Women have borne the brunt of COVID-19-related job losses and child care. Photo: iStock/vgajic

OPINION: Alberta’s back-to-school plan threatens women’s rights

We need a vibrant feminist movement in Alberta right now.


I am worried about women’s rights in Alberta.

Over the past month, I’ve spoken with many other moms at Calgary playgrounds. As the kids play, the conversation almost always turns to the same question, “What have you decided to do about school?”

Mothers’ answers to this question are almost always the same: “I have no choice; I have to send my kids to school.”

But Education Minister Adriana LaGrange tells us that parents do have a choice between in-person and online learning. And Dr. Deena Hinshaw reinforces this idea by saying, “Each parent is uniquely positioned to make the decision that is best for their family.”

This choice is largely an illusion. The reality is that the “unique positions” of many families are not unique at all. Most of us are in the same boat. By framing school participation as merely a personal decision, the UCP government is insulting women.

The problem with “choice”

It is well documented that women have borne the brunt of COVID-19-related job losses. And women have been the ones doing the vast majority of child care and homeschooling during the shutdown. Women are burnt out.

Unless we want more women to live in poverty or leave the workforce permanently, women desperately need to return to their careers.

By framing school participation as a personal decision, the UCP government is insulting women.

The UCP’s back-to-school plan—with large class sizes and impossible physical-distancing guidelines—is risky to the health of our families. But for most of us, opting out of in-person school just isn’t possible. Most of us don’t have a choice.

By offering such false choice to women, LaGrange actively undermines women’s rights in Alberta.

In effect, the government is pretending that women’s full participation in the workforce is simply a personal option—not a hard-won right of the feminist movement, or a necessity for their survival.

The word “choice” is often a rallying cry for the women’s movement, a shorthand for the collective struggle for women’s sexual freedom and reproductive rights. Increasingly, however, ultra-conservative movements throughout North America are undermining the feminist affiliation with the word “choice.”

(Take, for example, this anti-mask protester carrying a sign reading “My Body, My Choice”—falsely equating women’s reproductive rights with an individual desire to defy public health guidelines.)

By offering such false choice to women, LaGrange actively undermines women’s rights in Alberta.

When the government offers choice to women—much like LaGrange’s advocacy for “Choice in Education”—these choices are typically available to very few.

These false choices are manipulations of feminist language. Feminism is not about giving choices only to privileged women.

When she calls it a choice, LaGrange misuses the language of feminism.

Redefining feminism in Alberta

Too often, feminism is perceived only as a movement to have a few more women in government and more women CEOs. But feminism is a belief in the equality of all human beings.

We need to redefine and reinvigorate feminism in Alberta.

The idea that we need to fight the patriarchy may sound outdated to many Albertans, but I think that is because the term “patriarchy” is widely misunderstood.

By definition, a patriarchy is any society in which full personhood—bodily autonomy, a political voice, economic independence—is only available to powerful and wealthy men.

In order to maintain this power imbalance, patriarchies require that other individuals—particularly women and ethnic minorities—cannot have those same claims to personhood.

The UCP government made drastic cuts to education funding — 74% of teachers in Alberta are women.

Right now in Alberta, women are being told that our voices and our careers don’t matter a whole lot. Even before the pandemic, Alberta had the largest income gender-gap in the country.

During the pandemic the government has found new stimulus funding for large, male-dominated oil companies and male-dominated industries like construction. While at the same time, the UCP government made drastic cuts to education funding—74% of teachers in Alberta are women.

Instead of being praised for their bravery, teachers are being depicted as lazy for refusing to “tidy up” at school. And mothers who are concerned about their special needs and immunocompromised children have been told that they are worrying too much.

Even the women-led NDP Opposition have had their alternate school plan laughed at.

None of this is surprising. Women are used to being told that we are too emotional and that our work doesn’t really matter.

Right now, many women simply don’t have choices at all.

We need to stop being used to it. We need to recognize it for the misogyny that it is.

We need to start demanding real choices. Choices available not only to wealthy, privileged women but to all: women living in poverty, workers at Cargill meat-packing facilities, and grandparents who want to hug their grandkids.

To support real choices we need affordable childcare, and educational assistants to support online learning; we need smaller classes held in alternate locations like underused classrooms in universities or art studios; we need the option of a hybrid between online and in-person learning.

Right now, what we need most in Alberta is a vibrant and active feminist movement. False choices are simply not enough. Because right now, many women simply don’t have choices at all.

Jennifer Garrison is an associate professor of English and faculty association president at St. Mary’s University in Calgary.

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