The suffrage movement is one of history’s finest examples of the kind of social change a united women’s voice can achieve.
Yet women today seem mostly absorbed by their private lives, unable or uninterested in engaging in the social and political activism of a few decades ago.
“We’ve not been as ardent as we need to be,” says Eliane Silverman, author and retired professor of women’s studies at the University of Calgary, who was a guest speaker for the Women and Leadership series of the Manitoba Women’s Institute last week.
She observes a lessening engagement with issues, even as women remain socially connected. Friendship doesn’t “transmute into political action,” as it once did, Silverman said.
“I think that women have become more isolated from each other in the last 20 years,” she told audiences in Brandon and Winnipeg.
“Women become leaders by joining together and discussing our needs and analyzing the politics surrounding us and then speaking out and defining what change is needed.
“It’s through conversations in our workplaces and our friendships and in our organizations that we become leaders, that is, women who make change.”
She reminded her audiences that many pressing issues remain, from lack of pay equity and child care, to work culture that is not family friendly, and a high percentage of women who continue to endure abusive relationships.
Women have made gains through “tiny steps in our own self-interest,” she added, pointing to the early 1970s when women first began to identify the need for, and subsequently establish rape crisis centres, and, later on, women’s shelters.
Social change comes about only when people collectively demand it, she said.
“There’s nothing wrong with saying I want to improve my very own life.”
“But what I am also saying is that the kind of activism of women in the 1970s and the 1980s must continue… to speak out and pressure governments and workplaces to make changes.”
About 170 men and women heard Silverman’s talk in Westman October 23, and a smaller gathering of about 30 in Winnipeg the following day.
Silverman was invited to speak by the MWI as part of its fall series of “conversation cafés” and panel discussions devoted to building capacity among rural women for leadership.
The series is a special project of the MWI to mark their 100th anniversary.
TOO MANY EXCUSES
Business owner Cheryl Reid, 39, was in Silverman’s Winnipeg audience.
Reid said she agrees workplaces could certainly be more family friendly.
“I have seen some businesses get better at that, but it’s still a big issue and, as a woman you have to keep reminding them of those things,” she said.
Celine Kear, president of the University Women’s Club of Winnipeg, which is the Winnipeg chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women, was also in the Winnipeg audience. Kear said it does seem to her that women “make too many excuses for themselves” to avoid leadership.
“We hear this all the time… ‘I don’t have time,’ ‘I have children, and ‘I have a full-time job,” said Kear. “Maybe you are a stay-at-home mom, or have a very demanding job, but I don’t think that excuses women in general from participation in the larger community.”
Kear added she thinks women’s groups don’t get their message out very effectively, and leave the wrong impression that getting involved with them is a huge investment of time.
“We’re not asking people for huge chunks of time,” she said. “All we’re asking is ‘find out what we’re about.’”
Carolyn Pletsch, interim manager of the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being at the University of Guelph will be the WI’s next guest speaker.
She will be in Winnipeg and Steinbach November 16 to talk about Canada-wide research on women’s organizations and what’s needed to keep groups vibrant.
Many are concerned about the sustainability of these groups, Pletsch said a telephone interview. Their study documents struggles, program cutbacks and diminishing involvement among these groups.
The rural environment is particularly challenging for organizations that operate by networks, she said.
“The distances make connectivity more difficult,” she said.
Registration deadline for Pletsch’s talk is November 12.
For more information about the Women in Leadership Series contact
conversationsinour workplacesandour friendshipsandinour organizationsthat webecomeleaders, thatis,womenwho makechange.”
– Eliane Silverman, Author And Retired University Of Calgary Women’s Studies Professor