resonates more with real life: falling in love and getting married after knowing someone for 2 months or falling in love in different and complicated ways and having to navigate the rocky terrain of human to human connection in an imperfect and messy way? I don’t know about you, but I’m voting for the second option. In the words of the Vancouver Sun’s Misty Harris,

“[the reason] why, days later, tongues are still clucking over the hit show’s controversial conclusion: not because ABC’s prince turned out to be a toad, but rather because that toad publicly, petulantly refused to jump at producers’ command – and pulled back the curtain on one of TV’s longest running games of make-believe as a result.”

Harrison outlines his rationale for allowing the show to be the exclusive fantasy it is in an interview about the potential for there to be a gay bachelor, or a bachelor who didn’t conform to normative standards of attractiveness. His response was this:

“Look, if you’ve been making pizzas for 12 years and you’ve made millions of dollars and everybody loves your pizzas and someone comes and says, ‘Hey, you should make hamburgers.’ Why? I have a great business model, and I don’t know if hamburgers are going to sell.”

THIS JUST IN: STRAIGHT PEOPLE ARE PIZZA. QUEER PEOPLE ARE HAMBURGERS. Whahaaaat?? Couldn’t we imagine it more in terms of the current “Bachelor” being cheese pizza and different adaptations of the premise being ham and pineapple, or pepperoni, or deluxe, or REALLY ANYTHING ELSE BECAUSE WE’RE ALL JUST REALLY SICK OF ONLY GETTING CHEESE PIZZA ALL THE TIME. Harrison continued to say, “is it our job to break barriers, or is it a business? That’s not for me to answer.”

Ahhhh. Well now we’ve reached the bottom of a deep well and capitalism is not about to throw a rope down and help us out. It’s okay to be unethical, or to ignore ethical considerations, when business is at stake. But, why isn’t it Harrison’s job to answer that question? Why can’t we hold him accountable to the ethical considerations regarding “The Bachelor” franchise? What might happen if we dared to imagine that we have a right to expect more representativeness from our media?


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We are not a broken generation

Narcissism, self-indulgence, and, of course, the internet: for all the hope and promise attributed to “Millennials,” there seems to exist an underlying criticism that our “selfie-generation” is detached from reality thanks to lives lived on Facebook. Maybe I’m being a bit cynical, but I can’t help but gather from exasperations that texting has ruined our ability to spell, MTV has drained us of our critical thinking skills and shortened our attention spans, and a disproportionate lack of young voters signals the “death of democracy” that the time-honoured expressions of “young people these days” is starting to look a little bit like fear-mongering. Is this really just something that young people of every generation have to endure – an everlasting ageism that creates distrust in the capabilities of youth?

Yet, maybe there is really something unique about experiencing this as a Millennial. We might be the first generation in a long time to be worse off economically than our parents. When we’re constantly being told we’re too obsessed with ourselves to see past our noses, it’s easy to attribute high unemployment (for example) as a symptom of a generation of laziness. However, writer Dave Roos points out that “it’s less about the generation gap than the wealth gap” and that, consequently, it’s not “’kids these days,’ but the ‘economy these days’ that we should really be moaning about.” So, we’re a generation that’s recognized the inaccessibility of the “American dream.” Is it a fear that our lives, dreams, aspirations, and goals might be radically different from those of our parents that is fueling skepticism from older generations? If that’s where the fear is coming from, why is it that predictions that our futures will be different from our parents’ always seem to suggest that they will be necessarily worse? Who gets to measure the “acceptable output” of a generation anyway?

Yes, we might be concerned with the perfect Facebook profile picture; yes, we might be moving back in with our parents; yes, we might be unemployed. Yes, like generations before us, many of us face huge systemic barriers related to class, race, citizenship, gender, sexuality, ability… and, yes, there are serious social and economic issues that need to be addressed as we become middle-aged adults. But, no, we are not a broken generation. We are just a different generation.

