Transformative Ideas

Progress or pinkwashing: Who benefits from digital women-focused capital funds?

(Photo by Vanessa Lee / Unsplash)

Along with crowdfunding, biometric cash assistance, cryptocurrencies, and mobile wallets, another growing digitally enabled source of capital is women-focused capital funds (WFCFs). These funds target women-owned, women-led enterprises, femme and non-binary entrepreneurs, and aim to level the access-to-capital playing field.

That’s the good news. However, a newly released study in Small Business Economics on WFCFs suggests feminist investors, policymakers, and entrepreneurs need to be asking more questions before resting their feminist boots. Professors Barbara Orser of Telfer School of Management at University of Ottawa, Susan Coleman of Hartford University, and doctoral student Yanhong Li recently examined the market positioning of 27 funds in the US and Canada. “We were curious to learn if women-centric investment pools, such as WFCFs, aim to alter exchange processes to support justice and gender equality. At the end of the day, we found that the majority of funds focus on fixing women. Few seek to address structural or institutional impediments,” said Orser. “The bottom line is that among the funds that we examined, only a minority sought to counter structural barriers associated with women entrepreneurs’ access to capital. Most were positioned to facilitate individual wealth creation.”

The study found that this kind of pinkwashing is most likely when funds are created as add-ons to mainstream programs and services, rather than as a central element of the organization’s mission of supporting women and non-binary femmes. In addition, few of the funds displayed third-party assessment or an audit of the fund. Opaque accountability and an absence of independent evaluations were common. This means we cannot always be sure that the funds set to advance women-owned and led ventures actually get to them.

According to the researchers, most WFCFs fall short of supporting a feminist agenda to address institutional and market barriers. The team concludes that, depending on the investment, some WFCFs challenge while some simply perpetuate bias and reinforce structural constraints that impede women entrepreneurs by not actually changing investment due diligence and approval orthodoxies. 

The study offers feminist investors insights to consider before assuming that all funds serve an inclusive economic agenda. This study also alerts LiisBeth readers that there are an increasing number of differentiated WFCFs, so it is wise to shop around—and keep your feminist boots walking.

To download the study (for free), click here.

Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.

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Body, Mind & Pleasure

Don’t Mock These Cocktails

Temperance Cocktails bottles (Image by Jennifer Crawford (they/them))

There’s a reason people kindle romance in bars: they hope alcohol will soothe their first-date jitters. For Haritha Gnanaratna and Audra Williams, booze wasn’t an option. Gnanaratna was a professional bartender, but Williams, a writer and media personality, had never had a drink in her life.

“People get really defensive when I say I don’t drink,” says Williams. “They think it’s about them, like I’m judging them just by being sober.” But Gnanaratna saw her choice not as a hurdle to overcome but a new bar to reach. Says Williams: “He made me the most delicious non-alcoholic cocktail on our first date.”

That zesty drink—smoked black tea swirled with celery cordial, cardamom, agave, and lemon—was the beginning of their romance, and a new business venture, Temperance Cocktails, launched in September 2018. They split tasks, with Gnanaratna focusing on product design and testing, and Williams on communications and marketing. They both liked coming up with drink names, playing off tarot cards (The Fool, The Hierophant).

Williams, a former speech writer for NDP leader Jack Layton and self-described “left-wing fixer,” now works as a content and engagement specialist at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) in Toronto. The CSI industrial kitchen provided them with an early production facility to make and bottle a line of original drinks, which are available for sale online. They also mix drinks fresh at special events, offering an alternative to people who choose not to drink, prefer to drink less, or simply want the sublime taste of a good cocktail without the booze.

The Sober Nightlife

Their market may be a drop in the bucket of the alcohol-dominated beverage industry, but it’s an expanding niche. Gen Z may be the first generation in centuries to drink less than their forebears. In Canada, interest in non-alcoholic and low-alcoholic drinks has increased, with sales rising by 10 percent in 2018. Interestingly, less alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean less partying; according to one study, young Americans were drinking 15 percent less on a weekly basis, yet continued to frequent establishments where alcohol is served, a trend the research group called “sober nightlife.” This trend might be attributed to an increased interest in health and wellness, financial concerns, or even the legalization of marijuana in Canada and many states in the US.

