The Quest for Women’s Equality: How Much of What is Stopping Us is in Our Heads?

I was grateful to be the keynote speaker at the Soroptimist International Club of Edmonton. In case you cannot follow the audio in the video, I have provided the transcript below:

Hello. Happy International Women’s Day! I welcome all the women who are here, and all the men supporting all the women who are here. It’s great to have everyone. Can you hear me alright?


Happy Women’s Day. Happy International Women’s Day! So thank you so much to everyone for being here. We are here today on International Women’s Day, in my opinion, because there is still work left to do; equality still hasn’t been achieved. We come together every year to commemorate this and to see what we can do to change the world.


The theme this year is women in history, women making history and, for me, women not making history. I say this because I am a philosopher. Occupational hazard is I look at this in generalities and ask big questions: What can we do so that women can make more history? To my mind, making history means great achievements in the public realm: social, economic and political as opposed to our historical limitation to the private realm. The realm of childbearing, child rearing and while you’re there housekeeping.

To have more women making history we need to have more women taking a place in the public realm. This is precisely what the Soroptimists do. We’ve already heard today that they try to help women in a social economic way, especially through education. And this is fantastic and this necessary work. But my question is, and I think there is a deeper question going on, is why with so many more opportunities today, why is it that some women don’t take the opportunities that are there for them? And that is the question I want to talk about.

As I see it, part of the answer is that it is something that is, is that it is something in their heads. I know that doesn’t sound quite right yet. So bear with me. I think you’ll be with me by the end of it.

So for me, history is the bridging of the private and public realm for women. The first major way we saw this is women getting the vote. Having a voice in the laws that govern us. Being deemed worthy of individual rights and legal equality. This spawned the suffragist movement 1800s into the 1900s. And we hoped that the trickle down effect of legal equality would be social, political and economic and equality. That is first wave feminism.

We can be very proud of first wave feminism here in Alberta because we are the home of the Famous Five, which I don’t think we can mention enough. I know I get slagged for being from Alberta. And I always say “Oh, you mean the province of the Famous Five?” I’ll take that. I like to remember Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung and Henrietta Edwards, who did so much for all of us. Even though we had the right vote by the time they became famous, they were fighting for women’s right to hold Senate seats.

It turned out not just for Canada but it ended up being for the entire British Empire when they ended up winning that case in 1928 [1929]. It became what is called the Person’s Case. It is the first time in the British Empire that women were recognized legally as persons. “Now That We Are Persons.” We knew…but anyway.

And just on that note, if you’ll indulge me, my great grandmother Isabelle Connelly was the first licensed female embalmer in Alberta. She is the woman in the photo of the 1910 meeting. I thought for women in history, at least I’d I do a shout out to my great grandmother.

(Michelle, would you move it a little closer?)

(I could take off my shoes.)

(A girl’s gotta do, what a girl’s gotta do)

(Is that better?)



So we won the right to vote first in 1916 in Manitoba. Then it went to all the other provinces and this led in 1928 [1929] to our winning the Persons Case for Canada and the British Empire. In that note, I will say very briefly that Emily Murphy was the first female judge in the British Empire; Emily McKinney, I mean, sorry, Louise McKinney was the first MLA in Alberta, Canada and the British Empire; Irene Parlby was an MLA and the first female cabinet minister; Nellie McClung was an MLA from Edmonton; Henrietta Edwards was an advocate for working women and a founding member of the Victorian Order of Nurses. So we have a lot to be proud of here.


So we are legally persons. And we have legally equality. But improvements didn’t definitely happen to follow that equality. Frustration led to the women’s movement in the 1960s to redress that even though we were legally equal, there were still places where we were not socially, economically and politically not equal. And one of the major factors spawning second wave of feminism was the birth control pill because women had a lot more autonomy in their bodies.