As a young person who has made significant efforts over the last several years to be involved in my community and to actively work towards social change, I can say for certain that it’s pretty damn irritating to be told the world is going to end because I took a selfie in the bathroom before heading to work. I’m sorry if I zone out while you explain that (despite the fact that languages have evolved and changed dramatically throughout human history) “culture” is going to the dogs because I text my friends in acronyms. So forgive me, please, if I look bored when you lecture me about lazy, apathetic youth; I’m actually just mentally exhausted from all the online research I’ve been doing about pipelines, poverty, and the constant pervasiveness of rape culture.

Thinking about what often feels like endless collective anxiety about Millennials brings me to a recent article by Laurie Penny called “Girl trouble: we care about young women as symbols, not as people.” If Millennials are being framed as a broken generation, the young women who make up much of it are certainly being set up to fail in more ways than one.

In her article, Penny refers to a report by Girlguiding which “suggests that girls’ self-esteem is not just low but falling, year-on-year.” While it’s hugely important to talk about the struggles that girls face in a world of “less than” and “not enough,” Penny takes issue with this and other studies as being our primary point of reference regarding young girls’ lives. She calls out the Girlguiding report as being “as patronising as ever” and asserts that “the implication is that girls fret about their appearance, are confused about sex and consent and worried about the future because they are frivolous or stupid.”

In my years as a girl, I was aware that the world expected me to be defective. For me, the awareness came in my own forced normalization of insecurity, low self-esteem, and unhappiness as some sort of “right of passage” that naturally accompanies girlhood. Penny explains that

for all those knuckle-clutching articles about how girls everywhere are about to pirouette into twerking, puking, self-hating whorishness, we do not actually care about young women – not, that is, about female people who happen to be young. Instead, we care about Young Women (TM), fantasy Young Women as a semiotic skip for all our cultural anxieties. We value girls as commodities without paying them the respect that both their youth and their personhood deserve. Being fifteen is fucked up enough already without having the expectations, moral neuroses and guilty lusts of an entire culture projected onto this perfect empty shell you’re somehow supposed to be. Hollow yourself out and starve yourself down until you can swallow the shame of the world.

Swallow shame I certainly did: it is amazing to me, sometimes, that I, my peers, and women everywhere survive girlhood.

The thesis of Penny’s article is that girls continue to rise up and do incredible things despite a multitude of hands that claw away at their self-worth. Similarly, I have no doubt that Millennials will rise up despite being told we’re too lazy, too narcissistic, too apathetic. Here lies the connection between Penny’s article and my earlier discussion. Penny wants us to stop telling girls they’re not good enough, and this is a message that lies so close to my heart. However, while we’re at it, let’s stop telling an entire generation that they’re not good enough. Stop telling Millennials that we don’t care about the world around us, that we’re doomed because we won’t have single family homes with white picket fences (like this has even been a universally achievable goal for any generation). We’re inheriting a world full of social and economic inequality and enormous environmental degradation. In Canada, we find ourselves represented by a government that consistently cuts funding to social services, that considers activists as threats to national security, and that consistently disregards the demands and concerns of Indigenous communities. For so many, the impacts of oppression mean that every day is a fight for survival – the appeal to constructed standards of “economic achievement” is a complete erasure of this. As girls, as young people, as Millennials, we’ve got enough work ahead of us – we don’t need you to tell us we’re going to fail. 

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I’m not over it and here’s why you shouldn’t be either

When it first occurred to me to write a post about the pro-rape and anti-Indigenous chants that occurred at various UBC frosh events, my first reaction was to reject the idea on the basis of that topic is terribly last month. The subsequent “WAITAMINUTE” ringing through my head caused me to be disappointed in my own investment in a mass media mindset that a worthy topic has only a couple weeks of shelf life. Especially when that topic relates to the pervasiveness of rape culture, misogyny, racism, and colonialism – how could we ever be done talking about it?