The Temperance co-founders note that even industry insiders are cutting back. “People are realizing that the lifestyle is untenable,” says Gnanaratna. “And, I hate the word, but they’re going on ‘detox weeks’ or whatever. It’s kind of a cool litmus test for how things are going to be translated. If people in the industry are moving towards that direction, I can only guess at how much larger the demand is on the public side.”

As a bartender, Gnanaratna has seen the worst of how alcohol can influence behaviour—from bar fights to sexual aggression to outright exploitation. On more than one occasion, he has been fired for cutting off regular patrons he thought had too much to drink. Williams chose sobriety for personal reasons. “My mom drank a lot,” she says, “and it just seems to make every situation worse.”

The First Feminist Movement?

Their business name is a nod to the temperance movement that some historians, such as Ruth Bordin, consider the first major women’s rights movement—and a radical one at that. In the 18th and 19th century, public drinking was rampant but a woman married to an alcoholic had very little recourse but to suffer his unemployment, poverty, and the domestic abuse that often came with it. In the US, female temperance leaders advocated not only for reduced alcohol consumption and outright prohibition but also women’s right to vote. The movement gained traction when religious leaders took up the cause (backed by industrialists wanting a sober workforce). Notably, the 18th and 19th amendments to the US constitution—prohibiting alcohol and enfranchising women—were passed in the same year, 1920.

Williams and Gnanaratna self-identify as feminists and are trying to instil their business with feminist values. But he’s the sole proprietor. A feminist thing to do? She says she didn’t want her middle-class, white privilege to be the face of the company when applying for funding, and she still works a full-time career at CSI. In marketing, they avoid gendering drinks (no “girl drinks” here), refuse to shame or stigmatize drinkers, and avoid the language of alcohol recovery because as Williams says, “That’s important, but it’s not my community, so I can’t speak for it.”

Rather than demonizing alcohol, they want to provide people with choice and shift how we perceive alcohol as “the default” drink in social spaces such as bars, nightclubs, networking wine and cheeses, wedding receptions, sporting events, and so on. Gnanaratna admits that, while he designed non-alcoholic drinks in his previous bartending career, he sold very few. “What I realized,” he says, “is that those people were kind of self-selecting out of those spaces.” Says Williams, “For us, it’s really about accessibility. Anytime a person is making a choice that’s not the status quo, you’re pushing back against something.” Their goal is to make it easier to make that choice.

Temperance Cocktails also enables non-drinkers to feel more comfortable in those social spaces by offering fun and celebratory options with all the trappings of alcoholic cocktails (fancy glasses, exotic garnishes, bright colours) that also don’t signal you’re abstaining. As Williams knows well, being an obvious non-drinker in a room full of tipsy people can invite all kinds of defensive reactions and intrusive questions. With a Temperance cocktail in hand, folks can relax into regular social conversation rather than fielding uncomfortable queries about addictions or whether they’re pregnant.

The Secret Ingredient: Choice

As for running a business together—which can strain any romantic partnership—the co-founders enjoy working together. Williams loves being the go-to product tester and watching Gnanaratna employ “mad scientist” things in the kitchen, such as an antique meat slicer for making extra-thin fruit garnishes. Gnanaratna is thrilled to have found a career that draws on his experience as a high-end bartender, without having to count out tip coins into the wee hours each night.

Williams andGnanaratna at a cafe on the Toronto Islands. (Photo by Yulia Tsoy)

But it has been hard work scaling up the business. Last year, the two launched a Kickstarter campaign to create 22 original recipes, produce a recipe book featuring those cocktails (designed with tarot-themed visuals), and pay eight people to work on the product. They targeted their month-long campaign to their personal network and turned to cultural figures they knew to be non-drinkers for help promoting it. They raised $40,256 from 553 backers, surpassing their $36,800 goal. When it was almost over, Williams tweeted that she “wasn’t sure” how tired she was, until someone pointed out to her, “You are literally summoning nearly $40,000 from thin air. That is some amazing magic.” Then they went to work filling holiday drink orders and developing a 2020 action plan.

One hundred years after prohibition banned the sale of alcohol in the US (giving rise to illegal speakeasies, bootlegging, and perhaps the Jazz Age), the Temperance duo is jazzed to create new products for a new age fuelled by choice. Says Gnanaratna: “Maybe [our customers] just want to drink less, or not that day, or they’re finished drinking for the night. Or, [like] at one of our recent events, people were kind of staggering back and forth between us and the wine bar because they wanted to pace themselves.”

