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Another Brick in the Wall: Anti-Feminists in Canada

CV Harquail, Feminists at Work

Yes, Virginia. Canada has an anti-feminist movement too. So, in February 2018, LiisBeth invited feminist and management science scholar CV Harquail to review Canadian award-winning author Lauren McKeon’s book on Canadian anti-feminism which was published last fall by Goose Lane Editions. 

Lauren McKeon, an award-winning, Canadian feminist author wants us to know where feminism has gone wrong. She’s worried that women are “abandoning” feminism, can’t agree on what it means, and assume they don’t need it. In F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, she invites us into the anti-feminist universe so that we can listen directly to our biggest critics, learn from their views, and develop some kind of coordinated response. Her argument: we need to listen to those who despise feminism because their views are becoming more hateful and contorted yet better broadcasted than ever before.

I’m not as confident as McKeon that feminism has gone wrong or that people are “abandoning” it rather than increasingly adopting feminism as a perspective and an identity (as data shows). But her larger point remains: there are folks out there, organized into movements, who hate feminism and everything they imagine feminism stands for.

McKeon proves a trustworthy and entertaining guide taking us through the tangled mess of lies, deliberate misunderstandings, and sad self-centredness that characterize the groups arrayed against the progress of feminism. Occasionally funny and appropriately snark, she introduces us to five.

First up are the female members of the pro-patriarchy men’s rights activists (feMRAs) who use the voice and the social power that feminism earned for them to spit invective in feminism’s face—and McKeon’s too. Stepford doyennes of New Domesticity invited us “back to the kitchen,” cloaking their arguments in a comforting nostalgia for a gendered simplicity and social peace that never actually existed. A well-documented and rangy chapter about women and paid employment reminds us of nagging questions about the wage gap, the mom penalty, and the dearth of feminist business leaders, and offers a succinct review of the Gamergate scandal as an example of how tough it is for women to make a living doing work they care about.

And then McKeon takes us into the “bucolic” guest room of a woman I can only call a “Mother Defending Misogyny,” a woman who simply can’t believe that her own son might be capable of sexually assaulting a woman. As a mother, I can understand the emotional and cognitive distortions these women might go through wanting desperately for their children to be innocent, indeed, incapable of intimate, dehumanizing cruelty. It’s simply easier to see a frat boy son as a target rather than a rapist. But did these moms ever consider the harmed daughters, or the moms of their sons’ victims? At this point, I had to put the book down for a few days.

For the final stop on this tour of anti-feminist hell, McKeon takes us to the anti-abortion movement to meet activists who proclaim they are “pro women” while working to constrain the rights of those facing unwanted pregnancies and to undermine the autonomy of all women.

What we learn from our travels with McKeon is that Patriarchy and its nasty buddy, Misogyny, are powerful, resilient, and sneaky. Patriarchy doesn’t fight fair. It doesn’t use science or recognize facts. It nurses emotions like bitterness, fear, and, on a nice day, nostalgia for a fictional past. Patriarchy values illegitimate power—hoarding it, wielding it, normalizing it—to fight liberation, not just for women but for everyone.

McKeon writes of these anti-feminists bending to that power: “I needed to know more, and also maybe barf a bit.”

The quality of her writing—empathic, funny, curious, skeptical, open-minded—kept me attentive as I held my nose through this well-researched tour. And then I exhaled during her final chapters. Here, McKeon makes an important feminist move by adding her own life experience to her avalanche of interviewees’. She lets down her cool-girl posing (a nice counterpoint to the ugliness of the anti-feminist rhetoric) to share her own story of being raped as a teenager.

For me, this was the moment McKeon revealed the high stakes of this conversation, when the weight of anti-feminist attitudes shifted from offensive to acutely, personally painful. As McKeon writes: “Rape culture doesn’t happen in a bubble. It happens because women (like these) are telling other women their experiences, while unpleasant, could have been stopped if only they’d said no, emphatically.” My takeaway: These anti-feminists are crazy and they are actively hurting us and each other. As McKeon writes later, “I can tell you that rape breaks us, even when we want to be strong.”

