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'Third wave' of feminism urged by prominent Canadian women

Governor General Michaelle Jean, shown in Sal Island, Cape Verde in April, 2010.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Influential Canadian women say the promise of equality that was dangled before them during the 1960s and '70s has never been fully met and a "third wave" of feminism is needed to revive the drive.

Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, who is soon to depart the office she has held for the last five years, called about 200 of the women she met on her travels through Canada to a conference at Rideau Hall this week to talk about women's security. The event is something her aides say she has been planning since the very first tour she took as Vice-Regent.

The women (and a handful of men) representing a broad cross-section of Canada - business and political leaders, aboriginal leaders, activists and scholars - touched on the matter of security, both physical and economic. But at a time when Canadian women with a postsecondary education still earn on average just 63 per cent of the salary of similarly educated men, it was the equality gap between men and women that dominated the discourse.

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The second wave of feminism, which began nearly 50 years ago and which followed the first wave of the suffragettes, "was about enshrining in law [women's]rights," Maureen McTeer, a long-time advocate for women's advancement, told The Globe and Mail during a break between speakers. The third wave, she said, has to be about "changing attitudes."

"There's been a lot of pushback against women's equality and against what it stands for," Ms. McTeer said. "There's a need now to move beyond accepting that law is enough."

The feminists of 40 and 50 years ago directed their energies to changing property legislation, to creating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and to crafting human-rights legislation, Ms. McTeer said. And then "we all went home," she said. "We figured we had the law, everything would work."

But the wage gap between men and women has narrowed only slightly since 1960. Women still hold just 22 per cent of the seats in the federal Parliament. They account for just 13 per cent of the seats on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. And the voices demanding change have largely fallen silent.

Progression "assumes that the younger generation would want equality. Certainly by their actions they don't seem to want equality. They somehow think that the superficial is sufficient," Ms. McTeer said.

One of the challenges is that a lot of people think women have achieved full equality in Canada, said Clare Beckton, the former deputy head of Status of Women Canada.

Women worked hard to get their rights written down on paper. "But," Ms. Beckton said, "I think the realization came later that just having the rights is not enough. You have to operationalize them."

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Jean Augustine, the first black woman elected to the Parliament of Canada and now the Fairness Commissioner for Ontario, told the crowd "it is important that all of us see ourselves as part of the way forward. It is important that we pass that torch to younger women."

The number of women in politics has increased since the 1960s, but the slow climb has come almost to a standstill, Ms. Augustine said. "Why do we see that slippage on the road to gender equality?" she asked.

Her question was directed at a room of the already converted. But participants like Belinda Stronach, the Canadian businesswoman and former politician, say meetings like the one organized this week by Ms. Jean can be a catalyst for change.

"Conferences like this are important because they do bring the issue to the forefront," said Ms. Stronach, one of the speakers at the event. "If we don't talk about it, we can never solve it."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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