So in this vein of trying to redress the inequality, one woman wrote [Susan Moller Okin] in 1979, a social-political theorist that I teach a lot when I teach philosophy. She said: “Women in the course of the [twentieth century] have officially become citizens virtually in every country in the Western world and in much of the rest of the world as well. Far from being totally relegated to the private sphere of the household, they have become enfranchised members of the political realm. However, women are increasingly recognizing that the limited, formal, political gains of the earlier feminist movement have in no way ensured the attainment of real equalities in the economic and social aspects of their lives. Though women are now citizens, it is undeniable that they have remained second-class citizens. Measured in terms of characteristics traditionally valued in citizens, such as education, economic independence, or occupational status, they are still far behind men. Likewise measured in terms of political participation—especially at higher levels—and political power, they are no where near the equals of men…The fact is that women have gained formal citizenship but in no other respect attained equality with men.”

Why not?

The case I want to make today, that in addition to the great social, economic work that’s being done precisely by organizations like this, there is another tactic that we need to think about taking. And that’s that the mechanisms of control of women have also changed. New ones are emerging, in a compensatory way, that kind of, as we’ve risen up, there have been new forms of control.

It’s not just any longer that we’re, not just being kept out but we’re holding ourselves back. I want to examine how it is that we’re holding ourselves back. I think that we’ve unwittingly had a hand in it as well. We need to recognize that. And I don’t say this to judge ourselves. I say this so we can understand it, make the changes and reach our goals. They are changes I know we can make or I wouldn’t be here.

So this brings me to third wave feminism and a woman named Naomi Wolf. I don’t know if anyone has heard of the book The Beauty Myth before? She wrote this book in 1991 and she argued that, “where liberation has emerged, there have been impossible ideals of female beauty, have also emerged and those are entrapping us at the same time. The new standards [and they are new] of female beauty are a backlash or a new form of social control. A form of social control that picks up where the now disempowered limitations of the public realm left off.” So as much as we’ve gained all this legal equality, there’s now these new limitations that we live with.” And I see this in relation to women and their weight. She says, “The ideology of beauty is the one last remaining of the old feminine ideologies that still have the power to control women.” In this way, the goal posts have shifted.

In her words, “The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us…During the past decade, women have breached the power structure; meanwhile eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest growing medical specialty…More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we actually may be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”


So in her book called The Beauty Myth she goes back to the 1830s to discuss what she calls, she sees as the advent of the beauty myth, with the Industrial Revolution. And it’s a very interesting case that she makes. But I want to focus on exactly on how it pertains to weight. And the focus on weight, body size and our self-judgment for or not measuring up.

She says in fact that there is a secret underlining poisoning women’s liberation, freedom and it’s self-hatred. I ask you women how many of you have ever looked in the mirror and cringed when you look at your body? Or how many of you have ever stopped yourself from doing something because you don’t think you look good enough? I imagine that I am not the only one.

So when she talks about the example of weight and weight standards and how they disempower women, she said that the first mention in history of women needing to smaller corresponded exactly with women’s getting the vote. So first of all, I guess I just wanted to say that there is ambiguity with the advances we’ve because it seems like on the one hand we’ve been given opportunities but with this self-hatred opportunities have been taken away. So as I said, she talks about women getting the vote and getting to work. This is, this happened, this first, she calls it backlash, happened between 1918 and 1925. It corresponded for the first time in the portrayal of women, you have the flapper movement, with the expectation for women to be smaller.

And then when I was looking for this image, I found all the precise ways that women had to dress to be a flapper. And I really got the feeling that it wasn’t just the weight, but all the money and attention that women now were supposed to put into their appearance instead of taking all this new this energy and potential, and going into the public realm and doing now what they had a right to do. Now that energy was taken back to focus on themselves.

So she said that this abated into the late 1940s and into the 1950s because women were having a lot of children after the war with the baby boom. So we had a switch now that women weren’t the same threat in the public realm. We have the rise of June Cleaver, back in the home. But she said it filtered down into other images of women. We have Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor.

(I realized today I channelled Elizabeth Taylor when I dressed, which is not a bad thing. Very beautiful.)

So that was how it went until the 1960s. Again when women, I said before, were starting to realize that in spite of the promises of first wave feminism, there was the let down where our legal equality did not mean substantive equality. Women didn’t have the social, economic and political equality with men.

This was really launched with the women’s movement and reproductive rights. And with the rise of that, we had a new image of women. Does anyone know who the woman was form the 1960s? Well, first of all the birth control pill. Twiggy.

