It was a Wednesday. Four of us, (maybe 5?) were meeting together on the third floor of the big house that then (and now) serves as a rape crisis line and transition house, staffed 24 hours by women who volunteer their time and their best work to aid women to escape violence. Often, our best was pretty good. Sometimes it wasn’t. There weren’t many of us then, to do that work together. There are still too few, 22 years later, far too few.
I was in my mid-20s. My comrades that night were all about the same age, late 20s to mid 30s. I was the youngest. Most of us were pretty new to that work, one was a veteran in the front lines, and at the time had put in more than ten years. But every one of us had experienced male violence, sexist harassment, pervasive patriarchy constraining us. And we were fighting back.
We were meeting together and we were taking stock of the damage wrought upon women by men; we were strategizing what we could do to clean it up, protect women, (including each other) and prevent the next volley of threats and punches. We were counting the women, counting ourselves among the women, counting the costs of men’s violence against us.
Then the phone rang. I was the one who answered the phone.
It was another woman who had been volunteering earlier in the day. She told us to go to the basement and turn on the television. A man had gone into the École Polytechnique in Montreal and was killing women. He said, “I hate feminists”, she told us.
We knew that he meant us, too. We knew that he would have turned his sights on us, had we been in his range.
We were all close to the same age of the women who were murdered that night in Montreal. They were murdered because they dared to take up their rightful places as peers of men. They dared to study engineering. It could have been us.
The earth shifted on its axis in that moment. I realized, even more clearly than before, that we were at war. What we were doing there was so much more important, so much more dangerous, than “helping others”. We were audacious enough to think that if we were to offer women the support and ideas of other women; if we were to provide women with some shelter and time to plan and figure out how to get away for good; if we could get some traction to change the world we lived in and take up our rightful places– if we could do that, we’d be much closer to at least “okay”.
But we were not. And we are not.
That week, maybe it was Friday, the other rape crisis centre in town held a candlelight vigil. We stood shivering at the steps of the art gallery in the centre of town and muttered our rage as we held candles that sputtered in the rain.
A couple of other women I knew, feminists who organized with women in prostitution,* were there, too. They said, “prostitutes were forced out of well-lit areas just a few years ago, now many are missing. Where is the grieving for them? Where is the public outrage for their lost potential?”
Indeed. Those women, the women in prostitution, the women on the streets, were and are the ‘public women’ that we do not see. We do not see them as the women we are, the women we could be. We do not see them at all. They were and are for sale on the street because we are all commodified. Because they are for sale on the street, the men who put them there think we are all for sale. The men who put them and keep them there drive around and check them out. They ask every woman they see “how much?” Especially the women on the dark streets, near the quiet warehouses.
The women at L’École Polytechnique that day were not for sale. They probably never considered that. No woman should be for sale. It should be unthinkable. As unthinkable as walking over to a group of people, separating the men from the women and killing all the women.
But clearly, neither of those heinous acts is unthinkable. Because men think of them all the time. They think of those acts and they act upon those thoughts. Marc Lepine was not the first to do such a thing. Jack the Ripper thought of such a thing in the late 1880s in London. The Green River killer thought of such a thing in the late 1970s in Washington State. And Willie Pickton thought of such a thing in the 1980s-2002 in Vancouver, BC. And many more men are thinking of these things.
Men have long been separating women from men and systematically killing us. Marc Lepine was a recent example of a man who targeted women he specifically identified as feminists. Women who dared to study engineering. Women who had the audacity to think that they could be men’s peers.
We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Prostituted women are the extreme of the “ideal woman”—the ones who will do what you want if you can pay her. The ones who will smile and nod and hold your penis in her hand or her mouth and all the while listen with apparent sympathy while you complain about your wife or your girlfriend or your boss or that bitch in the office next to you. But if she steps out of line in any way—if she can’t get you off or doesn’t feign enough interest or if she wants her money up front or if she won’t do this thing or that, well, fuck that, you paid your money, you’re ENTITLED.
And she is not. To refuse a man who is paying? What nerve.
Those women engineering students, they were off the scale of ideal woman—studying engineering; complicated math, equations, designs. Things women are not supposed to be able to do, (that supposition is wrong, by the way). They were entitled, too. They were learning engineering and entitlement. What nerve.
Here we are 22 years later. I think perhaps that things have not changed that much for men since Marc Lepine went rampaging through L’Ecole Polytechnique yelling “I hate feminists”. Men hold the keys to the vaults. Men still outnumber women in engineering schools and boardrooms and parliament buildings. Men are still entitled, and still become angry when any of us say “No”, or if we have the audacity to say, “We belong here. Move over, you’re in my space.”
But we still do it. We have to. Because when we capitulate we’re in trouble, and when act with entitlement we’re in trouble. So we might as well walk around as if we goddamn well own the place.
“The nerve of those women!” you say?
We can never forget. And we can never let up. If we are to win, (and we will win), we must never lose our nerve. It has cost us a lot. And it will. But there is no alternative if we are to gain our freedom.
* at the time “sex worker” was not in common use, nor was “prostituted woman” – women in prostitution were called, by us, ‘prostitutes’, and among each other they sometimes ‘reclaimed’ “ho” and “whore” and “hooker”.