Williams says they want to make drinks that stand out for their own qualities. “We don’t want to talk about alcohol or not-alcohol all the time. It’s kind of like the men’s rights movement,” she jokes, “where they say they want to help men but, somehow, they’re always talking about women. I don’t want the focus to be on what’s not in the drinks, but on them being their own lovely thing.”

Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.

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This article was generously sponsored by Startup Toronto!

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Transformative Ideas

Co-ops are the past and the next best thing. So why don’t we join the movement?

Photo: Sergey Galyonkin. Creative Commons BY-SA (cropped)

Imagine this: an eco-just world that enables all genders to flourish, with their basic needs met for healthy food, water, shelter, safety, agency, belonging, human touch, respect, and personal growth.

I know many others, not just activists, think such a world is possible. Increasingly, tech gurus, CEOs, startup founders, mainstream politicians, and investors have joined the choir. I am a person whose hope requires continuous feeding so I eagerly read and highlight their thought leadership articles and better-future “unity now” books. I was floored yesterday to read this article, “Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity By 2050,” in Forbes Magazine, the voice of big business in the United States.

Could it be that the tide is turning this time for real, with more people on the side of tackling the dysfunctions of patriarchy and capitalism? One thing I have noticed as a measure of hard evidence is that social entrepreneurs (who operate at the intersection of philanthropy and business) are getting a warmer welcome in business incubator and accelerator programs. In the past, they were often given a pat on the head (myself included) for cuteness and a one-way ticket to the back of the local community centre, and a desk beside the toy box.

I have spent time by the toy box (and in the toy box) as a social entrepreneur for more than 15 years now, so I am encouraged by this discourse shift, which is crucial to right a world marred by climate change and war-driven human migration, mass extinctions, gross income inequalities, an unhelpful global political shift to the right—need I go on?

But the stark reality is, despite all the studies, the rise of B Corp certifications, warm welcomes, and government-sponsored social finance funds, a quick look at the facts and figures tells us that we still really have no idea how to help social entrepreneurs grow impactful, solutionary enterprises while also sustaining themselves, their families, employees, and the communities they live in. As a result, social enterprises (in Canada at least) often remain small (fewer than three people) and rely heavily on life support dribbling in from donations, odd-ball grants, and micro-finance scale investments. It’s not unusual to see celebrated social entrepreneurs holding down a traditional day job while trying to grow their company just to pay fair salaries, and themselves, for years.

Social enterprises that provide services or education versus a product have an even tougher time. It’s easier (though slightly) to find financing when you involve the purchase of hard assets like a building (Centre for Social Innovation) or pre-sell a physical product (Lucky Iron Fish). In many mainstream, mixed incubator and accelerator environments, social entrepreneurs are still not taken seriously, and routinely feel like outliers that need to go elsewhere for relevant support.

We need social entrepreneurs to succeed more than ever. So where are we going wrong?

Time to Embrace the Old—And Make It New Again

Systemic blind spots are part of the problem. Social enterprises don’t fit neatly into the for-profit or non-profit box. As a result, the majority of today’s accelerators and incubator leaders and progamming folk do not have the skills or experience required to help social entrepreneurs consider their full range of options when it comes to structuring, designing and growing their new enterprise.

One of the most glaring omissions? Our startup ecosystem’s ability to support the creation and development of co-operatives, which is one of the most successful, evidence-based ways to create a large, profitable social enterprise that serves people and the planet. Typically, programs promote just two binary options: set up as a non-profit or for-profit. Sometimes, advisors actually recommend both so you can raise money and qualify for foundation grants. For a new entrepreneur, figuring out one legal form and paying for tax filings is already daunting enough, let alone administrating two legal forms, paying for two tax filings, plus recruiting and serving two boards to boot.

Few point out that there are other ways to structure and finance a social enterprise, like, for example, creating a for-profit co-operative.

Co-operatives have been around since 1862 (corporations have been around since the 1780s). Part of the problem is that our thinking about co-operatives, the world’s original and oldest social enterprise legal form, lags far behind the times. When we hear the term we imagine small quaint farms and food co-ops, newcomer credit unions, or city housing. Yet, co-operatives all around the world—and in Canada—are thriving, growing, and solving social and environmental issues, all while not exploiting people or the planet to do so.

