restricted access Limiting Identities: The Conservative Attack on History and Feminist Claims for Equality
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Limiting Identities:
The Conservative Attack on History and Feminist Claims for Equality

The New Right and its ally neoliberalism have made Canada and the world a worse place. Their version of “vampire capitalism” leaves the nation meaner, more dangerous, and less hopeful, especially for women, children, and long disadvantaged communities such as workers, immigrants, and those with disabilities – in fact, for the 99 per cent. The origins of the assault on equality pre-date the 2008 financial collapse: Canadian Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin betrayed the post-World War II capital-labour accord and the Keynesian welfare state well before Stephen Harper became prime minister. Neoliberal and (no longer Progressive) Conservative attacks on Canada’s hard-won but imperfect welfare state reveal a determined defence of patriarchal capitalism. The privileges of the few (commonly male, financially better off, straight, white, and Christian) are to be shored up even as corporate greed, environmental disaster, resource depletion, and deindustrialization jeopardize the majority.

In the 21st century, reactionary advocates of diminished rights and expectations have history and evidence-based research in general firmly in their sights. That bull’s eye reflects the centrality of modern scholarship and activism in exposing colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy and in illuminating plural and counter-hegemonic identities. In the last few decades the systemic oppression and the continuing vitality of First Nations, workers, and women have been irrefutably documented and that data has been central to calls for recognition and redress in matters from residential schools and land claims to pay equity and family law. Today’s conservatives meet that mother lode of evidence with the same response many have to proof of climate change, namely, deny, deny, deny.

Women’s history and more generally history “from the bottom up” have been central to contemporary recognition that oppressive arrangements in families, workplaces, and politics are not natural products of biology but social arrangements dictated ultimately by brute force. Patriarchal fantasies of benevolence and consent, rooted in the New Right’s religious superstition and sense of class and race entitlement, cannot withstand such examination.

In the course of the long struggle for justice, feminist historians, like feminists in general, had much to learn about the limits of their own social locations, but they nevertheless brought unparalleled evidence to the demand that girls and women of all classes and communities deserved a fair deal and that governments had an important role in ensuring that this occurred. History emerged as a key component of an extensive body of feminist scholarship that connected diverse forms of oppression and educated the public and [End Page 206] policymakers about standpoint and intersectionality in constructing opportunity. While resistance to justice was ever-present, and indeed mounting after the 1982 inclusion of women’s equality in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, progress was palatable. Unprecedented educational achievement for girls and women, entry into the professions, and recognition of pervasive violence, particular health issues, and disproportionate responsibility for paid and unpaid caring labour, all built on a generation and more of careful scholarly documentation. As numbers of elected female politicians slowly moved toward the critical 30% mark designated by the United Nations as a signifier of real change, patriarchy no longer seemed quite so secure.

Even as scholarship undermined the legitimacy of traditional privilege, faith in the inexhaustibility of “Mother Nature,” that mythic justification for ever-expanding expectations and standards of living, and the basis for much seeming liberalism, increasingly ran full tilt into the reality of non-sustainability. Growing proof of environmental and demographic disaster on a national and global scale foretold a not too distant race to the bottom. After the oil crises of the 1970s, the spectre of the “end of times” re-energized apocalyptic male- and ethno-centric religious and economic orthodoxies. These had been ever-present but for much of the post-World War II era reactionary visions had been forced to live on the margins of mainstream political life, despite their regular pollution of public debates on equal opportunity for women and long disadvantaged groups.

In Canada, the appearance of the Reform Party (1987), then the Canadian Alliance (2000), and finally the...