In the final chapter, McKeon returns to her old high school, to the gender studies class where she got an early dose of consciousness raising. Here, she finds hope in feminism among the teens, their level of engagement and quality of thought and advocacy. As an “old,” I must challenge the inference that we need the young’uns to save us. They are able to do what they do now because they stand on the feminist foundations built by the waves of activists who came before them. No one wave is going to wash away patriarchy, no matter how pretty or hip that wave looks on Instagram.

Given how much louder and broader the anti-sexism conversation has gotten in the last ten months, with #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #TimesUp, McKeon’s book might already feel a bit dated. Unfortunately, it is not. The anti-feminist movement remains strong and feminists must find ways to be stronger.

But I remain unconvinced by McKeon’s argument that doing so requires knowing more about these anti-feminists. Or feeling sympathy for them. Or getting in touch with their hurt or their fear, much less their bile. And it’s not because (as McKeon seems to assumes of her readers) I’m willfully ignoring them or self-righteously disdainful of them. I don’t think that anti-feminists are stupid, necessarily. But they are misinformed and so misled as to be unable to think their way to a more positive future.

So how could it be useful to try to understand their limited worldviews? Perhaps it might be more beneficial to look at the ways that racism and other systems of oppression are shaping these anti-feminist movements. McKeon herself says, “We (feminists) are unequivocally failing” when it comes to opening doors and including more than upper middle–class white women in the feminist movement. Yet she fails to investigate the whiter than whiteness of the five anti-feminist movements she discusses. If women and men of colour, newcomers, the working poor, and other marginalized groups are absent from anti-feminist movements, doesn’t that say something? Isn’t that important for us to understand? Would this help us find useful ways to crack the rigid worldviews of these anti-liberation movements?

McKeon talks a lot about “feminism” and what “feminism” has done wrong and needs to do. For example, she says, “If feminism wants to survive and grow, it is vital that it learn to communicate within itself.” She treats “feminism” as a big F thing, with its own independent agency. If “feminism” has the ability to act that means we can hold feminism responsible for its shortcomings. Certainly, that’s how anti-feminists treat feminism, as a thing we can fault.

But what—or rather who—is this “feminism” that McKeon and the anti-feminists are wagging a finger at? Feminism is not a unified, monolithic entity that can be faulted; rather, dear readers, “feminism” is us. As activists, we are diverse, we are many, we connect and work together and, because we are so varied, sometimes we don’t. While McKeon’s book is useful in showing how anti-feminists mischaracterize feminism, that’s about as much time as I want to spend thinking about them. Personally, I would rather look at the many dimensions of feminism and consider ways we can move forward. Where should we look for more leadership, where can we find energy to persist with change efforts, and what new actions might we try to make things better? After finishing this book, I wanted to get right back to work doing that.

Other articles on LiisBeth by CV Harquail:

Activism & Action

What if Uber was a Feminist Enterprise?

With the resignation of Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick, it would appear that critics of the company’s sexist culture have won.

The remaining executives, board members, and investors plan to set diversity hiring and promotion goals to eliminate explicitly sexist criteria and policies, as well as take a “zero tolerance” approach towards harassment. Surely, the culture of Uber will improve.

Unfortunately, swapping out the “broEO” and adding some diversity programs will only do one thing: make the company less hostile to women and men of colour. While that sounds like an improvement, it still makes the company a hostile place to work for everyone involved since it will still be a business that’s designed to extract as much as it can from every single stakeholder.

Having a less sexist, less misogynist, less hostile, less “brotastic” workplace won’t make Uber a better company. It won’t change the ways that Uber takes advantage of its riders and drivers. It won’t change how Uber understands its role in the economy and community. It won’t make Uber a better local citizen.

These changes will not make Uber an exemplary company that contributes as much as it takes. But with a valuation at $70 billion, Uber should be an exemplary company.

The only way to really change Uber for the better is to aim at the root causes of Uber’s toxic culture. That means changing Uber’s emphasis from domination to collaboration, from extraction to contribution, from selfishness to collective gain. The only way to fix the rot at Uber’s core is for Uber to become not merely a less sexist company, but rather a feminist company.