Today, there are more than 9,000 co-operatives in Canada and 750,000 worldwide. According to the International Co-operative Alliance, the top 300 co-operatives globally report US$2.1 trillion in revenues. In Canada, co-operatives generate $54 billion in GDP (compared to the $9.1 billion created by the Canadian tech sector) and paid $12 billion in taxes and created jobs at nearly five times the rate of the overall economy. Research shows that co-operatives are twice as likely to survive than traditional businesses, often because the governance structure provides a strong pipeline for enterprise succession. Research also shows that 76 percent of consumers are more likely to buy from co-operatives.

Interestingly, there’s a strong feminist principle embedded in the very structure of co-operatives, which requires a wide variety of stakeholders be represented at the board table.

Modern, new co-operatives are springing up in an array of surprising sectors: green energy, breweries, co-working spacesretailnetworks, wine, arts facilities, and media. Stocksy, a platform-based co-operative, and a favourite of ours (we buy a lot of photos from them) puts the power back in the hands of its 1,000-plus shareholder artists, ensuring a fair distribution of profits, encouraging collaboration, and ethical business practices.

Oh, and sex! Come As You Are claims to be the world’s only worker-owned sex shop. The online co-operative offers “sex-positive” products, advice, and workshops as well as education and outreach to the community.

The principle related to sharing the wealth may well be what inspires people working in co-operatives to do well, for co-ops can and do make large profits, such as Ocean Spray, a global enterprise that generates $2 billion a year to support its 700 farmer members, processing facilities, and 2,000 employees. Arizmendi Bakery has spawned some five sister co-ops in California.

Why Ignore Successful Models?

If co-operatives are so great at growing, creating jobs, long-term financial stability, plus wealth creation and fair wealth distribution, why don’t innovation policymakers, startup incubators, and accelerator programs encourage their creation and development?

Well, it’s simple. Co-operatives do not serve traditional investor interests, and traditional investor interests overwhelmingly dominate and drive entrepreneurship incubator and accelerator programming.

Why don’t traditional investors like co-operatives?

Co-operatives are bound to reinvest or distribute profits to workers and/or member-owners versus prioritizing a small preferred share-class group of outside, privileged investors. Co-operatives are also nearly impossible to sell or flip for a quick investor return—or take over management if investors are suddenly dissatisfied with the social purpose’s impact on the rate of growth. Co-operatives are virtually mission-drift-proof, meaning the social mission today won’t fly out the window tomorrow because the mission is legislatively backed. In addition, members—each with one vote, regardless of the size of the stake in the co-operative—control that mission.

Essentially, co-operatives combine the best of the for-profit and non-profit world. And they might just be what we need more of today. They are built to reverse wealth inequality—not exacerbate it. Their seven principles require members to support the health of the planet and the well-being of their communities and all people.

There is now one accelerator in the US that’s focused on helping founders start co-operatives, the Boston-based Start.Coop, a partner in the Fledge Accelerator network that includes Tech Stars, Bainbridge Institute, and Seattle’s Impact Hub. But sadly, there is no such equivalent in Canada. We know. Because we looked. And we had good reason to do so.

The Journey to Becoming Canada’s First Womxn-Led Feminist Media Co-op

At our last advisory board meeting, the LiisBeth Media team and I decided to structure LiisBeth as a multi-stakeholder co-operative to support our mission. We believe this structure will enable us to create impact, achieve financial sustainability, and enable the enterprise to flourish for a very long time—or at least as long as it takes to achieve gender equality globally. With no local government-funded incubator or accelerator program around, we are left with having to navigate the journey on our own.

To learn more about co-operatives, we joined The Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet). It offers a wealth of information on co-operatives and referred us to several experts.

For implementation expertise, we went online to find a law firm that had experience in the co-operatives space to help us do this right. Luckily, we came across Iler Campbell LLP, a “law firm for those who want to make the world better” (it also offers affordable rates).

To help us with important details, we have enlisted several co-op experts who have experience with discerning and understanding implications of membership categories, plus how to market co-op shares, lead and govern in a transparent, inclusive way.  Leading a cooperative requires sophisticated feminist forward leadership and management skills.

These are complex challenges that won’t be easy to solve but we’re excited to tackle them. In the coming months, we’ll share stories about what we learned and let you know who to go to if you, too, are interested in exploring a co-operative legal form for your social enterprise.