So, why shouldn’t we be over what happened at UBC in those first weeks of September? Why, when student leaders have already stepped down and when UBC has promised us change? We should never be over the trivialization of sexual assault and colonial violence that was implicit in the chants because this isn’t just about the chants. This isn’t merely an issue of a handful of students making bad decisions and a dark mark on the UBC brand. As easy as it would be to scapegoat Sauder or pretend this is all UBC’s problem, to do so would be to overlook the reality that this is about the world we live in – a created culture in which we are all complicit in a public forgetting of colonial history and a social blindness in the face of violence and rape. In a statement made by the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice, the Institute points out that,

since it is 3rd-year undergraduate students who oriented the Sauder first-year students into singing the YOUNG chant, it is also the case that the older students both learned this chant as part of their UBC education, and have demonstrated that they have not learned anything that would have provided them with the understanding, knowledge and know-how with which to refuse to sing the YOUNG chant… It is also the case that we can rightly conclude there has been a failure of public education in the fact that the C.U.S. 3rd year students did not appear to take responsibility and intervene in – contest or otherwise resist and refuse – the routine socialization of students into anti-aboriginal actions and chants.

Yes, students made bad decisions when they decided to engage in and encourage the chants, but what about the likelihood that they didn’t truly understand how harmful these actions would be? Whose fault is their lack of education?

To draw from a statement released by UBC’s Centre for Feminist Legal Studies (CFLS), we have to ask what made those UBC student ill-equipped to connect the sentiments of the “YOUNG” chant with the fact that

sexual violence against women and girls is unfortunately commonplace. While the exact incidence of sexual assault is difficult to measure, a conservative estimate is that at least 1/3 women will be sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Rates of sexual violence are highest for adolescents and young women.

Given the pervasiveness of sexual violence, the likelihood that there were women and men sitting on that bus at UBC who have been sexually assaulted is significant. Instead of welcoming them to UBC as a site of critical reflection, safety, and well-being, the “YOUNG” chant made a joke out of what so many understand to be real and long-lasting trauma. To continue borrowing from the CFLS statement, jokes or comments that eroticize young women as “jailbait” or as “tight,” are actions that contribute to the construction and bolstering of rape myths that are mobilized every day to justify, ignore, or diminish the severity of violence. Let us compel universities to be locations where these actions are understood and condemned as displays of rape culture, where we can expect that students are learning to value respect for each other over getting a laugh.

(image courtesy of: http://audreychan.net/myths-of-rape-2012/)

We can’t ignore the connections between the “YOUNG” chant and the anti-Indigenous “Pocahontas” chant. In the words of Daniel Justice, “when white people sold the land, they raped, butchered and dispossessed human beings… Pocahontas is a figure used to justify men’s claims over land and women… It’s not only racist, it’s also misogynist.” Not only did the anti-Indigenous chant make light of colonial violence, but it also functions as part of a glamorization of the story of Pocahontas, given that is what the group’s “theme” was. Despite the hold that the Pocahontas story has had within a North American cultural consciousness, the reality is that

the real Pocahontas was likely no older than fourteen when the middle-aged John Smith wrote his fabricated account of their supposed romance in what was probably a ritual adoption ceremony (Pocahontas would later be kidnapped by English colonial authorities to force her father into political negotiations, finding freedom only through conversion to Christianity and marriage to another colonist, John Rolfe.)

Romanticized versions of her story sit at an intersection between a disregard for the gravity of colonial history and a trivialization of the sexual assault of young girls and women. The statement by UBC’s First Nations Studies program asserts that

combined with the earlier rape chant, the use of the stereotyped Indian Princess version of Pocahontas as a frosh mascot demonstrates just how deeply sexism permeates anti-Aboriginal representations in popular culture, as such figures are routinely used to exoticize and eroticize colonialism through debasing Indigenous women’s bodies. The [anti-Indigenous] chant is not disconnected from the rape chant; they are not isolated incidents, but are instead intersected and mutually reinforcing issues of violence…

Let us also not forget that the anti-Indigenous/Pocahontas chant came to light on the same morning of Vancouver’s national Truth and Reconciliation Commission event, the same morning that UBC students had the day off school in order to educate themselves on residential schools, colonial violence, and the legacy of such violence on Indigenous communities. The irony that the chants, which highlight a lack of education and thoughtful engagement, surfaced on a day dedicated to such engagement is suggestive that there is still so much missing from education on colonial history and Indigenous issues.