So, apparently when she first emerged, she was met with horror, were some of the quotes I read. She was called Twiggy because she looked like she would snap. In many magazines she was referred to as weak, hungry, anxious. Nevertheless, in the year that followed, the weight for Playboy Bunnies plummeted and high school girls thought they were all too fat. These were as a result of these images. ?

Naomi Wolf talks about body politics and how social power is experienced individually in our lives. She says you have to keep in mind that the beauty myth’s aim is to punish women for their very public acts by going after their private sense of self. The beauty myth is always actually about prescribing behaviour, not appearance. So when we have these images we think it is all about how we should look. But actually underlying it is all the attention that it takes to look that way, and so it’s limiting us in our behaviour because of all the attention we’re putting in to meeting these standards. Especially dieting is one of the ways that we women can put so much time into being concerned into how we look and watching ourselves and holding ourselves back. Prescribing behaviour or prescribing lack of behaviour in what we’re not allowed to do.

One quote I read on the power of dieting for women said that “prolonged and periodic calorie restriction results in the distinctive personality traits of passive, anxious and emotionality.” Many of the very same traits that we’re told that make us women, that we’re told we can’t function in the public realm, are brought about by dieting.

So right now I am wondering if it sounds farfetched what I am saying? But there is a philosopher named Michel Foucault. He was a French philosopher. He died in the 1980s. He had a lot of really interesting things to say. He said that there has been a change in the power dynamics in the past 200 years, and that originally power was exercised through fear of public execution in public squares. And then when prisons came along, it was to change the power dynamics.

So instead of fearing that you could be caught doing certain things, with this new construction of prisons, especially a building called the panopticon, they were structured in such a way that if you were in a prison cell [prison in a cell] ideally the guard is in the middle of the cell [standing in the centre of the prison] and could see you in no matter what cell you were in, at any time. It didn’t mean the guard could watch you all the time, but you had the potential of being watched any time. And the upshot of that is, is that because you feared that you could be watched at anytime, you assumed that you were being watched all the time. So you didn’t need the threat of power anymore because you started to discipline yourself. So punishment wasn’t a fear. You took over that role all by yourself and you limited your behaviour based on the fact that you could be watched at all times.

So that’s just an idea of what that building, the ideal prison system looks like, with the piece in the middle where the guard could be, and all the cells around. But that dynamic actually then plays in your head when you feel you could be watched all the time. So you don’t need external control; you control yourself.

And he said in his book Discipline and Punish that punishment moved to discipline, especially at the level of our bodies, that people survey [surveille] themselves. He says that discipline creates a whole new form of individuality in the bodies, which enabled people or individuals to perform duties within new forms of economic and political organizations, emerging in the modern age and continuing to today. So these changes happened with the prison system purposely because of changes in the economic and social roles. And he suggests that individuality can be implemented in systems that are officially egalitarian, but the use of discipline is to construct non- egalitarian power relations.

So if this is all about the body, and it’s about surveying yourself to establish unequal power relationships, I just think this precisely what dieting and body images issues do for women. So I see this beauty myth and the compulsion to diet or be concerned about your body at all times as a new form of imprisonment that happens in your head. But the fact is that you are doing it to yourself, based on social pressure. But you are the medium through which it happens. He said that for the construction of such docile bodies disciplinary institutions must be able to constantly observe and record the bodies they control, which I think that we women do through calorie counting. And ensure the internalization of the disciplinary practices of the bodies in control, the body’s control.

So all the self-talk that you have every time you have when you look in the mirror and don’t like yourself. That is the second part of the dynamic to create this non-egalitarian structure.

So I am not a fan of diets. I think that this is how we women limit ourselves. We diet to meet cultural standards. We watch ourselves constantly of what we eat, what our size is. It is a new kind of authority. We had first wave feminism to break out of authority. And yet we either turn to body authorities or we act with an authoritarian hand over ourselves. So we are in a prison in our minds, and the bars are the negative self-talk that is enforced through self-loathing.

And I don’t know men out there, but I am sure that a lot of the women can know what I am talking about. And the thing is with dieting you just can’t ever do it right. That is the whole thing. If there were a perfect diet, we would have found it already. So we keep buying into these new kinds of diets. But they ever work, and the fact is that people usually gain the weight back and then more. And then you’re on a perpetual cycle of self-control. It seems as though that the battleground is our body instead of the public realm. And that is where the change needs to take place.