These resources and knowledge exist, most likely, outside of your local startup ecosystem. It’s there. You just have to find it.

Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.

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You will have access to Payments processed through PayPal.


You can also contribute to our “Sustainability Fund” or an open donation in any amount.

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Allied Arts & Media

Stuff Your Stockings With Feminist Joy


Photo: Champagne Thompson

Most practices of the Christmas season contradict my feminist values, the gendered narratives of Christianity conflated into the season of “giving,” with women carrying the burden of holiday shopping, cooking, and social coordination. Then there’s the “give and get”—giving a charitable donation in time to get a charitable tax receipt by year end.

For me, holiday giving and celebrating should not be powered by a capitalistic consumer agenda but by love, thoughtfulness, kindness. During the holiday season, winter solstice in particular, I focus on hope and gratitude for female* energies rather than the pinging of POS machines in shopping malls driving us into debt. Do our loved ones really want that? I don’t think so.

This year I endeavoured to find a way to engage with the festivities, in ways that make my heart happy. I visited three events featuring feminist makers and changemakers: the Made by Feminists Market at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel; Ottawa’s Feminist Fair; and the Indigenous & Ingenious Show and Sale in Toronto. You can check out their crafty arts online, as I am sure they will inspire you to new ethical shopping heights, as they did me.

Here are some of my feminist faves that are sleighin’ it!

 SaSa Naturals, Toronto

This powerhouse family team walks the feminist talk! Sisters Sarai (22), Jahdiel (25), Kristine (27), and their mom, Carolyn, run SaSa Naturals, an ethical, all-natural approach to self-care that emphasizes the power of women’s bodies. The co-founders are incredibly knowledgeable about each product and ingredient as well as traditional hygiene and wellbeing practices of women around the globe. They source goods directly from female-run shea nut farms in Ghana and even visit regularly to ensure female farmers are being treated equitably and that plant-based products are produced sustainably and free from chemicals. Products include all-natural deodorant alternatives, delectable soaps, bath bombs, lip chap and Yoni steam kits (unlike Amazon’s selections, these vaginal cleansing kits use herbs that honour the sacredness of womanhood). By using traditional medicinal practices rather than chemicals, the SaSa team is building a sassy brand that reminds women that our natural selves are our true selves. Check out their Instagram page to place orders that can be shipped to both Canada and the United States.

 Radical Roots

Kristen Campbell, an ecological restoration maven, founded her company almost two years ago as a way to make beautiful change in the era of climate crisis. She handmakes seed bombs—ethically sourced native plant species balled up in clay—that you can chuck at any barren patch during your morning walk or your own garden for that matter. Add rain, and flowers spring up. Bees and butterflies will love you, as native habitat springs from these flower bombs. Beautifying the world has never felt so therapeutic as hucking an enviro-friendly bomb of life to Mother Nature! An excellent gift for the outdoorsy, flower-loving, tree-hugging types in your life or for anyone who just wants to drop an f-bomb—and feel great about it.

 Read My Flowers


Helena Verdier discovered a love for transformative upcycling while studying at Carleton University. Now 26, she has made a business of repurposing some of our favourite literature into works of visual and wearable art. She creates paper flower crowns, centrepieces, and floral decor, showcasing and selling her flower-power pieces on her Instagram page. Seeing Verdier’s artistry highlighted on the Feminist Twin’s page enticed me to make the trek to their Feminist Fair in Ottawa for their sixth annual event where I discovered plenty more feminist gift-giving ideas.

 Hand Stitched by Claire

Remember those framed embroidery pieces hanging in grandma’s house, greeting you with cheesy, sentimental sayings, like “Home is where the heart is” and all that? Well, Claire DePoe-Collins’s embroidery art is not that. The 30-year-old stitches radical, feminist ideas into her hoops such as “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” and “Ovaries before brovaries” as well as slogans for the woke such as “If it is inaccessible to the poor it’s neither radical nor revolutionary” and “Hang on lemme overthink this.” She also draws on racialized voices for inspiration. From Serena Williams: “The day I stop fighting for equality…will be the day I’m in my grave.” Such soulful, gut-punching, and often hilarious affirmations gave me the most painful belly laugh—and sure to deliver the same kick to your pals. DePoe-Collins ships her work straight to your door—and accepts custom orders should you know exactly what will tickle a friend’s feminist fancy.