What makes a company feminist, and can Uber become one?

Feminist companies do more than treat women, men, and all employees equally. Feminist companies are businesses that—while making a profit—build the agency of their employees, treat them as whole human beings, emphasize their creativity and contributions, and recognize that the success of the company depends on the success of its employees, its customers, and the communities in which it operates.

What if one of the most disruptive, technically sophisticated, and highly valued companies focused on making a positive difference for all of its stakeholders? What if Uber were to put into practice some of the core values of feminist business, such as equality, agency, whole humanness, generativity, and interdependence? (For more on these values, read this article.)

Just try it as a thought experiment: what if Uber were a feminist business?

We’ve already begun to imagine how Uber might change if all of its employees were treated equally. What if Uber took equality further? What if Uber treated its drivers and riders and community members as stakeholders whose interests were as important as those of the investors and owners? If Uber were a feminist company, its commitment to equality would have all stakeholders engaged in mutual success, with each group of stakeholders being treated with respect and care. A feminist Uber would do more than make sure that employees were treated equally; it would transform its relationships with everyone.

Here’s how Uber can transform into a feminist company.

1. Acknowledge and support the agency of drivers

If Uber were a feminist business, it would design its systems to support the human agency of its drivers. Agency is a person’s ability to take independent action and make their own decisions freely instead of being subject to the directions, orders, or force of a person or company. (In this way, agency is the opposite of oppression, where someone else has power over what you do, how you do it, and what your options might be.)

If Uber were to support the agency of its drivers, it would treat these drivers as adults capable of setting their own goals, and making their own schedules and decisions. It would do everything in its power to help these drivers make a real living.

While Uber claims to treat its drivers as independent contractors free to make their own choices, the truth is more complicated. Because Uber makes its money by squeezing every last cent out of the drivers, all of its driver support technology is designed to press drivers to work past their limits.

Uber’s tools, including “the rating system, performance targets and policies, algorithmic surge pricing, and insistent messaging and behavioural nudges, are part of the ‘choice architecture’ of Uber’s system,” according to a Harvard Business Review article. The tools encourage drivers to drive to locations where, and when, the company can maximize its own revenue, even though these locations and times won’t necessarily earn the drivers a living hourly wage.

If Uber supported drivers’ agencies, it would give drivers tools to help them set and meet their own individual driving and earning goals. These tools would let drivers plan their own work shifts to maximize their hourly wages. Uber would reward drivers financially when they stayed within speed limits, or met safe driving targets, or were especially kind and helpful to riders.

2. Recognize and support the whole humanness of riders

Beyond having drivers who are agents in charge of their work days, a feminist Uber would also support the whole humanness of both drivers and riders. Whole humanness refers to the physicality, emotionality, and diversity of human beings. When we acknowledge the whole humanness of customers, we create products that serve their immediate functional needs in ways that are emotionally supportive, cognitively streamlined, and physically comfortable. As well, its serves the needs of every kind of human being, not discriminating based on gender, race, spirituality, age, physical ability, or any other human feature.

Think about the limited and shallow way that Uber imagines its riders. If you look at the way the Uber app is designed, the most important thing to a customer is how far away their car is and how long they have to wait. As if that’s all that matters. Constant updates (Five minutes away! Two minutes away!) focus our attention on swiftness and make us anxious about extra seconds whizzing by while we wait. Meanwhile, the app directs our attention away from other human needs, such as the safety of our driver, other drivers, and our own.

Uber’s service also disregards meaningful human differences, such as the needs of other riders who may not have conventionally mobile bodies. Currently, if you need a ride and you use a wheelchair or a walker, you’re out of luck with Uber. The company has aggressively maneuvered around municipal regulations that ensure taxi fleets have enough modified vehicles to serve humans with any kind of body. Uber cares only about serving the physically able (and their artificially amped-up need for speed).

3. Honour the interindependence of the stakeholders and the company

While Uber is teaching us to stress out about a three-minute wait that turns into a five-minute wait, it’s also teaching us to be self-centred, and to ignore our interindependence with other people and the larger community. The feminist principle of interindependence recognizes that none of us can succeed alone, and that individual success, corporate success, and community success are intertwined.

