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Women on the Defensive: Living Through Conservative Times

by Sylvia Bashevkin

Feminists feeling vanquished by despair can take heart from Sylvia Bashevkin’s Women on the Defensive. While this respected political science professor can hardly be called a Pollyanna, she is no Cassandra either. Instead, she is a realist, and a thorough one at that.

Since her last book, Toeing the Line: Women and Party Politics in English Canada, Bashevkin has taken it upon herself to analyze key legislative and judicial action over the past two decades in Canada, the United States and Britain. She has also interviewed key women’s movement activists in all three countries and conducted literature reviews. As a result of this concerted industry, Bashevkin has both good and bad news to report.

In the realm of the positive, she concludes that the many recent reports trumpeting the “death of feminism” are overblown and sadly misleading. Women’s issues in the three countries have received serious political debate and have resulted in some significant legislative changes. For instance, even during the Mulroney era, Canadian women made gains in terms of amendments to the Canada Labour Code, the Canada Pension Plan, the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Unemployment Insurance Act.

“At a purely box score level of wins and losses, only 50% of high court and legislative decisions before 1984 were pro-feminist,” Bashevkin writes, “versus nearly 90% after the Conservatives came to power.” She notes that a crucial intervening factor was the equality provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which came into effect during the first Mulroney term. Canadian women did better (sometimes that is translated as lost less) than their British or American counterparts, partly because of Canada’s different political and judicial structure, partly because the most virulent aspects of Reaganism and Thatcherism never took full root here, despite Mulroney’s admiration for both leaders.

However, conservative ideologies have taken their toll on women’s activism, Bashevkin asserts. “Conservatives probably exerted their most sustained influence at the level of ideas, where they elevated an unrelenting anticollective ethos. The rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney, and their party successors effectively targeted and undermined group activism.”

Bashevkin’s book eschews marketable pop psychology and sexy mass-media generalizations, but it’s still wonderfully clear-headed and accessible in tracing the shifts in public discourse over the past 20 years. No woolly academic prose here: Women on the Defensive is well-researched and straight-forwardly written, with excellent notes and index entries.