STFU Ladies: A Warning

6 May

A couple weeks ago, a friend who works for the Canada Post call centre texted me excitedly. “Guess who I had on the phone today? Nancy Ruth!!” I had to google her; I’d never even heard of her before. Oh, how young we once were.

Nancy Ruth, in case you are not Canadian or haven’t been paying attention, is a Conservative senator from Ontario. She is notable for being the first openly gay female senator in Canada. What you may not know is that she is also notable for coming from a background of social activism and particularly women’s rights; she helped to found the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, among others.

I want to give you this background on Ruth because I believe there is more to what has unfolded in the last couple days than meets the eye. Ruth, although a Conservative senator, considers herself a champion of women’s rights. This is important.

In brief, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to introduce a maternal health initiative to this year’s G8. This was greeted with cautious optimism: clearly a political move for Harper (an “arch-conservative” if ever there was one), but one that would have positive results. Then, the government made it very clear that this package would not cover abortion services. Outrage!…but not surprise, from aid organizations and women’s groups. And THEN, Senator Ruth tells these same aid organizations and women’s groups to “shut the fuck up” about abortion, lest we get the PM’s back up and make it worse.

Obviously, this remark made people pretty mad. As an activist, I have been silenced, and I am not interested in putting up with that kind of bullshit (hey, she started it with the curse words) from my own government. The anger over this comment is warranted.

There is more to it than meets the eye, though. Let’s think about Ruth’s background, and about the context of this remark. “STFU” wasn’t the only thing Nancy Ruth said. She also noted that our outspoken rejection of this decision could mean defensiveness on the part of Harper, and maybe a further attack on the maternal health initiative or on women’s groups here at home. She also said, “Don’t make this an election issue”. Harper has said he won’t reopen the abortion debate, but could he be tricking us into forcing his hand?

It could be that the biggest problem here is not that the threat was silencing, but that the warning was true.

Because now we hear of fourteen women’s organizations in Canada that are having their funding cut, just in time for the G8. No wonder Ruth warned us to shut up – she knew what her boss was capable of. The backlash against her inelegant comments is a classic case of shooting the messenger, when we should have been paying attention to what was between the lines.

I think Ruth could have been more subtle and less offensive in her warning. But we can’t discount the fact that she was right: speaking up about abortion has hurt these organizations. Harper is forcing us to choose between standing up for what we believe in, and having the ability to fight for those things. And now the most ridiculous thing about this maternal health initiative is not that it doesn’t include abortion services, but that by failing to do so it is robbing the international aid organizations of a voice. Suddenly only Canada gets to decide what is right for women in the majority world, and guess what? The services we’ve decided those women deserve are less comprehensive and less safe than the ones we believe Canadian women deserve. And if you don’t STFU about it, your rights are next.

Thank you Nancy, for the head’s up.


10 Responses to “STFU Ladies: A Warning”

  1. Not Guilty May 6, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    I definitely agree that this was a warning from Ruth that our rights might be next, but as I wrote on my blog, I refuse to be silenced but such threats. If Harper wants to open the abortion debate because we “forced his hand”, well so be it. Polls show that >50% of Canadians are pro-choice and only 24% are anti’s. Many fiscal conservatives but social liberals are unlikely to support a socially conservative government such as Harper’s if this issue comes up. I do not want a fight, but I am prepared to to battle to protect my rights and fight for the right of the aid groups that do all they can to help other women. Harper is messing with a bees nest and he will get stung.

  2. Captain Obvious May 6, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    Everyone in the feminist and pro-choice movement knows Nancy Ruth’s stand on abortion rights (at least abortion rights for Canadian women). No one misinterpreted her comments as coming from Harper himself, and people generally agreed that it was intended as friendly advice.

    You are misinterpreting the reason why people were outraged over Nancy Ruth’s comments. For a good perspective on this issue, read Canada’s most prominent feminist activist Judy Rebick on her blog:

    It’s not just that Ruth’s strategy was partisan and detrimental to the pro-choice cause (the majority of Canadians are pro-choice, so it would actually HELP defeat the Conservatives if abortion became a wedge election issue).