Uber makes us ignore the fact that our convenience depends on Uber’s—and our—willingness to exploit drivers, skirt regulations that support public safety and health, and pollute the environment we share. Uber teaches us to care more about friction-less payment than about giving the driver a tip. Uber helps us beat the price we’d pay for a real taxi, and ignore the fact that the very taxi fares we’re avoiding actually pay for worker protections, and sometimes even a living wage, for those taxi drivers.

4. Use creative power to innovate for good

Feminist businesses aim not to disrupt, but to generate. They use their skills to create new ideas and new value. They use their creative power to innovate for the greater good.

People describe Uber as an innovative company, but it rarely innovates in ways that add net positive value. Its innovation has been used to aggregate self-focused riders, extract maximum value from drivers, and create a drag on the overall ecosystem. It hasn’t really contributed anything beyond rider convenience, which is simply not enough.

Don’t believe me? Just think of the way Uber uses its data.

No company knows better than Uber where Americans want to go, when they want a lift, and other ride-needing patterns. And what does Uber do with this knowledge? It uses it to urge drivers to drive more so that there are more cars on the road in the right places. That’s an efficient short-term solution for each individual rider while adding to Uber’s revenue, but it doesn’t help the overall community.

What if Uber used some of its data and knowledge for the public good? What if Uber shared its data so that communities could reroute bus lines, revise train schedules, and balance bike-sharing racks so that public transportation could be more efficient? What if Uber concentrated on the “last mile” or the idiosyncratic itineraries that can’t be met by buses and trains?

Or, what if Uber expanded the focus of its formidable hardware and software investments to pursue not only self-driving cars but also cleaner cars, safer cars, more resilient cars, and less polluting cars? Right now, Uber’s focus is to eliminate the cost of human drivers. But why not eliminate the cost of cars themselves?

What if Uber treated drivers and riders as whole human beings who can make smart decisions that aren’t short-term and selfish? What if Uber acknowledged all parts of our humanity, not just our time-strapped schedules? What if Uber used its skills and resources to build up each of its stakeholders and its community, too?

Imagine an exemplary Uber. Imagine an Uber that demonstrated feminist business principles of equality, agency, whole humanness, generativity and interindependence.

Critics of Uber and Uber’s leaders themselves should aim bigger. It takes more than a sky-high valuation and harassment-free culture to make a business exemplary. It takes a culture where all people are treated as deserving, that recognizes and supports all kinds of our humanity, that builds up both itself and its community, and that uses its creative power for shared good. To become a truly exemplary company, Uber—and all companies—should move feminist business principles from imagination into action.

Related Reading

Activism & Action

Does Your Enterprise Meet The Feminist Business Standard?

Connected Living-Stocksy Photo


Stocksy, the Vancouver-based stock photography seller, has an unusual approach to growth. It limits the number of artists it represents on its website. The reason: the company wants to make sure there’s enough business for every artist to make a living.

And that’s not the only way Stocksy has embraced a different way of doing business. It also distributes ownership shares to managers, founders, employees and artists, and all members of the company participate in decision-making.

This business represents a new category of activist entrepreneurs who deploy the full scope of their enterprise to drive social change, in Stocksy’s case, through revenue distribution, ownership and decision-making. The company embodies a feminist approach to business, and other social enterprises, interested in achieving their goals, have much to learn from this particular model.

True, social enterprises and feminist businesses have much in common. They both use the tools of commerce — especially products and revenues — to pursue social good. They both seek to address problems – reducing pollution caused by manufacturing, for example, or increasing access to capital in low-cash economies — by innovating and doing business differently.  And, both tend to be led by people who want to put their values into practice.

But feminist businesses, like Stocksy, pursue their goals of equity both inside and outside their organizations. They practice the changes they seek day-to-day through their purchasing, product development, marketing, and even accounting; and they pursue social justice at every step so that their companies help transform on every level the social, political and economic systems in which they operate.