 Chief Lady Bird

At Indigenous & Ingenious, I visited Chief Lady Bird, an Anishinaabekwe artist who resists colonization through her mixed media prints, brilliant murals, skateboard decks and youth-focused projects that focus on Indigenous resilience, sex and body positivity, as well as calling attention to the importance of Indigenous women in our communities. She recently illustrated Nibi’s Water Song, a brilliant children’s book about Nibi’s quest to find clean water in her community, highlighting the need to listen to Indigenous voices and protect our planet for future generations. You can order Chief Lady Bird’s art on her Instagram page. She takes commissions for custom pieces too.

But the greatest
gift I took away from my foray into these feminist fairs? The knowledge that every dollar we spend casts a ballot for the world we want to inhabit. One maker told me that the money she made at the event will help pay her rent this month. When we buy from our brilliant sisters, we are also giving a gift of survival and support in the fight to dismantle the patriarchy. Now, I can deck the halls with that!

Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.

Support LiisBeth

You will have access to Payments processed through PayPal.


You can also contribute to our “Sustainability Fund” or an open donation in any amount.


This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startup Toronto!

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Allied Arts & Media Feminist Practices

The Art of Change

Feminist Art Conference 2014, OCAD University, Toronto

The process for art-making can boil down to something like this: Make art, get feedback, make art better. Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t for Ilene Sova. In 2012, the Toronto artist-activist was painting portraits of women who had disappeared in Ontario for her Missing Women Project. She wanted to talk about the hard issues she was tackling in her art—patriarchy, misogyny, systemic racism, violence against women—but there wasn’t a group of fellow feminist artists to turn to, at least not a formally organized one.

Sova put out a call for submissions and volunteers and got a rush of responses, including from people in Kenya and Colombia. On International Women’s Day in March 2013, she launched the first Feminist Art Conference (FAC), a multidisciplinary event that brought together artists, activists, and academics of different gender identities, ages, nationalities, and feminisms so they could show their work and use it to spark discussions around important feminist issues.

The conference sold out in two days, attracting 120 participating artists and 150 attendees. “Clearly what I had been missing in my own social practice was something that others in our creative communities were also yearning for,” says Sova. FAC’s subsequent annual conferences have been equally as successful, especially the 2017 event that happened the day of the Women’s March.

‘Ashaba’; No human can look at her directly by Karen White explores unseen oppression. By covering her face while staring straight at the viewer, the artist makes us feel both complicit and engaged in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism.

 Art That Moves

Feminists have been long fed up with the fact that women’s art continues to be undervalued, underrepresented, and often completely ignored. The feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls have been calling out the gender and racial inequality in the arts since 1985 when they picketed the Museum of Modern Art in New York for featuring only 13 women out of 169 artists.

That inequality persists today. Female visual artists earn just 65 percent of the annual income of their male peers, according to a 2018 report by the Ontario Arts Council. Since 2013, women have only accounted for 36 percent of solo exhibitions at Canadian galleries; it’s dramatically less for non-white women. Gender disparity also exists in the performing arts space, which FAC attempts to redress in their events.

FAC has heard all the reasons why feminist work is often shut out of commercial spaces and public institutions. It’s not mainstream or universal (i.e., not male). It’s too angry and personal (i.e., too female) to be good. No one (i.e., men) will buy it. FAC’s response? Carve out spaces to showcase intersectional work that might be deemed taboo elsewhere, for instance, on topics such as rape culture, transphobia, racism, ableism, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, media representation, cultural appropriation, environmental degradation, and Islamophobia. Nothing is off limits. FAC featured a graphic novel about trauma and abuse, Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee, which contains such difficult subject matter that FAC added its first-ever content warning.

Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee explores themes of trauma and abuse by drawing the viewer into the narrative.

According to Sova, people attending FAC events say they are really touched because the art reflects current social issues that affect them. “This creates a very impactful experience for those viewing art or experiencing a performance,” says Sova.

After hosting four conferences, FAC changed its name to the Feminist Art Collective to reflect its expanding mission. It now hosts artist residencies on the Toronto Islands. And its next event—the Feminist Art Festival, March 5 to 7, 2020, at OCAD University—will include a reception, conference, performances, film screening, makers’ market, and a two-week exhibition featuring the work of visual artists.