(for more information about learning opportunities, check out the First Nations Studies Program’s event page)

Finally, let us decide that we are not okay with the coverage provided by UBC’s student newspaper, the Ubyssey, which could have benefited enormously from a more thoughtful and informed discussion of the chants. The anti-Indigenous chant is only mentioned as a side note in an article covering the “YOUNG” chant – it never receives serious consideration on its own. Further, consideration of the “YOUNG” chant itself suffered from a lack of critical engagement. In an editorial published in the Ubyssey and written by Saint Mary’s University professor Mark Mercer, Mercer claims that

No one was harassed by the chanters. That is, the chanters didn’t chant at anyone, and they didn’t follow anyone around while chanting at them. No one said to the chanters, “Stop it, you’re bothering me.” Since one is unable to culpably harass another before that other signals that the behaviour is unwelcome, no one was culpably harassed. The chanters did not discriminate against anyone. All present were welcome to join in. No one was given the cold shoulder, certainly not on account of sex, race or religion.

This argument stands because it clings to a thread of thin logic based on dredged up “technical” definition of harassment. Would it be too much to ask for a more complex discussion of the ideas of harassment and discrimination so that we might see how the existence of the chant operates to harm and intimidate victims of sexual violence in real ways? Where is an understanding that the responsibility to say “Stop it, you’re bothering me” should never have to be on the shoulders of first-year students in the first place – where is an account of the potential for peer pressure to coerce affected students into silence? The Ubyssey staff goes on to assert in another article that money donated by the Commerce Undergraduate Society that is intended to fund a sexual assault counsellor at the UBC Counselling Centre is

a worthy mission, but UBC already runs a well-staffed counselling services program. So does the AMS-funded Sexual Assault Support Centre… it’s not like [receiving sexual assault counselling] is something students weren’t able to do with the services already available.

What the Ubyssey fails to mention is that the UBC Counselling Centre currently doesn’t have any staff members who specialize in sexual assault support and that the SASC, while doing incredibly important and invaluable work on campus, doesn’t have the funds required to hire a registered counsellor. Not to mention, even going out into the community to receive support is a difficult process for students given that chronic underfunding of sexual assault support organizations results in lengthy wait-lists for counsellors. Furthermore, this understanding of sexual assault support fails to understand that counselling is not a preventative solution to rape culture. Adequate counselling options are important to help many survivors in their recovery, however, promoting counselling as the primary response to sexual violence works to individualize rape by placing the responsibility to respond to violence solely on the victim. What gets lost is the reality that preventing rape requires a cultural shift and a commitment to ending sexism, racism, colonialism, heterosexism, transphobia, classism, ablism, and other forms of oppression. 

Colonial and sexual violence are not punch lines to be mobilized for a “good time”. Disapproval of the “inappropriateness” of the chants is not enough when there are so many conversations about education, cultural acceptance, and respect that need to continue being had. Because of that, I’m not done talking about the chants at UBC and you shouldn’t be either.

*Update: As I was finishing this post, it came to light that a 3rd sexual assault has occurred at UBC in the last 3 weeks. These assaults and the chants are not separate issues. As we continue to have conversations about sexual assault at UBC, let us be thoughtful, critical, and aware of the rape culture in which we all exist and let us collectively understand the paramount importance of ending sexual violence.

**Update: In my original post, I made the mistake of referring to the editorial by Mark Mercer as an article written by a Ubyssey staff member. It is important to note that, although it was published in the newspaper, it is not an article written by a Ubyssey journalist. This has since been corrected.

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“You know that law school is really hard, right?”

In high school, I wanted to be a lawyer. Since studying Women and Gender Studies at UBC and working/volunteering at a local rape crisis centre I’ve decided I want to be a badass feminist lawyer who dreams of a legal system grounded in care and respect and who eats patriarchy for breakfast. Things change.

