Emma Watson, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Antonia Zerbisias — if you’re not sure what these four women have to do with Canadian politics, you probably haven’t been following the meteoric surge of pop feminism over the past two years.
Caro Loutfi, executive director of Apathy is Boring, says her organization has seen an increase in the number of young women looking to get involved in the political process and engage with others who are passionate about gender equality.
“The movement about empowering young women and pushing for gender equality and young women engaging in politics, we are seeing a trend and we’re really excited to look at these numbers after the 2015 federal election,” says Loutfi.
While feminism is not a new concept, it has become something of a cause celebre over the past two years as conversations about gender equality flourished on social media sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, especially once celebrities like Emma Watson, Beyonce and Taylor Swift — to name just a few — began championing the label ‘feminist.’
Beyoncé’s appearance during the Video Music Awards last August with the word, “FEMINIST” looming behind her was widely seen as a key cultural moment in the revival for millennials of a movement long identified with progress made in the 60s and 70s but taken for granted by subsequent generations.
According to Google Trends, there’s been a steady increase in the number of Canadian users searching for the terms feminist and feminism over the past two years, with the most significant spike in November 2014.
That’s when Canadian journalist Zerbisias started the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag in response to the criticisms being levelled at women who had come forward to accuse former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi of sexual assault.
It spawned tens of millions of tweets, retweets and replies from around the world and sparked a global conversation about why women don’t report rape — but Loutfi says it was part of a bigger trend towards carving out a public space for women to address the barriers and challenges they face in society — and demand that politicians listen.
“I think we’ve been talking way more about women’s issues in the last few years than in the lead up to the 2011 election,” she said. “I definitely think there will be more energy around this as a topic and as an initiative, pushing people to the polls to make their voices heard.”
Meghan Murphy, who runs the popular Canadian feminist website Feminist Current, said she agrees feminism has become a hot topic for young Canadian women.
She says that although there are differences in the challenges faced by Canadian women as opposed to British or American women, watching celebrities take up the cause has likely acted as a gateway for Canadian women interested in gender equality to look more closely at the policies proposed by Canadian political leaders.
“I think that feminism is kind of trendy right now and I think a lot of that does have to do with the fact that celebrity women are talking about feminism more than perhaps they were four years ago,” Murphy said. “I guess the hope would be that because someone like Emma Watson is speaking out, that will pique a young woman’s interest and she’ll want to get involved and try to figure out what’s happening with regard to women’s issues and party platforms.”
In addition to Apathy Is Boring, Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights and the Canadian Women’s Foundation both say they have also seen an increase in the number of young women looking to get involved in advocating for women’s issues.
But as with all causes, women’s rights activists face the challenge of translating online sentiment into concrete action at the ballot box.
That’s part of the reason organizers behind initiatives like Up For Debate say they are trying to shape a national discussion around how issues like the economy can impact women in different ways than they impact men.
“When the increased engagement is attached to campaigns like Up For Debate, you can see that there is a huge push to have women make sure that their issues are being represented in political platforms,” said Abu Dughal, director of violence prevention at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “I don’t know to what extent it translates into more votes or more people voting but I think it certainly translates to a much bigger debate about why women aren’t engaged in politics.”
The 2011 election brought in a record number of young female MPs, with 18 of 76 female MPs being under the age of 40, and also saw young women voting at a higher rate than men of the same age, according to Loutfi.
She says that seeing more of themselves reflected in the political process has likely also played a role in helping young women envision themselves as being an active part of that same process — and if they vote in larger numbers than in 2011, they can keep that momentum moving forward.
The challenge for many will be in finding a candidate whom they believe can champion the causes that are most important to them — but modern feminism is defined by its intersectionality, or its ability to embrace a diverse array of issues, perspectives and problems within the feminist lens.
In other words, there’s no one ‘women’s issue’ that will win politicians votes from young Canadian women and anyone hoping to capitalize on the demographic will have to show that they can be an advocate across the variety of topics and challenges that women are demanding be addressed, from unequal pay and abortion access to childcare, violence against women and everything in between.
“What’s been most encouraging is seeing the diversity of young women who are taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to engage in a conversation about these issues,” said Sarah Kennell, spokeswoman for Action Canada. “In Canada specifically, we haven’t had an election now in four years and a lot has changed from a technology perspective. Social media is a lot more adept and we’re seeing social media being used for political purposes.”
Ultimately though, it will be up to young Canadian women and their allies to demand that leaders include gender equality in their platforms — and to go beyond online activism to actually cast a ballot for whomever best reflects their concerns.
“More women vote in elections than men — we outnumber men and obviously that does impact the outcome of this election for sure,” said Kennel. “It would not be to a party’s advantage to exclude the women’s vote.”