The Art of the Action

Since day one, FAC has operated as a grassroots organization run entirely by volunteers. Currently, the core team consists of 30 people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Carissa Ainslie, who took on the coordinator role after Ilene Sova became the Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Painting and Drawing at OCAD University, describes their current organizational structure as non-hierarchical. “We try to be intersectional in terms of who we’re including in the conversations that we’re having,” says Ainslie. “Ensuring that everyone has a voice at the table is really important regardless of what their experiences have been.”

FAC’s biggest challenge is finding the time and money to put on events, particularly without a physical office or paid staff. It didn’t help that the Ontario government slashed arts sector funding from $18.5 million to $6.5 million earlier this year but, before that, FAC did not have much success getting grants as their conferences are so unique they don’t “tick all the eligibility boxes.” Instead, they’re exploring other options such as sponsorships with companies that align with their values.

For now, FAC relies on in-kind donations for printing services, food and beverages for receptions, and space rentals (OCAD University is a signature partner and hosts the festivals as well as committee meetings). Ticket sales (with pay-what-you-can options) and their annual Made by Feminists market at the Gladstone Hotel also brings in funds.

Despite budget constraints, FAC continues to grow. Submissions for the 2020 festival were up to 187 from 130 in 2017, coming in from Australia, South America, Europe, United States, and Canada. Ainslie says the political landscape has changed since their last conference in 2017 with the #MeToo movement encouraging people to talk openly about sexual harassment and gender inequality.

A voting committee of 11 people (artists, curators, activists, community members and academics) will select the final artists to participate at the festival, through a selection process that considers social justice issues, intersectionality, the collective’s mission and, of course, the strength of the art itself rather than the artist’s professional record.

Not Missing, Not Murdered by Amanda Amour-Lynx features the shirt the artist wore the night she was sexually assaulted. Photo: Black Umbrella Photography, Rebecca Tisdelle-Macias

With FAC serving as a spring board, past participants have gone on to show or perform their work in other venues and countries, collaborated with artists they met at FAC events, and even started conferences (see Black Futures Now and M.I.X.E.D) as well as a literary magazine (Living Hyphen).

Says Ainslie: “The world is a bit ridiculous and I hope people can come together and have some good conversations. We try our best to support the artists the way we can. We can’t always do that with funds but we can by creating a space where artists can build their CV and present work that may not be welcome anywhere else. We just want the best for all the artists involved.”

The Feminist Art Festival runs from March 5 to 7, 2020 in Toronto. Get your tickets here

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This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startup Toronto.

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Lunch with a Feminist Icon

A feminist icon has lunch at The Pilot in Toronto

Let me gift you with a feminist trivia game for your next feminist holiday gathering. And I’ll wrap it up with a big hint: the questions all have the same answer.

Question #1: Who was the woman who saved the life of abortion rights advocate, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, by fearlessly stepping in front of an attacker wielding garden shears at Morgentaler during the opening of Toronto’s first abortion clinic on Harbord Street?

Question #2: Who led the fight to get abortion legalized in Canada in the 1980s, while serving as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NACS), the feminist lobby group that represented more than 700 women’s rights groups across Canada and, from 1971 to 2007, successfully pressured the government to take action on daycare, birth control, women’s right to choose, maternity leave, family law, poverty, racism, women’s equality in Canada’s Charter of Rights, and violence against women—to name just a few issues?

Question #3: Who is Canada’s Gloria Steinem? Okay, that’s not an entirely fair question as we like to think Canada has a few. But, on top of authoring seven books, hosting a prime-time TV show, and writing countless articles about the women’s movement and social justice, this woman also co-founded, Canada’s largest independent, alternative news outlet and discussion site, and served as its publisher?

Question #4: Who understood and acted on intersectional feminism—social justice for all women—long before it was a thing?

Still stumped? You can imagine my frustration when I excitedly gabbed to everyone I knew that I was meeting Judy Rebick for lunch! Too often, the response was, Who is Judy Rebick?

Judy Rebick’s latest book is a memoir titled Heroes in My Head

 Who is Judy Rebick?