Some things don’t change. 5 years later, people are still responding to my desire to go to law school in a lot of the same ways: “yah, that’s a nice dream, but I’ve heard law school is really hard”, for example. I got so tired of hearing how hard law school is, and how hard you have to work to be a lawyer, that I stopped telling people it’s what I wanted to do. I guess it started to bother me when I noticed that people weren’t telling my brother how hard it is to get a PhD or telling my cousin how hard he’ll have to work as an engineer. Last time I checked, life is hard. So why is everyone taking all this time to warn me about it?

Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s being warned. I’m currently enrolled in a prep class for the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). Speaking with a friend who’s also enrolled in the course, we realized we were having a lot of the same experiences. Neither of us think it’s a stretch to suppose this might be because we’re women. An article in Osgoode Hall’s Obiter Dicta explains that “according to the Canadian Bar Association, in 1970, 5% of lawyers were women. In ten years it became 15%, and in another decade grew to 30%… [in 2003] there were 20% more women than men enrolled in Canada’s law schools.” Hold the phone. Where are all these lady lawyers coming from? How are they possibly coping with the stresses of law school and the legal profession?! HAVEN’T THEY HEARD HOW HARD IT IS?! In all seriousness, if women are entering law school and becoming lawyers at an equal rate to men, why are people still acting like two young women planning to enter law school might as well be kittens threatening to scrap with a rottweiler?

Maybe people just think law school is hard in general and it has nothing to do with your gender?” you ask. Maybe. But consider the following. I asked my LSAT prep buddy to send me some of her experiences relating to people’s reactions to her career goals. She explained that she’s had an interest in law since her difficult experiences with her parents’ divorce at an early age. As she got older, she spent hours in courthouse galleries, she completed high school presentations and university papers on women’s underrepresentation in the law, and she started volunteering at legal organizations like West Coast LEAF and Pivot (even working with Pivot to create this report for the attorney general in 2012). Given these pursuits, her wanting to be a lawyer seems pretty damn understandable. But people ask her things like: “you don’t need to be a lawyer if your boyfriend is” and “how does your boyfriend feel about you wanting to go into law?” Where I’m starting to get the feeling that this whole thing is just a wee bit gendered is that no one asked her boyfriend if his decision to attend law school would affect his girlfriend. She goes on to say,

People constantly make sympathetic and concerned remarks about my partner, asking how this might impact him or make him feel, as if I might be jeopardizing our relationship or making him feel insecure. No one asked him if he was jeopardizing our relationship when he went to law school abroad and we maintained a long-distance relationship for 3 years (any concerns that were vocalized by friends were based on the location of his school, not his decision to attend). He had no related work or volunteer (or educational) experience to law, and had expressed no interest until his final year of university, yet I cannot remember anyone questioning his motivations for pursuing law. The fact law school is hard didn’t come up in his conversations, other than people telling him he would get in “for sure”… Was there enormous pressure on him? Of course. Did people feel a need to mentally prepare him for failure or struggle? Absolutely not.

So, are the warnings justified? Are things really so much harder for women lawyers? Well, at the very least, something is making women leave the legal profession at a higher rate than men. The Law Society of BC notes that “of all women called to the Bar in British Columbia in 2003, only 66 percent remained in practice five years later.” To figure out why women were leaving the legal profession, the society created a group called Women in the Legal Profession Task Force (WLPTF) whose research found that women are facing discrimination, barriers to career advancement, sexual harassment, and racist and sexist comments within the legal profession.

In addition to leaving their jobs at a greater rate, the WLPTF also notes that “women lawyers in Ontario were less likely to be partners or sole practitioners, less likely to own businesses, [and] less likely to attain management or supervise others.” Why are firms not investing in women by making them partners? BC Business writer Neal McLennan thinks that it’s because we still live in a world where the only thing that goes together better than peanut butter and jam is women and babies. McLennan explains that

off the record – the place where old-school sexism still lives – many of the partners I spoke to, at medium-sized firms across Vancouver, are fearful of committing to the expense of nurturing young lawyers from articling student to associate if the candidates are going to halt the process to have kids, then potentially never return. In the short term, it’s still safer to go with a man.

