Current state of gender enlightenment in Halifax: “Nice hat.”

Two weeks after my blog post on sexual harassment in Nova Scotia politics,  I’ve been getting a follow up question from media, activists, and even those working within Nova Scotia politics:

“So now what?”

How do we take the discussion beyond storytelling? How do we make change? And whose job is it to do that?

So many people have phoned, emailed and texted me about my blog post. I had messages from women I’ve worked with, who recalled the same situations and the un-named throwers of footballs and grabbers of butts. I had messages from female politicians who are concerned that the stories being shared might dissuade young women from entering politics.

I had messages from male politicians who said they weren’t sure they’d done anything wrong, but offered apologies just in case.

I’ve also heard from political parties, sincerely wanting to know how to move forward with a cultural shift.

Women have been silenced in one form or another for years. We’ve been told what to wear, and where to work. We’ve been gaslighted, and told that our stories are the hysterical ramblings of  cold women who can’t take a joke. We’ve been warned we should be quiet, because what if our families hear us telling this story? What if a future employer does? Uh oh. Don’t want to be labelled a troublemaker.

God forbid we tell the truth. OUR truth.

I am a believer in the power of telling and reclaiming stories. The very act of telling your story to someone else, in person or in writing, is liberating. It gives you clarity. It helps you see patterns. It connects you to others with similar stories. There is power in those connections.

It helps you, and others, to think about what the next chapter needs to be.

I don’t have all the answers to, “So now what?”. I do have a few suggestions for how I hope the next chapter can unfold:

Keep telling the stories.

The media is already moving on. This is an old story to them — yawn, another woman complaining. Listen: yes, this is old news. It’s old news because it’s been happening to women for millennia. We’ve been talking about it now for a couple of months. That might not be sexy from a news cycle perspective, but let’s look at the bigger picture. This is a movement. This is a cultural shift. This does not end with a 24-hour news cycle. These stories will keep coming, because there are millions of them. Do they make you uncomfortable? Are we annoying you? Good. That means it’s working. Social change isn’t comfortable.

Think about whose stories we aren’t hearing.

I’m a white, educated, cis woman. I have a lot of privilege. I felt fairly safe in telling my story, even though I knew there’d likely be some fallout from people I know, and maybe I’d lose out on some contracts for being ‘too vocal’. Most of the stories we’ve been hearing are from women like me. There are lots of other stories out there we need to hear: stories of people of colour, LGBTIQ people, people from all backgrounds and walks of life. We need to support everyone to tell their stories. This isn’t just a problem for white women. There are many layers to this.

This is not the fault of a few bad apples. The whole damn barrel containing the apples is dodgy. 

Some politicians have suggested this is a witch-hunt (of course, in the actual witch hunts, it was women who were burned or drowned…usually for being too outspoken or independent, which apparently made them supernatural). The #metoo and #timesup movements aren’t about attempting to ruin the careers of individual men. It’s about exposing parts of our society that have been complicit in oppressing, harassing and abusing women and other historically marginalized groups. It’s about making systemic change, taking on misogyny, and stop asking women to “fit into” structures that were designed and perpetuated by men to keep them out. We need to throw out the rotten apples, sure, but let’s not keep putting our apples in the same barrel that makes it easy for them go bad.

This isn’t about men not being allowed to talk to women.

No. Just stop. This is not about whether you can tell me I have a nice hat. You really like my hat? That’s nice. Tell me. The problem is, you are probably not talking about my hat. The problem is, we are probably sitting in a policy meeting, and you have interrupted what I’m saying to say “Nice sweater” while staring at the general area below my neck. And even if you really, really have a sweater fetish or like my hat, what the hell does what I’m wearing have to do with the policy issue we are discussion? Do you often interrupt your male co-workers to compliment them on their hats?

Halifax councillor Matt Whitman  also told The Coast he’s saddened that you also can’t “…be quite as free with your hugs.” Hugs are for your family and your close friends. Hugs are not (or rarely) okay in work environments. Especially when one person clearly is not into that hug.

You are still allowed to talk to women. If all you can say to a woman you work with is “nice hat”, maybe you shouldn’t talk to women much, though. And if your gregarious nature has you hugging or grabbing the bottom of most women who come into your orbit, you need to learn some basic social skills, or at least not try to live your life by being a Halifax imitation of Don Draper.

Think about policy decisions through a feminist lens.

(Did you just stop reading because I used the word ‘feminist?”)

Policy decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. They reflect a government’s ideology regarding people in society and power structures. Think about what’s happening with the school board decision in Nova Scotia — 54% of elected school board members are women. We don’t see that kind of number in any other elected body in this province. And yet, those elected women are being dismissed. Their voices are no longer welcome.

It isn’t up to women to fix this.

The women who’ve come forward with their stories aren’t doing it to be vindictive. They’re doing it to heal from something that has deeply affected their lives, their careers, and their feelings of self-worth. This comes with a steep emotional cost. It might also come with a cost to their careers and friendships. It can even come with threats and hate from strangers.

Given that cost, is it fair to expect women to do all the heavy lifting to fix society? Is it fair to ask us to singlehandedly come up with ways to fix institutions and systems we’ve never been fully welcomed into?  2018 marks 100 years since women got the vote in Nova Scotia. We’re still fighting to fit in and to be heard. We have ideas, and we have momentum, but the burden shouldn’t be ours, alone.

We need allies. We need men and women inside the political system who acknowledge what’s happened/happening to step up and commit to change. We need to media not to just tell our stories, but to shine a light on where change is and is not happening. We need media to check it own behaviour in how they treat women staffers and politicians.

This change needs to be more than not just saying, “Nice hat”. This is fundamental change in our political cultures. This is a cultural change away from the ‘boys club’ mentality. This is a change to a more inclusive and respectful working environment.

Our political parties claim to be working toward visions of a society Nova Scotians want. Can we trust them to create a progressive, inclusive province if they can’t do the work to get own houses in order?

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