Like some young women, Elyse Jacobson began identifying as a feminist in her early 20s. The Vancouver-based professional violinist saw a production of The Vagina Monologues while she was completing her music degree at UBC and remembers feeling very affected by Eve Ensler’s popular play.
“I decided to get involved with it, acting in it, [and] organizing it in the following years. I would say that is what got me introduced to feminism,” Jacobson said in a telephone interview with the Georgia Straight. “Now I’m at a point where I can be critical of The Vagina Monologues. I see problems with it, but it was definitely what started me out.”
Jacobson is one of the founding organizers of Women, Action, & the Media! Vancouver—the first Canadian chapter of an international feminist organization that aims for gender justice in the media. Jacobson says that even though women have become more visible in print and digital media, television, and film, the ways in which women are continually presented means that there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Women tend to be represented in stereotyped ways in the media very frequently. We also tend to be underrepresented in popular media, like movies, when it comes to speaking roles and important characters,” Jacobson said. “It’s mainly about just getting women’s voices heard more and making sure women are getting represented less as a monolith and less in a sexually objectifying manner, and more as complete human beings.”
Since WAM! Vancouver started in 2011, Jacobson has helped organize two free community conferences. The most recent event held at the Centre for Peace this spring included panel discussions and workshops on the theme of “uprising”.
“[It] was wonderfully diverse. We had all sorts of people from the community,” Jacobson said. “If I had to distill them into one category, I would say they were all people who were interested in feminism and social justice, but we had people of all races, gender identities, and abilities.”
The conference focused on some major uprisings of the past year, including SlutWalk, an annual march against victim-blaming and sexual violence that takes place in Vancouver and cities around the world. Although more than 1,000 people participated in Vancouver’s first SlutWalk in 2011, Jacobson says that the event has been a polarizing issue within Vancouver’s feminist community.
“There were feminists who wholeheartedly supported it and loved the whole idea, and there were other feminists that had a lot of criticisms about it for various reasons,” Jacobson said.
Daisy Kler, who has been a collective member of Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter for 14 years, told the Straight that in her experience as a feminist organizer in the city, there have always been issues that divided political movements.
“The fundamental difference that polarizes the [feminist] community is whether or not you see yourself as part of a radical tradition of feminism, where you’re getting to the root of a problem and want fundamental transformation of society as a whole, or whether you’re coming from more of a liberal tradition of wanting to reform or tinker with the system,” Kler said. “I think the polarizing force right now is the issue of whether you want to abolish prostitution because you see it as fundamentally undermining women’s equality, or whether you want to reform prostitution and make it better and safer.”
Kler, who is an abolitionist, says that one of the ways in which Vancouver’s feminist community has changed over the years is in allowing a more diverse range of voices and opinions to be heard. When she first became involved in activism, the idea of eliminating prostitution was considered right-ring and regressive.
“Now, it’s at least considered an alternative point of view that has to be contended with,” Kler said. “I actually see that as a positive change, that abolitionists can actually talk about prostitution as fundamental oppression of women, like all other forms of violence against women, and we can talk about that publicly and we have alliances across the country and across the world.”
Another member of Vancouver’s feminist community, Meghan Murphy echoes the sentiment. The radio show host and founder of local blog Feminist Current told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that she tries to find allies where she can.
“There are a lot of things that all feminists can agree on, and we can work towards those things together,” Murphy said. “I think a lot of people talk about infighting, and there is infighting, but I don’t think that’s something that is limited to the feminist community.”
Murphy recalls beginning to think about feminist ideas while in elementary school.
“I started to notice things like sexual harassment, which starts really young when boys start to make comments about girls’ bodies and things like that,” she said. “I remember being very angry about that, and some of my other girlfriends and I went off to the principal’s office to complain about the boys in our class making comments about our bodies and our breasts.”
When Murphy entered high school, she began talking to her mom—who also identifies as a feminist—about the ways in which teenage boys took up more space and dominate classroom conversations, while girls tended to stay silent and wait their turn. Then, while working toward her Master’s degree in women’s studies, which she received from SFU this spring, Murphy hosted and produced a radio show for local feminist collective the F Word.
“Doing a radio show provides an opportunity for other women’s voices and other women’s experiences and other types of analysis to be out there in the world,” Murphy said. “Sometimes, I feel like when you discover feminism and when you start to feel angry, which is how I think a lot of women get into feminism…you can sometimes feel a little bit alone if there are no other feminists around to talk to you and to tell you it’s normal to feel angry about that.”
Murphy says that in that way, she feels lucky to be a feminist in Vancouver, where there is a strong network of feminists and women’s organizations. Kler notes that the number of feminist groups has decreased since she first became involved in the community due to a lack of government funding and resources; however, she says that feminists in Vancouver continue to organize and work toward making meaningful changes for women.
“I think there is a mythology out there that young women are now embarrassed by feminism, but this hasn’t been my experience,” Kler said. “There’s been a strong and long and proud tradition in Vancouver of local feminists organizing.”
Best Place to Buy a Feminist Book
The People’s Co-Op Bookstore
1391 Commercial Drive
While this tiny bookstore on the Drive doesn’t claim to be feminist, its collection of feminist and women-friendly books is diverse and expansive. Whether you’re ready to sink your teeth into Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, or Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs—or if Danielle Henderson’s Feminist Ryan Gosling is more your speed—The People’s Co-Op Bookstore probably has something to help you unleash your inner feminist.
Best Feminist Threads
My Sister’s Closet
1092 Seymour Street
Here’s a place that can help you look good while doing good. My Sister’s Closet is a thrift store benefitting Battered Women’s Support Services, which provides crisis support, counselling, legal advocacy, and programs for women who have suffered abuse. The shop opened on Commercial Drive in the 1990s and relocated to its current Yaletown retail space in 2010. My Sister’s Closet carries second-hand clothing, shoes, and accessories for women, men, and children and is run by volunteers.
Best Place to Catch Female-Powered Film
The Vancouver Women in Film Festival takes place each March in conjunction with International Women’s Day celebrations. Since 2006, the festival, organized by Women in Film + Television Vancouver, has presented short- and feature-length films—including documentary, animation, and experimental—by local and international female filmmakers to audiences at Vancity Theatre. Last year’s local highlights included Desiree Lim’s horror flick The House, Tracy D. Smith’s drama Everything and Everyone, and Mina Shum’s comedic short film Hip Hop Mom. Film submissions for the eighth annual festival will be accepted until October 15.
Best Place to Put Feminist Theory into Action
Luckily, in Vancouver, there are dozens of feminist collectives and women’s organizations to choose from, and many of them accept volunteers on a regular basis. Some groups include Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, Battered Women’s Support Services, the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, Women Against Violence Against Women, South Asian Women Against Male Violence, Asian Women’s Coalition Ending Prostitution, the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective, and many more. Long-time women’s rights activist Daisy Kler told the Straight that she believes that organizing within a group is one of the most effective ways to bring about social change. Kler suggests identifying a particular struggle in feminism that appeals to you, then looking for a women’s group that organizes around that issue and joining.