Now, McLennan never really problematizes this by pointing out that (a) not all women want or are able to have kids, and (b) a woman having a child doesn’t necessitate her leaving her job. Women’s relationships to parenting and employment are complicated, nuanced, and bound to be different given the multitude of factors that affect different women’s lives. Assuming every woman you interview is going to follow a predestined guideline regarding parenting is an outdated and lazy hiring policy.

So here’s the deal: if you want to warn me about law school because you understand these things, because you get that, as a woman, I might face difficulties that a man in my same position might not face – okay. But if you are warning me because even a tiny part of you is buying into ideas that women aren’t cut out to be lawyers or because being a lawyer will somehow conflict with my supposed destiny to be the kind of mother that’s only ever really existed in 1950′s sitcoms – I hereby promise to disregard your opinion in its entirety. I’ll let my friend explain it in her words:

I think [negative reactions and/or warnings] come from people who feel something unsettling (or genuine fear) about a change in the balance of power… When people tell me, “it’s very hard for ‘female’ lawyers” I often feel this is a warning or a dissuading tactic, rather than a genuine acknowledgement of the systemic patterns of discrimination women face in the public sphere.

In other words, when you “caution” me about how hard law school is going to be you reinforce the notion that there are certain kinds of people who do and don’t “belong” in law school and I happen to not be one of them.

What strikes me, in reflecting about this, is that, while my gender might cause a sense of “non-belonging”, my whiteness affords me the privilege to “belong” in other ways. My educational experiences, job opportunities, and career advancement will always be mediated by the unearned advantage afforded to me because of the colour of my skin, as much as it will be by my position as a woman. As I think about my own experiences, it is important to see them as part of a web of “non-belonging” in which people’s complicated identities in relation to race, class, sexuality, gender identity and expression, and ability (for example) all make for different relationships to the process of applying to law school, to their experiences as a law student, and to their subsequent futures as lawyers.

The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Aboriginal Bar Consultation report looks into the complicated experiences of Indigenous lawyers in Ontario. The report found that, of the lawyers surveyed, 40% experienced discrimination during articling and 66% had experienced discrimination as a lawyer. It goes on to say that,

experiences cited included racist slurs and demeaning remarks by staff, other articling students and lawyers, discrimination in work assignments, and the feeling of being restricted to areas of law that were not of interest or of being dissuaded from areas of law that were of interest.

You’ve probably heard the legal profession referred to as an “old boys’ club” but the reality is that it’s not just a club built on patriarchy, but also on white supremacy, colonialism, classism, cissexism, heterosexism, and a multitude of other factors that contribute to who we do and don’t see as “belonging”.

Is there hope that the exclusivity of the “club” is chipping away? Well, groups like the Women in the Legal Profession Task Force are joined by initiatives like the Indigenous Bar Association and the Quebec Native Women’s Association’s National Secretariat on Hate and Racism in Canada as examples of national efforts to push our legal system to be more adequately representative. UBC’s Centre for Feminist Legal Studies offers an amazing set of courses to JD students (read more about them here), hosts weekly lecture series, offers students a feminist-friendly place to connect at the CFLS lounge in Allard Hall, and is carving out a much needed space for feminist legal discourse at UBC. UVIC has a course called “Indigenous Feminist Legal Studies” which has course description seriously worth getting exciting over and classes like “Critical Race and Legal Theory”, “Law and Disability”, and “Gender, Sexuality, and the Law” are offered at schools across the country and are helping me to be hopeful that law schools are doing important work to recognize the complex ways we all relate to the legal system. For these reasons, and so much more, I can’t wait to start law school in September… no matter how hard you might try to dissuade me.

Oh yah, and… please: enough with the Legally Blonde jokes. Look! Here are some famous women lawyers who aren’t even fictional!!

(from left to right: Michelle Obama (U.S.A), Elizabeth May (Canada), Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Muskeg Cree Nation; Canada), Hina Jilani (Pakistan), and Hillary Clinton (U.S.A))


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