Many women and men will claim that the western world’s need for feminism is over—we no longer have to protest and vocalize on behalf of women’s rights and needs because all is equal. Not so, says VIU Creative Writing instructor Joy Gugeler. “[There are] women who continue to flee to the Haven Society and Women’s Resource Centre, not only in situations of abuse and poverty, but also in situations on campus where they continue to face harassment or issues with boyfriends or family members or strangers to do with personal safety, emotional safety, and psychological safety.” Concerns about the safety and equality of women at school, in the workplace, and in the community are still valid and must be addressed.
As VIU’s most recent Chair for the Status of Women, Gugeler sees the concerns of female students and women in the community and the need for continuous dialogue and affirmative action to ensure that today’s girls and young women grow up and flourish in the community without fear of sexism, workplace bias, violence, and sexual assault—just to name a few issues that young women in B.C. and around the world are confronted by every day. “It’s really important for men and women, but perhaps particularly women—faculty and students—to know that there’s somebody here that they can come to if they have issues. But also that they can participate and just general advocacy for equality for equal pay for work of equal value, for all the human rights issues that women’s issues and women’s rights fall under,” Gugeler says.
The Chair for the Status of Women is a position at the University that has been around since 1988 and is held by an instructor or university employee usually for a few years at a time. Recent chairs include Liza Potvin, Anna Atkinson, Marni Stanley, and Janina Hornosty. There is no set mandate for the position, rather, the Chair organizes events, facilitates dialogue, and, while she is not a counsellor, she is a resource for female students and faculty to go to if they need direction for help, or have concerns to raise regarding the treatment and challenges of women on campus or in the community.
There has been some positive movement. VIU President Ralph Nilson has announced that there will be a new health clinic on campus, though details aren’t available yet. When asked what resources female students would like to see on campus Gugeler says, “I would argue that [students want] a women’s resource centre on campus, which we’re hoping might be part of the new health clinic that’s been proposed.”
During the 2012–13 school year, Gugeler is organizing two key events. The first was held on Dec. 6 at Fibber McGee’s in downtown Nanaimo. That event marked the anniversary of the 1989 mass shooting of female students at École Polytechnique in Montréal. This time, rather than focussing on the tragedy, families of the victims asked that the commemoration turn from mourning to remembrance and dialogue. The Nanaimo event featured female students from VIU sharing their stories of standing up to violence, and discussing the importance of equal access to education. Throughout that week, VIU students, instructors, and members of the community wrote their answer to the question “Everyone deserves an education because…” and posted those responses on the VIU Status of Women facebook page.
Everyone deserves an education because…
“Everyone deserves to know what they’re capable of.”
“Every idea is a piece of the puzzle of what it is to be human. To limit or discriminate against knowledge is to hinder us as a species.”
“Everyone deserves an opportunity.”
“Learning opens our minds, our hearts, our lives.”
“It is empowering! Education is empowering to the individual and expands the possibilities in society for all. It is fabulous!”
These are just a few of the many responses that the question received. More can be found on the facebook group. In addition to these lines, recent VIU graduate Catherine Johnson recruited VIU students to share 14 quotes from influential Canadian women to represent the 14 women who lost their lives in the Montréal Massacre.
Idola Saint-Jean: “Feminism is based on social justice, for it claims but the equality of rights and possibility between men and women.”
Nellie McClung: “The women who have achieved successes in the various fields of labour have won the victory for us, but unless we all follow up and press onward the advantage will be lost. Yesterday’s successes will not do for today!”
Louise KcKinney: “The purpose of a woman’s life is just the same as the purpose of a man’s life—that she may make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living.”
Although the Dec. 6 event received a better student turnout than previous years, Gugeler would like to see more students involved. If she retains the position for another year she would consider bringing in a higher profile guest speaker, likely a contact from the literary world, to read and start discussion. This would turn the event into a networking opportunity for women to connect and share their stories. “I think that’s a big part of it, just meeting other women concerned about the same things—from women in their teens to women in their eighties. All phases of life, because unfortunately these issues persist—evolve, but persist. I’m sure the women in their eighties would say ‘We’ve come a long way, baby’ and the women in their teens might say ‘What distance is there to travel?’” Gugeler also acknowledges that the event can’t be held at the most convenient time for students (the end of semester and beginning of exam period) but it is not a commemoration that should be moved to a different day.
The second event that Gugeler is organizing is for International Women’s Day in Mar. The planning is in the early stages and she’s not sure what the event will look like yet, but she would like to have a celebration of culture with food, fashion, dance, and music with a discussion panel in the International Students building on campus. Gugeler says it’s the chance for students to share “some of their issues in the countries they left—or their progress. Some of those countries may be further advanced than Canada with respect to women’s issues.” That dialogue is important “because let’s face it, unless we’re first nations we’re all from another country—if you go back far enough. But new Canadians in particular can speak to [these issues].”
These issues are clearly a concern throughout the community. On Nov. 25, the Nanaimo Haven Society presented a talk from Jackson Katz at the Coast Bastion Hotel in downtown Nanaimo. Students might recognize Katz from his 1999 documentary Tough Guise: Men, Violence, and the Crisis in Masculinity, which is shown in high schools all over North America. Katz is an expert on gender violence and gender violence prevention—and especially what men can do to combat the “bystander approach” to violence. Katz argues that men must make violence and sexism unacceptable among their peers and in their communities. The event was extremely well-attended by both men and women, packing the conference room at the Coast Bastion.
While specific events are the greatest focus of the Chair position, there are continually concerns that need to be addressed both formally and by women in our community. This is especially important during an election year, Gugeler says, to look at what the leaders are saying and their track record on women’s issues. “I would like to survey the students to a greater extent, because it has just been very informal: talking to women in my classes and whom I have taught over the last couple of years, to see what they think the concerns are. But I think, and a few of them feel, a clinic on campus and resources would help to reinforce counselling opportunities, [and] be really helpful. It’s a difficult time in your early twenties—many are living away from home for the first time, some in more serious relationships for the first time, and trying to balance the demands of school and work.”
I asked Gugeler what new concerns have come up for women since the majority of university students have become female. She says, “It’s hard to say without taking a larger sample, but just anecdotally or instinctually I think in a lot of the conversations that I’ve had have been maybe about women advancing into the workplace in the recession and if equal number of candidates male and female, equally qualified go forward for a position, are men still more likely to get it or are they more likely to be offered more work or more likely to be promoted or have other benefits and are there areas and industries that are still so predominantly female and poorly paid and is that a coincidence?”
If you’re interested in continuing the dialogue on the status of women, watch soon for announcements about the Mar. event. And if you, or anyone you know, needs help from an abusive or threatening situation, needs counselling, or needs guidance, be sure to make use of the following resources.
Resources for women in Nanaimo:
The Haven Society: a halfway house where women and children can be safe if they’re in abusive domestic situations. They also offer other services for counselling, finding work, and health situations.
Women’s Resource Centre: they offer no overnight facilities, but do offer a safe haven during the day and a place to also get counselling and resources and help with work.
University Women’s Club: a group for women graduates of any university in the Nanaimo area, who advocate for women and education.
Additionally, there are resources at the hospital and there are clinics around the city to help women address their health concerns as well as counsellors on the VIU campus that all students and faculty can access.