Unfortunately, many social enterprises focus only on external change. They imagine that their greatest effectiveness comes from generating revenue to support services, selling products people deeply need, creating opportunities for underserved groups, and so on. While social enterprises seek to help others become self-sufficient, healthier, or more sustainable, they overlook opportunities within their direct control to help their organizations innovate for themselves. That’s how we get enterprises that teach aid recipients to be empowered but don’t allow employees to design their own workflows. Or enterprises that give product away for free but pressure their suppliers for rock-bottom prices that leave suppliers struggling to meet payroll.

Too many social enterprises also pursue change in a gender-blind, race-blind way. They assume that economic empowerment can be achieved without addressing racism, or that sustainability can be implemented without addressing the gender dynamics that determine, for example, who would take on the extra work of recycling. What’s worse is that when social enterprises pursue specific positive social changes without seeking broader, systemic social justice, they actually undermine their own efforts. With one hand they are earnestly trying to fix some problem caused by economic or social structures, while the rest of their processes permit these structures to continue causing damage.

Another Vancouver-based company, Lunapads has built inclusive gender practices into its DNA. The company, which sells natural products to manage menstrual flow and bladder leakage, offers an explicitly trans-inclusive work culture and provides both maternity and paternity leave.

At the same time that Lunapads pursues the specific goal of transforming people’s experiences of their periods through the use of Lunapads’ products, the company pursues a larger social justice mission: to help all people have healthier relationships with their bodies. Lunapads not only addresses gender injustice, by reinforcing trans-inclusion in its marketing copy, but also uses its products and marketing messages to promote body confidence, candor and positivity. All of this is directed towards a social justice goal of ending gendered social shame around menstruation, postpartum needs, and incontinence.

Feminist businesses know that any company that isn’t consciously pursuing social justice is reinforcing a damaging system. There is no neutral. Even the most well-meaning social enterprises may fail to pursue social justice even as they try to promote specific social good. For example, we see companies provide warm coats to the homeless but fail to pay a living wage to the women who clean the company’s conference rooms. Or social enterprises that reduce waste by recycling plastic, but waste talent by not promoting women, and men of colour, into their top management teams. Or online marketplaces that help indigenous craftspeople find customers but hoard for their shareholders the additional revenue generated by advertisers on the site.

Social entrepreneurs can follow the example of feminist businesses and make social justice part of their overarching purpose.  Working with tools like the Feminist Business Model Canvas (FBMC), social entrepreneurs can systematically ask themselves whether and how each element of their business might be redesigned to improve the relationships between different social groups participating in their networks.  And instead of focusing only on their output — their products and services — as opportunities to drive change, they can harness the enormous power for change potentially available inside their very organizations.

If 2016’s political events (Trump, Brexit) taught us anything, it is that despite all the efforts to advance social justice and the incredible investments in social enterprises, social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and corporate social responsibility programming world-wide, since the introduction of then radical ‘hybrid” enterprise legal form (Community Interest Company in the UK in 2005), growth of the Skoll Forum for social enterprise, plus countless books, social enterprise incubators, and media showers, the needle did not move nearly far or fast enough for most.

We need new tools in the tool kit. And from where we sit, the next radical move for those who wish to use the power of business to catalyze social change is to embrace feminism, feminist business practice and feminist leadership principles.

CV Harquail, PhD, co-founder of FeministsAtWork, teaches entrepreneurship at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.  She is a facilitator at the April 28 workshop, “Beyond Social Enterprise: Feminist Business Model Design Jam.” Read more from CV Harquail here


Publisher’s Note: The Centre for Social Innovation, in partnership with feminist business publisher Liisbeth, is sponsoring a full-day workshop April 28 in Toronto that will demonstrate how all enterprises with social goals can benefit from the feminist business model and by using tools such as the Feminist Business Model Canvas (FBMC). You’re invited to experiment with these strategies, and learn how to build social change into every business node and every relationship in your value networks — including and especially inside your own organization. The sessions take place, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Center for Social Innovation Annex, 720 Bathurst St., Toronto, ON. To register, go to (put in link). Tickets: $95 Early  Bird. $150, General. You can register or learn more here. Questions, email .