Well, I can tell you that Judy Rebick is a woman who not only shows up when she’s needed—she gets there early. She was already waiting for us at The Pilot tavern, a hangout for writers, musicians, and artists since Toronto’s Yorkville hippie days in the 1970s. Gordon Lightfoot performed with Bob Dylan here. It’s also steps away from the Toronto Reference Library, a place where writers spend a lot of time.

When I arrived, Rebick looked up. Though we had never met, we recognized each other immediately. Her stance, head of thick but now graying curls, and iconic glasses gave her away. Rebick greeted me with a big “in solidarity” hug. LiisBeth’s associate editor Lana Pesch, rushed from her day job, as eager to meet this feminist icon as I was, joined us soon after.

We quickly ordered coffee and lunch so that we could get down to talking without further interruptions. Rebick, now 73, was as keen to know about us as we were her. We shared histories and some great stories, then I shifted the conversation to a topic we came to learn more about: growing a sustainable media outlet in a time of turmoil for media enterprises in general.

Judy Rebick on Idle No More

I asked her what we, as feminist changemakers and publishers, could learn from her experience both as a long-time feminist journalist and as a co-founder/publisher/editor of, an alternative online publication (launched 2001) and now one of the country’s most successful, attracting 800 members, two million page views, and 350,000 unique visitors per month according to Google Analytics.

Specifically, for LiisBeth and our readers, I wanted to know the path to’s success. How did it ever get off the ground and survive this long, without a major foundation footing bills, angel investors or sponsors, or even a paywall?

Rebick told us that she and her co-founders were convinced that Canadians were frustrated by the mainstream press extolling neoliberal narratives. They wanted and deserved an alternative point of view on current issues and events. So Rebick and friends created a plan and hit the road to find funding. In one year, they raised $200,000 in startup funding including $120,000 from the Atkinson Foundation along with funds from some 18 unions—enough to code and launch

Seventeen years later, Vancouver-based now generates approximately $350,408 in revenues, of which $121,000 (34.8 percent) come from reader donations. Income from sustaining partners (unions) represented another 50 percent while 14 percent comes from grants and various sponsorships. While the site promotes its advertising utility, less than 1 percent of its revenue comes from ads.

Rebick explained that unions backed as the publication offered a way for the left to connect and unions to connect with their constituents about ideas, critiques of policy, and economic analysis that the mainstream media largely ignored.

The idea of an online newspaper and participative forum for readers was totally rad at the time. That was early-stage internet and way before Facebook or Google.

Since its launch, some 90-plus independent news and magazine channels have appeared, and none have readership figures as high as yet. In Canada. But as Rebick filled us in on’s journey—the type of stories they chased and how—we were reminded how critically important alternative media is to any functioning democracy. Such media organizations hold political and business leaders accountable, bring new business models to light and offer an outlet for ideas of alternative world–making.

We were also reminded that financially sustaining an alternative indie media enterprise is a little like figuring out how to keep a fish alive and healthy out of water. After all, how do you challenge the status quo if you’re trying to raise money from people who benefit from systemic inequality?

Rebick certainly got us thinking, because at LiisBeth, we have similar values and face many of the same challenges as We believe passionately that feminist entrepreneurs can change the world. We have faith in the idea that grassroots storytelling and discussion opportunities matter. And we dig deep to figure out what it takes to create, grow, and leverage a sustainable, social justice–forward digital media enterprise in today’s world.

Rebick believes that technology-enabled movements, aided by aligned alternative media outlets, are transforming power. Social movements—not governments, lobby groups, or corporate social responsibility initiatives—are correcting the course, exploding our ability to imagine new worlds, advance democracy and human rights, and force action on climate change. Rebick explained how different recent tech-enabled protests such as Arab Spring, Idle No More, and Occupy were to the anti-globalization rally in Quebec in the late 1990s. And she should know. She was there. On the ground. Involved in it all.

And suddenly, it was 2 p.m. Rebick was in demand again, at another meeting. She signed my copy of Ten Thousand Roses, the book she wrote on the making of a feminist revolution, and graciously rushed out.

Lana and I lingered, talking about how our conversation with Rebick was like getting drawn into an incredible living book on Canadian feminist action and social progress. The entire meeting was so engrossing that we completely forgot to document the occasion. No group selfie or even a picture of Judy. And we are a social media organization, with an online magazine and newsletter!

How will anyone ever recognize this incredible feminist icon? Chagrined, we took a picture of the chair she sat in.

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