    It’s more offensive because in Nancy Ruth’s comments she said this was not a priority because it wouldn’t affect abortion rights for CANADIAN women. She is basically saying that abortion rights for women in developing countries don’t matter as much, and we should sacrifice their rights in order to avoid having our own rights become an election debate.

    It’s a typical attitude for self-serving conservative feminists. Women’s rights for economically privileged white women in the West. It’s not the kind of feminism I subscribe to, and we shouldn’t be making excuses for women who advocate that strategy – “pro-choice” or not.

  3. Peggy May 6, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    “You are misinterpreting the reason why people were outraged over Nancy Ruth’s comments.”

    Actually, I don’t think I am. There were a few reasons people were outraged. I read a lot of opinion pieces and reactions to the comments (including Judy Rebick’s post), and it seems to me that there are a lot of people who think it was “friendly advice”, and a lot of people who take it as a threat (look at the second comment on Rebick’s piece). I don’t think it’s true that “people generally agreed” that it was intended as friendly advice.

    I agree that the most offensive part of this is the distinction drawn between the rights Canadian women deserve and the rights women in the majority world deserve (see the last paragraph of my post). I also think this puts aid groups in a difficult position of deciding between staying silent to maintain the services they already have, or speaking up and risking losing everything.

    As for the abortion debate here, I am not as confident as you or Rebick that we could win it. Most of Canadians are pro-choice, yes: but we already have the right to choose. What we are fighting for now is access. I don’t really feel that anything good could come of reopening the debate, because the pro-choice side already has everything to lose.

    Of course, as always, I could be wrong.

  4. Schurei May 27, 2010 at 1:22 am #

    Unfortunately, I completely disagree with you, Pedge. To me, that sounds much like a woman being told to shut up about being abused because her abuser might come back and hurt her worse. We would lose in both cases, if the expected backlash is true, it would just take longer to lose it all in the first case, because a backlash is merely the prevailing attitudes with a fire lit under them to ignite it. To tell you the truth, I would prefer losing it via the latter case. Because I know, then, these are worthy goals we are striving for, not simply something we are putting lip service to. I am sad that you cannot see it that way.

  5. Schurei May 27, 2010 at 1:37 am #

    As Ms. Rebick stated, Nancy Ruth is trying to work within the restrictions of the Harper government. That is not the way feminism is supposed to work. And I can’t believe that Ms. Ruth is not aware of that. Why I believe it is not a warning but an actual threat.

  6. Peggy May 27, 2010 at 9:38 am #

    I feel like the meaning of my post is being lost here. All I’m trying to say is that I think it was a warning, not a mean-spirited threat. I still think Nancy Ruth is kind of a sellout and certainly an idiot for working for Harper, and I don’t believe she is acting as a good ally for the women’s movement in Canada. There are better ways she could have delivered this warning.

    I also am not saying that we should follow her advice! God no! Have you seen me shutting the fuck up? I think it’s a shitty position for the pro-choice movement to be in, but that doesn’t mean I would advocate backing down – not in a million years.

    Of course Ruth is trying to be a feminist within the Harper government, and of course it’s not going to work. But she clearly thinks it is, which is why she wants us to think so too, which is why she warned us to tone it down when our noise started to challenge the foundation of HER institutional “feminism”. She thinks she is on our side. It was a silly, misguided warning, but a warning nonetheless – not a threat.

  7. Peggy May 27, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    “…that sounds much like a woman being told to shut up about being abused because her abuser might come back and hurt her worse.”

    Yes, it does. But even though they are totally misguided, the person giving that warning is doing so out of their own sense of compassion, not in a mean-spirited way. So it would not be in the best interests of the woman to take that advice, but it doesn’t mean the giver of the advice didn’t mean it in a nice way.


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