So here’s the insanity of the dieting: it is a perpetual cycle that you can ever win. And it keeps us locked in place. It keeps us from having so many opportunities out there. But we just don’t take them because we just don’t feel good enough. But it is our own standards of good enough that we impose on ourselves.

So with this in mind I found another book called When Women Stop Hating their Bodies. And the authors say that given the impossible standards for our bodies, we judge ourselves constantly and it pushes women to go on diets. We talk to ourselves about our bodies in a way, which is actually, the literal but misplaced translation about how we feel about ourselves in a male-oriented world. So the negative self-talk that you have is actually not about your body really, it is about how you feel about yourself in a world that is not completely female-friendly yet. And that rather than take on that fight, it’s easier to be hard on yourself about your body. We don’t see this because we get too distracted by bad body thoughts. When we say I feel fat it is shorthand for saying that there’s something wrong with me. But it’s not in terms of our individual psyches, it’s about the collective position of women in the world.

So the authors say, “We would like you to consider the possibility that when a woman says disgustingly that she feels fat, she is really saying that she feels too large. Larger than any women is supposed to feel in a man’s world.” They ask “How much space is a woman supposed to occupy? How fertile and substantial is a woman supposed to be? Is it possible that women feel fat when they think their ideas, wishes and feelings are out of line or unladylike? We believe that when women suspect that they have overstepped some boundary, they attack themselves for the transgression by calling themselves fat. In this way, women keep their ideas, feelings and forbidden ambitions in check.” So many of us live with body hatred, and we are preoccupied and we constrain ourselves and we control ourselves because of these images.

And if you don’t think it’s a big problem, in 2013, sixty-six billion dollars was spent in the United States on dieting. Can you imagine how we could have changed the world withthat money? Sixty-six billion dollars, billion dollars was spent in the United States. According to the University of Western Ontario, one million Canadians have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. So that’s the far extreme. I think we’re a country of thirty-three million, so one in thirty three. It says millions more struggle with unhealthy food and weight preoccupation. And 27% of young women in Ontario between the ages of 12-18 were reported to engage in severely problematic food and weight behaviour. I think this is the ambivalent feelings that many of us have about being in the world.

But at least when you hate your body, you have a direction and a distraction. And it gives you something manageable, something temporary that you can work on. You don’t have to fear the unknown. So you chose to focus on your body instead of on the world.

And the authors say we have a choice: do we want to shape our bodies or shape the world? They remind us that self-contempt never leads to change.

So what do we do, now that I’ve really disappointed everyone here? What do we do? Well, the first thing is, the negative self-talk has to stop. Every time you look at yourself and judge yourself, you’re contributing to your own personal limitation. And that is not just about you. I don’t know if you’ve heard the term before internalized oppression? But it is how you talk to yourself, and it is how you talk about any other person in the same group. So there is the negative self-talk that you have when you judge your image. But there’s also what you say about other women that in the end limits you because when you limit other women, you limit yourself. So if all the judgment and all the negative self-talk were to stop, we could reach out and take on all the other opportunities that are available to us.

The other thing that I think is imagine with all the time and intensity that we talk to ourselves or we diet, what if we did something we were passionate about? Like what if from now on, you didn’t have to worry about this beauty myth, you didn’t have to worry about dieting or anything like that? What if you took all that energy, that intensity and that passion, and did something that was meaningful to you?

The other thing is, is that I don’t think we have to give up on our bodies. And that’s where I think that intuitive hunger eating is an amazing thing. It’s an aligning of your eating habits with your body’s physical hunger and stopping when you’ve had enough to eat. Now that can be a challenge because for a lot of us, we sometimes eat for emotional reasons as well. So we’d have to look at those things. But I think if we eat in an intuitive hunger way, we buoy ourselves both physically and psychologically through the nourishment. And then we are able to separate what our bodies are hungry for from what our spirits are hungry for. Then we can choose to feed our soul. And there is nothing that will change the world faster then when we start to say what is it that I want to do? What was I put on this earth for to do? And did everything we could to nourish ourselves that way. So between being freed up of energy and infectious inspiration, we would in fact change the world. Each one of us individually, here today. That would be a real revolution.